There is much speculation whether the chaos in Westminster could eventually lead to a snap general election. Governments come and go, but it seems the constant battle to protect the right to freedom of assembly remains unabated.

Eight years ago the Coalition government promised to “‘restore the right to protest by reforming the Public Order Act to safeguard non-violent protest even if it offends, and restrict the scope of injunctions issued by vested interests”. 

However, despite reform of section 5 of the Act (to remove the word “insulting”) and the repeal of the complete ban on protests in Parliament Square in London, our view is that instead of safeguarding the right to take part in protests, this right has been repeatedly restricted or undermined.

Nowhere has this been more apparent when protests fall outside what the police have tended to narrowly view as “acceptable”, normally formulaic, city-centre marches or rallies.

We can expect to see more people deciding to take part in protests in 2019 because the deep divisions in society created by the Brexit vote are unlikely to heal quickly. We are also seeing an increasing acceptance of the need for non-violent direct action to prevent climate breakdown.

Government turmoil over Brexit is encouraging opposition Westminster political parties to begin gearing up for another snap election and to consider what to include in their manifestos.

So what policies can Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru adopt to protect freedom of assembly? Netpol offers a few suggestions:

Severely curtail police surveillance on campaign groups

Netpol has long argued that any ‘chilling effect’ on participation in the right to protest are not just about aggressive police tactics on the streets but is also about campaigners, often first-time campaigners, who suddenly feel the overwhelming power of surveillance focusing on them.

We have gathered testimony from campaigners on the tracking of the movement of vehicles at protests and the routine photographing by Evidence Gathering Teams of anyone associated with protest groups, without any need to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion of involvement in crime. Netpol has witnessed this first-hand at protests against fracking in Cheshire and Lancashire.

As well as automated tracking using ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) technology, this year we have also observed the police openly deploying Facial Recognition technology at a protest for the first time.

Surveillance requires the compiling of datasets of personal information, held on on secretive databases whose accuracy it is impossible for campaigners to challenge. However, in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that gathering and retention of this personal data did not violate the right to privacy, in what amounts to judicial approval for the mass surveillance of UK political activism

We urge all political parties to commit to specific legal protections from intensive surveillance for campaigners who exercise their right to freedom of assembly.

This includes strict limits on the routine filming of protests, on the retention of data based solely on participation in campaign groups and on the use of covert infiltration, all backed by clear guidance for the police on the application and limits of surveillance when Article 10 and 11 rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly apply.

Stop smearing campaigners as “domestic extremists”

There is now clear evidence that a model for categorising a broad range of campaigns as posing an alleged risk of ‘domestic extremism’ is now central to the policing of political dissent in the UK. However, unlike definitions of terrorism, which is set out in the Terrorism Act 2000 and refers specifically to serious acts of violence, the police have repeatedly struggled to find a legally robust explanation of what ‘domestic extremism’ actually means.

This has resulted in the classification of a broad range of non-violent social movements (including the growing movement against fracking in the UK) as a supposed “threat”. This has justified the expanding use of sophisticated and advanced intelligence gathering and has in numerous instance led to the deployment of the resources of the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy and Channel de-radicalisation programmes against non-violent protesters.

For the last four years, Netpol has documented how campaigners engaged in non-violent direct action are increasingly defined as “extremists”. Anti-fracking and other environmental campaigners have been included in Prevent training for public sector staff as examples of an alleged extremist threat.

For example, in September 2015 it emerged that a Prevent training session, organised by West Yorkshire Police for teachers, gave the arrest of Green MP Caroline Lucas at an anti-fracking protest in Sussex as an example of extremism (it was subsequently revealed that Lucas had been regularly tracked by domestic extremism unit officers).

We have also raised concerns about how labelling opponents of fracking is likely to drive decisions about potentially deploying undercover police officers (in 2016 the National Police Chiefs Council refused to rule this out, saying “any tactic, including covert tactics, is for the policing commander for the operation”).

In December 2016, the Home Office was finally forced to issue a statement saying “support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability” to extremism.

However, in September 2017 ‘Counter Terrorism Local Profiles’ developed by the police, under the government’s Prevent strategy, identified protests at Broadford Bridge in Sussex as a “priority theme… where increased tensions or vulnerabilities may exist”. A similar profile for Surrey highlighted “community tensions related to onshore oil and gas operations” in the east of the county.

Protests in both these areas did not start until months after Home Office assurances that it would no longer collectively treat anti-fracking campaigners as a “domestic extremist” threat.

As recently as this summer, a Manchester commission on ‘hateful extremism’ was forced to admit that a case study of an alleged ‘grooming’ of a teenager by anti-fracking campaigners that appeared in a report it published was a false accusation and to issue an apology.

This issue matters because in the absence of any meaningful definition of what “domestic extremism” means, there is a real danger that the police, driven primarily by an agenda focused on security and public order, are making subjective political judgements about different types of campaign, especially those who fall outside a narrow view of “peaceful protest”.

We urge all political parties to commit to demanding the police either find and adopt a narrower, legally robust definition of “domestic extremism” – one that will stand up in court – or abandon it altogether, so that it no longer provides wide-ranging discretion to target surveillance towards entire social movements based on little more than subjective political judgements.

We also urge all political parties to commit to the complete separation of public order policing related to the exercise of freedom of assembly from the policing of threats from terrorism. Counter-terrorism police have no business targeting legitimate political dissent simply because it is disruptive.

We also urge all political parties to commit to ending the deployment of undercover police officers into non-violent protest movements in order to undertake surveillance on and disrupt their activities.

End “persons unknown” anti-protest injunctions

The use of civil injunctions against campaigners is not new but since 2017, we have witnessed a number of attempts by the fracking industry to prevent protests by seeking injunctions against “persons unknown” – in other words, at hearings where nobody is present to raise objections.

In many instances, these injunctions have sought to “protect” parcels of land where there is no current or imminent development or even planning permission. The intention appears in part to seek to boost shale gas companies’ share price, but the consequence has been to create offences under civil rules that would otherwise be lawful or unlikely to result in criminal prosecution.

What these injunctions have created is uncertainty about who they cover and what they prohibit: in the words of barrister Stephen Simblet, who represented challengers to an injunction sought by INEOS, “the extent of the prohibitions sought in these cases is so wide that when put up against the entitlement to, say, protest reasonably on the highway, the provisions end up so qualified and hedged around as to be barely comprehensible”.

This leaves campaigners fearful, however, that they may find themselves potentially facing contempt of court committals for what seems like the reasonable exercise of their right to freedom of assembly. Inevitably, this drives some from not protesting at all – something that arguably was the intention when these orders are sought.

We urge all political parties to commit to introduce legislation that severely limits the scope of companies to seek sweeping civil injunctions against “persons unknown”

Netpol is currently writing to all opposition parties calling for the inclusion of new measures to protect the right to protest in their manifestos for future elections.