Protests causing ‘unsustainable pressure’ on policing resources, committee warns

The scale and frequency of recent protests are a drain on police resources and are putting wider policing priorities at risk, the Home Affairs Committee has warned.

Feb 27, 2024
By Paul Jacques

It said the emergence of deliberately disruptive protest tactics has created additional challenges in balancing the right to protest with preventing disorder.

Recent protests have placed severe pressures on police forces and officers, particularly in London, the committee said, and the size and frequency of protests over the conflict in Gaza have strained resources.

Policing representatives told the committee that the wellbeing officers was being put at risk, with more than 4,000 rest days cancelled in a three-month period to ensure protests could be policed safely.

The cross-party committee of MPs is calling for police forces to be given greater support, with a comprehensive workforce plan put in place to identify and respond to demand on resources nationwide.

If protests continue to take place frequently at this scale, it says the Home Office should consider requiring protest organisers to give more notice to better enable forces to prepare better.

In the context of the policing of the Israel-Gaza protests, as well as the policing of the King’s Coronation protests, the committee says police forces have generally maintained the balance between the right to protest with the right of others to go about their lives without disruption, although individual incidents inevitably tested that balance.

“However, it is too early to assess whether new powers provided to police in the Public Order Act 2023 to deal with disruptive protests are effective,” it added. “The committee calls for post-legislative scrutiny to accurately assess their impact.

“While the right to protest must be respected, no one, including elected representatives, their families and their staff, should be made to feel unsafe by protest activity outside their home and no one should be intimidated when they are coming and going from their place of work.”

Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson, said the “hard-won right to protest” was a vital part of the democratic process but it was clear that the current demands on policing resourcing and the level of complexity in policing protests were “unsustainable without proper reinforcement”.

“It is vital that the right framework is in place to ensure that protests can continue without the burden on policing becoming intolerable and without regularly taking resources away from communities that have their own local crime-fighting challenges,” she said.

“Alongside laws that strike the right balance on the lawful parameters of protest, policing needs the strategic planning to cope with demands placed upon it.

“The Government should look carefully at how recent new legislation on the policing of protests is operating in practice.”

Dame Diana added: “Going forward, we need to ensure that behaviours designed to intimidate and silence alternative opinions are not allowed to become commonplace under the guise of protest – no matter if it is 20 people or 20,000.

“For the rule of law that underpins our free and democratic way of life to prevail, the principle of equality before the law must also be applied and be seen to be applied  – whatever the size of any assembled gathering.

“Our laws on matters such as incitement of violence, hate crime and glorifying proscribed terrorist groups must be enforced without fear or favour.”

The committee was “deeply concerned” by the rise in hate crime following events in Israel and Gaza. However, it said the hate crime action plan expired in 2020 and has not yet been updated.

“Government commissioned reports intended to inform and develop policy also remain unanswered,” it added. “Urgent action needs to be taken to set out the Government’s strategy for dealing with hate crime.”

Dame Diana said: “It is deeply dispiriting to see the fight against hate crime get stuck in Home Office limbo. Commissioning work is pointless if the findings and recommendations aren’t fully embedded in the policy process.

“We need to see much more action from the Home Office, both in how it reacts to the constructive advice it receives and how it develops strategy.

“At a time when some communities in the UK feel highly vulnerable, and community cohesion is under strain, the hate crime strategy is several years out of date with little sign of action. This needs to change now.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for protests, Chief Constable Chris Noble, said: “We welcome the observations made by the committee and thank them for the opportunity to provide a perspective of policing protest on behalf of all police forces.

“The right to lawful protest is a key part of any democracy, which UK police uphold and facilitate. Our staff will continue to carry out this vital work for as long as necessary. “After dealing with a prolonged period of activity like we’ve seen recently, it is only right that we collectively recognise the impact that this has had on our resources.

“In recent months, the level of activity that we’ve been responding to has meant that our people have worked long hours, had leave and rest days cancelled, and have had to travel across the country to support their colleagues. They do this in order to keep people safe, investigate crime that has occurred, and bring offenders to justice, and for that they have my gratitude.

“Inevitably when we push resourcing into one part of policing, that will mean that there are less people to fulfil the needs in another.

“We will take away the findings of this report, examine the recommendations, and work with the Government and our partners to ensure that we have the resources that we need to continue to deal with these events effectively and sustainably.”

Association of Police and Crime Commissioners chair Donna Jones said: “The response to large-scale protests places significant strain on policing resources, piling extra pressure on forces and their ability to deal with the other risks facing their communities. It also has wider consequences on officer welfare and wellbeing with rest days cancelled.

“We welcome the committee’s calls for police forces to be given greater support to manage such events and prevent disorder and for potential new rules requiring organisers to give more notice to enable them to better prepare and develop contingency plans.”

Ms Jones, the Hampshire and Isle of Wight police and crime commissioner (PCC) added: “There is always a balance to be struck between the right to peaceful protest and the right of the public to go about their lives safely and without fear.

“As PCCs, we would welcome a national workforce plan setting out how forces should respond to the acute demands posed by protests while ensuring resources are not diverted away from local communities that have their own crime challenges.”

Unmesh Desai, London Assembly Labour policing and crime spokesperson, said: “The right to protest is a fundamental tenet of our democracy. The majority of demonstrations are peaceful and respectful but Londoners rightfully expect that the police are on hand when protest becomes violent or breaks the law.

“These warnings from the Home Affairs Committee show the growing importance of the Government properly funding the Metropolitan Police. Protests are taking police away from local neighbourhoods into central London.

“The National and International Capital City Grant, which funds police to respond to challenges such as protests and hate crime, is £240 million short. This report should be a wake-up call to Government, who should plug this gap in their upcoming Spring Budget.

“I particularly want to thank the police who have been supporting London’s communities who have been experiencing a jump in hate crime. It’s disappointing to see the Government dragging their feet in responding to this.”

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