Police need new powers to deal with protests such as those taking place around Brexit and climate change, a senior Scotland Yard officer has warned.
Giving evidence to the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, Commander Adrian Usher, head of the Metropolitan Police’s protection command, said it should not be enough for a protest to be “peaceful” to be considered lawful.
He said the police would conduct a review of the tactics used to deal with recent protests – including Extinction Rebellion, which brought parts of London and other cities to a halt – and he expected it would recommend legal change was needed.
“All of our minds are focused currently on protest both in terms of recent events connected with Brexit and of course the climate change protests that are being conducted at the moment,” he said.
“We need to move away from the language of talking about peaceful protest to talk about lawful protest.
“A protest being peaceful is only one of the attributes that the police would say are a sign to a protest that make it lawful.
“We will conduct a sober review of our tactics against recent protests, but I think it is likely to say the legislation associated with policing protest is quite dated and that policing and protest has moved on and that legislation should follow suit.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Home Secretary has spoken to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner regarding these protests and confirmed that the Home Office is on hand to discuss any support the force needs.
“We will continue to work closely with the police and will be considering any lessons we can learn from these events.”
Parliament’s director of security, Eric Hepburn, told the committee he had seen a dramatic rise in the number of cases of abuse and threats being reported by MPs in the two-and-a-half years since he had been in post.
“The sheer volume of online abuse that we are now seeing and reporting and recording is now growing month on month, year on year. It is skyrocketing,” he said.
“We are seeing threats around stabbing, shooting, threats of assault including rape, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, racial abuse.
“Personal abuse regarding appearance is a common feature. Harassment and intimidation of a personal nature as well.
“We are seeing stalking – we get fixated individuals – and we get aggressive confrontations and filming.”
His comments follow a number of high profile incidents of abuse aimed at MPs, including the pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry who was confronted by protesters outside Parliament.
Commons deputy speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said the level of abuse suffered by MPs was far higher than reported because they were prepared to endure treatment that would be unacceptable in other walks of life.
“We come here, we are elected and we begin to just soak it up as being the norm that is acceptable, when it is not acceptable. Nobody else would put up with what MPs put up with,” he said.
He expressed concern it had reached such a pitch that some MPs were considering walking away from public life altogether.
“Some friends of mine have said to me, ‘This isn’t for me any more, I don’t feel I could do this any more. I have got to put myself and my family first because I don’t feel I can continue’. That worries me,” he said.
“Where is the future of democracy for this country if already established people are thinking twice about standing?
“How will we get new people to come forward to ensure the democratic process takes place in this country?”