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Police Could Get More Powers To Tackle "Disruptive" Protest Despite "Heavy-Handed" Handling Of Sarah Everard Vigil

7 min read

MPs are due to vote this week on a bill that could give police new powers to take a more "proactive approach" in cracking down on protests.

It comes as the Metropolitan Police faced widespread criticism over their "heavy handed" response to a vigil in South London for Sarah Everard, who was found dead this week after disappearing near her home. Footage shared on social media appeared to show police officers forcibly detaining female attendees at the vigil.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will be debated in parliament on Monday, and MPs will vote on Tuesday. The bill seeks to expand police powers in cracking down on protests following mass demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. 

Fresh light has been shed on the bill following criticism of police tactics at Saturday night's event with calls from Labour to vote against the bill rather than abstain as previously planned. 

"After the appalling scenes in Clapham Common last night here’s hoping Keir Starmer will change his mind on abstaining on the policing bill this week which would further facilitate police cracking down on peaceful protest," Labour MP Diane Abbot said on Sunday

Starmer has condemned the policing of Saturday's vigil, and said he "share[s the] anger and upset at how this has been handled".

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner later confirmed Labour would be voting against the bill. 

"This attempt to impose disproportionate controls and crack down on the right to protest is also unacceptable and wrong," Rayner wrote on twitter. "The bill could lead to harsher penalties for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman."

In other developments: 

Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins told Sky News that the home secretary was taking the incident “very seriously”.

“The police have to be operationally independent — I don't think anyone would want a scenario whereby politicians are directing the police — but it is also right that they are held to account by democratically elected politicians and that they explain their actions to the wider public,” she continued. 

But Atkins stood firm on her backing of the policing bill. "We absolutely support and recognise the right to peaceful protest," she told the BBC's Andrew Marr.

"But they don't inhibit the day to day lives of people in the way that some of the protests we've seen in recent years have done, and I think it's trying to get that balance between allowing peaceful protest and allowing members of the public to go out and get on the bus to go to work."

On Sunday shadow minister Jess Phillips criticised the Metropolitan Police for their “heavy-handed” response to attendees of a vigil for Sarah Everard who was found dead this week after disappearing while walking home.

Phillips also criticised police for failure to engage with vigil organisers who had attempted to work with police to ensure the event was socially distanced.

“I think that the police got it wrong at every single turn,” Phillips, Labour’s shadow safeguarding minister, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.

“Not just the final image that we see, but all day yesterday and the day before the police did not try and find a way for a peaceful protest —  not protest actually, a vigil, a moment."

She continued: “They did not try and find a way to work with women who are sad and angry and upset to be able to, not even gather, but just go to Clapham Common. 

“There are a million ways that that could have been organised but the police put their foot down before they put their boots in, and at every stage they made the wrong call.”

Handling of the event has been criticised by those across the political spectrum, with Labour leader Keir Starmer branding it “deeply disturbing”, and senior Tory MP Steve Baker condemning the “unspeakable scenes”. 

Police withdrew their support for the Reclaim These Streets event on Thursday, after initially giving it the go-ahead, leading the organisers to lodge a legal complaint with the High Court.

The event was cancelled after their challenge was unsuccessful, with those behind the event blaming a lack of “constructive engagement” from the Met Police.

Hundreds of people turned up at Clapham Common regardless, resulting in tense scenes between police and attendees.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey was among those calling for Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick to resign last night, describing the handling of the vigil as a “complete abject tactical and moral failure on the part of the Police”.

But Atkins declined to comment on Dick’s position, saying only that she wanted “to support the home secretary in her request to have a report from [the commissioner]”.

Phillips also dismissed the matter. “This is not the day for me to say whether she should go and give a headline to Cressida Dick when Sarah Everard is the name that should ring out,” she told Marr.

The Birmingham Yardley MP also backed calls from within her party for misogyny to be classed as a hate crime.

MPs have proposed an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently being considered in the Lords, requiring police to record and track crimes motivated by misogyny.

“The reason misogyny should be a hate crime is that there was a man who stood for election in this country, and one of the things that he said whilst on political platforms was about whether he would or wouldn't rape me,” Phillips said. 

“If he insulted me as a disabled person, if he insulted me on the basis of my religion. I would be able to take action against that man.”

Phillips also criticised the government’s upcoming policing Bill, due for its second reading on Monday, which she said focused too heavily on the vandalism of statues and memorials. 

“I think that you should get more for rape then you go for defacing a statue,” Phillips said.

“The explanatory notes of the [Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill] don't mention women once, but they do mention statues. You currently can get more for fly tipping than you can get for stalking.”

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