Home Office minister says police could have acted to prevent Big Ben projection

Protesters projected ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ onto the Elizabeth Tower as MPs debated calls for a Gaza ceasefire last week.

Richard Wheeler
Monday 26 February 2024 17:16 GMT
Police watching Elizabeth Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster (PA)
Police watching Elizabeth Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster (PA) (PA Wire)

Police could have acted to prevent protesters projecting a “deeply offensive” pro-Palestine slogan on Parliament’s Elizabeth Tower, a Home Office minister has said.

Chris Philp said the landmark, which is home to the Big Ben bell, is “not a canvas for political campaigning”, adding he had made clear his concerns to the Metropolitan Police commissioner.

The Commons heard protesters projected “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” onto the Elizabeth Tower as MPs debated calls for a Gaza ceasefire last week.

Planning permission for the projection had not been granted by Parliament, while the Met Police said it did not believe a criminal offence had been committed.

It was totally unacceptable and it was also in breach of planning law as well. I do expect the police to take action

Chris Philp, Home Office minister

Speaking at Home Office questions, Conservative former attorney general Sir Michael Ellis said: “With regards to the projection of the antisemitic, terrorist-originating slogan on to Big Ben last week, the police commissioner claims he is powerless. This is utter nonsense.

“Amongst other options police could use section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 – using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress… police could have also reasonably feared a breach of the peace, ordered the removal of the projection machine and if there was non-compliance arrest the individual for obstructing a constable under the Police Act.

“I have personally prosecuted these offences, now police who fail to do their duty can be disciplined for neglect of duty. Will the minister act?”

Mr Philp replied: “I’m sure all members of this House were horrified when those political statements – one of which implied the call for the destruction of Israel – were beamed on to Big Ben.

“It was totally unacceptable and it was also in breach of planning law as well. I do expect the police to take action.

“(Sir Michael), the former attorney general, has set out a number of grounds on which action could have been taken and he can rest assured that I forcefully communicated that to the commissioner already.”

Big Ben is not a canvas for political campaigning, particularly when those slogans are deeply offensive in nature and that is a view I have made very clear to the commissioner

Chris Philp, Home Office minister

Conservative former Home Office minister Rachel Maclean added: “The slogan that was projected on to Big Ben last Wednesday was extreme, it was antisemitic and to many it calls for the destruction of Israel and it is seen as a genocidal statement.

“Decent people around the country, not just Jews, find this appalling.

“Does the minister agree that there are criminal offences that could be used and would he reiterate his calls to the police to prosecute those responsible?”

Mr Philp replied: “I do share (Ms Maclean’s) view and as (Sir Michael) pointed out just a few minutes ago there were a number of bases on which the police could have acted to prevent that projection.

“Big Ben is not a canvas for political campaigning, particularly when those slogans are deeply offensive in nature and that is a view I have made very clear to the commissioner.”

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said last Thursday: “This is a chant that has been frequently heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations for many years and we are very aware of the strength of feeling in relation to it.

“While there are scenarios where chanting or using these words could be unlawful depending on the specific location or context, its use in a wider public protest setting, such as last night, is not a criminal offence.”

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