Facilitating Peaceful Protest - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1. The main purpose of this short Report is to make available the evidence we have taken about the policing of recent protests and preparations for the imminent TUC March. We took the evidence with a view to identifying the most important lessons to be learned from recent protests and to feed those lessons into preparations for protests to come.

2. On 14 December 2010 we took evidence from Aaron Porter, President of the NUS, and Simon Hardy, Spokesperson for the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts; and from DC Allison of the Met Police and Sue Sim, ACPO lead on Public Order and Safety. On 1 March 2011 we took further evidence from Nigel Stanley, Head of Communications, and Carl Roper, Head Steward for the 'March for the Alternative', the Trades Union Congress; Jo Kaye, Assistant Inspector, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC); and Lynne Owens, Assistant Commissioner, and Commander Bob Broadhurst, Head of Public Order, the Metropolitan Police Service. We thank these witnesses for their evidence. We also wrote to the Metropolitan Police with a number of detailed questions following the first evidence session and received a very full and helpful response which is attached to this Report.[1]

Human rights, policing and protest

3. Our particular interest is the extent to which the policing of protest in practice respects human rights. The policing of protest engages a number of human rights and freedoms. Most obvious are the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which are both recognised as fundamental by the common law and protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Tactics for policing protests also engage a range of other rights protected by both the common law and the ECHR, including the right to life (Article 2 ECHR), the prohibition against inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3 ECHR), the right to liberty (Article 5 ECHR) and the right to respect for private life, which includes the right to physical autonomy (Article 8 ECHR).

The role of the police

4. We heard evidence from the Metropolitan Police that it has in some respects changed its stance since the G20 protests so that it is now more facilitative of protest.[2] We welcome this renewed commitment to facilitating protest. We accept that policing public order is a very challenging task, and that in the current climate the police have to deal with various regulatory burdens with diminishing resources, and with the changing profile of protests detailed in the recent HMIC report, Policing Public Order published in February 2011. We note in particular the increasing unpredictability of protests which poses particular challenges for the police. We also note that the police's senior leaders welcome scrutiny, accepting that it inevitably produces recommendations which they see as their leadership responsibility to translate into practical guidance for frontline officers on the ground.

The role of the HMIC

5. The oral evidence we received from HMIC served to emphasise the importance of that organisation's role. Policing Public Order is an important report, reviewing progress made against recommendations in two previous HMIC reports (issued following the G20 protests of 2009) and setting out the key challenges for policing protests which have been brought into increasing prominence by the protests of 2010. The report identifies a number of questions which it says require urgent consideration: containment, the capacity of the police to remove problematic groups from amongst peaceful protestors, the ability to filter the vulnerable away from containment zones or possible disorder, information gathering and communication. While recognising the progress made by the police against many of the recommendations from the earlier reports, the 2011 report is critical of the amount of time that is being taken to transfer changes of policy into changes of actual practice and sees better and updated training as key to improving this.

The role of protest organisers

6. We also heard evidence from organisers of demonstrations about their acceptance of the responsibilities that accompany the organisation of a demonstration and about their attempts to discharge those responsibilities. There is also a duty upon those organising protests to try and ensure so far as they can that the protest is peaceful, well-marshalled and well run. We touch on some key issues for organisers, in relation to communications and stewards a little later in this Report.

The TUC 'March for the Alternative'—Saturday 26 March

7. We welcome the high degree of co-operation between the Metropolitan Police and the TUC in planning for the demonstration on 26 March. We agree with the observations of witnesses that in many respects the planning for this event between the police and the organisers provides a model of good practice. We hope that this will be reflected in a successful and peaceful demonstration in which all participants feel that they have exercised their democratic right to protest. We also hope that this example of good practice will be followed and generalised in the future, including, so far as possible, in relation to smaller scale and more impromptu protests than the proposed TUC march. We do however note that, when we took evidence, neither side had raised with the other the possibility of the need to use containment or "kettling". This was an oversight that ought not be repeated with regard to the planning of future demonstrations. We also welcome the involvement of expert human rights and civil liberties NGOs such as Liberty in preparations for the TUC March and the plan to involve independent human rights observers and advisers, as well as representatives of the organisers, in the control room during the demonstration itself.[3]


8. Effective and proactive communications between the organisers of a protest and police before major demonstrations is recognised to be one of the most important features of a 'no surprises' approach to policing protest. We heard evidence that liaison between police and organisers prior to some of the student demonstrations in November and December had not been as good as it ought to have been. We also heard that communications from the police during the student demonstrations were not very effective in reaching the demonstrators, particularly once the containment/kettle had been imposed. The police recognised the importance of communication and acknowledged that this was a challenge during the demonstrations in question.

9. We welcome the Metropolitan Police's development of its capacity to communicate directly with protestors by means of social media such as Twitter, and through the use of leaflets distributed to protestors and tailored for the demonstration in question.

10. The police were critical of the organisers of the student protests on 9 December for failing to communicate effectively with the demonstrators, including about the route of the march. They provided evidence of officers having attempted to communicate with stewards about the need to keep the march moving, and of stewards being uncooperative and failing to communicate with the protestors.[4] There is an important responsibility on the organisers of protests to communicate with those who are protesting. The proper discharge of this responsibility is an important aspect of facilitating the right to peaceful protest.

11. We recommend that the organisers of future demonstrations ensure that they have arrangements in place to communicate with protestors during the demonstration, including about the route of the march or any changes to that route, and make the best use of social media to do so. We also welcome the plans for the police and the stewards at the forthcoming TUC March to be in radio contact during the demonstration, which will enable the police to relay communications to demonstrators through the stewards' chain of communication, and vice-versa. Good communications between police and protestors should be established at the planning stage and carry through to the demonstration itself.


12. In terms of protest organisers responsibilities, the use of stewards, trained or experienced where possible, is important. We commend the TUC for its detailed plans for the use of stewards during the 26 March demonstration and recognise that this must involve significant cost for the organisation. Not every organisation can call upon a reservoir of trained or experienced stewards, or can train them prior to any protests. However, the importance of the clear provision and identification of sufficient stewards who understand how the protest is to be run cannot be overstated.

Containment or "kettling"

13. At the first of our two evidence sessions, we heard considerable concern expressed about the use of the tactic of containment or "kettling" at the student demonstrations in November and December last year. The complaints included the length of time for which people were detained within the containment or "kettle"; the large numbers of people affected and the apparently indiscriminate nature of the restrictions imposed; the lack of access to basic needs such as food, water, toilets and in some cases medication; the effect on particularly vulnerable individuals such as the young and the disabled; the lack of communication with the protestors about matters such as the reasons for the use of the tactic, the likely duration and the arrangements for leaving the area; the disregard of factors such as the low temperatures and the age of many of the protestors; and the lack of opportunity for peaceful protestors to cross the police cordon and leave the area. As a result, we heard that demonstrators were "terrified of kettling"[5] which caused "significant anxiety."[6]

14. We also heard the Metropolitan Police's account of the use of containment or "kettling" at these demonstrations.[7] Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison of the Metropolitan Police Service, who has responsibility for the policing of demonstrations in London, told us that containment was only used at the 24 November 2010 demonstration after police came under attack. He said that commanders took the view that allowing the demonstration to move on would have led to "widespread damage and disorder"; they ensured that it was necessary and proportionate in the first place and then implemented what they had learnt from the G20 protests. Toilets and water were provided, he told us, access through the lines was given to journalists, and the vulnerable were allowed out. The long duration of the kettle was explained by "fear of disorder".

15. We consider it the responsibility of demonstrators and organisers to recognise that failure to protest peacefully will require the police to take action, but there does appear to be a lack of clarity about the level or seriousness of the violence that must have occurred before containment or "kettling" can be resorted to. We are concerned about the apparent lack of opportunity for non-violent protestors to leave the contained or "kettled" crowd, the adequacy of arrangements to ensure that the particularly vulnerable such as disabled people are identified and helped to leave the containment, and the general lack of information available to the protestors about how and where to leave. We consider that there remains considerable room to improve the understanding of the ACPO Guidance concerning containment on the part of frontline officers. We look forward to hearing practical proposals for how to ensure the guidance is translated into action on the ground.

Use of force

16. In its 2009 Report, Nurturing the British Model of Policing, only one police force (West Yorkshire) was found to be using the correct definition of the term 'proportionate' with respect to the use of force in its training materials. The recent HMIC Report found, with regard to the use of force, that there is still a very broad range of interpretations within police forces of 'proportionality' in this area, from "the minimum required to achieve the legitimate aim" (the correct definition) through to such inaccurate explanations of the term as "corresponding" or "making defensible decisions".

17. The Metropolitan Police thought that HMIC's assessment of its understanding of the use of force was "a little harsh".[8] We were pleased to hear that the Metropolitan Police have changed their training on the use of force, which now starts off with "a whole first day about the proportionate use of force and the escalation of that process."[9] We look forward to seeing the training materials on the use of force which are currently being finalised.[10]

18. The Association of Chief Police Offices' guidelines on the policing of protest state that during demonstrations batons should only be used in a reasonable and proportionate manner by officers. Specific guidance on the use of batons is set out in the ACPO Manual of Guidance on Keeping the Peace.[11] It states that "the level of force should be reasonable and proportionate (i.e. the minimum required to meet a lawful objective). However, we were surprised to find that there appears to be no specific guidance setting out the circumstances in which the use of the baton against the head might be justifiable. The human rights requirement that the use of force be proportionate requires operational guidance to frontline officers which deals directly with this issue. We recommend that such detailed guidance about the use of batons be drawn up, and that in the meantime training reflects this concern. The use of horses in some of the demonstrations of November and December 2010 was controversial and claims were made about horses "charging" which were challenged by the police in their evidence to us. This is an issue which we hope to look at in more detail in the future.

Undercover officers

19. On a broader point, in the light of recent public concern about the use of undercover police officers in peaceful protest movements, we asked the Metropolitan Police to confirm that undercover police officers are not being used in the trade union movement. We understand the considerable public benefits that can be obtained by the appropriate use of properly authorised covert intelligence gathering within a proper regulatory framework. We also understand the important need to protect the safety of legitimately deployed undercover officers. The response to our questions was that the Metropolitan Police are "not in a position to confirm or deny what level of undercover officers will be deployed in the event."[12]

Lessons learned

20. In its evidence to us, HMIC forcefully argued that the lessons to be learned from events must be extracted very quickly and assimilated by those on the ground. The system for doing this needs to be more nimble, compared to the lengthy and arduous process of policy reviews and the formulation of new guidance involving ACPO, HMIC, the National Policing Improvement Agency and individual forces. We agree. We also sense that in the context of the changing profile of protest, those organising demonstrations will be keen to learn what lessons they can both from the difficult circumstances of the November and December protests and the larger and more diverse TUC demonstration planned for 26 March.

21. The issue of policing and protest within the framework of respect for human rights is an important one for this Committee, and indeed is of vital concern for everyone in a democracy, and we very much hope to return to it in the near future.

1   WE2, p. 17. Back

2   See e.g. Q93 (Commander Bob Broadhurst). Back

3   Q97. Back

4   Letter from Assistant Commissioner Allison, 24 January 2011, Q2. Back

5   Q5. Back

6   Q7. Back

7   Q18. Back

8   Q99. Back

9   Q99. Back

10   Qs 102 and 104. Back

11   Appendix 1, pp. 106-7. Back

12   Q106. Back

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Prepared 25 March 2011