Charging pro-Gaza marchers for policing an 'assault on democratic rights'

A UK government adviser has proposed making protesters foot the bill for policing events

Metropolitan Police officers form a cordon at Parliament Square to prevent protesters from reaching Westminster Bridge during a Free Palestine Coalition demonstration in London. PA
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A proposal by a UK government adviser that organisers of marches should pay for the cost of policing them has been condemned as an assault on the democratic right to protest.

Large pro-Palestine marches have taken place in London on most Saturdays since the attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel.

The marches have been policed by more than 1,000 officers on each occasion.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist recently told MPs that £17 million ($21 million) had been spent on policing the pro-Palestinian protests between October 7 and December 8.

Lord Walney, who was asked by the government to carry out a review of political violence and disruption before the war in Gaza, has now said the march organisers should be made to pay the cost of policing.

The peer, who as John Woodcock sat as a Labour MP in the House of Commons, said payments made by football clubs for regular policing serve as a precedent for seeking to charge protest organisers.

The marches have been organised by a coalition of five groups – the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Muslim Association of Britain, Friends of Al-Aqsa, the Palestinian Forum in Britain, Stop the War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, told The National, that “the proposals, if implemented would be a fundamental assault on all democratic rights”.

“Marching as a form of protest is not a privilege or a gift granted by the government. It is a fundamental democratic right,” he said.

“These marches, by the police’s own admission, and by reference to the numbers arrested, have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

“So, we would argue that the police don't need to be spending so many resources on these marches, that these marches are over policed in relation to how orderly they are. If the police are finding that they are stretched, they might need to consider why they need so many officers.”

Mr Jamal said it was wrong of Lord Walney to make the parallel with football, which is a “form of entertainment”, with clubs being “commercial operations” whereas marches are made up of "ordinary people".

“What we’re talking about here are fundamental freedoms in which ordinary people hold the government to account,” he said.

Chris Nineham, the vice chairman of Stop the War, said: "Here we have a former Labour MP recommending the deeply anti-democratic idea that organisations peacefully protesting against war and for a ceasefire in Gaza should pay for their fundamental right to do so – a right that goes back hundreds of years.

"The fact is that the huge resource cost of policing our marches is entirely of the police’s own making and entirely unnecessary This is despite the fact that the police have themselves acknowledged that the demonstrations have been well organised and overwhelmingly peaceful."

The Met Police has used 28,000 officer shifts to deal with these protests and 1,600 officer shifts on mutual aid with 5,500 rest days cancelled, Mr Twist told MPs.

More than 800 hate crimes are being investigated and more than 6,000 hours of officer time will be needed to deal with them all, he revealed.

Lord Walney tweeted his position at the weekend ahead of the publication of his report. Parts of the report state that “the repeated incitements and disorder seen at the anti-Israel marches, such as when firecrackers have been thrown at police”, means “there is an argument that the organisers should cover some of these policing costs”.

Previously he has said the police should be able to ban demonstrations because of their impact on the Jewish community, which he said was facing an “emergency” because of an “explosion” in anti-Semitic incidents linked to the marches.

The Home Office would not say when Lord Walney's report would be published.

“The Independent Review into Political Violence and Disruption, led by Lord Walney, aims to increase the UK government’s understanding of the increase in activity amongst the far-right, far-left and other political groups, and the points at which their activities can cross into criminality and disruption," said a representative.

“We will respond to the report’s recommendations in due course.”

Updated: January 09, 2024, 8:17 AM