Rishi Sunak has described a planned pro-Palestinian march in London on Armistice Day as “disrespectful” – but has accepted the protest will go ahead.
The prime minister met with the chief of the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley for a crisis meeting this afternoon – and had vowed to hold him “accountable” for the commissioner’s decision to greenlight the demonstration on 11 November.
Sir Mark had resisted calls to try and block a march taking place – and said, after looking at intelligence, the legal threshold for a ban had not been met.
In a statement, the prime minister said: “Freedom is the right to peacefully protest. And the test of that freedom is whether our commitment to it can survive the discomfort and frustration of those who seek to use it, even if we disagree with them. We will meet that test and remain true to our principles.”
He added: “It’s welcome that the police have confirmed that the march will be away from the Cenotaph and they will ensure that the timings do not conflict with any remembrance events.
“There remains the risk of those who seek to divide society using this weekend as a platform to do so. That is what I discussed with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in our meeting.
“The commissioner has committed to keep the Met Police’s posture under constant review based on the latest intelligence about the nature of the protests.”
Sir Mark Rowley has interpreted the law correctly
By Graham Wettone, policing analyst
Sir Mark Rowley was very careful with his words about why the pro-Palestinian protest this Saturday has not been banned.
He spoke about the legal issues around banning a gathering and then explained the possible options for a ban.
He has interpreted the law correctly and some in government appear to have misunderstood or misinterpreted it, and forgotten the police have operational independence.
Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 allows for marches and processions to have conditions placed on them if the senior officer “reasonably believes” it may result in serious disorder, damage or disruption.
The Met can impose conditions relating to the duration and route of a march, as placing a number restriction is totally unworkable. That is what they will be doing with the organisers this Saturday, as the organising groups have refused to cancel the protest.
Section 13 of the Public Order Act relates to banning a march. This is only applicable if the commissioner reasonably believes that the powers under Section 12 – any conditions he imposes on the procession – will not be sufficient to prevent serious disorder.
Sir Mark clearly stated that, at the moment, the intelligence does not support the “reasonable belief” that serious disorder is likely, hence he cannot legally apply for a ban under Section 13. I would agree that is probably the case – but intelligence will be developing over the next few days, and the commissioner did not rule out the situation may change before Saturday.
Sir Mark then explained the law around gatherings or assemblies. Police can impose conditions on these under Section 14 of Public Order Act, which is similar to Section 12 in that there needs to be a “reasonable belief” of “serious disorder”.
However a key difference is that Section 13 only applies to processions or marches under Section 12 – and not gatherings under Section 14. There are no legal powers to ban people gathering.
The Met tried to prevent unlawful assemblies using Section 14 across London a few years ago with Just Stop Oil, but the High Court ruled it was unlawful and that gatherings cannot be legally banned.
The likely scenario as it stands is that if a ban went in for the march, the organising groups would still have people attend a “gathering” – and the fact a ban is in place may well increase numbers. If groups then decide to separate off in different directions, and if there are significant numbers in the thousands, then arresting all is impossible.
PM ‘picking a fight with police’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had accused Mr Sunak of “cowardice” for “picking a fight” with the police.
He tweeted: “Remembrance events must be respected. Full stop.
“But the person the PM needs to hold accountable is his home secretary. Picking a fight with the police instead of working with them is cowardice.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman had called the pro-Palestinian demonstrations “hate marches” and said anyone who vandalised the Cenotaph on Armistice Day “must be put into a jail cell faster than their feet can touch the ground”.
Downing Street denied seeking to put pressure on the Met, which is operationally independent, and insisted the meeting was about “seeking assurances” that their approach is “robust”.
The Met has said its officers were already preparing for remembrance events over the weekend and “we will do everything in our power to ensure that people who want to mark the occasion can do so safely and without disruption.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Sir Mark said: “The laws created by Parliament are clear. There is no absolute power to ban protest, therefore there will be a protest this weekend.”
He added that the use of the power to block moving protests is “incredibly rare” and must be reserved for cases where there is intelligence to suggest a “real threat” of serious disorder.
He said organisers of Saturday’s rally have shown “complete willingness to stay away from the Cenotaph and Whitehall and have no intention of disrupting the nation’s remembrance events”.
“Should this change, we’ve been clear we will use powers and conditions available to us to protect locations and events of national importance at all costs.”
Tens of thousands have demonstrated in London in recent weeks over Palestinian deaths in the Israel-Hamas war, with 29 arrested during a fourth week of protests last Saturday, during which fireworks were thrown.
Organisers of the protest next Saturday say it will be “well away” from the Cenotaph – going from Hyde Park to the US embassy – and won’t start until after the 11am silence.
This breaking news story is being updated and more details will be published shortly.
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