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Policing of Marches and Demonstrations

Volume 834: debated on Monday 13 November 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the policing of recent marches and demonstrations.

My Lords, the police are operationally independent: it is their decision how they choose to police a protest and they are accountable for that. The Metropolitan Police used a range of powers to minimise disruption and disorder. On Saturday police made 145 arrests, most of which were linked to the counterdemonstration; however, the police continue to investigate other offences. The police have the Government’s full backing to use all the powers at their disposal to ensure that the perpetrators face the full force of the law. As is right, the Government will continue to hold the police to account. I think it is also right to acknowledge that Remembrance Weekend events passed without disruption.

My Lords, freedom to speak and to march and police discretion are all pillars of our constitution, but I have never before in my lifetime seen mobs marching through the streets alongside some who call for violent jihad and the death of Jews and waving swastika signs. Once the Saturday march was under way, why were the police posing with a child dressed as a terrorist while protesters rampaged threateningly outside a synagogue? Many of us call on the police to apply the law to those who are guilty of offences under Section 5 of the Public Order Act aggravated by religious and racial hatred, public nuisance and glorifying terrorism. It is a worldwide problem. Anti-Semitism is on parade. Jews cannot fix it on their own; we need people with us. Does the Minister agree that we need a cry of solidarity?

I wholeheartedly agree, and I was very emphatic on that point at the Dispatch Box last week. We saw vile examples of anti-Semitism by a minority at the pro-Palestine march. The fears that our Jewish community has experienced over the weekend and the days leading up to it are shocking and disgusting, as I said last week. There is no place for hate on Britain’s streets, and the police have confirmed that investigations are ongoing.

My Lords, as someone who marched with hundreds of thousands of very peaceful protesters last Saturday, I witnessed not one single incitement to hatred of anyone. It was a march for peace until the EDL came on to the scene, and we all saw what happened. Will the Minister assure all those who marched for peace that they will not be chequered by the way they are being depicted as jihadis? The simple fact is that they were not.

My Lords, a quick surf of the internet this morning would suggest that the noble Baroness is wrong. I suggest that trying to conflate the activities of the violent thugs who tried to invade the Cenotaph and those of the marchers, some of whom were indeed peaceful, is also wrong. The fact is that 15 officers were injured at the Cenotaph, two of whom required hospital treatment, and my best wishes go to those officers. I think the police behaved entirely appropriately in dealing with the violence, and I seriously hope that they also deal with those marchers who were doing precisely the things that the noble Baroness has alleged they were not.

My Lords, in light of the unplanned departure of the previous Home Secretary and the extraordinary and deeply concerning violent events witnessed on the streets of London this weekend, can the Minister confirm whether the new Home Secretary will use more restrained language, to ease tensions on our streets, and refrain from interfering in the operational independence of the Metropolitan Police?

On the second part of the question, the previous Home Secretary did not interfere with the operational independence of the Metropolitan Police. On the first part, I have not yet spoken to the new Home Secretary, but I wish him very well in his new role.

My noble friend is right that there has been an explosion of anti-Semitism in the capital and across the UK since 7 October. These marches are at the very least a factor in aggravating that. If the police, in exercising their judgment, feel that there is not sufficient trigger at the moment to say that there is a threat of serious public disorder, which is the current bar, is there not a case for re-examining the bar for asking for these marches to be banned, so that the cumulative effect on many members of the Jewish community can properly be taken into account?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. The Home Secretary has reserve powers and some legislative tools that enable intervention and direction, but those powers may be used only in line with statutory tests and public law principles and in very exceptional circumstances. The Metropolitan Police has not asked for that sort of intervention. He is quite right that the Government have been in regular contact with the police over the use of their powers to manage protests. Where we identify gaps in the legislation, we will seek to address them. As was widely reported this morning, that is still under review.

My Lords, any violence and threat is to be deplored, wherever it comes from. I congratulate the police, who did a superb job in very difficult circumstances. Of course there will be groups of people pushing the boundaries and acting unacceptably. The danger of the media is that it gives the impression that the only game in town is the marches and demos, but many on these Benches and other Members of this House have been meeting leading Israelis and Palestinians in our local communities and finding that there are people desperately trying to reach out to others and thinking about how we can take this forward. What are His Majesty’s Government doing at the moment to mobilise some of our leading Israelis and Palestinians to try to enable talks about how we might find a more positive narrative as we go forward?

The right reverend Prelate makes an extremely good point. I commend his activities and those of his colleagues and other faith leaders in trying to find civilised solutions to this problem. I am afraid I do not know what His Majesty’s Government are doing to try to encourage the sort of interactions he mentioned, but it deserves to be mentioned, on proportionality, that the organisers of the pro-Palestinian marches have a responsibility. Peter Tatchell, whom many in the House will know, was blocked from marching with the pro-Palestinians for carrying a sign that said:

“End Israel’s occupation! End Hamas’s sexist, homophobic, anti-human rights dictatorship!”

That is pretty disgraceful. Everybody needs to exercise proportionality in this.

My Lords, I declare an interest as set out in the register. Anti-Semitism is unacceptable in any setting, but does the Minister agree that arresting people in the middle of a mass protest can result in serious disorder and injury to police officers, as can the police attempting to prevent people who are determined to protest from doing so, as we saw with the right-wing demonstrators on Saturday?

My Lords, on this I am very happy to defer to the noble Lord’s extensive experience of policing protests of this type. It is self-evident that if you wade into a crowd, there is a chance that you will inflame tensions. The police are operationally independent and I will not judge what they did, but their approach makes some sense to me in that context.

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate did, I thank the Metropolitan Police and all the officers who were on the streets of London ensuring that Armistice Day events were not disrupted, facing disgraceful far-right violence and assaults while working to pursue appalling, vile anti-Semitism—as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, pointed out to us—and other hate crimes. Does the Minister agree that it would have been helpful in the run-up to these events to have had a Home Secretary who calmed tensions rather than using language that inflamed some of the protests and policing that we saw? Above all, despite the Minister’s points to this House, will the new Home Secretary ensure that never again do we have a situation in which a Home Secretary of this country seems to question the operational independence of the police? Is it not one of the fundamental parts of our democracy that the police can police without fear or favour?

I agree with the noble Lord. It is, as he knows, governed by a pretty rigorous protocol. I went into the details of that protocol last week, and I can do it again if anybody wants to hear it—I suspect they do not.

The previous Home Secretary is no longer in post, so debating what she did or did not say seems moot. As regards the new Home Secretary, I have not spoken to him and I do not know what he is thinking.

My Lords, it is no surprise that we are seeing Nazi-level propaganda and incitement of terrorism on the streets of London when some of the organisations behind these marches have had connections with a Hamas leader who lives in the UK. What is being done to investigate the links between those organisations and proscribed terrorist groups?

My Lords, I revert to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. It would be a marvellous beginning for the new Home Secretary if he were to call in leaders of the Jewish community—who have the admiration and respect of us all—together with those responsible Palestinians who have a legitimate cause for concern at the destruction and deaths in Gaza. If he were to do that, using moderate language—which I am sure he would—it would help to ease tension and to bring together people who have a common cause.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that the examples she gave are completely unacceptable and should be met with a firm response. The degree of anti-Semitism in the country at the moment is deeply shocking, as is the degree of racism and Islamophobia. That is something we should commonly confront, but I urge the Government to be very careful about curbing protests and the right to march through London. In 1936, when anti-fascists confronted Mosley’s mob swaggering through Jewish communities, many of the actions of those anti-fascists could have been regarded as disorderly, but they stopped them and they stopped that wave of anti-Semitism. Similarly, many of the actions I helped organise through the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s saved local Jewish communities and black communities from assault. Be very careful about curbing the right to march peacefully.

My Lords, we are told that two of those arrested in Paris for painting anti-Semitic slogans on French synagogues have said to the police that they were acting under orders from Russian sources. Are the Government looking to see whether there is any element of foreign interference in some of these protests? It is in the Russian interest to stir up disorder in this country, and this is a very easy way to do it.

One of the saddest pictures we saw over the weekend was of the two poppy sellers—an elderly couple in Victoria station—having to be gradually moved and shifted because of large numbers of loud and very angry protesters around them. What annoyed me, and I think vast numbers of members of the public, was that the police standing there did nothing to help those poppy sellers. They seemed to be more interested in supporting and helping the demonstrators. Did the Metropolitan Police Commissioner give an outright order to rank and file police that they had to go very easy with protesters but stamp down on anything else that seemed to be out of order?

My Lords, I do not know what direct orders the Metropolitan Police Commissioner gave. As I said earlier, the response to the Cenotaph, where violence was being deployed, was swift and appropriate—not that it is my call to judge the police’s actions; that is for the courts. I do not know whether he gave those sorts of orders. I was at Victoria station by chance on Saturday afternoon, and I have never felt more uncomfortable in this country because of the tension. It was palpable in the air. It was disgraceful.

My Lords, I have visited Jewish communities across the United Kingdom over the last few weeks. Everywhere the message is the same: Jewish people and Jewish families are scared. Does the Minister agree with me that the increased police presence we have seen in Jewish communities, be it in Leeds, Manchester, London or elsewhere, has been essential in ensuring that people have been kept safe? Can we be certain that this increased presence will continue for as long as it is needed?

I certainly hope so. Police forces up and down the country have stepped up their neighbourhood patrols to support local Jewish and Muslim communities, including visiting schools, synagogues and mosques. We have seen a rise in the anti-Semitism that the noble Lord describes; that is appalling. I certainly hope that the police’s response will stay in place for as long as it is needed.

My Lords, I refer to my policing interests in the register. There were clearly images of people on those marches over the weekend doing appalling things. I hope the Metropolitan Police and other police forces are using those images to track down the individuals concerned and then to take action against them. No doubt the Minister will be able to confirm that this is the case. Can he also draw attention to the huge march against anti-Semitism that took place in Paris? Does he think it would be appropriate if something similar happened in this country?

The police have said that they are investigating those images so, yes, I think I can confirm to the noble Lord that this is happening. I would certainly like to see a march against anti-Semitism, and I would join it.