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Sarah Everard vigil backlash: Priti Patel faces Labour and Tory fury over ‘freedom of protest’ law

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Priti Patel clashed with Labour and senior Tory backbenchers tonight over new crime laws that would limit ‘freedom of protest’ in the wake of the Sarah Everard vigil.

The Home Secretary accused the Opposition of being soft on crime for opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would introduce tougher sentences for childkillers and sex offenders.

But ahead of votes tomorrow, she also came under fire from her own side over provisions in the bill that would give police sweeping new powers to clear mass gatherings.

The wide-ranging Bill, drawn up in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, would allow officers to end protests that cause ‘serious inconvenience’ and even just ‘annoyance’. 

Vandals who criminally damage statues and war memorials could face up to 10 years in jail under the new law, which critics have pointed out is longer than some rapists receive. 

Ms Patel clashed with her Labour shadow Nick Thomas-Symonds when he said the  296-page Bill ‘contains the word memorial eight times and fails to include the word women once’

She told him she was ‘sorry to hear the tone’ of the shadow home secretary, adding; ‘I would like to emphasise that this Government is committed when it comes to violence against women and girls at the highest level.’

But she also came under fire from senior Tories. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, urged the Government to ensure that the right of peaceful protest is protected under new legislation. 

‘(Priti Patel) has rightly said that the right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy, but as she also said, this House on January 6 voted swingeing powers to control protests for the period of the coronavirus restrictions,’ he said.

‘Can I ask her to work with concerned members across the House to make sure that the legislation that we’re about to pass protects that right of peaceful protest and only stops serious disruption?’ 

The Home Secretary accused the Opposition of being soft on crime for opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would introduce tougher sentences for childkillers and sex offenders

The Home Secretary accused the Opposition of being soft on crime for opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would introduce tougher sentences for childkillers and sex offenders

But ahead of votes tomorrow, she also came under fire from her own side over provisions in the bill that would give police sweeping new powers. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, urged the Government to ensure that the right of peaceful protest is protected under new legislation.

But ahead of votes tomorrow, she also came under fire from her own side over provisions in the bill that would give police sweeping new powers. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, urged the Government to ensure that the right of peaceful protest is protected under new legislation.

A well-wisher places a tribute to the growing pile from a gap in a police cordon at the bandstand on Clapham Common, south London, on Saturday

A well-wisher places a tribute to the growing pile from a gap in a police cordon at the bandstand on Clapham Common, south London, on Saturday 

David Lammy (pictured last year) said the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains ‘poorly thought out’ proposals that would impose disproportionate controls on the right to protest

David Lammy (pictured last year) said the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains ‘poorly thought out’ proposals that would impose disproportionate controls on the right to protest

The wide-ranging Bill, drawn up in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, would give police the power to clamp down on protests that cause 'serious inconvenience' and even just 'annoyance'.

The wide-ranging Bill, drawn up in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, would give police the power to clamp down on protests that cause ‘serious inconvenience’ and even just ‘annoyance’. 

And fellow Conservative MP Charles Walker added: ‘This House criminalised the freedom of protest, this House, us. Not Dame Cressida, not the Metropolitan Police, we did. We criminalised the freedom to protest collectively. We are up to our eyeballs in this.

‘Does (Ms Patel) agree with me that now is the time to decriminalise freedom of protest, not tomorrow, not next week, but this afternoon, this evening. Let’s get people back on the streets, let’s allow people to get things off their chest again. Protest is a safety valve.’ 

A furious row is under way as MPs prepare to start debating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill later, with crunch votes due tomorrow. 

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy is understood to have voiced concerns about the ‘detrimental impact on minority groups’ and questioned the ‘evidential basis’ for longer sentences.

Publicly, Mr Lammy has insisted the legislation contains ‘poorly thought out’ proposals that would impose disproportionate controls on the right to protest. 

He has urged ministers to drop the plans and work cross-party to legislate to tackle violence against women in the wake of the Sarah Everard case and row over the policing of protests at the weekend.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick is resisting calls to resign over scenes of heavy-handed policing at a vigil on Clapham Common in south London on Saturday. 

A senior government source earlier said: ‘We think that rapists and other violent offenders should spend longer in prison, whatever their ethnicity and it’s a sad indictment of the modern Labour Party that they think equalities impacts are more important than protecting the public from violent criminals.’ 

Mr Lammy said there was a ‘national demand for action to tackle violence against women’, warning: ‘This is no time to be rushing through poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest. 

‘Now is the time to unite the country and put in place long overdue protections for women against unacceptable violence.’

And a former cief constable also hit out against the bill today. Sir Peter Fahy, former Greater Manchester Police chief constable told Times Radio there was a ‘real danger’ that rushed legislation could make the job of the police ‘more difficult’, adding: ‘People need to be really worried about this.’

He said: ‘If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.

‘And bringing in legislation on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of…

‘Again, if we’ve learned one thing from the coronavirus legislation, (it) is that rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.

‘This weekend has shown the crucial importance of the right to protest, and you’ve got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain protests during the summer.’

But Labour’s move to vote against the bill, having previously planned to abstain, angered Conservatives.

Party co-chairman Amanda Milling said: ‘It is shocking that Labour is trying to block tough new laws to keep people safe, including many vital measures to protect women from violent criminals.

‘By voting against this Bill, Labour are voting against tougher sentences for child murderers and sex offenders.’

But this accusation sparked apoplexy among Labour MPs. Shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips said it was ‘disgusting and untrue, adding: ‘The Conservative Government’s Bill does absolutely nothing currently to increase sentences for rapists, stalkers, or those who batter, control and abuse women. It does nothing about street harassment and assaults.

‘Under the Conservatives rape convictions have fallen to an all time low, and domestic abuse conviction rates are dropping off a cliff.’ 

Ms Dick has said the tragedy makes her 'utterly determined' to hold onto her job as the force's first female leader, and she spoke to Boris Johnson on the phone yesterday, who alongside Home Secretary Priti Patel are believed to support her. The PM is pictured out jogging with his dog, Dilyn today

The vigil was planned for Saturday in memory of marketing executive Sarah Everard

Ms Dick has said the tragedy makes her ‘utterly determined’ to hold onto her job as the force’s first female leader, and she spoke to Boris Johnson on the phone yesterday, who alongside Home Secretary Priti Patel are believed to support her. The PM is pictured out jogging with his dog, Dilyn today (left). Pictured right is Sarah Everard 

The wide-ranging Bill, drawn up in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, would give police the power to clamp down on protests that cause ‘serious disruption’. Pictured: A vandalised Winston Churchill statue in June 2020

The wide-ranging Bill, drawn up in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, would give police the power to clamp down on protests that cause ‘serious disruption’. Pictured: A vandalised Winston Churchill statue in June 2020

The law is being introduced after a host of memorials and statues across the country have been damaged in the past year as a result of increasing tensions over Britain’s colonial history.

They included the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and the new law would bar protests from outside the House of Parliament. 

But human rights lawyers warned that the bill would make powers handed to police under Covid regulations permanent even after the lockdown is lifted.

One, Adam Wagner, tweeted: ‘You may think the events of the past few days have shown beyond doubt that the police cannot be trusted to protect our free speech rights. Well, it’s about to get worse

‘The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill going through Parliament tomorrow would hugely expand their powers to allow them to stop protests which would cause ”serious unease” and create criminal penalties for people who cause ”serious annoyance”

Leading human rights lawyer Adam Wagner warned that the bill would make powers handed to police under Covid regulations permanent even after the lockdown is lifted.

Leading human rights lawyer Adam Wagner warned that the bill would make powers handed to police under Covid regulations permanent even after the lockdown is lifted.

The clashes came as Dame Cressida faced huge pressure over her officers’ conduct at the Sarah Everard vigil. 

A crowd of around 1,500 people gathered at Clapham Common in south London to remember 33-year-old marketing executive Ms Everard on Saturday. 

But scuffles broke out as police surrounded a bandstand covered in flowers left in tribute.

Dozens of police officers had moved in on the bandstand at the vigil to block access to speakers sparked tensions in the crowd and mourners started chanting ‘arrest your own’ and ‘shame on you’ as scenes quickly turned violent.

Boris Johnson has made clear he does not believe Dame Cressida should have to resign.  

But the 60-year-old has been heavily criticised for the policing of Saturday’s protest, with officers seen handcuffing screaming women who had gathered in Ms Everard’s memory. 

She has said her officers were right to break up the event, which saw thousands of people – mainly women – break Covid rules to gather on Clapham Common in south London, near to where Ms Everard, 33, was abducted.  

Ms Dick, 60, (seen joining an officer for a reassurance patrol in Clapham on Friday) was fighting for her job today after widespread criticism of how her force policed Saturday's protest

Ms Dick, 60, (seen joining an officer for a reassurance patrol in Clapham on Friday) was fighting for her job today after widespread criticism of how her force policed Saturday’s protest

Dame Cressida has said the tragedy makes her ‘utterly determined’ to hold onto her job as the force’s first female leader, and she spoke to Boris Johnson on the phone yesterday, who alongside Home Secretary Priti Patel are believed to support her.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, was has a say in Ms Dick’s future, said she was ‘not satisfied’ by her, and Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and the Women’s Equality Party are among those calling for her to go. 

The police chief will meet Mr Johnson again today for a meeting to discuss violence against women and girls, how to make the streets safer, and why rape prosecutions remain low. 

Ms Patel has called footage of women being arrested ‘upsetting’ and said there are ‘still questions to answer’, as she asked the chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, to carry out a ‘lessons learned’ review.   

Dame Cressida said last night after further protests outside Scotland Yard and in Parliament Square where police stood back from protesters: ‘What happened to Sarah appals me. 

‘As you know, I’m the first woman commissioner of the Met; perhaps it appalls me, in a way, even more because of that. What has happened makes me more determined, not less, to lead my organisation.’ 

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