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Climate Protests in Cambridge: Police Response

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 3rd March 2020.

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Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 3:39 pm, 3rd March 2020

The hon. Gentleman is right; it was a dilemma. In fact, I was just coming to the pragmatic arguments before moving on to the legal arguments.

The police point out that after a week of protests, no one was physically harmed, the protests did not escalate and there was no irreparable damage. That is all true, but if that is the police criterion for action to stop a crime, they would rarely enforce the law. Thousands of people’s lives were disrupted and criminal damage was done.

The police have also said that Trinity College did not complain about the vandalism while it was taking place; it did so only later that evening. It was only after Trinity College lodged a complaint that the police made arrests. But the police would not stand by and watch a burglar rob a jewellery shop just because the owner was not there formally complaining about it.

Others have said—this relates to what Daniel Zeichner said—that the police should not arrest people because that would make them martyrs. Well, they have arrested some people, so will they become martyrs? Who knows, and actually what difference does it make? The martyr argument could be used to justify just about anything.

A far bigger and more realistic concern is that if activists know they can get away with breaking the law, the law breaking will escalate. They will do it again, and others will be tempted to join them. Many will be quite attracted to the idea of breaking the law in front of the police, making a mockery of them. Some will push the limits, committing ever greater crimes, until ultimately the police do stop them. In this situation, appeasement will just encourage more law breaking. The pragmatic arguments do not stand up.

We then come to the legal arguments. During the week of action, the police put out a video explaining why they were not acting to stop these crimes. It was based on their interpretation of the Human Rights Act 1998, as set out in guidance from the College of Policing, to which my hon. Friend Tom Hunt referred earlier. Under article 11 of the European convention on human rights, enshrined in UK law through the Human Rights Act, people have the right to peaceful assembly. I am sure that all Members of this House support that right—indeed, if it was threatened, I would be out there protesting for the right to protest.

As the College of Policing guidance points out, those rights are qualified rights, and the police can impose restrictions on demonstrations under certain circumstances. Those restrictions must be prescribed by law, necessary and proportionate. The law that allows the police to impose restrictions on processions and assemblies is set out in sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. It gives the police powers if they believe that a procession or assembly may result in

“serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”,

or if they believe that

“the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others”.

The police believe that the Cambridge protests did not amount to “serious” disruption. I have been told that there is no case law on that, and that point was made by the police earlier. The Metropolitan police lost a judicial review following its imposition of restrictions on the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, but that was on an entirely different issue and is not relevant to this case. What I can say with certainty is that many members of the public feel the Cambridge protests caused them serious disruption and serious damage.

This also misses the point. On close scrutiny, the College of Policing guidance is poor, and the Cambridgeshire police interpretation of it is flawed. Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act are clearly not meant to deter the police from arresting people for committing other crimes. They give the police powers to impose a legal restriction on the location or size of an assembly or procession if they think serious disorder is likely to result from it. Sections 12 and 14 absolutely do not say the police cannot arrest people for committing a crime in front of their eyes, as happened at Trinity College—that is clearly not the intent of the legislation. Even when the police cannot legally ban or restrict a whole demonstration, they can still arrest demonstrators who commit criminal damage. Even if we accept that the criminal damage was not serious, it just means the police could not use section 14 of the Public Order Act to ban the assembly overall. It does not mean the police could not have arrested those digging up the Trinity College lawn.

When it comes to the blockade of the road, I believe the police could have used section 14 powers relating to assemblies, rather than processions. Section 14(1)(b) says the police can impose restrictions on an assembly if

“the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do”.

The intimidation does not have to be serious; it just needs to be the purpose of those organising the assembly. The very purpose of those blockading the Fen Causeway and Trumpington Street was to stop people travelling on them, which they had a right to do—at least, they had a legal right to do it until the police used their emergency powers to close the roads.

That clearly fits the description of intimidation under the Public Order Act. The purpose of the assembly was to intimidate the public in and around Cambridge to stop them using the roads, so the police had a right to impose a restriction on that assembly and to require that it be moved to a place that was not blocking the road. As the hon. Member for Cambridge knows, there are plenty of places in Cambridge where the protestors could have held their assembly without depriving people of their right to travel on the roads.

The police misinterpreted not only the Public Order Act but the European convention on human rights, which is explicit that the right to assembly does not give people the right to break the law or to deprive others of their rights or freedoms. Paragraph 2 of article 11 says:

“No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights”— of assembly—

“other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”

There it is, in black and white.

The Human Rights Act itself says that that Act cannot be used to stop the police imposing legal restrictions on assemblies.