Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Monday, 6 July 2009 10:23 UK

The fight for the right to object

By Caroline Mallan and Dhruti Shah
BBC Panorama

G20 protest

It is, in many respects, the stuff of childish playground spats - calling one another names, the tossing out of verbal insults.

But gather in the British government's definition of 'a group' - more than one person - and toss those same insults about and you could be deemed by police to be in breach of Section four of the Public Order Act 1986.

Gather in that same group and decline to inform the police in advance and you are in violation of Section 14 of that same act - the part that requires you to inform the authorities in advance if you plan to protest.

Go a step further and refuse to give your name and address should a passing police officer ask for it and you could be deemed to be in violation of Section 50 of the Police Reform Act of 2002.

It goes on.

The law and the protester
Public Order Act 1986 - makes it an offence to insult someone
Police Reform Act 2002 - protesters must provide personal details if asked by police
Terrorism Act 2000 - All of London deemed a legitimate stop and search zone, without grounds for suspicion
Counter Terrorism Act 2008 - Police say it is illegal to photograph or film officers

Bring a camera along and, according to the police, you could be in violation of Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which the police say prohibits you from photographing or filming them.

Sweeping powers

Should the police 'anticipate' that you might turn violent, they can invoke Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to stop and search you without reason or provocation.

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 goes even further, offering police sweeping powers to designate stop and search areas in which they can search anyone, anywhere at anytime without any grounds or suspicion.

All of Greater London is now deemed to be a designated stop and search area.

These are just some of the legislative powers that have been granted to police in recent years - powers which both protesters and civil rights campaigners say have eroded what many in the UK consider to be basic democratic rights.

Anna Fairclough, legal officer for Liberty, said that in their view, powers laid out in vague, over-reaching laws are being misused by police against law-abiding protesters - all without adequate accountability.

"Our concern is the combination with which these increasingly broad legislative powers which can be - and are - routinely being used by police."

Law misused

In the case of whether or not it is illegal to photograph the police, Ms Fairclough said the law - aimed at preventing soldiers and others from being targeted by terrorists - is being misused by police who do not want their own actions scrutinised.

I think the public would think we were idiots if we didn't try and understand what we were going to be policing
Meredydd Hughes, Association of Chief Police Officers

The police, both in London and nationally, defend the use of these laws to both monitor and control protests.

Meredydd Hughes, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, speaking to Panorama on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that an appropriate level of police intervention in protests is required to ensure that they remain peaceful and that any potential extremists are weeded out for reasons of public safety.

"I think the public would think we were idiots if we didn't try and understand what we were going to be policing," he said of the advance notice of protests that the police now say they require in order to do their job effectively.


Mr Hughes said the police are there to enforce the laws set by parliament.

Kingsnorth climate camp protest
Police carried out thousands of searches at a Kent climate protest

"If our tactics are considered to be unlawful or inappropriate then they can be changed...that's a matter of law and custom in the UK."

Liberty's Ms Fairclough agrees. She said in many instances, it is up to the government to amend and clarify vague laws, not leave it to frontline officers to interpret them.

"This is the result of a knee-jerk response by the government because it wants to look very tough on terrorism," she said of the legislation that has been passed. "The police now have so many overbroad powers it becomes increasingly unlikely that the average copper on the street will be able to keep up with them and apply them lawfully."

She said the G20 protests - and the resulting inquiries into the tactics employed by police - have signalled a turning point.

"I think there is an increasing awareness following the G20, and while it was a terrible time, it has also turned into an opportunity to raise issues," she said, specifically pointing to what protesters say is the longstanding frontline police tactic of not wearing their identification numbers.

Panorama: Whatever Happened to People Power? BBC One, Monday, 6 July at 2030BST.

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