After a weekend of violent, far-right rallies in central London, policing bodies have called to impose a ban on protests. The chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales, John Apter, told the Guardian yesterday that an emergency ban should be bought in after this weekend's rally, which saw hundreds of demonstrators descend on London to “protect” a boarded-up statue. The demonstration led to over 100 arrests and numerous police officers were injured.
Apter said that under normal circumstances, the right to peaceful protests is "an important one", however, "we are not in normal times, we are tackling a deadly virus which is indiscriminate in who it can affect".
But according to the Daily Express and right-wing blog Guido Fawkes, protests have, in fact, been banned after changes to legislation last night. Today, both publications published stories claiming that “MPs legislate to ban protests” and “Protests BANNED” after MPs approved amendments to the Health Protection Regulations 2020 – otherwise known as the Coronavirus Act.
These news stories aren’t entirely true, however. Mass gatherings have been illegal since the introduction of the Coronavirus Act in March, which states that “During the emergency period... no person may participate in a gathering which takes place in a public or private place outdoors.” The legislation has simply been updated to reflect changes in the guidelines that allow groups of no more than six people socialise outside. There is nothing in the amendments that refer specifically to London or to protests, as the Guido Fawkes and the Express stories imply.
While mass gatherings are currently illegal under the Coronavirus Act, this doesn’t mean that police have enforced the legislation to make arrests. A more explicit order, however, could come in the form of a Public Order Act 1986, which would need to be implemented by Home Secretary Priti Patel. This was used most recently during the Extinction Rebellion protests in October, and later deemed unlawful by the High Court.
“The Metropolitan Police has previously used the wide range of public order powers available to it to limit where and when a protest can take place,” Kevin Blowe, coordinator for Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), explains. “This happened last October during a series of Extinction Rebellion protests across London when the High Court ultimately decided the strict conditions imposed by the police were excessive and unlawful. In this case, the police had made it almost impossible to protest anywhere in London while wearing an XR badge, but there was no formal ban: only the Home Secretary has this power.”
While Patel has not explicitly banned protests in the capital, this hasn’t stopped police arresting protestors. Blowe says: “The introduction of emergency coronavirus health regulations in March does, however, stipulate that 'no person may participate in a gathering in a public place of more than two people' except in circumstances that do not currently include taking part in a protest. The Metropolitan Police has certainly enforced this: for example against Extinction Rebellion campaigners in Parliament Square at the end of May.”
For now, peaceful Black Lives Matter protests are still taking place across the country with minimal arrests. Whether a far-right rally this weekend will limit the freedom of those protesters is yet to be seen.