‘Cornerstone of Our Democracy’? UK Govt Plots to Extend Protest Restrictions After the Lockdown

A man holds a placard that reads "freedom over fear" as he attends an anti-coronavirus lockdown demonstration in Hyde Park in London on May 16, 2020, following an easing of lockdown rules in England during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Fliers advertising 'mass gatherings' organised by the UK Freedom …
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

The British government is reportedly seeking to extend powers granted to police to crack down on protests even after lockdown restrictions are lifted, raising concerns about the state of freedom of speech in the country.

A freedom of information request has revealed that Home Secretary Priti Patel wrote to the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), questioning how the government could continue to limit protests.

In the September letter, reported by The Observer on Sunday, Patel said that while protesting is “a cornerstone of our democracy”, she inquired as to how the Home Office could prevent protests from impacting upon “the rights of others to go about their daily business”.

“I would like to know… what steps the government could take to ensure the police have the right powers and capabilities to respond to protests,” she wrote to the head of HMICFRS, Sir Thomas Winsor.

The letter prompted an inspectorate review into how police should deal with protests. The review will ultimately inform Ms Patel’s planned legislation, which is already seeking to limit protesters from blocking the roads around Parliament or impacting judicial hearings.

John Apter, the chairman of the Police Federation, has also admitted that he lobbied the Home Secretary to introduce stricter measures against peaceful protesters during the pandemic.

The civil liberties pressure group Big Brother Watch said: “Police have a duty to facilitate the right to protest. It is not their job to lobby the Government to take it away.”

The campaign group Liberty has warned that the government is attempting to use the coronavirus pandemic to stifle fundamental human rights in the UK.

“It’s a failure to prioritise what is the exercise of a fundamental democratic right and one that is all the more important given the government’s propensity to sideline parliament in the course of dealing with this pandemic,” said Liberty interim director Gracie Bradley.

“The government is clearly intent on shielding itself from scrutiny, whether it’s parliament, freedom of information, or protest,” she added.

While the government granted exceptions to political protests during the initial wave of the pandemic, in November, the home secretary instructed police to break up any protests consisting of more than two people.

Since December, protests in the British capital have all but ceased, with police threatening to issue organisers of protests £10,000 fixed penalty notices for breaching the coronavirus restrictions, which have been found to be the strictest in the Western world.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse denied that the impending legislation on protests had been tied to the ban on protests during the lockdown.

In a statement given to the paper, Malthouse said: “Peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and the government will be in the vanguard of protecting our inalienable right to express our views by nonviolent means.

“But this must be carefully balanced with the rights of others to go about their business, and not seek to prevent the operation of our democracy. That is why we undertook some time ago to review the 30-year-old public order legislation, to make sure we have that delicate and important balance right.”

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