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Metropolitan Police: Operational Independence

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 9 November 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given in another place:

“Mr Speaker, since Hamas’s sickening terrorist attack in Israel, we have seen thousands of people demonstrating on our streets in the UK. Thanks to the tireless work of the police, the majority of those events have passed without incident. Sadly, however, we have seen examples of suspected criminality, including arrests for assaults on officers, racially aggravated public order offences and support for a terrorist organisation. As the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have said, it would be disrespectful and demonstrably wrong for protests to take place on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.

It is right that the police are operationally independent of government. This is a fundamental principle of British policing. The Metropolitan Police asked protesters to postpone, but the request was refused. The Prime Minister has sought reassurances from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that remembrance events should be protected. It is for the Metropolitan Police Service to decide whether to apply to the Home Secretary to ban any march. An application has not been received. However, the Home Secretary will of course fully consider any application if one is made.

The police have comprehensive powers to deal with individuals who vandalise or damage our cultural monuments. It is a criminal offence for a person without lawful excuse intentionally or recklessly to destroy or damage any property belonging to another. The police have a duty to protect the public by detecting and preventing crime, including offences of this nature. The police also have powers to deal with activities that spread hate or deliberately raise tensions through harassment or abusive behaviour. This includes the power to impose conditions on protests where they reasonably believe the protest may result in serious disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of a community, or where the purpose of the protest is to intimidate others. The police can impose any condition they deem necessary to prevent these harms occurring, including setting the location, route and duration of the protest. The use of these powers is an operational matter for the Metropolitan Police Service. It has deployed significant resources to recent protests, and we have seen it take action to prevent vandalism as part of its response to protests in this area.

This weekend should be about remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of our country. The Home Secretary, Policing Minister and I will always back the police to take action to prevent serious disruption and to take a zero-tolerance approach towards criminality.”

My Lords, the Home Secretary’s article in today’s Times newspaper brands the Metropolitan Police as biased over pro-Palestinian protests, and she reportedly refused to tone down her article at the request of the Prime Minister’s office. It is extremely unusual for the Prime Minister’s official spokesman to say that the article was not cleared by their office and air their dirty washing in public. Does the Minister believe that the Metropolitan Police is biased? Does he believe that the Home Secretary’s article breaks the policing protocol? Does it constitute improper political interference? Does the Minister agree with me that the police must be given proper support to facilitate remembrance events, to continue to provide protection and reassurance to communities facing the threats of hate and extremism, and to maintain order at peaceful protests? Stoking division and undermining the police will not achieve these ends.

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised operational independence—in effect, therefore, the policing protocol—and I shall go into that in some detail. The police are operationally independent, but the concept of operational independence is not defined by statute. However, it remains a fundamental principle of British policing. The Policing Protocol Order 2023 sets out how the various actors in the system—the Home Secretary, PCCs, mayors with PCC functions and chief constables—should exercise their roles and responsibilities. It seeks to clarify the operational independence of chief constables, noting that operational decisions on the deployment of police officers are matters for chief constables. The order also makes it clear that:

“The Home Secretary is ultimately accountable to Parliament and charged with ensuring the maintenance of the King’s Peace within all force areas, safeguarding the public and protecting our national borders and security”.

There are no plans to change the policing protocol; that is incredibly clear. I of course agree with the noble Lord that protecting our communities and keeping them safe should be the primary responsibility of the police, and it is incumbent on all of us to give them the support they need. However, we must also acknowledge that operational independence does not provide a blanket exemption from criticism about broader policing issues.

My Lords, the words of the Home Secretary have consequences for our policing and our police services and for the safety that people feel in our country. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the Metropolitan Police has followed the law and the evidence and has made a judgment which sits, and rightly so, within the operational independence of the police services? Will the Home Secretary concentrate on running the Home Department rather than running her leadership campaign? If she cannot, she should be replaced.

My Lords, I have already spoken about the operational independence of the police, which I think we all regard as sacrosanct. The Answer that I repeated included the line:

“it would be disrespectful and demonstrably wrong for protests to take place on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday”.

Actually, I do not think that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister used the word “demonstrably”, but what he did say was “disrespectful”. However, he went on to say:

“part of that freedom is the right to peacefully protest. And the test of that freedom is whether our commitment to it can survive the discomfort and frustration of those who seek to use it, even if we disagree with them. We will meet that test and remain true to our principles”.

I happen to think that is exactly right and describes the country I am proud to be a citizen of.

My Lords, as we have heard, Peel’s fifth principle requires the police to demonstrate complete independence of policy. Of that, it is equally plain that my noble friend the Minister is well aware. Will he therefore remind the Home Secretary of this principle, since her public criticisms of the Metropolitan Police make it impossible for the commissioner to retain his operational independence or at least the appearance of operational independence, which is vital to public confidence? The Home Secretary seems either to be ignorant or to be flouting it.

My Lords, I have already referred to the policing protocol, which governs all the actors’ principal responsibilities. We should focus on taking steps to reassure the various communities that are coming under pressure; —the police are definitely doing that. Police forces up and down the country have stepped up neighbourhood patrols to support local Jewish and Muslim communities, including visiting schools, synagogues and mosques. Sadly, we have seen a significant increase in hate crime reported since Hamas’s terrorist attack in Israel, and the Metropolitan Police has made a number of arrests to date linked with that. That shows that the Metropolitan Police is more than capable of exercising its responsibilities and is doing a good job.

Perhaps I may say from a personal point of view that the virulent anti-Semitism that we have seen makes me feel physically sick. My Jewish friends are afraid, and in this country that is disgusting.

My Lords, I refer to my policing interests in the register. The tone of what the Home Secretary has said implies that she thinks that she should have received a request from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Does she therefore think, given that the threshold is set sensibly at a high level to protect freedom of protest, that the definition and the threshold should be changed, and if so, to what? What advice did she receive on the consequences of trying to prevent a march, in terms of policing resources, compared with a more targeted approach to deal with troublemakers in a march?

The noble Lord invites me to speculate on what the Home Secretary thinks, which obviously I am not capable of doing. I refer him back to the comments that I have just repeated, made by the Prime Minister, and the fact that I have restated the policing protocol, which governs all these responsibilities very clearly.

My Lords, first, I apologise that I did not hear the Minister’s Statement—I was unaware that it had begun until I came into the Chamber.

To some extent, I will repeat what I said in last night’s speech. It is disappointing that all this debate is taking place in public. These are difficult decisions for politicians, as I have acknowledged in the past, and for police officers, to decide where they draw the line about either preventing protests or allowing a protest that might cause offence. It is not at all easy, particularly with such an emotional issue as the Cenotaph and Remembrance Day. There is an awful lot of passion involved on all sides.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, the process is that the police should decide whether they can police this march and whether they can apply conditions which would make the march less of a problem. Only if that will not work could they then consider having a ban, providing that it meets the high threshold of serious violence. What concerns me is that the making of these fine distinctions and wise judgments is taking place in public. It seems that rocks have been hurled across the press, when I would hope that these conversations could be had privately, for better effect and for the reassurance of the public.

I commend the noble Lords, Lord Hogan-Howe and Lord Paddick, for their comments last night in the humble Address debate, when they outlined the challenges of operational policing in these contexts. I agree that, in a perfect world, these conversations should be held in private. However, this is a very difficult international situation, and passions are running high.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my own policing interests. Would the Minister recapitulate his comments earlier that operational independence is not an absolute, either in legislation or in practice, and that the Home Secretary is quite entitled, under Section 40 of the Police Act 1996, to direct senior police officers in the public interest, and that that will always be subject to judicial oversight?

I would say to my noble friend that the powers conferred on the Home Secretary by Section 40 of the Police Act 1996 are quite specific and rarely used. The Home Secretary has statutory powers to give directions to local policing bodies, but they are limited to circumstances where she would consider that remediation is required because the force, or part of it, is failing to fulfil its functions effectively, and the police force and HMICFRS have been given the opportunity to make informed representations and proposals. As far as I am aware, that power has been used only on a couple of occasions, which were very specific. In 2012, the then Home Secretary required all forces to collaborate on the provision of air support and, in 2019, those powers were used to require Warwickshire and West Mercia police to take a little longer to unentangle themselves from their previous collaboration.