Concern over the government’s limitation of the right to protest during lockdown continues to mount after it emerged that the home secretary, Priti Patel, is eager to grant police greater powers to control demonstrations once the Covid restrictions are lifted.
In a letter to HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) Patel wrote that although she appreciates protest is “a cornerstone of our democracy” she wanted to know how the Home Office could help police ensure protests in the future do not impact on “the rights of others to go about their daily business”.
In a letter to Sir Thomas Winsor, the head of HMICFRS, dated last September but just released under freedom of information laws, Patel wrote: “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.”
Campaign groups such as Liberty argue that police already have extensive powers to control or ban protests and arrest individuals who stray from police-imposed conditions.
Patel recently described last year’s Black Lives Matter protests as “dreadful” after previously calling them illegal. BLM demonstrators have claimed they were subjected to intimidating police tactics such as kettling, and a report from the monitoring coalition Netpol alleged the policing of the protests was “institutionally racist”.
Patel’s letter to Winsor has prompted a review by the inspectorate into how effectively the police manage protests.
Its findings will help Patel prepare a new law to curb protests that it is understood will target those that block parliament or affect judicial hearings, among other criteria.
There is growing concern that the government has used the pandemic to suffocate protest. Gracie Bradley, the interim director of Liberty, said Covid regulations passed as emergency laws appear to create a blanket ban on organising and attending protests, which was a disproportionate restriction of human rights.
“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,” she said.
“The government is clearly intent on shielding itself from scrutiny, whether it’s parliament, freedom of information, or protest.”