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Coronation: Policing of Protests

Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 9 May.

“The Coronation was a once-in-a-generation moment, a moment of national pride and a moment when the eyes of the world were upon us. It was a ceremony with roots over a millennium old, marking a renewed dedication to service by His Majesty the King in this new reign. The Coronation went smoothly and without disruption. I thank the 11,500 police officers who were on duty alongside 6,500 military personnel and many civilians.

Today, Commissioner Mark Rowley has outlined the intelligence picture in the hours leading up to the Coronation. It included more than one plot to cause severe disruption by placing activated rape alarms in the path of horses to induce a stampede and a separate plot to douse participants in the procession with paint. That was the context: a once-in-a-generation national moment facing specific intelligence threats about multiple, well-organised plots to disrupt it. The focus of the police was, rightly, on ensuring that the momentous occasion passed safely and without major disruption. That was successful. All plots to disrupt the Coronation were foiled by a combination of intelligence work and proactive vigilant policing on the ground. I would like to thank the police and congratulate them on that success.

At the same time, extensive planning ensured that protests could take place. That was also successful. Hundreds of protesters exercised their right to peaceful protest, including a large group numbering in the hundreds in and around Trafalgar Square. Where the police reasonably believed they had grounds for arrest, they acted. The latest information is that 64 arrests were made. I will not comment on individual cases or specific decisions, but the arrests included a person wanted for sexual offences, people equipped to commit criminal damage with large quantities of paint, and arrests on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, often backed by intelligence. The Met’s update last night included regret—to use its word—that six people arrested could not join the hundreds protesting in Trafalgar Square and nearby. The Met confirmed that those six people have now had their bail cancelled with no further action.

The police are operationally independent and it is primarily for the Mayor of London to hold the Met to account, but let us be clear: at the weekend, officers had to make difficult judgments in fast time, in a highly pressured situation against a threatening intelligence picture. I thank the police for doing that, for delivering a successful Coronation and for enabling safe, peaceful protests.”

My Lords, we are all grateful to the police, our Armed Forces and others for ensuring that the Coronation was a spectacular success, seen across the globe. It is also true that protests took place which were allowed by the police; I saw those myself. But the Minister will know that, regarding the Public Order Act, we warned that the thresholds were too low and the stop and search powers too broad, with the ability to use them even when no offence had been committed, all sanctioned by officers of insufficient rank. Why were people with luggage straps arrested, as were women giving out rape alarms? Was the Minister surprised that some were held for up to 16 hours, with no subsequent charge, and what discussions has he had with the College of Policing about guidance with respect to the Public Order Act?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord opposite in saying how grateful we all should be to the officers of the Metropolitan Police and other forces for their excellent work over the weekend. The Coronation was a great success and involved a huge number of people; I believe there were 11,500 officers, staff and volunteers. From my experience on the pavement, they were all exceptionally good-humoured in the rain. There were also, of course, 6,500 troops involved.

In terms of the protests, the noble Lord is right to note that there were some arrests: 64 in total, with six under the Public Order Act. He will also know that the threshold for any arrest is to have reasonable suspicion. The threshold then rises before charge and, in the interim, the reasonable suspicion of those potential offences has to be investigated. As far as I can see, the police acted properly within the law.

My Lords, I also commend all those who made the Coronation such a huge success at the weekend. But we on these Benches warned the Government over and over again that the powers in the Public Order Act would result in innocent people being arrested for possession of everyday items. On the first contact of those police powers with reality, exactly what we said would happen did happen. The Metropolitan Police have expressed regret at making those arrests. When will the Government express regret for passing this Act?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not agree with the noble Lord, which will not be a surprise to him. As he may be aware, because the Metropolitan Police Commissioner wrote about it at some length, there was a significant body of intelligence which suggested that a number of people were intent on causing very serious disruption to the Coronation. Had that happened, there would have been a risk—obviously—to the country’s reputation but also to public safety, service personnel and, of course, their horses. Ministers are convinced that serious disruption was prevented which would have endangered all those things. Therefore, I think the noble Lord should commend the Act.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether Section 17, the journalist protection provision of the Public Order Act, was brought into force with other provisions last week? If not, why not? If yes, why was at least one journalist arrested and detained for 18 hours?

I cannot confirm whether the journalist provision was introduced last week, but I can say, as I said earlier, that six people were arrested under Section 2. The police must have reasonable suspicion, as I have already pointed out. As far as I am aware, they had that suspicion. Of course, if they did not, there are redress processes which can be adopted.

My Lords, while I have no interest to declare, noble Lords will be aware that I am a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Does the Minister agree that there is a need for more balance in the amount of commentary about a small number of controversial arrests, when set against the enormous Met-led security operation, unprecedented for a generation, which was successful in delivering a wonderful day for millions of people and a marvellous advertisement for the United Kingdom?

I am entirely happy to agree with the noble Lord and I will also quote the Metropolitan Police Commissioner on this subject. He said:

“Much of the ill-informed commentary on the day is wholly inaccurate—for example protest was not banned. I want to be absolutely clear—our activity was targeted at those we believed were intent on causing serious disruption and criminality”.

The comments of the noble Lord are absolutely justified. Has he noticed that there has been no comment that this was the largest public event ever held in this country? My understanding is that it was held at a time when the threat level was “Severe”, which fairly added to the challenges the police faced for this undertaking. Moreover, the particular additional problem was that they had an amazing number of Heads of State and other visitors from overseas, who had to be protected as well. At the end of the day, the whole country, except those who want to make a particular point about the legal and perfectly peaceful right of protest—which I support normally—understands that for Coronation day there was a challenge for the police, and they met it superbly.

I entirely agree with my noble friend. There were 312 of the world’s leaders in London over the weekend, being protected by about 800 close protection officers. I am going to say again that I think the police did a marvellous job in delivering a unique and very special occasion in the life of this country.

My Lords, I am sure that we all support the police for doing a magnificent job. One of the problems we are grappling with is that we have only read reports in the media, and of course the police may know things that we do not. However, by all accounts, someone who had been planning for months, working with the police, was arrested and simply did not realise that the luggage straps they were using to create their banners would fall foul of the legislation. Therefore, trying to be constructive, will either the police or the Government give some guidelines, to people who genuinely want to have a protest, about what is likely to fall within the scope of the Act, so that they can demonstrate peaceably?

The right reverend Prelate makes a good point, and he is right that one of the people who had been talking with the Metropolitan Police was arrested on this occasion. However, as I understand it, he was not known to the arresting officers. I am unable to comment on the rest of the circumstances for operational reasons, of course, but I will certainly take back the points regarding guidance.

My Lords, again, there is plenty of time to hear from the Cross Benches, my noble friend and the noble Lord opposite.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the feeling in the country on Saturday was such that, had that glorious pageantry been interrupted by paint-throwing or worse, it would have defiled the whole day in our history? The police were entirely right to put caution first on this particular occasion. The people who wanted to say that they did not want a King were allowed to shout and scream—they did in Trafalgar Square. That is freedom, but order is also important.

I agree with my noble friend and, as I said, the police were acting on very actionable intelligence about the scale and likely scope of the planned protests, which included upsetting many of the horses that, frankly, behaved rather magnificently over the weekend—

My Lords, I have no wish to comment on Saturday, but I am sure that the Minister has concerns that, on the basis of suspicion, the police can stop and arrest people who are only thinking of going to a protest. They can also undertake a stop and search, without suspicion, of people who simply want to go on a demonstration. Let us forget Saturday, which was a particular event, but, in general, demonstrations and protests are always going on. Does the Minister accept that the Government need to go back to that law and make sure that the provisions are tight enough so that totally innocent people wishing to go on a demonstration are not arrested or stopped and searched?

My Lords, the Act is in law and will not be revisited by this Government nor, I believe, by the Government of the noble Lord opposite. Having said that, guidance needs to be robust and well understood.

My Lords, I will move away from the statute and back to common law and the helpful provisions of ancient law. Certainly in my experience, the breach of the peace provisions under the common law were very powerful. If I were on duty, policing a once-in-70 years procession involving the King and Queen processing to the Coronation and back, with thousands of people from all over the world lining the streets, and I found that certain people, with noisy alarms, whistles and loud speaker equipment, had a mischievous intent to noisily disrupt that so far peaceful and happy event—given that thousands were enjoying the occasion, this might well provoke a violent and dangerous reaction from some of them, which would clearly amount to a common law breach of the peace—does the noble Lord agree that, if I used my common-law powers and arrested such demonstrators, who were clearly intent on disrupting that procession, my actions in maintaining the King’s peace would be worthy of commendation rather than condemnation?

My Lords, I think I agree with the noble Lord’s lengthy question. For the record, let me say that I am very pleased that certain people were able to express views with which I disagree.