Police need to find the correct balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of others
The police’s response to protests needs to strike a better balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of local residents, businesses, and those who hold opposing views, a new report has said.
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HMICFRS said police forces are usually good at planning for protests. They work effectively with other organisations, and make good use of equipment and technology, such as drones.
However, HMICFRS found that when police forces do not accurately assess the level of disruption caused, or likely to be caused, by a protest, the balance may tip too readily in favour of protesters.
After speaking to police forces, protest groups, businesses and the wider public, the inspectorate said a modest reset of the scales is needed.
The inspectorate was asked by the Home Office to comment on proposed changes to legislation. HMICFRS concluded that, with some qualifications, changes to the law – such as widening the conditions police can impose on static protests – would improve the effectiveness of protest policing, as long as they are applied proportionately and in line with human rights law.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said:
“The right to gather and express our views is fundamental to our democracy. But this is not an absolute right. The police need to strike the correct balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of others, such as local residents and businesses.
“We found that the police too often do not find the balance between protecting the rights of the protesters and preventing excessive disruption to daily life, which even peaceful protest can sometimes cause.
“We concluded that, with some qualifications, changes to the law would improve police effectiveness, and that the legislation could be framed in a way that is compatible with human rights.
“There will remain a considerable public interest in ensuring that a fair balance is struck. We have made recommendations and identified areas for improvement which are designed to help the police get the balance right.”
As part of its inspection, HMICFRS found more than two thirds of people thought it was unacceptable for protests to involve violence or serious disruption to residents and businesses.
However, the public’s views were more divided when protest caused only minor inconvenience to people locally, with little support for police use of force when protesters were not violent.
HMICFRS has recommended that the police service makes several changes to help get the balance of policing protests right, including:
- Ensuring that police forces consider the levels of disruption or disorder above which enforcement action will be considered;
- Improving the way that police assess the impact of protests, to help them understand fully the impact on local residents, visitors to the area, businesses, and the critical infrastructure;
- Improving the quality of police intelligence on protests, particularly intelligence about those who seek to bring about political or social change in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality;
- Supporting forces to use live facial recognition technology in a way that improves police efficiency and effectiveness, while addressing public concerns about the use of such technology; and
- Equipping police commanders with up to date, accessible guidance and a greater understanding of human rights law.
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- In September 2020, the Home Secretary commissioned HMICFRS to inspect how effectively police services in England and Wales manage public protests.
- HMICFRS inspected whether forces use their powers to police protest effectively, and what steps the Government could take to ensure that the police have the right powers to respond to protest, including reviewing changes to the law proposed by the Home Office.
- HMICFRS carried out an inspection of ten police forces in England and Wales with recent experience of policing protests, and consulted with a wide range of other bodies, including protest groups and the public.
- The government’s proposed changes to legislation are to:
- Widen the range of conditions that the police can impose on assemblies (static protests), to match existing police powers to impose conditions on processions;
- Lower the fault element for offences relating to the breaching of conditions placed on a protest of either kind;
- Replace the existing common law offence of public nuisance with a new statutory offence as recommended by the Law Commission in 2015;
- Widen the range of circumstances in which the police can impose conditions on protests (again, of either kind).
- HMICFRS is an independent inspectorate. It assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces and fire & rescue services.
- For further information, the HMICFRS Press Office can be contacted from 9:00am – 5:00pm Monday to Friday on 07836 217729.
- Our out-of-hours Press Office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217729.