Protest Measures

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Tuesday 13th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Doocey Portrait Baroness Doocey (LD)
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My Lords, I appreciate that the Government are trying to strike a balance among competing priorities—maintaining the right to peaceful protest, restraining incitement to racial and religious hatred, and keeping the country moving, free from disruptive events. It is right that police use all available powers to arrest those who go beyond what is acceptable for a peaceful protest, not least when their actions are motivated by hate. Protest should not be used as a shield to allow anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other type of hatred to fester with impunity.

However, we must ensure that the tactics employed by a minority do not undermine the ability of others to protest peacefully. I have a number of concerns, and it would be helpful if the Minister could address them when he responds. The provisions announced to prevent the use of facial coverings plainly bear a relationship to the increased use of facial recognition technology in policing. The Policing Minister is on record as saying that he is already encouraging police forces to search all available databases, including the passport database, to identify people using facial recognition technology for crime generally.

Clause 27 of the Criminal Justice Bill creates a very wide power to access driver licence records for this purpose, but there has been little public debate on this or on the parameters of the accelerated use of such technology. Given the potential freedoms that this could infringe, is a legal protest the correct context for technology to be used? Should the faces of people engaged in lawful and peaceful protest systematically be recorded and added to databases? Would there be a temptation to create lists of people who attend such protests, with the justification that these are people who are not in favour of the status quo and might, at some future date, cause trouble?

Police already collect information on political activists. However, attending a protest should not qualify as criminal activism. The fact that facial recognition is being introduced into policing without the debate or openness that is needed is a cause for concern. Since the Government are proposing amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, will the Minister commit to setting out in that Bill the circumstances in which this technology should be used? Will he commit specifically to addressing the many concerns that the systems can be particularly bad at recognising black female faces? This is powerful technology, but it is not infallible by any means.

As things stand, its use enjoys public support, but that support may diminish if it is deployed disproportionately, causing problems for minority groups or being used for minor offences. It is surely in the interests of all of us who want to continue to see policing by consent for this to be avoided.

Finally, I want to raise the question of police resources. The Home Affairs Committee recently expressed concern about the effect that the increasing number of protests is having on the number of rest days being cancelled for police officers. Last year the Metropolitan Police had to cancel 4,000 rest days to police protests at a cost of nearly £19 million. Can the Minister say what the Home Office is doing to ensure that police forces are reimbursed for the cost of these cancelled days? When I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, we had a dreadful job trying to get the money back from the Home Office. I suspect that things have not changed very much. What is being done to support officers’ well-being when large numbers of rest days have to be cancelled?

Will police officers receive the necessary resources and training to identify and prevent hate crimes, including threats and incitements to violence on social media? According to the official figures, between October and December last year there were more than 1,000 protests and vigils and 600 arrests, accounting for 26,000 police officer shifts. This issue is not going away. The duty of care that we owe police officers needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

These are among the issues that we on these Benches will want to raise during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill. I look forward to the Minister giving us his early indications of his views.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for their generally supportive remarks. Like the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I join in congratulating, thanking and praising the police for their strenuous efforts to keep us all safe during the recent heightened protest activity.

Both noble Lords asked me about the questions raised in response to the original Statement, regarding the Home Affairs Select Committee pointing out that 4,000 rest days had been lost, coming at a cost of about £18 million or £19 million. Obviously, that is very concerning, but I have to say that the police uplift programme has helped many forces around the country significantly with their numbers. That helps to minimise the number of rest days lost. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Police in London did not manage to fulfil its police uplift numbers, and that has financial consequences as well as a consequence for the rest of the officers employed. It is regrettable, but I am afraid it is very much for the Metropolitan Police to up its recruitment to sort out that particular problem. That is not the same as saying that we do not care about it or are not keeping a very close eye on it. We do.

I should also point out that the police have arrested more than 600 people over the course of the protests, and some 30-plus were related to Terrorism Act offences. Once again, I thank the police for their efforts.

On the question about whether these laws were requested by the police, the police have a comprehensive suite of powers to maintain public order and to keep the public safe. However, we keep their powers under constant review and, when gaps are identified, by whomever, we seek to legislate for them. I am not precisely sure how many of these powers were asked for by the police; I know that the bulk of them were, but not precisely which ones. When we come across gaps in the legislation, we seek to make these types of changes.

Those were very good questions on face coverings, particularly as regards the legitimate wearing of face coverings in protests. It is not difficult to come up with a number of scenarios that would classify themselves as legitimate. This was addressed in detail by my right honourable friend the Security Minister. The guidelines in the legislation that we are setting out will cover this, because police officers will have discretion to give an order requiring a face covering to be removed, but those commanding the policing of protests will have discretion over when they ask for that instruction to be carried out.

Under Section 60AA, the new criminal offence of concealing an identity will apply only when there is a particular authorisation on a protest, and those authorisations come only when there is a risk of serious violence or crime. Just as a reminder to the House, Section 60 offences can be ordered only by those of the rank of inspector or above and for a period of 24 hours, which is extendable for a further 24 hours. So they apply only to protests and only where an authorisation is in place. I hope that answers and assuages noble Lords’ concerns to some extent. I will come back to facial recognition towards the end of my remarks.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about pyrotechnics, flares and disorder. The current legislation on the use of fireworks in public places does not consistently prohibit the possession of pyrotechnic articles during a protest but limits it to specific circumstances, such as the use of fireworks in public places and possession of explosives other than for a lawful purpose. It is not already an offence to be in the possession of such articles at certain musical events and football matches, for example, but this extends it to processions and protests. The new measures do not provide police with new stop and search powers, but they do allow the police to make an arrest when an individual is holding or lighting a flare at a protest.

I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on war memorials. I am also delighted that this is taking place, for all sorts of reasons. I do not have a huge amount more to say on this subject; I think we have all been offended by the antics of certain protesters who have clambered all over war memorials. The Security Minister in the other place described them as

“altars of our national grief”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/23; col. 379.]

That description could be extended, but it is very appropriate none the less and sums up all our feelings.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also asked me about hateful extremism. He is quite right that there is some thinking about that at the moment. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is working on a definition of extremism alongside the Attorney-General. Of course, this is an extremely complex subject and conversation, so I will update the House when I have more, but I am afraid I cannot at the moment.

The noble Lord will know what I am about to say on proscription. The Government do not comment on groups that are potentially about to be proscribed or are under consideration. This will come under the Criminal Justice Bill.

I do not think facial recognition is entirely aligned with the subject of the measures that are being taken today. However, I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns and this subject will have to be further debated. It is a philosophical discussion about freedoms, rights and proportionality, and I have no doubt that we will revisit it in due course.

These measures are proportionate and carefully thought through. We will be discussing them at greater length, and I thank noble Lords for their support.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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My Lords, I hope my noble friend will be cautious about invoking criminal law unless there are clear mischiefs to be addressed. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about face coverings and was much reassured by what my noble friend said, but I am much less happy about war memorials. Clearly, clambering over a war memorial is an unattractive and distasteful business, but I am far from clear that it is such a mischief that we should invoke the criminal law and impose criminal penalties. Many years ago, when my wife was 20, we were clambering over the lions in Trafalgar Square. I do not want to be told that we were defiling the memory of Lord Nelson.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I take my noble friend’s point, though I must admit that I did not realise that he had quite such a colourful past. I am afraid that, on this, the Government disagree, and think that this is a proportionate measure.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, not for the first time in the last 24 hours, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. Why was this announcement made by vague press release on a Wednesday evening, rather than in the House of Commons? While I am grateful to the Minister, as always, for that lengthy answer, I do not quite understand the gaps in the present law. We have all these stop and search powers, for example, including specific and blanket powers in relation to protest. Why do we need additional face covering removal powers—are they not a form of stop and search? I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, on the huge relevance of facial recognition technology to why people are concerned about uncovering their faces. At the moment, it is for the police, totally unregulated by statute, to decide who goes on the watchlist, what kind of technology is used, and the trigger for stop and search on the basis of being on this watchlist. The noble Baroness is quite right: if we are going down this path in relation to face coverings, we should be regulating the use of facial recognition technology as well.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I do not entirely disagree with the noble Baroness, but I do not think this is the particular forum for that discussion. It is clearly a philosophical discussion, as much as a legal and operational one, that is required around the appropriate extent of facial recognition technology. I am sure that is a debate we will return to. These particular powers are very specific and can happen only under certain circumstances, so in this context they are proportionate.

Lord Archbishop of York Portrait The Archbishop of York
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My Lords, like others, I entirely share the views about war memorials and their desecration, and fireworks and flares—there is a lot that is sensible in this. On face coverings, what concerns me is the law which we often do not often think about—the law of unintended consequences. To those dissidents, I would add religious minorities to the list of those who may be concerned about this. I wonder whether the effect of this will be that more people will wear face coverings, not fewer, because they are concerned about facial recognition. I find it hard to understand why this should be a matter for the law. If somebody commits a criminal offence while on a march, we already have the powers to deal with them. If somebody on a peaceful protest chooses to wear a face covering, I find it hard to understand why that, in and of itself, is a problem. The Minister has explained that this will be used only under certain circumstances, but if I have heard him correctly it is around the “risk” of criminal activity and violence. We do not arrest people because we think that they might be doing something. If the protest is peaceful, why should somebody not wear a face mask? I am struggling to understand why this has become such an issue, and I am concerned about minority groups who could be adversely affected by this.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The current legislation gives police the power to direct people to remove face coverings in designated areas and to seize face coverings, but there is a loophole, in that an individual could follow the direction of an officer to remove their face covering but then move to a new area and redeploy the face covering. We are trying to close that loophole. I take the most reverend Primate’s point about minorities and so on, but, as I have tried to explain, this is being applied to protests only where there is an authorisation in place, so it is time-limited and very specific.

Lord Walney Portrait Lord Walney (CB)
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My Lords, I welcome this package, a number of measures in which I recommended in my role as the Government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption. Can the Minister say more about how the Government intend to mitigate the Ziegler judgment, which is a very welcome commitment on the part of the Government to make it clear that protest is not sufficient justification for criminal acts such as vandalism and disruption of highways?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord asks a very good question, because this is about, effectively, reasonable excuse. The Ziegler judgment held that obstructive protests that intentionally cause disruption can be protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR. That means that those who purposefully disrupt the daily lives of others can escape justice under the guise of protest. Our amendments will mitigate the impact of this judgment and ensure that those who deliberately disrupt others by obstructing the highway cannot rely on protest before the court as a reasonable excuse using the definitions defined under the PCSC Act.

Baroness Foster of Oxton Portrait Baroness Foster of Oxton (Con)
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My Lords, most of us have witnessed and been involved in protests, and even though some have been quite violent and very disturbing, what we have seen over the past four months with the pro-Palestinian marches and protests in London has been on a completely different level. The police have had their hands tied behind their backs, not least because they have been unable to identify so many of those involved who have been wearing face coverings, and with huge crowds the police have been unable to see exactly who they are. Notwithstanding that the police have made some arrests and have charged and prosecuted certain individuals, the numbers involved are limited and small. Month on month, people have been allowed to protest, calling for the death and destruction of Jews and Israel, and to show Nazi symbols, with Islamic extremists who have been involved with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Permitting them to carry on like this is not acceptable. I fully support this proceeding to make sure those individuals are dealt with properly.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend raises some very good points. She is right that the simple fact of the matter is that recent protests have upped the temperature of protest. However, we have to remain proportionate, and I think this strikes the right balance.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, I want to put it on record that I am appalled at the behaviour of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, in climbing on the lions in Trafalgar Square. I think that is unacceptable. I have been on a lot of protests and I have never climbed on a war memorial or a lion. However, I agree with him in asking why on earth we are making this a criminal offence. All the officers I have spoken to—admittedly a small sample—have said that they do not need these powers and that they have enough powers. What these extra powers do is take away the discretion that they have in dealing with people, which is something they value because they do not want to be tied up in having to go off to the police station with loads of arrested people. Most of these measures are totally unnecessary. I completely support the firework ban; they are so environmentally polluting. But the Government cannot ban everything that they do not like; that is a mistake that some Governments get into, and that way lies a loss of democracy. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the Minister said that facial recognition is for another day and it is not quite covered now. I argue that oversight of this is urgent, so in good time is not enough. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, said months back that this is a horse that has bolted out of its stable. We really have to find some way of making sure that the information is not passed out by the police, which it is in some cases now. Will the Minister think about bringing this in or discussing it urgently?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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On the noble Baroness’s latter point, those discussions are ongoing and will continue within the Home Office. I certainly raise the subject regularly, not least because I too am concerned about proportionality; I think it entirely right. I am of course aware that the Government cannot ban everything they do not like, much as it might sometimes be fun to do so. On war graves, cemeteries, war memorials and so on, the public outrage was fairly significant, and noted. It was clear that this offended a great many people from all parts of the community. I do not know which officers the noble Baroness spoke to, but they should have spoken to their boss, because he asked for these powers.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. As the Minister would expect, I looked at this quite carefully in the context of Article 11 of the ECHR. He is right, and I accept fully, that Article 11.2 gives the state the right to bring in public order laws and a whole of host of other things. I would say to colleagues who are feeling uncomfortable about this that they need to look at the wording of Article 11.2. However, my question to the Minister is slightly different. It relates to the Aarhus Convention, which the United Kingdom signed in 2002, and which is there to defend the rights of environmental protesters. The Special Rapporteur on the Aarhus convention recently visited the United Kingdom. He has since sent a letter of complaint to the United Kingdom Government concerning environmental protesters. Is the Minister minded to reply to that letter and to publish the reply?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that this is the first I have heard of this, so I cannot comment further, but I will of course look into it. These changes are compatible with the ECHR and do not prevent individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Many of the offences affected, including public nuisance, which involve serious harm to or obstruction of the public’s rights, are highly likely to fall outside of the protections of ECHR rights or within the state’s margin of appreciation. On the rights of environmental protesters, I do not think we should elevate any particular set of protesters’ rights above any other.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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Will my noble friend the Minister congratulate my noble friend Lord Hailsham on his ability to climb one of those large animals in Trafalgar Square? At the same time, does he accept that what my noble friend said is a salutary reminder? We are becoming too concerned about restriction and not concerned enough about freedom. I am very concerned that the normal habits of proper protest—particularly at a time when parliamentary democracy is under very considerable pressure—are being undermined by the constant provision of yet more new things that the police want in order to control. I would like to see a real understanding of the importance of protest. I very much agreed with the most reverend Primate when he said that he could not quite see why people who were not doing anything illegal should be told to remove their face coverings. For the Iranians and the Chinese, face coverings are essential if there is to be protest.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am very happy to join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Hailsham on his lion-climbing expertise, but I am afraid that I disagree with my noble friend when it comes to climbing war memorials as a normal part of protest. What is normal about climbing a war memorial?

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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My Lords, if ever there was an example of the slow attrition of our democratic freedoms, it is this. First, experience tells us that, once a law is on the statute books, it will in future, merely as a convenience, be abused to exert control. Secondly, why on earth would wearing a face covering be made a criminal offence, if not to prepare to punish someone who has committed no crime whatsoever as yet?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I have already largely answered that question on face masks, but, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say it again: we are creating a new criminal offence of wearing a face covering for the purpose of concealing identity when the police place a particular authorisation on a protest. The particular authorisation point is surely the key.

Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister says that live facial recognition is irrelevant to this. I see a very clear intersection with these issues. I agree with him that there are philosophical aspects—I would say ethical aspects—but there are practical ones as well. The public looks at it in both those contexts. I was until recently chair of your Lordships’ Justice and Home Affairs Committee, and the Minister may have seen a letter that we wrote to the Home Secretary very recently on the subject of live facial recognition. I base my questions on that. First, on the issue of how live facial recognition is applied, one police force said to us—we have not been able to obtain any backing from that force for this comment—that the watchlist is made up of people known to have committed offences, or wanted for offences, who may have an intent to commit an offence. So how will a watchlist be made up for the use of live facial recognition of a protest? In particular, will images obtained during a protest or previous protests be used to make up a watchlist for a subsequent protest?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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First, I did not say that it was irrelevant. I said that this is a very specific set of circumstances and I accept that there is a whole separate debate about facial recognition that we need to have in the near future—I accept that it is a matter of urgency. I cannot honestly recall seeing the noble Baroness’s letter to the Home Secretary. I will track it down and, if I may, I will come back in writing on that question because I genuinely do not know the answer.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, one of the reasons why there is this problem is that the police appear over a period of time to have been confused about what is a criminal act or not, sending messages on social media defining jihad in the most peculiar way, as some kind of inner struggle, or more recently saying, “We have looked at that flag, checked it out, and it is not a threat”, even though it is being used by ISIS. This makes the public more inclined to think that the criminal law might be needed, rather than the enforcement of existing laws.

Does the Minister concede that we have a deeper problem than climbing on statues? We earlier discussed the horrors that children in Gaza are enduring—weaponised by demonstrators walking around with dolls covered in blood, shouting “Blood on your hands” at our fellow Jewish citizens. We talked about disinformation earlier and we now know that conspiracy theories are mainstreamed to political parties—no facemasks required. Would the Minister concede that maybe we should enforce the laws we have, but avoid criminalising other behaviour? There is the bigger problem of a growth of anti-Semitism in society, which really needs to be challenged as much as any other racism that is a scourge.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I agree entirely with the remarks of the noble Baroness about anti-Semitism which I find personally disgusting, as do the Government, as she will know. On police confusion, it would be unwise for me to comment on the matters the noble Baroness describes, not least—as we frequently say from the Dispatch Box—because of the operational independence of the police, which I am very happy to defend. As for glorification, which she effectively talks about, the UK has a strong counterterrorism framework —one of the strongest in the world. It is important to recognise that. It is an offence to encourage an act of terrorism, and that includes glorifying—including by praising or celebrating—action in committing or preparing acts of terrorism where others may be encouraged to emulate that action, and that offence can be committed recklessly. As I said earlier in answering the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, some 30 people have been arrested since the start of these protests for offences under the Terrorism Act. The police are not confused when it comes to policing those sorts of marches; the statistics prove otherwise. These measures are proportionate to the sorts of activities we are describing.