'Fundamental rights' breached by the police handling of Sarah Everard vigil and Bristol protest

The Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham, London. Credit: PA

There were "multiple failings" by the Metropolitan Police and Avon and Somerset Police at a vigil for Sarah Everard and "Kill the Bill" protests, a parliamentary inquiry has found.

Police breached "fundemental rights" of those attending both events in the way they handled them at Clapham Common, south-west London, and in Bristol in March, according to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution (APPGDC).

The group of MPs and peers has proposed amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC), which is due to be debated on Monday, as a result of the findings.

The inquiry found the Met “increased the risk to both officers and civilians” by failing to work with the proposed organisers of the vigil. Credit: PA

Inquiry chairman, the Labour MP Geraint Davies, said the right to peaceful protest “must be supported not suppressed by the law”, adding: “The police must not become the enforcement agency of the state against those who choose to publicly and collectively call for change – political, economic, social or environmental.

“Parliament must protect our freedoms and reject attempts to increase police power and restrict our right to peaceful protest. The police should help to facilitate the expression of peaceful protest and not drive opposition underground.”

Patsy Stevenson has threatened to take legal action against the Met Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

The report comes after student Patsy Stevenson, who was arrested at the vigil, said she is preparing to start legal action against the Met if it does not withdraw a fine she was issued.

Scotland Yard faced a barrage of criticism, including calls for Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick to resign, after protesters were bundled to the ground and arrested after gathering in memory of 33-year-old Ms Everard, who was killed after disappearing while walking home.

An official report from police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) backed the Met’s handling of the event and found no evidence of heavy-handedness.

But it hit out at the force’s “tone deaf” response to criticism of the way it dealt with protesters, saying it should have taken a more conciliatory approach.

The Kill the Bill protest in Bristol – against Government plans to give police sweeping powers to control demonstrations – started peacefully but hours later turned into a riot when around 500 people marched on Bridewell police station, set fire to police vehicles and attacked the building. Later protests also ended with clashes between activists and officers.

The report also criticised how officers in Bristol had handled ‘Kill the Bill’ protests Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

Both police forces wrongly applied lockdown laws and their “failure to give transparency and clarity about how they would enforce the regulations in respect of peaceful protest also breached fundamental rights”, according to the parliamentary group’s findings.

The forces “failed to understand their legal duties in respect of protest” and “failed to conduct a proper assessment of the proportionality of their actions”.

The inquiry also found:

– The Met “increased the risk to both officers and civilians” by failing to work with the proposed organisers of the vigil, to facilitate a planned and safe event – which “created the conditions for their later enforcement intervention”. Covid-19 risks were not considered and taking action “may have increased the risk of Covid-19 transmission at the vigil.”

– Avon and Somerset officers “faced real violence but failed to distinguish between those protesting peacefully and those engaged in acts of violence” and used “excessive force against peaceful protestors”.

HMICFRS inspectors were also criticised for appearing not to take into account testimony from people at the vigil in its review – something described as a “significant failing” by the parliamentary group which said made it “impossible” to give the watchdog’s findings “full weight.”

But the report acknowledged police were put in “difficult situations” due to the “ambiguity” of coronavirus rules.

Scrapping new proposed powers to limit the right to peaceful demonstrations has been suggested as an amendment to the Bill, alongside a code for policing protests.

In a statement, Avon and Somerset Police said: “We always welcome transparency and accountability but we strongly refute some of the findings of this report relating to the policing of protests in Bristol.

“During the period the report covers, the law was not sufficiently clear as to whether peaceful protest was lawful under Covid-19 regulations and all forces were interpreting them as best as they were able to.

“We reject any suggestion we did not facilitate peaceful demonstrations on the day of the riot and for subsequent protests.

“We absolutely recognised their right to peaceful protest but we had to balance the significant risk to public health, taking into consideration the regulations in place at the time, and the rights of the wider public to go about their daily lives without disruption.”

Avon and Somerset police said they rejected any suggested they 'did not facilitate peaceful demonstrations." Credit: PA

Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, from the Metropolitan Police Service, said: “Following the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary conducted a thorough review of the policing response, examining in detail the actions of officers both before and during the vigil.

“That report made it clear that police officers acted proportionately and did their very best to peacefully disperse the gathering, demonstrating patience and restraint.

“I stand by the actions of those officers who policed the events on Clapham Common. Those officers were met with an extraordinarily challenging circumstance and demonstrated the highest degree of professionalism in their engagement with those gathering. Officers followed national guidance on the policing of the coronavirus regulations, only taking enforcement action as a very last resort.”