In a report released today, the Committee sets out its concerns at reports that the policing of protests has become increasingly heavy-handed, and about the misuse of legislation designed for other purposes – such as counter-terrorism - to restrict protest.
Witnesses to the inquiry reported increased use of police powers such as stop and search (including under the Terrorism Act) which can intimidate and harass; wide ranging seizures of property - including personal belongings such as tent pegs or a clown costume from the “Climate Camp” protest in 2008 - and the use of legal powers not designed to deal with protests such as anti-social behaviour legislation and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Witnesses also referred to local authority restrictions deterring protest, such as requiring third party insurance or licences for the use of sound equipment.
The Committee reports that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act has led to the arrest of peaceful protestors for failing to give advance notice to the police. It recommends that the SOCPA provisions be repealed and other ways found to address legitimate questions about access to Parliament.
The Committee heard claims from protestors and human rights groups that the police had become more autocratic in recent years, using techniques such as penning in protestors and attempting to collect names and addresses of protestors, which could have the effect of intimidating and deterring protest. The Committee was particularly concerned at accounts of anti-terrorism legislation being used against peaceful protests and about the “overbroad and disproportionate application” of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The Committee also says the law preventing protest around designated sites is too broad and should be amended so that sites are designated by the Home Secretary, only where it is necessary to do so.
The NUJ told the Committee that the police were conducting surveillance of journalists, denying them reasonable access to protests, not recognising press cards, and even assaulting journalists. The Committee says it is “unacceptable that individual journalists are left with no option but to take court action against officers who unlawfully interfere with their work” and that police forces should take steps to deal with officers who do not follow the guidelines agreed by ACPO and the NUJ.
Chair of the Committee Andrew Dismore MP said:
"The right to protest is a fundamental democratic right and one that the state and police have a duty to protect and facilitate. Of course there is a balance to be struck between the rights of protestors, the police and the public (including protest targets) but the state must not impose restrictions unless it is necessary, and proportionate, to do so. That is a high threshold. The presumption is in favour of protest without state interference. We believe there are changes to the law and practice that are needed to make that presumption a reality."