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The government has given the police emergency powers under new legislation to counter violent or distressing behaviour at protests.
It comes just days just ahead of the king’s coronation on May 6.
Under the provision of the newly passed Public Order Bill, from May 3 police officers will be able to stop and search protesters, and seize objects such as lock-on devices that may be used in the commission of a protest-related offence.
Other “prohibited” objects or acts are defined as those “capable of causing serious disruption to two or more individuals, or an organization.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman welcomed the extended powers, saying they will prevent activists intent on disruption before they can strike.
“Disruptive protests can wreak havoc, unfairly impacting the lives of many. Today, I’m pleased to announce that the Public Order Bill has received Royal Assent from His Majesty, the King. As the Public Order Act of 2023, this law will bring in new offenses for unacceptably disruptive and damaging protest tactics,” Braverman said in a Home Office statement.
Although she welcomed the right to protest and called it “fundamental to our democracy,” she added that it doesn’t extend to “locking yourself onto motorway gantries, gluing yourself onto historic buildings or digging dangerous tunnels.”
“Such selfish acts risk lives,” Braverman said.
According to the new legislation, the locking-on offence and obstruction of major transport works will carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, while for interference with key national infrastructure, the maximum penalty is 12 months. The maximum penalty for causing serious disruption by tunnelling will be three years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
Anti-monarchy organization Republic is planning “Not My King” protests for the day of the coronation and expects thousands to join in as King Charles’s parade comes up The Mall, through Trafalgar Square, and down to Westminster Abbey.
According to Republic’s Chief Executive Graham Smith, the group has received an official warning letter from the Home Office, highlighting new legislative changes that will affect disruptive protesters.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has criticised the new law, arguing it is “wholly unnecessary as UK police already have the powers to act against violent and disruptive demonstrations.”
However, security minister Tom Tugendhat argued in favour of the new police powers ahead of the coronation weekend.
“We are bringing forward powers that the police asked for many, many months ago, before we knew there was a coronation coming. We are making sure they are in place in time for this major national event,” he said.
Secretary of State for the Department for Energy Security, Grant Schapps, argued that the Public Order Bill will “stop anarchist climate activists and others from putting lives at risk.”
“We’ve toughened up sentences for the guerrilla tactics of these groups and given the police the powers to just stop the chaos,” Schapps said.
Britain has faced a number of protests in recent years, staged by climate activists such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain. Some of the protests have resulted in disruptive blockage of main roads and motorways across the UK.
Ahead of the coronation events, Britons will see increased police presence at events in London, Windsor, and other parts of the country, including armed officers, as part of the national security operation, dubbed Operation Golden Orb.
The Metropolitan Police has encouraged the public to speak to police officers present at coronation events, if they “see something that doesn’t feel right.”
On May 3, the police arrested a man outside Buckingham Palace after he threw a number of items—suspected to be shotgun cartridges—into the palace grounds.
At this time it is not being treated as terror related.