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Public Order Bill Critics Say "We Told You So" Over Coronation Protest Arrests

Police arrested six anti-monarchy protesters in London on Saturday (Alamy)

5 min read

MPs and peers from opposition parties have said the Public Order Bill was not clear enough in outlining how police should carry out the new powers, leading to the arrests of protesters at the King’s coronation on Saturday.

The new Public Order Act, which established new laws to deal with “disruptive” protests, was used by the Met Police to arrest anti-monarchy activists during the coronation.

Six demonstrators from the Republic campaign group were arrested despite the group having engaged and cooperated with police ahead of the event, all of which have had no charges brought against them and an admission of "regret" by the Met over the arrests. 

The Act was passed into law at the start of May, despite being met with a great deal of criticism from experts, liberty groups, and multiple opposition MPs. 

Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, told PoliticsHome that there was “not enough time” to properly consider the Bill before it was passed. 

Chamberlain, who is a former police officer, voted against the Bill when it was passing through Parliament. 

“It has not been thought through,” she said, adding that the coronation arrests proved that there were unresolved questions around the definitions included in the Bill and how the police should act on them.

“It is, I’m afraid to say, a case of ‘we told you so’,” she continued.

“These were exactly the concerns that were called upon the week before it reached Royal Assent.”

Calling the Bill “anti-liberal”, Chamberlain argued that the powers could further jeopardise the already-rocky relationship between the public and the police, describing it as “driving a coach and horses through that relationship”.

Policing Minister Chris Philps defended the actions of the police to Parliament on Tuesday, saying the coronation was a "once in a generation national moment" which faced "multiple well-organised plots" to disrupt it.

"At the weekend, officers had to make difficult judgments in fast time in a highly pressured situation against a threatening intelligence picture," he said.

The minister argued that police only acted where they "reasonably believed" they had grounds for arrest, while hundreds of protesters exercised their right to peaceful protest.

However, the deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats warned that the Act could lead to more disruptive protests in response – going against what it set out to do in the first place. 

“Another key thing to ask is are police officers going to get trained?” Chamberlain added. 

Chamberlain asked Philp how many police officers had been trained in the new powers of the Bill before the coronation weekend, for which Philp did not give an exact figure. 

Green Party peer Baroness Jenny Jones has also been a vocal critic of the Public Order Act, having worked on a range of policing issues as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority from its creation in 2000.

She agreed with Chamberlain that the Bill had not set out clear instructions for police, and that it had been “rushed” through Parliament.

“The police have not really understood how to carry it out. They have completely overreached themselves," she said. 

“It is not fair on protesters and actually not fair on the police.”

Jones told PoliticsHome she believes the Bill is “terrible” and “undemocratic”, and said it is a “dangerous” time in law-making.

“It is badly written and badly thought through,” she continued.

“[In legislation], you need to give extremely clear instructions on how [the police] carry it out.

“[The government] keep bringing in laws that are clearly badly written and they can push them through because they have such a big majority.”

Jones also criticised Labour for not committing to repealing the Bill.

Speaking in parliament, Philps said "wholly" repudiated that the bill was rushed. "There was extensive ping pong,” he said. 

Responding to an Urgent Question, the policing minister argued that the intelligence picture received by the police had deemed their actions necessary.

"All the plots to disrupt the coronation were foiled by a combination of intelligence work and proactive, vigilant policing on the ground,” he said. 

“I would like to thank and congratulate the police for this success." 

He said the intelligence had included plots to cause severe disruption by placing activated rape alarms in the path of horses and to daub participants in the procession with paint.

SNP MP and Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights Joanna Cherry asked for the Home Office to review what she called the “very poorly defined and far too broad” public order legislation, and called for an inquiry into the coronation arrests.

Labour MPs also expressed their frustration with the Bill in Parliament on Tuesday, with MP Sarah Jones saying that she had warned the minister and his colleagues “repeatedly” that the new powers would lead to people being arrested for the wrong thing. 

“Many former police officers have warned that these powers put the police in a difficult position and risk undermining the notion of policing by consent,” she said.

Labour MP Clive Lewis said the Bill was effectively stopping people from being able to exercise their right to protest, describing it as a “piece of draconian legislation” that had been “rushed through this place via an unelected head of state” and “handed to a failing institution like the Metropolitan Police”.

“This piece of legislation is doing exactly what it says on the tin – it’s stopping peaceful protest,” he said.

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