Michael Barton who was head of crime operations for policing nationally, and chief constable of Durham constabulary until 2019, plus, Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police and former vice-chair of the police chiefs’ body warned that new protest laws move Britain dangerously in the direction of “paramilitary policing” and that UK ministers are “flexing their muscles via their police forces” like repressive regimes around the world.
They told the Guardian they held deep concerns about the dangers the new laws posed for civil liberties already reeling from a year of emergency Covid laws. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, currently passing through parliament, will afford new powers to officers to tackle protests, including measures aimed at static protests and a new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”, which is in part defined as causing “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience”. Police will be able to impose a start and finish time and set noise limits at static protests and apply these rules to a demonstration by just one person.
Barton said the move represented a change in the British style of policing by consent, with officers being “citizens in uniform” who are part of their communities and not above them “because police officers are telling people what to do, not negotiating with them”. He added: “I don’t see anything wrong with the current laws. Protests sometimes means people are inconvenienced.”
Barton said: “I’m not in favour of even more restrictive measures. Surely after an historically unprecedented year-long curfew, in peacetime, the government could show some common sense and gratitude for such incredible forbearance to allow civil liberties to once again flourish. Or are they happy to be linked to the repressive regimes currently flexing their muscles via their police forces?
“Fortunately, in the UK we are not a paramilitary-style police force. But these powers dangerously edge in that direction. Police chiefs will be seen as the arbiters of what is and is not allowed when it comes to protest. Democracies thrive on protest. This government has condemned what has happened in the Ukraine but those same protesters would fall foul of our new laws.”
Fahy, another former senior policing leader, said the proposed protest laws were a mistake and posed a danger for policing. He said lessons from the past suggested danger, citing the quashing this week of 1970s convictions of trade union activists including the actor Ricky Tomlinson as a warning from history.
He explained, “It is short-term and politically driven,” he said. “It is a reaction to what happened with Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter [protests], in the same way Ricky Tomlinson was a reaction to the industrial strife of the 1970s. Policing was drawn into a particular stance and pose. “It reminds me of the miners’ strike when policing was mobilised for a political reason. It took policing a long time to recover. Policing should be very careful not to be drawn into the situation of being arbiters of which protests can go ahead, and become stuck in the middle. The policing of protest can cause long-term damage.” Fahy added: “Policing is not always about the majority, sometimes it is about protecting rights of the minority. I’m not sure a mature democracy should have the police deciding which protests should go ahead.”
Metropolitan police were accused of heavy-handed tactics at a vigil on Clapham Common, London, in memory of 33-year-old Sarah Everard. In Bristol, riot police were deployed in what was seen by many as an over-reaction to the situation. While in Manchester, Kill the Bill protesters were forcibly removed and arrested in a peaceful blockage of the tram system