A growing number of MPs are calling for far-right Brexiteers to be prevented from continuing their “threatening” behaviour outside the Houses of Parliament – but police may be powerless to intervene.
Officers are investigating whether “yellow vests” who followed pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry while calling her a “Nazi” and “traitor” have committed a crime, and no arrests have yet been made over the incident.
Concern has been mounting over almost daily protests that started in December, seeing members target pro-EU protesters, politicians and journalists, as well as blocking roads and scuffling with police.
More than 60 MPs have written to police demanding action, but officers have no power to remove the group from outside the Houses of Parliament or any other public place unless they are committing a crime, or a specific court order is made.
John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, said MPs have raised concerns for their personal safety over the “aggressive, threatening and intimidating behaviour”.
In a letter to the Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick, he said the situation was “not only intolerable but untenable”.
“Matters cannot stand as they do today,” Mr Bercow added. “A change in policy is required. I would therefore ask you and your offices to do your utmost to increase security for members, journalists and visitors to the parliamentary state, and ensure there is safe access to and from Abingdon Green.”
The alleged harassment of Ms Soubry was reported as a potential public order offence on Monday and police are assessing whether the incident meets the bar for investigation.
A pro-Remain protester who did not want to be named said the “yellow vests” have been intimidating demonstrators and trying to goad them into a response on camera.
“They put cameras in our faces, insulting us, trying to pull our flags down – just intimidation, basically. We’ve been called nazis, paedophile enablers, traitors,” he said.
“I’m not quite sure what their motivation is because one minute it’s anti-EU, then it’s anti-Islam, then it’s the police. They don’t seem to have a focus.”
Five members of the “yellow vests” have so far been arrested. On Monday afternoon, a man was arrested in Parliament Square for suspected assault.
And at a protest in London on Saturday, three “yellow vests” were arrested on suspicion of public order offences and a 13-year-old girl was detained for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
Heated scenes saw a smoke bomb set off outside Downing Street and protesters scuffle with police on Whitehall, as organiser James Goddard shouted: “If they want a war we’ll give them a war, let’s give them a f***ing war.”
It was one of several protests held in British cities by the UK “yellow vests”, who have appropriated the high-visibility jackets worn in demonstrations that turned violent in France.
The “yellow vests” have verbally abused officers sent to police their protests, calling them “Nazis”, “traitors” and “scum”.
Although police have not moved to prevent them protesting in Westminster, officers have helped eject them from private buildings.
Police warned members of the group that they were committing trespass at LBC Radio’s studio and the Labour Party headquarters in London and told them to leave. No arrests were made in the two incidents.
Key members of the group have attended numerous protests in support of Tommy Robinson, the English Defence League and other far-right groups, and are familiar with policing tactics and the boundaries of legal behaviour.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told The Independent that demonstrators will be detained “if they are found to be committing an offence”.
Extra police officers were stationed around entrances to parliament and ongoing protests on Tuesday, as a senior officer said Scotland Yard had to balance safety and freedom of speech.
Deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor for Met Operations said: “Our role is to facilitate peaceful protest and balance the needs and rights of all those present, including protestors, MPs and members of the public.
“We will deal robustly with incidents of harassment and abuse against anyone where that harassment or abuse constitutes a criminal offence.
“Officers in the area have been briefed to intervene appropriately where they hear or see breaches of the law.”
Speaking outside Scotland Yard, Mr Taylor said police were “taking advice as to whether the behaviour from [Monday] meets a criminal threshold”.
Asked whether calling someone a Nazi was a crime, he replied: “That is part of the assessment we are making.”
Some MPs have argued that chants by the “yellow vests” and their habit of following MPs and journalists through Westminster could amount to an offence under the Public Order Act.
It makes “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” illegal in some circumstances, as well as causing harassment, alarm or distress.
Particular concern has been raised about the frequent use of the insults “traitor” and “treason”, following the murder of Jo Cox in 2016.
The Labour MP was killed by a pro-Brexit extremist, who shouted “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court.
Although Thomas Mair’s attack came during the EU referendum campaign, prosecutors also presented evidence showing a long-standing obsession with Nazism and white supremacism.
The “yellow vests” have also blocked major roads and bridges in London on several occasions since their demonstrations started in December.
Obstructing a highway is a criminal offence under the Highways Act 1980, but as police did not arrest environmental protesters Extinction Rebellion for using the same tactic, using the law against the “yellow vests” could be perceived as bias.
The group has already accused authorities of “double standards” and cracking down on freedom of speech.
Leaders are likely to jump on any ban or arrests as evidence of “establishment” collusion against Brexiteers, and cast themselves as victims to garner more support and crowdfunding donations.
Leave Means Leave national organiser Harry Todd told The Independent the police had to walk “a very fine line”.
“There was a point where I think the police should have intervened a bit quicker, but that’s an operational decision for officers,” he added. “They have to judge someone’s right to free speech against whether there’s an offence being committed, and I do not envy them that decision because it’s a very fine line at times.
“I think if they are protesting peacefully, they are not being aggressive, they are not being angry at people for no reason, they are not upsetting anyone, of course they should be allowed to protest. But being allowed to protest is a privilege. If they are going to go around making people feel unsafe, if they are going to go around causing trouble, they lose that privilege, as everyone does. They definitely crossed that line yesterday.”
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