Sweeping measures to curb protests proposed by adviser on political violence

Lord Walney has set out 41 recommendations in a 292-page report published on Tuesday.

Measures including making organisers pay towards policing and restrictions on groups that break the law have been proposed by Lord Walney
Measures including making organisers pay towards policing and restrictions on groups that break the law have been proposed by Lord Walney (Aaron Chown/PA)

Sweeping measures to crack down on protests, including making organisers pay towards policing and a review of undercover surveillance of activist groups, have been proposed by the Government’s adviser on political violence.

Lord Walney recommends a series of severe changes to “protect our democratic values from intimidation”, such as a blanket ban on face coverings at protests and making it easier for businesses or members of the public to claim damages from activist groups that cause disruption.

He also wants the Government to consider making protest buffer zones around MPs’ constituency offices and local council chambers, in the same way that some abortion clinics will be protected.

The peer backs measures to restrict the ability of some groups to organise and fundraise if they are considered to have a policy of using criminal offences that would lead to a prison term, for example destroying property or causing serious disruption or injury.

Asked about the report, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Extremism has no place in our society. Threatening or intimidating behaviour that disrupts the lives of ordinary hardworking people isn’t acceptable.”

In his 292-page report on political violence and disruption, he also claims law enforcement do not know enough about “the extreme left”.

He says: “I conclude, unsurprisingly, that there is a greater violent threat from the far right.

Rishi Sunak told journalists that behaving in an intimidating manner was ‘not the British way’
Rishi Sunak told journalists that behaving in an intimidating manner was ‘not the British way’ (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

“Yet I find a worrying gap in our understanding of the extreme left, whose activists do not routinely employ violent methods yet systematically seek to undermine faith in our parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.”

The much previewed report sets out 41 recommendations, including:

– A review of whether undercover surveillance is being used appropriately in the context of public order and aggravated activism.

– The Government should develop a mechanism to review charging decisions by prosecutors to make sure protest laws are being followed properly.

– The law should be changed to allow the police to consider the cumulative effect of protests on antisemitic hate crime levels.

– The intimidation of candidates and campaigners should be specifically criminalised before the next election.

– The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice should review whether juries and judges are more lenient on protesters who support “progressive” causes such as climate change and anti-racism.

– The Government should consider providing extra physical protection for defence and energy companies against protesters, such as a “buffer zone”.

– The intelligence services and relevant Government departments should be given more resources to identify disinformation online and work with technology companies to have it removed.

Lord Walney came under fire before the publication of the report because his interests as declared on the House of Lords register include jobs for companies that also act for energy firms.

He rejected suggestions that such links undermine the credibility of the report on Tuesday, saying at a media Q&A in Westminster: “No it doesn’t. My list of interests is transparently set out.”

Asked whether the recommendation for extra protection for defence and energy companies in particular was connected in any way to his financial interests, Lord Walney said: “My perspective, I think, will be hopefully widely shared that actually no matter what your view is on strength for the defence industry, future mix of energy suppliers that there ought to be in this country, it is not an acceptable way towards the issue by criminal sabotage.

“So I think the level of extra protection for those industries in particular in the spotlight is worth implementing and could be effective.”

Lord Peter Mandelson, who chaired the Q&A, also questioned Lord Walney on how likely his proposals would be to succeed in light of Tuesday’s High Court ruling that the Home Office’s attempt to lower the threshold for serious disruption was unlawful.

The crossbench peer accepted that some of the recommendations may be “laborious” to try to implement but argued that there is currently “not sufficient deterrent effect” to stop “extreme economic disruption.”

He said he wanted to persuade both Government and Opposition to “move as quickly as possible on as many of these recommendations as possible”.

“I just think the public is sick of the way in which they feel that their priorities are ignored there is not sufficient deterrent effect in stopping this kind of extreme economic disruption,” Lord Walney said.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said the report raised important questions
Home Secretary James Cleverly said the report raised important questions (Joe Giddens/PA)

Just Stop Oil said it did not recognise the legitimacy of the report because of the links, while Extinction Rebellion (XR) called it “shameful” that he had been asked to write the report.

An XR spokesman said: “We are a movement committed to non-violence.

“We train everyone acting in the name of Extinction Rebellion in non-violence.

“We have stewards to manage crowds responsibly. We have a policy for how to clear an area for emergency services.

“If the government can come for a group that works this hard at peaceful protest, they can come for anyone.”

Home Secretary James Cleverly said he would carefully consider Lord Walney’s recommendations.

He said: “The right to protest is a vital part of democracy, but there is absolutely no place for criminality or harassment on our streets. Too often, we have seen vile displays of hate crime and aggressive tactics used by so-called protesters.

“Lord Walney’s report raises important questions on the cumulative impact of disruptive and extremist activity on our communities. I thank Lord Walney and his team for this extensive and compelling report.”

Mr Cleverly said an extra £31 million of funding has been provided for security for MPs, and the definition of extremism has been updated.