The head of London’s Metropolitan Police wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel in December saying that the Extinction Rebellion protests provided a "much-needed opportunity” to give police greater powers to curb protests in the UK.
Opposition MPs, human rights campaigners and lawyers have described the comments as “deeply worrying” and warned that changes to the laws governing public demonstrations would damage democracy.
Responding to the global Black Lives Matter protests earlier this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the “right to lawful protest” is a “key part of any democracy, which UK police uphold and facilitate.”
But in a letter released to openDemocracy, Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick told the Home Secretary Priti Patel that British laws should be changed, to make it easier for police to ban protests.
“In light of the challenges posed by this year’s Extinction Rebellion protests, there are opportunities for much-needed legislative change to update the Public Order Act 1986,” Britain’s most senior police officer wrote in a letter which was heavily-redacted by officials before it was released to openDemocracy.
“My colleagues and I will continue to work constructively and positively with ministers and officials to take forward these changes.”
It’s extremely worrying that the Metropolitan Police is apparently still seeking to curtail the right to peaceful protest
Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests calling for greater government action against climate change brought parts of London to a standstill in early October 2019. The Met initially allowed the non-violent demonstrations to only take place in Trafalgar Square, then extended the protest ban to the whole of London.
Dick’s letter to the Home Secretary, dated December 13, was sent just weeks after the High Court quashed the Met’s ban on Extinction Rebellion protests, on the grounds that it went beyond the powers granted to police by the Public Order Act 1986.
Dick subsequently called publicly for more powers to tackle protests. The Met told openDemocracy that it is "engaging with the Home Office on how legislation used to manage protest may be amended or improved in the future". The force added that the work is in an "early stage".
Dick had previously discussed the Extinction Rebellion with Patel in early October, emails released to openDemocracy show. Met officers noted that Dick had been due to discuss Operation Midland – the force’s controversial abuse inquiry – but “ended up also having a larger meeting with the Home Secretary, Policing Minister, and a number of officials re Extinction Rebellion.”
The Home Office asked the police chief to provide “examples of tactics XR are using to delay/frustrate e.g. all seeking to have same solicitor/reasons given to prevent being put in a cell with others” and a breakdown of arrests.
About 3,000 protesters were arrested across the two major periods of action staged by Extinction Rebellion in April and October last year. Extinction Rebellion has also been holding socially distanced protests in recent weeks.
Earlier this year it emerged that counter-terrorism police had placed Extinction Rebellion on a on a list of extremist ideologies that should be reported to the authorities running the Prevent programme, which aims to catch those at risk of committing atrocities.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK's Director, said the Met’s correspondence with the Home Office was “cause for real concern”.
“After the courts rightly ruled that the police’s blanket ban on Extinction Rebellion protests last year had been unlawful, it’s extremely worrying that the Metropolitan Police is apparently still seeking to curtail the right to peaceful protest.
“The right to non-violent protest is a cornerstone of any proper rights-respecting society, and we need to ensure that it’s enabled wherever reasonably possible.”
Gracie Bradley, Liberty policy and campaigns manager, said that “the suppression of dissent must be treated with extreme suspicion”.
"Protest is a fundamental human right and central pillar of our democracy which is protected in law. It’s how we stand up to power, tackle injustice and defend our rights. Police have a duty to facilitate protest – not obstruct it.
"It’s concerning but not surprising to see the head of our biggest police force responding to people exercising their democratic right by lobbying a government minister to restrict protest laws. This is just the latest in a long string alarming moves to erode the right to protest and stifle dissent in recent years.
"Cressida Dick must not only stop her attempts to influence the Home Secretary – she also urgently needs to give assurances people won't be criminalised for attending the upcoming Black Lives Matter protests."
Green MP Caroline Lucas also described openDemocracy’s findings as “deeply worrying”.
“Peaceful protest, such as that carried out by Extinction Rebellion, is a foundation of our democracy,” she said.
“Rather than seeking to close down those protests by further extending police powers, it would be better if the government listened to Extinction Rebellion's demands to tell the truth about the climate emergency, and then took the necessary action in line with the climate science.”
Jules Carey, a human rights lawyer at Bindmans who represents a number of protestors arrested as part of XR, said that any move to stifle protest in Britain could have knock on effects internationally.
“The Public Order Act already exists to manage protest. Just because the police misapplied the law in October doesn’t mean the law is wrong; it means they misapplied it. But any attempt to shift the balance to a more restrictive regime, to make it easier for the police to ban protests, would be wrong.
“The impact of Cressida Dick wanting to use XR to make it harder for protests in Britain, not only corrodes democracy at a national level, but emboldens despots and dictators the world over whose instincts are to crush and criminalise dissent and protest.”
Earlier this year, Dick told the London assembly that the force needed greater powers to deal with protestors.
“Ever since the first large-scale Extinction Rebellion protest in April last year I have been talking publicly and with the government about the potential for change to powers and to legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests in general given that the act that we work to – thePublic Order Act – is now very old, [dating to] 1986.
“But specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt and were prepared to use the methods we all know they did to do that.”
The Met chief added that legislative change would “need to balance people’s rights, those who wish to protest reasonably and those who wish to go about their business. We completely want to do that and understand that’s required.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society. We are working with National Police Chiefs Council and the Metropolitan Police to look at how we could strengthen the police’s powers in order to help manage unlawful protests.”