Britain’s biggest police force has been accused of enforcing a blanket ban on protest amid the fallout after the handling of the Sarah Everard vigil.
Anna Birley, from Reclaim These Streets, told MPs on Wednesday that senior officers from the Metropolitan Police had been obstructive to organisers and refused to engage with them over the event.
The campaign group, whose members include two Lambeth local councillors, had aimed to hold a vigil in Ms Everard’s memory on Clapham Common in south London on Saturday March 13.
The organisers had been involved in talks with the police and the local authority, but said when senior staff from Scotland Yard became involved the tone changed.
Ms Birley told the Home Affairs Select Committee: “The police maintain that they do not have a blanket ban on protest, for want of a better word, but it’s very difficult to see when they are unable to work with two local elected officials supported by their MPs and by officers of the local council and by local police officers, with a whole host of risk assessments and Covid-safe measures planned.
“If they can’t work with us, then who are they going to work with? It’s very difficult to see how in practice it isn’t a blanket ban.”
Organisers of the vigil went to the High Court for clarity around the right to protest amid lockdown, but no definitive answer was given.
They eventually cancelled the event, although crowds gathered in Clapham anyway, leading to clashes with police that attracted heavy criticism.
Ms Birley said the planned vigil was at “the most benign end” of any sort of protest.
She told the committee: “The right to protest and the right to disagree and to gather and express those disagreements in a peaceful way, all of that should be permissible.
“If the response we had is a response others are having then that’s quite astonishing.”
The Met’s handling of the event drew unfavourable comparisons with Nottingham, where a vigil attended by around 150 people was held peacefully.
Nottinghamshire Chief Constable Craig Guildford said the force had realised that crowds would gather and acted “in the greater good” to try to maintain public safety.
He told MPs: “We liaised early with one of the promoters. We tried to encourage the individual not to have a public protest or a public vigil.
“But it was very obvious from some of our contacts and from the feedback that we were getting that that was still likely to take place due to the strength of feeling.
“Clearly what we had to do was to keep communicating and put some plans in place.”
Female officers were deployed at the scene and social distancing was maintained, he said.
Mr Guildford added: “Our view was, from a command perspective, that the event would have been unlawful.
“So that’s on the one hand, that’s an absolute starting point for us, but we have to be proportionate and realistic, and we have to keep people’s safety in mind.
“You have to keep talking to people and engaging, and making sure that you’re aware of the wider realities of what could come to pass.”
While it is unlawful for police to effectively ban protest, forces are expected in each case to weigh up the importance of the right to demonstrate against the potential public health risk.
The rules will change next week as lockdown conditions are eased, with the right to protest specifically exempt.
Police across England and Wales are currently reviewing their preparedness for protests and ability to provide mutual aid to neighbouring forces.
Unrest in Bristol in recent days saw Avon and Somerset Police joined by officers from British Transport Police, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Dyfed-Powys, Gloucestershire, Gwent and Wiltshire.
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for public order and public safety, Chief Constable BJ Harrington, said: “In light of the recent protests that have taken place across the country in recent weeks, as well as the forthcoming changes to the regulations, we believe it is sensible for forces to review their protest policing plans.
“We want to ensure that all forces have the capability to respond quickly and appropriately to any future protests, whether lawful or unlawful.
“As such, the public may see more police presence in some areas, though this isn’t something to be alarmed about.
“It isn’t based on any immediate danger or threat, but so we can be as prepared as possible.
“Where lawful, we will seek to facilitate peaceful protests, but any violence will not be tolerated.”