So who exactly is in charge here? Reading the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) into the policing of protest (a follow up to an earlier report), you sometimes wonder.
Recently the police have not exactly covered themselves with glory. The policing of the G20 protests — which involved “kettling” protesters and then keeping them contained in tight areas for hours and hours — was a mess, as anyone who was there can report, a provocative, incendiary mess. If you wanted to come up with a way to convince peaceful protesters that the police are heavy-handed brutes who have no respect for anyone’s rights but their own, and who are really all out for a good ruck, it would be pretty hard to top this.
The JCHR is clearly not happy. Its earlier report clearly called for police to pay more attention to human rights issues, and suggested that the Northern Ireland model, where “policing means protecting human rights” is the one we should be looking to. And this report says it all over again, but slightly more plaintively. The committee doesn’t want a wholesale rewrite of the law, but it does think some small changes could preserve the sacred right to peaceful protest.
But what powers does the committee have to enforce this? The government and the minister of policing seem disinclined to leap off their bums and follow up. At one point during the inquiry which preceded this report, the minister even said, bemusingly, that he is not sure that police should be legally required to show their badge numbers because “you have to ask yourself, if you have got a very, very small number of officers who are determined to obscure their number, even if it is a legislative framework, whether it would make much difference to them”. It’s worrying that someone working in the Home Office should not understand the basic point of a legal requirement, which would mean that officers not displaying it could be made to. Surely this is ABC level?
The government also, it emerges, cannot force the police to undergo human rights training. In fact it does not appear that the government can do very much at all.
Now much as one applauds the good and balanced work of the JCHR, one cannot help but wonder where it is going to get us. Anyone observing the actions of the police this year can easily infer that they are working with the aim of scaring off as many protesters as possible — the recent closing down of the Big Green Gathering certainly enforces this hypothesis.
The government may murmur politely to the JCHR that it absolutely support its work, that it’s marvellous dear, marvellous; couldn’t agree more. But unless they actually come out and say very, very loudly that peaceful protest is a human right, that the police must calm down immediately and that there are going to be smacked wrists all round if this heavy-handedness carries on, I’m afraid that the police will continue to feel that they have a mandate. They may well feel that actually this government is happy for them to keep on quashing these pesky protesters and keeping them as quiet as possible. And all the good intentions of the JCHR will count for very little.
Bibi van der Zee is the author of Rebel Rebel – The Protester’s Handbook