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Protests causing unsustainable pressure on policing resources – Home Affairs Committee warns

27 February 2024

Ongoing protests risk acting as a continued drain on police resources, placing their ability to deal with wider policing priorities at risk, the Home Affairs Committee has warned.

The emergence of deliberately disruptive protest tactics has created additional challenges in balancing the right to protest with preventing disorder. Recent protests have placed severe pressures on police forces and officers, particularly in London. The size and frequency of protests over the conflict in Gaza have strained resources. Policing representatives told the committee that the wellbeing officers was being put at risk, with over 4,000 rest days cancelled in a 3-month period to ensure protests could be policed safely.  

The cross-party committee of MPs calls for police forces to be given greater support, with a comprehensive workforce plan put in place to identify and respond to demand on resources nationwide. If protests continue to take place frequently at this scale, the Home Office should consider requiring protest organisers to give more notice to better enable forces to prepare better. 

The Committee is deeply concerned by the rise in hate crime following events in Israel and Gaza. However, the hate crime action plan expired in 2020 and has not yet been updated. Government commissioned reports intended to inform and develop policy also remain unanswered. Urgent action needs to be taken to set out the Government’s strategy for dealing with hate crime. 

In the context of the policing of the Israel-Gaza protests, as well as the policing of the King’s Coronation protests, police forces have generally maintained the balance between the right to protest with the right of others to go about their lives without disruption, although individual incidents inevitably tested that balance. However, it is too early to assess whether new powers provided to police in the Public Order Act 2023 to deal with disruptive protests are effective. The Committee calls for post-legislative scrutiny to accurately assess their impact. 

While the right to protest must be respected, no one, including elected representatives, their families and their staff, should be made to feel unsafe by protest activity outside their home and no one should be intimidated when they are coming and going from their place of work. In a democratic society, elected representatives must be able to do their job in accordance with the conscience and free from intimidation.  

Chair's comment

Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson said: 

“The hard-won right to protest is a vital part of our democratic process and must be protected. So must the right for everyone to feel safe on our streets , at their workplace or private home – including elected representatives  their staff  and  families. 

It is clear that the current demands on policing resourcing and the level of complexity in policing protests are unsustainable without proper reinforcement. It is vital that the right framework is in place to ensure that protests can continue without the burden on policing becoming intolerable and without regularly taking resources away from communities that have their own local crime-fighting challenges. Alongside laws that strike the right balance on the lawful parameters of protest, policing needs the strategic planning to cope with demands placed upon it. 

Going forward, we need to ensure that behaviours designed to intimidate and silence alternative opinions are not allowed to become commonplace under the guise of protest - no matter if it is 20 people or 20,000. For the rule of law that underpins our free and democratic way of life to prevail, the principle of equality before the law must also be applied and be seen to be applied  – whatever the size of any assembled gathering. Our laws on matters such as incitement of violence, hate crime and glorifying proscribed terrorist groups must be enforced without fear or favour.

There is a careful balance to be struck and the Government should look carefully at how recent new legislation on the policing of protests is operating in practice. It is deeply dispiriting to see the fight against hate crime get stuck in Home Office limbo. Commissioning work is pointless if the findings and recommendations aren’t fully embedded in the policy process. We need to see much more action from the Home Office, both in how it reacts to the constructive advice it receives and how it develops strategy. At a time when some communities in the UK feel highly vulnerable, and community cohesion is under strain, the hate crime strategy is several years out of date with little sign of action. This needs to change now.” 

Key findings: 

  • In recent years the increased scale and frequency of protests, and the evolution of disruptive tactics by protestors, has been a challenge for policing and has increased scrutiny of their performance.
  • Police need appropriate powers to ensure this balance can continue to be maintained. Post-legislative scrutiny of the Public Order Act 2023 is needed to assess whether the new powers provided by this act are effective.
  • The scale and frequency of recent protests has placed significant pressures on police resources and officers. Should protests continue in this manner, the Home Office should consider changing requirements for protest organisers, such as the minimum notice period, to enable the police to better prepare.
  • Forces need the right strategies in place to fully enable them to tackle the acute demand that protests can cause, and ensure there is no knock-on impact on their ability to respond to other policing priorities. The Committee renews the call it made in its policing priorities report, for the Government to set out a 10-year workforce plan for policing, replacing the current system of individual plans for each police force. This should cover office numbers and skills, as well as the strategy for addressing shortages.
  • The Committee is deeply troubled by the rise in hate crime since 7 October 2023. However, the Government has been slow in prioritising its response to this form of crime. The previous hate crime action plan lapsed in 2020 and is yet to be updated. The Government is also yet to respond to the reports it commissioned from the Commission for Countering Extremism. This pattern of behaviour, where the Government disregards and fails to act on the findings and recommendations of expert advisors, is seriously concerning. It must set out when it intends to produce an updated strategy for tackling hate crime and provide its response to outstanding reports as a matter of urgency. 

Further information

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