UK to lower threshold for banning marches after adviser warns on violence

Move is in response to a report on political extremism produced in the wake of pro-Palestinian protests

Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators march in London. Getty Images
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Organisers of mass protests in the UK will be asked to take on new responsibilities for ensuring events do not descend into violence, as the government prepares to lower the threshold for banning marches after recommendations in a new report.

Lord Walney, a former Labour MP who spent three years compiling the document, called for increased spying powers to counter the threat posed by collaboration on political violence and disruption.

In response, the government said where there is deemed to be intimidating or abusive conduct it would lower the point at which it intervenes. This would ensure greater responsibility being placed on the organisers of protests to manage and limit the potential for demonstrations to descend into violence or disruption.

"By proposing a reclassification of threats and recommending enhanced intelligence and policing capabilities, it seeks to set out the tools necessary to identify, protect against and deter extreme activity that goes beyond legitimate protest," the report said.

The government and London’s Met Police have been at loggerheads over the pro-Palestinian marches, with ministers urging the force to ban them while senior officers have responded by saying that is not within their legal power. There have also been incidents at MPs' homes and local council meetings, as well as at universities, though the majority of arrests in the UK have come from among far-right extremists.

In his report Lord Walney, who worked as an adviser to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, calls for a change in legislation to allow the police to ban marches if they believe it will result in arrests for “stirring up of hatred, causing harassment, alarm or distress, or support for terrorism”.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said the “government will look at the thresholds for imposing conditions on protests, and how such thresholds could be applied”.

“This includes amending the threshold to prevent protests from going ahead where there is the threat of intimidating or abusive conduct based on previous behaviour, or on account of cumulative serious disruption,” he said.

The report also contained recommendations that the organisers of regular mass demonstrations should be asked to contribute to policing costs, in the same way football clubs currently pay the costs of having officers at grounds for matches.

Mr Cleverly said because this was of “particular interest” he had been "persuaded to give this policy further consideration over the coming weeks”.

Also responding to the report, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said behaving in a threatening or intimidating manner is "not the British way".

"Extremism has no place in our society,” said Mr Sunak while on a trip to Austria, when asked about the report.

“Threatening or intimidating behaviour that disrupts the lives of ordinary hardworking people isn't acceptable. I want to make sure the police have our full backing and the powers they need to clamp down on it.”

"That is why we have given them those new powers, making sure that we can ban the use of face coverings, flares, pyrotechnics, climbing on war memorials."

He added: "Of course, we will study Lord Walney's recommendations in detail but I am very clear it is not the British way to behave in an intimidating or threatening manner and we will make sure the police have our full support and backing in clamping down on that type of behaviour."

It comes as Communities Secretary Michael Gove accused organisers of pro-Palestinian marches of not doing enough to stop some demonstrators spreading anti-Jewish messages in a speech condemning the rise in anti-Semitism in the UK.

The cabinet minister said while many protesters are "thoughtful, gentle, compassionate people", they also stand "side by side with those who are promoting hate".

He argued there is a "thread that connects extremist ideologies from Islamist to those on the far right and the hard left".

Updated: May 21, 2024, 2:36 PM