Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve: Saturday’s vigil, its mishandling – and why we should be wary of this plan for more police powers

16 Mar

Steve Baker was a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Wycombe.  Dominic Grieve is a former Attorney General and MP for Beaconsfield.

Sarah Everard’s killing and the subsequent charging of a police officer with her murder are horrors which will have struck us all. Men need to relearn the basic courtesies that enable women to feel safe in public – including challenging those who continue to ignore them – and heed the message that so many women have tried to convey over the last few days.

In its aftermath, Saturday’s events on Clapham Common were a disaster for the image of policing by consent and a vivid illustration of the consequences of the enactment of bad law. Policymakers and lawmakers must learn the right lessons from this as we consider the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The police have been put in an invidious position by poorly enacted Coronavirus law. The police may consider that protests are banned, but as a briefing by Big Brother Watch explains that “whether or not protests are legally prohibited remains unclear.”

While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 contain a specific exemption on gathering for protests in Tiers 1-3, in Tier Four this exemption has been removed.

However, there is a credible argument that silent protest is still allowed as a common law right which has not been specifically banned. That has created an ambiguity which inevitably undermines Dame Cressida Dick’s claim in relation to the Clapham Common events that “unlawful gatherings are unlawful gatherings”.

Given the testimony to Parliament that there is very little evidence of outdoor transmission and no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, it is hard to see how it was a good policing decision at this stage in the pandemic to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard by force – a vigil attended privately earlier by the Duchess of Cambridge for very good reasons.

This serious fiasco has also become the context for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but it is not necessarily the right context through which to consider all the public order powers in the Bill. The willingness of contemporary protestors to use non-violent mass law breaking to pursue political ends by bringing our cities to a halt and by placing massive pressure on policing resources cannot just be ignored.

In January, Brandon Lewis clarified in the Commons that the Government did not consider Extinction Rebellion an extremist group. But others have suggested that some within it may aspire to undermine liberal democracy by mass protest of this kind, although it must be rather doubtful that this is the agenda of most of its supporters.

If the powers available to deal with such improbable radicalism in practice are really insufficient at present, then this may justify changing the law. But in doing so MPs must uphold the fundamental right to protest along with the rights and freedoms of those whose lives may be seriously disrupted by such demonstrations.

The problem is that there is much in Part Three of the Bill to raise concerns that it may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police in determining this balance, and far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses – a practice of which our experience over Coronavirus ought to make us very wary.

In a free and democratic society, the right to protest in public is fundamental, and the presumption in favour of maintaining that right, even at the risk of its being occasionally abused, is paramount. The criticisms of this part of the Bill from many quarters should not be ignored, even as we ask critics to face up to new policing challenges.

The Bill, being so wide in its scope, also deals with many other issues unrelated to public order and demonstrations. Those voting against it at Second Reading, as the Official Opposition apparently intends to do, must explain and justify their doing so when there will be much in it that their constituents will want. South Buckinghamshire residents will want to deter unlawful encampments, for example.

Conversely, those MPs voting for the principle of the Bill today, because they wish to see parts of it enacted, must make clear their intent to improve it at later stages and address the fundamental matters that go the heart of our civil liberties. Meanwhile, at this stage in the pandemic and the vaccination programme, the Government should proceed immediately to repeal all Covid-related restrictions on the right to protest, and remove the possibility of a recurrence of Saturday’s events.