Government’s fast-tracking of new anti-protest laws days before coronation fuels anger and dismay

The Home Office claims the timing of the new powers is coincidental.

Buckingham Palace

From today – May 3 – new anti-protest laws means that protestors who block roads, airports and railways could face 12 months behind bars. Additionally, anyone locking on to objects, other people or buildings could face six months in prison and an unlimited fine. Police are also now able to head off disruption by stopping and searching protestors if they suspect they are setting out to cause chaos.

The Home Office claims the timing of the laws, which were given royal ascent by King Charles on May 2, is coincidental.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat has insisted that people will still have the ‘liberty to protest’ and that the King’s coronation is a ‘chance to showcase our liberty.’

Defending the new laws, Tugendhat told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that anti-monarchists would still ‘have the liberty to protest but they would not have the liberty to disrupt others. That’s where we’re drawing a difference.’

The security minister said planning for the coronation had been a very complex police and intelligence operation and refused to be drawn on the guidelines to hosting a ‘non-disruptive protest,’ to avoid people ‘finding loopholes.’

The fast-tracking of the controversial legislation ahead of Saturday’s coronation and Tom Tugendhat’s comments, have attracted anger and dismay.

“New anti-protest laws have been rushed through in case of demonstrations at coronation. We don’t live in a democracy anymore,” someone posted on Twitter.

“Well look what they did in France when a law was ushed through via undemocratic means. This won’t just be about the coronation, it will be further long term attack on strikes, unions and demonstrations,” another wrote.

“Grim, authoritarian stuff from @TomTugendhat and his weakling government, apparently scared of its own people,” shared someone else dismayed by the development.

An official warning letter sent to anti-monarchists that are planning peaceful protests on coronation day has added to the anger. The letter warns that criminal offences to prevent disruption have been rushed into law.

The correspondence came from the Home Office’s Police Powers Unit, which informed Republic, a group which campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy and an elected head of state, that new powers have been brought forward to prevent “disruption at major sporting and cultural events.”

Republic has said it intends to carry on with the protest on the coronation day, despite the warning from the Home Office.

Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, told PA Media: “We’ve been liaising closely with the police about the protest for weeks. We’ve had meetings with them.

“They’ve said very clearly that they have no problems with our plans. I just can’t understand why the Home Office thinks it’s appropriate to send a letter like that, which was anonymous in terms of no person’s name on it. It struck us as intimidatory in a way.”

Campaigners for freedom of speech are also dismayed by the development, saying it could be interpreted as a way of restricting peaceful and legitimate protests.

Jun Pang, a policy and campaigns officer at the human rights’ group Liberty, said: “Key measures in the bill will come into force just days before the coronation of King Charles – a significant event in our country’s history that is bound to inspire a wider national conversation and public protests. At the same time, the government are using a statutory instrument to bring draconian measures that the House of Lords threw out of the bill back from the dead, once again evading scrutiny and accountability.

“It’s worrying to see the police handed so many new powers to restrict protest, especially before a major national event. When the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into force, the police repeatedly misused them – in part because they simply did not understand them. Similarly, when Queen Elizabeth died, we saw police acting in inappropriate and heavy-handed ways towards protesters that violated their rights,” Pang continued.

In a security operation called Operation Golden Orb, hundreds of police officers brought in from across the UK will line the route towards Westminster Abbey on the day of the coronation. Additionally, plain-clothed police are to be positioned in the crowds and snipers will be situated on rooftops.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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