Protesters like Extinction Rebellion face tougher restrictions under new public order laws being considered by the Government.
The new legislation would aim to make it easier for police to restrict protests if they threaten “serious disruption,” curb repeat offenders by imposing banning orders on them and increase the penalties for public order offences like obstruction of a highway.
The move follows calls from police and MPs for Britain’s “outdated” public order legislation to be reformed in the face of increasing and more sophisticated civil disobedience tactics pioneered by Extinction Rebellion, leading to severe disruption and diverting police from fighting crime.
“We are definitely sympathetic that this legislation should be tightened up and made more robust,” said a Government source. It is thought that ministers are eyeing the reforms for the Conservative party manifesto.
The Metropolitan Police formally requested a review of protest laws earlier this month citing as a particular concern the way Extinction Rebellion protesters were repeatedly arrested after returning multiple times to their “frontline.”
Mike Penning, a former policing and justice minister, said police needed the capability to place conditions on cautions after an arrest that barred protesters from breaking public order laws again over a fixed period.
“There has to be a sanction between a caution and court action that says if you persist then that is a breach and you could have a custodial sentence,” he said. “There has to be a deterrent rather than repeated arrests being seen as a badge of honour.”
Another key change backed by police is a rewrite of the requirement for commanders to demonstrate there will be “serious disruption” in order to justify tighter restrictions on impending big protests.
“The main change needed is this ridiculous definition of serious disruption. If you cannot evidentially demonstrate a threat of serious disruption, you cannot place restrictions on static protests,” said a senior police source.
The Met was able to provide evidence in advance of the current Extinction Rebellion protest in London because of the disruption caused by the action in April.
It enables police to impose restrictions, which, if breached, can result in fines up to £1000 or three months in jail and £2,500 for inciting others to break them.
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is also seeking to upgrade current summary public order offences - which can only be heard by magistrates - to indictable offences, which would allow them to be heard in the crown court with heavier penalties.
As activists “locked down” the BBC’s New Broadcasting House on Friday, she warned
the force has been "stretched" by the ongoing protest, impeding its ability to respond to other crimes.
After five consecutive days of demonstrations and more than 1,100 arrests, the force was also dealing with the fatal stabbings of two teenagers in the city within a matter of hours.
Dame Cressida said that if demonstrators protested lawfully she could deploy "many" officers "back to the streets, back to the neighbourhoods, back to the schools, back to the wards of the people of London".
She added: "We are responding to all serious matters and urgent matters of course, carrying on with our crime investigations in homicide or armed robbery.
"But we're having to move work from one unit to another and the less urgent, less critical, less important work of course gets delayed."
Officers were yesterday forced to remove activists who had locked themselves to road blocks in Trafalgar Square.
Others glued themselves to New Broadcasting House or scaled the walls, accusing the broadcaster of "deadly silence" over climate change.
The protests, including the targeting of London City Airport, have caused significantly more disruption than those in many other countries.
Many detained earlier in the week have immediately returned to the fray on their release, some getting arrested three times in as many days.
By contrast, in Sydney, Extinction Rebellion protesters arrested this week have been ordered not to attend any further demonstrations organised by the group and not to go within 2.5 kilometres of the Sydney central business district.