Protest treated as anti-social behaviour
Powers given to the police to deal with anti-social behaviour are increasingly being used to gather information on participants in political protest.
Section 50 of the Police Reform Act gives police the power to demand personal details, if the officer reasonably believes that the individual has been involved in anti-social behaviour. Over the years the police have interpreted a wide variety of protest activity as ‘anti-social behaviour’ in order to obtain the names and addresses of those taking part. This has included sit-down protests, handing out leaflets and spontaneous demonstrations.
Failure to provide personal details when questioned under s50 is a criminal offence for which an individual may be arrested and prosecuted. It is hardly surprising that most people choose to provide their names and addresses, rather than face arrest, even if they do not believe they have been acting anti-socially. These powers provide an easy mechanism for the police to gather intelligence data.
Netpol observers have reported that the police are using allegations of anti-social behaviour as a blanket means of obtaining protester details, coercing people who decide not to provide that information voluntarily.
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) in their report ‘Adapting to Protest‘ acknowledged the potential for misuse of s50 powers. They stated that: “It is likely that wide-scale use of section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 by the police when dealing with peaceful protesters would be found to be unlawful.” The police should not be using s50 in a blanket way on protest – although this is something they frequently do.
This week the High Court will hear a judicial review brought by a Legal Observer who had been with a group of ukuncut protesters who were held in a kettle outside the offices of the Xstrata mining company in Panton Street in 2011. All those contained – including Legal Observers – had been forced to provide their names and address, often in front of police cameras, before being allowed to leave. They were told they must provide their details or face arrest under s50 Police Reform Act.
In Brighton last week, police made extensive use of s50 against protesters who had gathered to oppose the right-wing March for England. In what appeared to be a pre-determined strategy, individuals stopped and searched or kettled were obliged to give their details, although the police were invariably vague about what ‘anti-social behaviour’ they were believed to have engaged in.
The gathering of personal information by police has a chilling effect on protest and political freedom. The police are known to collect and retain information to build a personal profile of protesters, and to act pre-emptively on the basis of intelligence held. This creates a climate in which people fear that if they take part in any form of protest activity , they will find themselves with a ‘police file’.
There is an extensive list of occasions in which the police have made use of s50 powers in relation to lawful and peaceful protest. These include a ukuncut demonstration in Lewes, Sussex, which consisted of protesters holding a tea-party outside a branch of Boots; a sit-down protest to raise issues of homelessness in Cardiff; a spontaneous march by student protesters in Manchester; a group handing out leaflets at the offices of a company involved in the arms trade; a noise protest outside an immigration detention centre and many, many more.
Any power which allows the police to ‘round up’ people engaged in political protest in order to demand their names and addresses under threat of arrest, is a serious and fundamental threat to civil rights and freedoms. Providing police with the ability to build personal profiles of political demonstrators is a dangerous step to take.
Neither should protest ever be treated as ‘anti-social behaviour’. People invariably engage in protest because of a sense of social responsibility. Protest should be seen as an important and protected right, not as a unwanted societal problem.
Section 50 of the Police Reform Act has no place in the policing of protest. Its use should be opposed and resisted.
Tomorrow we will publish a short piece on your rights and section 50.