A Tory minister has insisted the police acted independently during last night’s vigil in memory of Sarah Everard – but defended plans to hand police and the Home Secretary more powers to crack down on the right to protest.
Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins distanced Priti Patel from police officers who dragged mourners away from a peaceful vigil in London after shocking images surfaced of officers holding a woman on the ground with their knees.
Ms Atkins told Sky News the police were “operationally independent” – but said Met Commissioner Cressida Dick had been asked for a report on the events of last night.
But the row emerged a day before Ms Patel is due to ask Parliament for sweeping powers to silence protests – a move thought to be a reaction to Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests.
Ms Atkins told Andrew Marr: “I do just want to draw a very firm distinction between the peaceful vigil that yesterday was intended to be and some of the very, very disruptive protests that we’ve seen in the last few years where people have been gluing themselves to buildings and gates and stopping members of the public from going about their business.
“There’s a real distinction here and the bill tomorrow is very much looking at that latter category to just make sure that the public order act is updated.”
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would give powers to the police to impose conditions on protests which are “noisy” enough to cause “intimidation or serious unease” – or which have an “impact” on the local community.
Critics say the law gives police the power to stop solo protests.
It would also expand the “controlled area” around Parliament where some protest activities are banned.
And it would make it an offence to “intentionally or recklessly” commit an act which could cause “serious annoyance” – punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Ms Atkins denied the bill was intended to suppress protests the government didn’t like.
She said: “I think we would all accept that the most disruptive protests, and as I say, a very, very different scenario from the things we were seeing yesterday, but those very, very disruptive protests are very different to what was anticipated by Parliament in 1986.”
She added: “Most certainly not, we support and recognise the right to protest.
“We have a proud history in this country of protesting. If one looks at some of the protest that unions organised, for example, they can be very, very powerful events.
“But they don’t inhibit the day to day lives of people that some of the protests we’ve seen in recent years have done.
“And it’s about trying to get that balance between the right to protest and allowing members of the public to get on their bus to go to work.”
Shadow minister for domestic violence Jess Phillips has called for sentences for rape and stalking to be increased ahead of the debate on the bill tomorrow.
She said: “I think you should get more for rape than you do for defacing a statue… You currently can get more for fly-tipping than you can get for stalking. So I think in the case of stalking, I think that it needs to be doubled.”
After calling for the minimum rape sentence to be increased from five to seven years, Ms Phillips also said misogyny should be treated as a hate crime and was asked about the suggestion the public is more interested in burglary and other crimes.
She said: “Where I live the public is genuinely more interested in bins than they are in domestic abuse so if people in positions of power think that we should only ever follow exactly what every single household has their main priority in – the reality is hidden crimes like domestic violence and misogyny, it takes leadership.”
She continued: “The reason misogyny should be a hate crime is that there was a man who stood for election in this country and one of the things that he said whilst on political platforms was about whether he would or wouldn’t rape me.
“If he had insulted me as a disabled person, if he’d insulted me on the basis of my religion, I would be able to take action against that man. Instead, I had to sit through weeks and weeks of people talking about whether I should or shouldn’t be raped.”