Allowing the police to criminalise people for protesting is “not acceptable and is arguably not lawful”, more than 60 MPs and peers have told the home secretary.
In a letter coordinated by Liberty and Big Brother Watch, 62 parliamentarians said the right to protest was enshrined in human rights law, amid growing scrutiny of police tactics after officers forcibly dispersed demonstrators at a vigil for Sarah Everard last week.
The specific exemption to coronavirus regulations in England allowing the right to protest was removed in November, but some legal experts have said it remains a “reasonable excuse” for leaving home. It is widely accepted that transmission of coronavirus is far less likely outdoors.
A high court judge last week suggested that the human rights of expression and gathering might be considered reasonable excuses in some circumstances, with the Metropolitan police accepting there was no blanket ban on protest.
If people are not distancing, however, it may become explicitly illegal according to the regulations. Campaigners say the police should work to facilitate Covid-safe demonstrations. On Saturday, anti-lockdown protesters are set to demonstrate in west London. Previous demonstrations have been violently broken up by police.
The letter to Priti Patel was signed by several Conservative MPs, including Steve Baker and Christopher Chope, along with Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, and a number of Labour MPs and peers, such as Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti.
It urged Patel to immediately “expressly exempt protests from restrictions on gatherings in all tier areas” and highlighted the current situation where deeming the legality of a protest is the responsibility of the police on a case-by-case basis.
“There is no legal certainty for the police as regards their duties and powers, and no legal certainty for protesters as regards their rights. This is not acceptable and is arguably not lawful,” the letter said.
Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said: “We must all be able to stand up to power and have our voices heard. In a healthy democracy, protest is a critical way we can fight for what we believe in. The government’s current quasi-ban on protest is completely unacceptable.
“Those in power have made clear that they want to silence dissent and drastically curtail our right to free expression.”
Referring to the policing bill which passed its second reading in the Commons this week, despite opposition from more than 150 human rights charities, unions and faith communities, as well as Labour, Grant added: “Using short-term restrictions on protest to stifle dissent while they pass permanent ones is as absurd as it is authoritarian.”
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said: “A country cannot be described as a democracy if people do not have the freedom to protest. The harrowing scenes of police officers using force against women at Clapham Common recently were avoidable and wrong. Over the past week, many more demonstrators and even legal observers have been arrested or fined.
“This stain on our democracy is a direct consequence of this government’s disrespect for the most basic of British democratic freedoms.”
But the Home Office has maintained, in comments to the BBC, that “while we are still in a pandemic we continue to urge people to avoid mass gatherings, in line with wider coronavirus restrictions.”
On Friday, the Met said: “Current government legislation makes gatherings in groups of more than two people unlawful, unless exemptions apply. Gathering for the purpose of a protest is not an exception under the Covid-19 regulations. The right to protest must be balanced against the rights of others and the protection of public health.”
Referring to Saturday’s planned protests, it added: “Those gathering will be encouraged to return home. If they do not they face necessary and proportionate enforcement action. This could be a fixed penalty notice or arrest.”
This content first appear on the guardian