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Police: Sarah Everard Vigils

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they had with police chiefs about vigils on 13 March in memory of Sarah Everard prior to those vigils taking place.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has said, she met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick last Friday and over the weekend to discuss the vigil. Her view that the images from Saturday are upsetting is a matter of public record and she has asked for an independent review into the matter.

Ministers have made it clear for months that there should be a tougher approach to Black Lives Matter, climate emergency and anti-lockdown demonstration, and all that is reflected in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Operational independence does not preclude Ministers, PCCs or mayors from providing advice to police leaders on how their actions will be seen and on the community effect of operational decisions. That is what political oversight is all about, so what advice did the Home Secretary offer on this occasion? When she and the commissioner spoke by telephone while the ugly scenes on Clapham Common were taking place, what did they talk about—the weather?

My Lords, I will quote directly from the Home Secretary, who said:

“It is right that I have had many discussions with the Metropolitan police and specifically the commissioner on Friday and over the weekend in relation to preparations and planning prior to Saturday evening. My comments are public and on the record regarding what has happened and, quite frankly, the upsetting images of Saturday evening. A review is now being conducted by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. It is right that that takes place.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/3/21; col 29.]

The noble Lord talks about operational independence. It is absolutely right that the police have operational independence, but it is also absolutely right that, first, the Government make the law and, secondly, that conversations take place between the Executive and some of the agencies of government.

My Lords, as the day wears on, many protests give rise to excesses all round. My family tells me that, this Sunday afternoon, the police were courteous but firm. Was it the Government’s purpose in their regulations to ban all protests? If so, will they now regulate to preserve the right of protest, so that both police and the public are able to return to normality?

My Lords, noble Lords will recognise that banning protests was not at the heart of what the Government did; banning protests was part of keeping the public safe in this global pandemic—keeping down the numbers of people who get infected and therefore keeping people out of hospital.

My Lords, last week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services published a report that found that,

“when forces do not accurately assess the level of disruption caused, or likely to be caused, by a protest, the balance may tip too readily in favour of protesters.”

The author, Matt Parr, a former Royal Navy officer, is currently suing the Home Office, claiming that he is being paid less than a colleague because he is a white man. Politically, do the Government believe that the rear-admiral is the best person, and HMICFRS the best organisation, to be conducting the so-called independent review into the protests by women on Clapham Common, in the light of its recent report and the tribunal action?

On the noble Lord’s former point, this is obviously an equal pay matter and that process will take its path. I think that HMICFRS is the right organisation to investigate, because it is the body that we would appoint to do such work.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister and her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office on giving police and crime commissioners their unequivocal support for the internal review of PCCs, the findings of which were announced earlier this week. I express my hope that the electorate across England and Wales will be encouraged by this review to turn out and vote on 6 May for their local PCC. Given that it now appears that PCCs will be with us for some time, does the Minister agree that PCCs should make it a priority to develop close working relationships with their chief constables so that the operational decisions of their chiefs on matters such as the policing of vigils and other major events are publicly supported by the local PCC on the basis that they had been fully consulted about them beforehand?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind words, and of course PCCs have our full support. It is absolutely crucial that the various agencies communicate with each other when such events are to take place and that PCCs are fully keyed into those events. For the most part, the events held over the weekend went very peacefully.

My Lords, vigils were held outside London, including one in Victoria Square in Birmingham. More than 100 people attended and the West Midlands Police responded in a peaceful way. It reinforced its commitment to policing through explanation, engagement, encouragement and using force only as a last resort. When it comes to this kind of operational decision, could I urge the Minister that we should learn the lessons of more peaceful demonstrations and find out why things so clearly went wrong at Clapham Common last Saturday?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question because it segues quite nicely from the points that I have just made. Yes, most of the events and vigils went peacefully with people socially distancing and the police having no problems at all. I think that the review by Sir Tom Winsor will give us a greater insight into why some things went wrong on Saturday at one particular event.

On Monday, the Home Secretary told the Commons that the Metropolitan Police Service was “rightly operationally independent.” Given that, what was the purpose of the extensive discussions held by the Home Secretary with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner throughout the weekend on police planning and preparation for the vigil? Was the purpose that the Home Secretary wanted to make sure that the Metropolitan Police would not do anything with which she did not agree?

My Lords, it is absolutely right that the commissioner of the largest police force in the country should keep the Home Secretary up to date, and I know that she speaks with her regularly. That is not so the Home Secretary can dictate what the Metropolitan Police does, but it is very important that the two keep in communication.

My Lords, is it not now the policy of the police, as in my experience it used to be, to meet the organisers of demos or protests to agree how peaceful protest can legitimately take place?

My Lords, in ordinary circumstances and indeed even under Covid restrictions, that would be the case. Clearly, what went wrong on Saturday will be a matter for the review by Sir Tom Winsor.

My Lords, in wishing my noble friend a speedy return from isolation, could I ask her how many demonstrations took place around the country, how many arrests were made outside London, and whether lessons can please be drawn from this in the future?

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend the exact number, but this review will give us a good idea of what lessons can be learned in what are of course very unusual times.

Sitting suspended.