MPs Hear Public Order Act Has Chilling Effect On Democracy

By Emma Guy, Editor 18 May 2023
Institutions, Speech
Credit: Catholic Church England

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Following the arrests of dozens of people on 6 May 2023, the day of the Coronation of King Charles, police officers, barristers, campaigners and volunteers have been giving evidence before the home affairs select committee. The committee is investigating the policing of protest in the UK and the session looked closely at how the newly passed Public Order Act led to the arrests of perspective protestors and volunteers. The Act was passed into legislation just four days before the organised protests were due to take place.

Graham Smith, Chief Executive of Republic, was one of eight people from the organisation who were arrested on 6 May. During the evidence session, Smith told the committee that on 8 February and 24 March 2023, members of Republic met with senior officers of the Metropolitan police (Met), and subsequently had several other telephone conversations with a dedicated police protest liaison team officer.

The committee heard that Republic representatives briefed the police in great detail on what the peaceful protest would involve, including telling them how many placards they would have and precisely what those placards would say.

Protestors went beyond what was required to cooperate with the police

The anti-monarchy group told the Met that on the day they would have amplifiers and megaphones for the purpose of relaying messages to the crowd and gave them a map that outlined where the protests would be: on the Mall and on Whitehall.

According to Graham Smith: “They were very clear with us that they did not have a single concern about any of the things we told them we were going to do. When we told them that we had three-metre flags, they had said they might be concerned that they could fall into the parade route. We made it abundantly clear that we could keep well back from the parade route – at the back of the crowd.”

“At all stages – and it should be noted that we are under no obligation to communicate with the police – it was a static protest that did not require permission, but we were concerned about an arrest at William and Kate’s wedding, and arrests and threats of arrests following the death of the queen, so we were keen to engage.”

On the same day, Republic had also coordinated peaceful protests in four other cities. The group stated that the liaison officers they dealt with in relation to those protests were “professional and helpful”.

Smith stated: “The claim that the Met had intelligence that Republic’s intention was to do something illegal cannot possibly be true; either they are being dishonest or they are making a very serious error, because you cannot have intelligence related to Republic. Because there was not a single email, text message, WhatsApp conversation, fleeting remark or anything that would suggest, at all, that we had any intention of doing anything unlawful or disruptive.”

Prior to the protest, Republic requested that the Met inform its officers on the ground who the group were and what they would be doing. They were told by the Met that everybody had been fully briefed, including bronze commanders.

However, at approximately 6am, Smith and other members of Republic were met by a number of officers, including a “hostile” bronze commander, in Trafalgar Square. They were shortly surrounded by a large number of tactical support group (TSG) officers and were instructed to stop what they were doing.

“I attempted to phone the liaison officer and was told (by the officer in front of me) that he was detaining me, and would not allow me to do that. I attempted to again and he seized my wrist and removed my phone from my hand, and again told me that I could not do that. I told him that we had had these meetings with the superintendent and a silver commander. He asked what the name of that person was. I told him – he clearly recognised the name, and he said that did not matter,” stated Smith.

Arrested over luggage straps

In the van being used by Republic, there were yellow luggage straps, which, the committee heard, were intended to be used to move the placards onto trolleys, in order to unload them with minimal disruption. Before they could do this, the group were surrounded by large groups of officers and detained while the van was searched.

A solicitor for Republic later stated at the police station that the straps did not have a mechanism for “locking on” and were not “heavy duty”.

The Met, in a letter to Sadiq Khan and in the evidence session, said that the protesters were held for 16 hours due to processing. However, Smith called on the committee to investigate whether their arrests were motivated by political interference, and whether they were premeditated.

Reports from The i newspaper recently quoted an anonymous senior police officer, who stated there had been “a very firm instruction not to damage the reputation of the UK”. However, the home office has since stated that it does not recognise that claim.

Night safety volunteer’s arrest left home affairs select committee speechless

Suzie Melvin, a Night Stars volunteer who was one of three volunteers arrested, also gave evidence. Night Stars is a voluntary group offering support to anyone who might need it during the night, by handing out essential items, directions or help. Night Stars works in partnership with the Metropolitan police and Westminster City Council.

The committee heard how Night Stars volunteers patrol areas, including Leicester Square, Embankment and Soho, as part of their regular route. They wear high-visibility vests bearing the Metropolitan police logo as well as a QR code that links to the Westminster City Council website.

Melvin told the committee: “As we entered the north of Soho Square, we were approached by a number of TSG vans and when we were approached by a number of officers, they told us that they were going to stop and search us.”

“We were kept separate and the officer looked through our bags and checked our pockets. We explained who the Night Stars were and showed them emails from Westminster City Council and showed them the Night Stars website. We gave them leaflets which had been printed by Westminster City Council. Our hi-vis vests, which do display the Met police logo as well, because we are in partnership with the Met police, have a QR code on them which links back to the Westminster City Council website.”

“We did the best we could to try and explain who we were to the officers; they also searched the church that we base ourselves out of, and then we were taken in police vans, told we were being arrested and taken to Walworth police station.”

Melvin was interviewed at 1pm the next day and released just after 4pm. The committee chair Dame Diana Johnson expressed her dismay at how long Melvin and her colleagues had been detained and was left speechless by the account.

Policing protests under new laws is having a ‘chilling effect’

Adam Wagner, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and an expert in protest law, stated: “I am really concerned that it will have a chilling effect. I think the main reason is that you have these extremely widely drawn offences, particularly that of coming equipped for locking on. I think you’ve pointed out, [this] could include Sellotape, duct-tape, a lock, luggage straps – almost anything you could imagine, really.”

The committee heard how it is not unusual for protestors to bring items to protests or events to secure signs and carry out the event safely – to minimise disruption.

Wagner told the committee how most people wanting to exercise their right to protest and free speech wish to do so without getting into trouble with the police. He stated: “The vast majority of people who turn up to protests are people thinking, ‘Well, I don’t want to be caught in the dragnet of this Public Order Act: I believe in this cause but I’m not willing to risk my job or being in the newspapers as a radical protest because I’ve been arrested or detained’.”

“It will harm us, as a country, in the long run”

He later stated: “[The Act] turns peaceful protest, which is an important part of democracy, into personal risk,” adding, “A good democracy understands that protest is the release of a safety valve – a release of pressure. To allow people to go out and say, ‘this is what I feel and this is important to me’.”

Wagner described the notion of not being able to bring items like a speaker to a mass protest, which is the “bread and butter of mass protest”, as a “sinister” approach.

He later wrote on social media about the importance of free speech to a democratic society, stating: “We protect free speech not because we agree with a person’s view but because hearing a wide range of views is good for society, and central to a democracy.” He went on: “I really worry that we are moving to a position where all protest (even speaking on a megaphone) is seen as a threat to public order. That is not a democratic position and will harm us, as a country, in the long run.”

Sir Mark Rowley, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, stated: “While we said that our tolerance for disruption of the Coronation celebrations was low, it was not zero. I must challenge those claiming there was a ‘protest ban’ around the Coronation. This is simply not accurate.”

“There were hundreds of undisturbed protestors along the route, including a large group in Trafalgar Square, although small in comparison to the tens of thousands seeking to enjoy the event.”

Speaking about the arrest of Republic protestors, Rowley said: “While it is unfortunate that the six people (Republic have since clarified that eight people were arrested) affected by this were unable to join the hundreds of peaceful protestors, I support the officers’ actions in this unique, fast-moving operational context.”

The evidence session, it its entirety, can be viewed here.

About The Author

Emma Guy Editor

Emma has a background in undercover and investigative journalism. For the last few years, she has co-created Investigation units for independent media outlets and produced investigative podcasts that lift the lid on injustices in the UK legal system. She is passionate about making investigations and human rights inclusive for audiences and works with grassroots movements and activists to do this. Outside of work, Emma is also a PhD candidate in Human Rights Law, investigating reproductive rights and trafficking in the UK and Europe.

Emma has a background in undercover and investigative journalism. For the last few years, she has co-created Investigation units for independent media outlets and produced investigative podcasts that lift the lid on injustices in the UK legal system. She is passionate about making investigations and human rights inclusive for audiences and works with grassroots movements and activists to do this. Outside of work, Emma is also a PhD candidate in Human Rights Law, investigating reproductive rights and trafficking in the UK and Europe.