Boris Johnson has backed the head of the Metropolitan Police over the handling of a vigil in London for Sarah Everard last Saturday, although he described the events as "very distressing".
Commissioner Cressida Dick came under pressure to quit after police seized and arrested several women demonstrating on Clapham Common, near where Ms Everard went missing while walking home on March 3rd.
The Inspectorate of Constabulary, a police watchdog, is investigating the policing of the demonstration. But speaking to reporters during a visit to Coventry, the prime minister said he had full confidence in Dame Cressida.
“Yes, I do. And what she’s asked is we look at what happened on Saturday night. The police do have a very, very difficult job, but there’s no question that the scenes that we saw were very distressing,” he said.
“The reality is the country is united still in shock and grief about what happened to Sarah Everard. We must do everything we can to find the answers.”
Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer, has been charged with the kidnap and murder of Ms Everard, whose body was found in woodland in Kent last week.
Context of Covid
Home secretary Priti Patel said nobody should prejudge the outcome of the investigation into how the police acted at Clapham Common on Saturday but she said they were operating in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 120,000 people in Britain.
“Over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic, the police have been faced with an unenviable and immediately difficult task. It is one for the most part that they have approached with skill and professionalism, helping to enforce regulations as determined by parliament with one crucial objective in mind, to save lives.
“This House approved those changes by 524 votes to 16 on January 6th this year. Sadly, as of Sunday March 14th, more than 125,500 lives have been lost to this horrible virus,” she told the House of Commons.
“It is for that reason that I continue to urge everyone for as long as these regulations are in place not to participate in large gatherings or attend protests. The right to protest is the cornerstone of our democracy, but the government’s duty remains to prevent more lives being lost during this pandemic.
Ms Patel was speaking ahead of a debate on a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would give police more powers to break up public demonstrations. The Bill would allow police to impose start and finish times on protests, set noise limits and apply the rules to demonstrations involving just one person.
Anyone refusing to follow restrictions, even if they were unaware of them, could face a fine of up to £2,500 (€2,900). A new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” targets protests involving actions like occupying buildings or hanging from bridges. The Bill would also allow people who damage memorials and statues to be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds noted that the word memorial appears eight times in the Bill but the word woman does not appear once.
“The government’s message is they want to lock up people who damage the statues of slave traders for 10 years when rape sentences start at half that,” he said.
“And I say to the government today – unless this changes, unless there’s action on homicide, unless there’s action on street harassment, unless there’s action on stalking, this Bill will risk becoming an abusers’ charter that just allows violence and injustice in our streets and in our homes to continue unchecked.”