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Metropolitan Police: Use of Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986

Volume 800: debated on Wednesday 16 October 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have had discussions with the Metropolitan Police regarding their use of Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 to ban protests by Extinction Rebellion and whether they have been informed how long the ban will remain in force.

My Lords, the right to protest peacefully is a long-standing tradition in this country. However, it does not extend to unlawful behaviour, and the police have powers to deal with such acts. The use of these powers and the management of demonstrations are operational matters for the police. The Government have been clear that they expect a firm stance to be taken against protestors who significantly disrupt the lives of others.

Does the Minister think that a citizen’s right to have a voice is a question of democracy? Given that, does she think that a blanket ban across the whole of London for an indefinite period is a proportionate response, as required by the Act? The Minister will know that judicial review proceedings have been started today. Can she give an undertaking that, whatever the outcome of that review, the Government will give further guidance on what “proportionate” means?

My Lords, the word “proportionate” is long established in law. The noble Baroness asks whether it is democratic to have a citizen’s voice. Of course it is, but public disorder disrupts the lives of others; we have seen that over the past couple of weeks, when it has been impossible to get around the centre of London. I outlined some of the issues last week but, ultimately, the High Court will test this judicial review.

My Lords, the police have powers to ban a protest under the Public Order Act 1986 if there is a belief that it may cause,

“serious disruption to the life of the community”,

but, of course, the decision has to be proportionate. Clearly, the view as to what constitutes “serious disruption” is somewhat subjective. In the light of that subjectivity, it is surprising that the Mayor of London was apparently not made aware that the police were going to impose this ban, in view of the responsibility that the mayor has for the Metropolitan Police and the fact that many would regard this as a ban on freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest, and a potential thin end of the wedge.

When did the Metropolitan Police last impose such a ban under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 and in respect of which protests? Do the police have any guidelines, laid down or approved by any elected representatives, on what constitutes serious disruption to the life of the community? How long does the ban apply for? Is it for a limited period, in perpetuity or for as long as the Metropolitan Police wishes it to apply? Do the Mayor of London or the Home Secretary have any statutory powers to overrule this ban? I understand that legal action in the form of an application for judicial review has been launched over the police decision. Does the Metropolitan Police accept that it will not arrest or charge anybody for breaching the ban, pending the outcome of the judicial review?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: responses to public order breaches have to be proportionate. He asks what constitutes serious disruption. It might be subjective, but nobody who has gone around London in the past two weeks could argue that this did not cause serious disruption to the city. The proportionality will, of course, be tested through the courts. The noble Lord asked me how long the ban will be in force. We know when it started but I do not know when it will finish.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that the whole country should recognise that, when it comes down to it, both the Liberal and Labour parties are not prepared to stand up for hard-working people in this country going about their business—indeed, that they are prepared to support tactics that have nothing to do with free speech and have resulted in resulted in huge congestion and pollution, which are the very things that some of the protesters say that they are concerned about? Is it not a disgrace that the Mayor of London is not prepared to support the police in carrying out their duties?

I agree with my noble friend on all counts. Coming back to his point about hard-working people, I saw the protesters described last week as “Glastonbury meets Waitrose”. Some of those people do not know what it is like to have to use the Tube because you simply cannot use the bus. It affects people’s pockets, particularly those of the hard-working people of London.

My Lords, I was glad to see the Home Secretary’s publicised support for the Metropolitan Police. These are difficult judgments. On the last occasion that Extinction Rebellion carried out its protests, the police were criticised for failing to take action. Here, we see them criticised for perhaps taking too much. It is a difficult position to land fairly on. When we have the threat of airports being closed and the Tube system being shut down, this is a serious matter for London, as it is for the country generally. Perhaps the use of this power is a reasonable response on this occasion.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. It is a judgment call for the Metropolitan Police. As he says, the protests have affected airports and the Tube. As my noble friend Lord McColl mentioned last week, they caused difficulty for people accessing medical treatment at St Thomas’, but that did not seem to bother the protesters.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the major litigant in the case that has come to court today, challenging the Met’s application of Section 14 powers over the whole of London. Does the Minister agree that it would surely be cheaper for the Government to start to deal with climate change than try to suppress protest?

I think that we are talking about two entirely different things. Nobody disputes the right to protest. Everyone is well educated on some of the climatic changes that are taking place. This is about bringing a capital city to a standstill.

My Lords, while recognising that many citizens support Extradition Rebellion’s aims, it risks losing that support by disrupting London’s road transport, particularly the bus network that the poor and disabled rely on most. Would a ban on obstructing roads rather than a blanket ban on all protests by Extinction Rebellion be a more proportionate response? Will the Minister answer my noble friend’s Question about what discussions the Government have had with the Metropolitan Police on this issue?

On the final point, the noble Lord will know that it is an operational matter for the police to make that judgment call; that is what they have done. He said, “Extradition Rebellion” —I think he meant Extinction Rebellion. On whether the police could impose conditions not allowing these people on the roads, the condition was actually on assembling in Trafalgar Square. It has been very difficult to engage with these people. The MPS—the Metropolitan Police Service—still stands ready to engage but, to date, that engagement has been very difficult.

My Lords, as I am sure we all agree, it is up to noble Lords to give way to each other. I would not wish to rule between the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Mackenzie.

My Lords, as the second Labour contributor to this, may I ask my question? First, will the Minister praise the Metropolitan Police for the fact that, for the first few days of the protest, it was very happy to facilitate legitimate protest even if some of us found it highly inconvenient? Will she also clarify something? She has said throughout that this is an operational matter. I have been in the room when these kinds of things have been discussed. Of course it is an operational decision, but can she tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government expressed a view to the Metropolitan Police on what should happen?

I repeat that point: it is an operational matter. I join the noble Lord absolutely in praising the Metropolitan Police for how it handled the situation. It was terribly frustrating at first, as expressed by your Lordships, because it seemed that nothing was being done. The Metropolitan Police gave the protesters a chance to protest peacefully but they quickly ran amok. There have, of course, been discussions between the House authorities and the Metropolitan Police throughout.