Last week’s condemnation of proposed government restrictions on protests in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as “oppressive and wrong” by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has somewhat overshadowed its call for greater openness and transparency over the way the police impose restrictions on protests.
For over a decade, Netpol has monitored the policing of demonstrations and documented numerous instances of unnecessary interference in the right to freedom of assembly. Our experience has been that the police are more concerned with using their extensive powers to impose restrictions not because this was necessary, but instead because it was a convenient way to shut protests down.
The JCHR says “the lack of collection and publication of data… makes it harder to assess the efficacy of existing laws”. If it is unclear whether current police powers to restrict protests are used fairly and proportionately, is there any solid evidence (as opposed to alarmist rhetoric) in support of the need for the new powers proposed by the Bill?
Zero data on protest restrictions
What makes this particularly difficult to answer is that, as the National Police Chiefs Council admitted in oral evidence to the JCHR, there is no routine collection or publication of data, either nationally or locally, on conditions the police impose on protests.
In its recent report on how effectively the police deal with protests, HM inspectorate of Constabulary surveyed ten police forces with recent experience of policing protests. Only the Metropolitan Police Service was able to provide data on the number of conditions imposed on assemblies in 2019 and 2020. The JCHR noted that it was not clear whether local data was not available “because the local police force had not imposed any conditions in the survey period, or whether the data was not collected”.
…there is no routine collection or publication of data, either nationally or locally, on conditions the police impose on protests.
Parliamentarians are therefore calling on the National Police Chiefs Council and local forces to ensure that in future, the collection of data on the imposition of conditions is held on a central database, which “must be easily accessible to the public.” The JCHR argues this would “improve police accountability to the public and help protest organisers understand the nature of conditions that are imposed”.
This lack of collection and publication of data on the use of police powers was raised by Netpol in our oral evidence to an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution inquiry in March 2021, which looked into the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil in London and Kill The Bill protests in Bristol.
Far greater transparency
Whilst welcoming last week’s JCHR recommendation as an important first step, however, we believe effective independent scrutiny of the way protests are policed requires even greater transparency.
The National Police Chiefs Council must also gather, compile and release accessible and transparent data on the number of protest arrests, and on the use of force at protests.
Time-consuming local organising to gather details of people injured by police violence during Kill the Bill protests in Bristol in March 2021 was vital to challenging significant misreporting from the media, but this information should be readily available.
With the limited and anecdotal data available pointing to a low rate of convictions for protest-related criminal trials, the Crown Prosecution Service also needs to publish details of the outcome of prosecutions for protest-related offences.
The lack of police data has long been source of frustration for researchers. In “Keep Moving!”, a research report on the policing of anti-fracking protests in 2013 and 2014 at Barton Moss in Salford (Gilmore, Jackson and Monk 2016), the report’s authors highlighted how they found it “very difficult to access accurate and reliable information on the progress of the Barton Moss prosecutions”.
Researchers were forced to rely on media reports, personal correspondence and magistrates listings to build up an incomplete picture after Freedom of Information Act requests were refused by Greater Manchester Police and the CPS “on the basis that a collective list of case outcomes has not been collated by either organisation”.
There is a growing awareness of the culture of obsessive secrecy within the police. The recent Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report in 2021 and the Bishop James Jones report in 2017 on the Hillsborough Disaster have both recommended a ‘statutory duty of candour ‘for police officers.
Greater openness and transparency must extend to the way police use their already wide-ranging powers to restrict freedom of assembly rights. With the measures that are included, however, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, it seems protest policing is currently heading in the opposite direction.