Priti Patel Warns Brits Not To Attend More Protests And Backs Police Despite Scenes At Sarah Everard Vigil
Priti Patel urged people to not take part in further protests while coronavirus restrictions are in place (Alamy)
The home secretary has warned Brits not to attend further protests despite the anger caused by the way police handled a vigil for Sarah Everard.
Priti Patel said the scenes on Clapham Common on Saturday night were “upsetting”, but she told MPs the government "backs our police in fighting crime and keeping the public safe”.
In a statement to the Commons she said HM Inspectorate of Constabulary had been instructed to conduct “a full independent lessons learned review” into the event.
But she also urged people “not to participate in large gatherings or attend protests” while coronavirus regulations are in place.
After further events to mark the 33-year-old’s killing were planned, including outside Parliament this afternoon, Patel added: “The right to protest is the cornerstone of our democracy - but the government’s duty remains to prevent more lives being lost during this pandemic.”The minister began her comments by discussing Everard's disappearance and death, saying: “My heartache and that of others, can be summed up in just five words; she was just walking home.
“And while the specific circumstances of Sarah's disappearance are thankfully uncommon, what has happened has reminded women everywhere of the steps that we take each day without a second thought to keep ourselves safe.
“It has rightly ignited anger at the danger posed to women by predatory men, and anger I feel as strongly as anyone. And accounts shared online in the wake of Sarah's disappearance are so powerful because every single one of us can relate to them.
“Too many of us have walked home from school, or work, alone only to hear footsteps uncomfortably close behind us.
“Too many of us have pretended to be on the phone to a friend to scare someone off, too many of us have clutched our keys in our hands, in case we need to defend ourselves.
“And that is not okay. Women and girls must feel safe whilst walking our streets.”
She revealed that since the public survey of how to better tackle gendered crimes was re-opened on Friday the Home Office has received 78,000 new responses, having had just 18,000 during the previous 10-week consultation.
"I'm listening to women and girls, up and down the country, and their views will help to shape a new strategy on tackling violence against women and girls, which I will bring forward to this house later this year,” Patel added.
The home secretary said the police, crime and sentencing bill would help to prosecute crimes against women more strongly, including ending the halfway release for those convicted for sexual offences such as rape.
But there has been criticism of the way the legislation deals with protest, and Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The scenes from Clapham should be a red warning light to the government – the minister should not be rushing through laws, cracking down on protest.
“The truth is this government is failing to address violence against women and girls and ministers, even wanting to curtail their right to protest about it.
“It is a chronic failure from this government, and meetings and reopening surveys alone are nowhere near enough.”
He added: “The 296 page bill which we will consider later today contains the word ‘memorial’ eight times, and fails to include the word ‘women’ once.
“The government's message is they want to lock up people who damage the statues of slave traders for 10 years when rape sentences start at half that.
“And I say to the government today - unless this changes, unless there's action on homicide, unless there's action on street harassment, unless there's action on stalking, this bill will risk becoming an abusers' charter that just allows violence and injustice in our streets and in our homes to continue unchecked.”
But Patel hit back at Thomas-Symonds for his tone, saying: “At a time when the country is mourning a significant loss and the there are moments of great unity, I’m quite sorry to hear the tone of the honourable gentleman and particularly in terms of the government's record when it comes to an our commitment of tackling violence against women and girls.”
She added: “To say that the bill itself does nothing for women is completely wrong, primarily when it comes to sentencing because it will end the halfway release if those convicted for sexual offences such as rape.
“Instead, our rules will go after those criminals and they will spend at least two thirds of their times behind bars.”
The minister finished by saying: “The Right Honourable gentleman also says that there's no mention of women in the bill specifically.
"Another accusation that I will reject primarily because it's a criminal law and sentencing bill, which applies equally to everybody.”
However two senior Tory MPs both criticised the curtailment of protest during the pandemic, and said “now is the time to decriminalise freedom of protest”.
Charles Walker told the home secretary: "This house criminalised the freedom of protest. Not Dame Cressida, not the Metropolitan Police, we did.
“We criminalised the freedom to protest collectively. We are up to our eyeballs in this.”
"Does she agree with me that now is the time to decriminalise freedom of protest, not tomorrow, not next week, but this afternoon, this evening.
“Let's get people back on the streets, let's allow people to get things off their chest again. Protest is a safety valve."
Patel said she understood Walker’s sentiment and that he “would love me to say right now let's just do this and change things immediately”, but pointed to the government’s road map for lifting restrictions.
Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, said to Patel: “This House on January 6 voted swingeing powers to control protests for the period of the coronavirus restrictions.
“Can I ask her to work with concerned members across the House to make sure that the legislation that we're about to pass protects that right of peaceful protest and only stops serious disruption?"
She responded: "I will continue to always engage with colleagues, all colleagues, on this really important point and I know how hard it has been for many colleagues of this House.
“Looking at the regulations, the implications of those regulations and the restrictions that they have brought in and of course this will also be subject to debate in the House going forward."