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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Public Service Europe article: Police kettling silences our collective voice

19/09/2011   Denied access to food, water and toilet facilities. Made to stand outside for hours on end. Prevented from leaving the spot. This is not a scene from a prisoner of war film but the experience of some 3,000 protestors who were corralled and contained by London Metropolitan Police officers at Oxford Circus during the May Day 2001 anti-globalisation demonstration.  One peaceful protestor, Lois Austin, was even denied the right to leave to collect her 11 month old baby from the nursery.

Current law allows police to ‘kettle’ – contain under pressure – protestors in specific circumstances following a House of Lords ruling in 2009 which deemed the tactics used in 2001 lawful.  In its judgement, the court found that crowd control measures, such as kettling, were permissible if used in good faith, were proportionate and were enforced for no longer than was necessary. Obligations upon the police to meet the basic needs of people contained have also been specified.

Regretfully, incidents of kettling seem to have increased since the 2009 judgement, the ruling seemingly having been construed by the police as a green light to use temporary containment as a legitimate technique in modern day policing, even when protests are peaceful.  Evidence of this can be found in her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary report into the use of kettling at the 2009 G20 protests which noted that police plans for containment did not accurately reflect the legal criteria set out in the Lords ruling and that some commanders did not even seem familiar with the criteria that had to be met.

At the time of writing, Lois is set to appear before the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the legality of kettling under Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the outcome of which has the potential to radically alter the future policing of public protests.  The case could not be more timely.  Bernand Hogan-Howe, the new Met Police Commissioner, has marked his arrival by proclaiming that no legal tactic will be deemed out of bounds on his watch.  Such words should sound the warning bell for anyone concerned with civil liberties and social justice.  For kettling is more than just a challenge to the right to assembly and the right to protest; it is a humiliating practice which effectively punishes people for protesting – and should be banned outright.

People have a right to peacefully protest without the risk of harm from police.  This right must be encouraged and supported, not deterred by the ever present threat of temporary containment.  This is particularly true for young people.  During last year’s tuition fee protests, newspapers and TV screens were awash with images of school children being kettled in the November cold.  One eleven year old protestor was held by police until after dark.  My Green collague at the London Assembly and long-term campaigner for police accountability, Jenny Jones, issued requests to young people who attended the protest to send her details of their experiences, to try and build an accurate picture of how the protests were policed.  We cannot expect these young people to contribute positively to public life and engage with social issues if we stymie their fledling attempts to exercise their democratic rights.

The fact that kettling appears to be on the increase also suggests that police are using the technique indiscriminately, rather than limiting the tactic to situations which meet the criteria as outlined in the 2009 ruling.  It is right to say that police face an increasingly difficult task in policing multi-faceted demonstrations, but this should not be done through indiscriminate containment.  The continued use of kettling will only serve to further undermine public confidence in the police and heighten tensions already stretched to breaking point.

Kettling and heavy handed police techniques criminalise peaceful protests.  This has wide reaching implications for us all; those who protest against brutal cuts to their pensions, those who march to protect public services, those who object to the exorbitant rising costs of education, those who rightly challenge the status quo with the aim of realising a more equal and fair society. The use of kettling seeks to silence our collective voice and must be banned.

This article was published on Public Service Europe on the 16th September: