Police say they never asked for crackdown on ‘noisy’ protests in government’s policing bill

Justification for law that ‘violates human rights’ questioned ahead of vote by MPs

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 04 July 2021 18:48 BST
The bill has sparked months of protests across the country
The bill has sparked months of protests across the country (AFP/Getty)

Senior police officers have undermined the government's justification for controversial new laws to crack down on “noisy” protests, saying they did not ask for the powers.

The shadow policing minister called the proposals, which Priti Patel is trying to force through, a “partisan power grab”, following human rights warnings from United Nations experts and parliamentary committees.

Sarah Jones told The Independent: “At no point have the police said they want or need these powers on the basis of noise, and it would be very serious if ministers were trying to mislead the public into thinking they did.

“These public order clauses are nothing more than a partisan power grab by a Conservative Party that no longer believes in the right of the people to disagree.”

The government has defended its widely opposed proposals, telling journalists that the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the Metropolitan Police had “been consulted and support these measures”.

But The Independent has learned that neither police chiefs, elected commissioners, nor Britain’s largest force requested the power.

The Metropolitan Police, which hosts the vast majority of large demonstrations that could be affected by the law, said it did “not request the legal change on noise”.

The NPCC’s lead on public order told parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights that police chiefs had asked for a “lower, broader threshold” for imposing conditions but not a law relating to noise specifically.

Paddy Tipping, then the chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), has said the changes were not needed. On policing protests, he said that decisions should be left to local police chiefs.

“I was concerned to see the draft clauses in the bill ... I think politicians would be wise to leave decisions to the responsible people.”

MPs will consider amendments to cut the noise law out of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill when it returns to the House of Commons on Monday.

The bill proposes changing the Public Order Act to mean police can impose conditions on protests if the “noise generated by persons taking part … may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”.

The law, which was drafted in response to peaceful protests by Extinction Rebellion, defines “relevant impact” as resulting in “serious unease”, intimidation or harassment.

Theresa May raises concerns about controversial new policing bill

UN special rapporteurs, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have all publicly raised concerns about the bill.

When defending its plans, the government has pointed to a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary that said police needed to better balance the rights of protesters with disruption to the wider public.

But inspector Matt Parr, who wrote the report, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights he was not asked to “look specifically at whether noise should be included” or assess whether the change was necessary.

Its report, which was published last month, concluded: “Neither the police nor HMICFRS [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Servicescalled for a new trigger based on the noise generated by demonstrations.”

The committee said there was “no evidence of a gap in the law” that needed to be filled and that there were already a “range of powers to deal with noise that impacts on the rights and freedoms of others”.

Committee chair Harriet Harman called for the proposed noise law to be scrapped, adding: “The government proposals to allow police to restrict ‘noisy’ protests are oppressive and wrong.”

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also called for the government to limit discriminatory proposals to criminalise “unauthorised encampments” and broaden police powers to seize travellers’ caravans.

It said it must not allow seizures to make people homeless, and should ensure they have an alternative by reintroducing the statutory duty for councils to provide traveller sites.

Human rights groups have hit out at the lack of formal consultation on the protest laws, which are contained within a wide-ranging bill running to almost 300 pages.

The Liberty human rights group said a growing “chorus of opposition” should cause the government to rethink.

Sam Grant, its head of policy and campaigns, added: “No matter who we are, we all want to know we can stand up for what we believe in. Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a fundamental right and for many of the most marginalised it can be the only way to have your voice heard.”

The NPCC said that any new tools or powers that come from the bill would be used proportionately.

The Home Office said police originally requested the power to impose conditions on protests that caused a “significant impact” on the community, rather than the current bar of “serious disruption”, and that the noise clause was narrower.

A government spokesperson said: “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy, but the government will not tolerate a small disruptive minority impacting the rights of others to go about their business without unnecessary disruption.

“The police have been clear that public order legislation is out of date and have stated their support for further powers that will allow them to better manage the highly disruptive tactics used by protest groups today.”

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