As we predicted last week, the coronavirus regulations are now being used to threaten people organising demonstrations.
New rules came into force in England on Friday ahead of the bank holiday weekend and on Sunday, Piers Corbyn was fined £10,000 for organising an anti-lockdown rally under the law restricting gatherings of more than 30 people.
The ways the powers are used in this instance was completely disproportional, as regulations allow political gatherings when organisers provide the required risk assessment. Piers Corbyn plans to challenge the fine in court and says he filled out the necessary forms after two weeks of negotiating with the police. It’s hard to see what issuing this fine achieved, apart from sending a chilling warning to other protest organisers.
Corbyn’s fine comes after the Met last week dropped a threat to investigate the organiser of another protest on suspicion of breaching coronavirus regulations. Police wrote to Ken Hinds, a community activist based in Haringey, north London, after he asked them to help facilitate a protest march from Notting Hill to Hyde Park on Sunday, warning him that by merely publicising the protest he may have already broken the law.
It took an urgent legal challenge accusing the Met of discrimination, for the force to back down and admit that Hinds and his organisation, Communities Against Violence, did fit the criteria of a ‘political body’, as outlined under the regulations. ITNSolicitors said that ‘this case has clarified that protests called by campaign organisations are not unlawful gatherings, as long the group has completed an adequate assessment of the public health risks of the protest’.
On Wednesday, Dyfed-Powys Police used powers to disperse a group of about 200 young people gathering in Burry Port, near Llanelli. The force said it had intelligence to suggest a further gathering was being planned over the bank holiday weekend.
A number of raves were broken up over the weekend, with parties in the middle of nowhere ended by the police or officers staying at the premises to keep an eye on things.
In Thetford Forest in Norfolk, more than 500 people attended a rave that was shut down by police in riot gear.
A rural rave in south Wales at Banwen attracted 3,000 people from around Britain, with the two organisers receiveing a £10,000 fixed penalty fine each. Officers also penalised people for “using their vehicles in an antisocial manner” near the site of the rave in Neath Port Talbot.
West Yorkshire Police said eight people were fined £10,000 for holding parties in the Headingley and Burley areas of Leeds, including two DJs – taking their equipement. A music event at Beaver Works in Leeds was also closed down on Sunday following reports it was in breach of coronavirus restrictions.
Police in Harlow, Essex, also seized thousands of pounds worth of gear ahead of an unlicensed music event on Saturday afternoon. They are looking for the organiser to take them to court. Ch Insp Lewis Basford has clearly chosen for a no-nonsense approach, saying: “My final message is to the organisers: we will seize the equipment – I don’t care if you’ve hired it from someone or if it’s yours, we will break up your event, and we can now fine you up to £10,000.”
West Midlands Police said it had dealt with about 90 reports of possible breaches of restrictions, but had not had to use its enforcement powers as they were mainly dealing with house parties.
Attention is now focused on how planned Extinction Rebellion demonstrations will be policed this week. (If you are taking part in next week’s XRebellionUK protests in London, Cardiff and Manchester, let us know if you experience oppressive policing, please get in touch with Netpol.)
The regulations on holding gatherings were published on 27th August, as usual long after they were introduced on 21th August. Barrister Adam Wagner is keeping a table of all of the national/local lockdown regulations – according to him these are the 24th passed with no parliamentary scrutiny, over one per week since the lockdown began.
In this thread, Wagner explains that it is already unlawful to participate in gatherings of over 30 people in private dwellings or public places subject to some pretty detailed exceptions – but if you are caught doing that, the fines start at £100 and can rise to £3,200 for six offences.
What the new regulations seek is to massively up the ante for those who ‘hold or [are] involved in the holding of a gathering’ – they now risk getting a £10,000 fine, whether it’s a rave or another event of more than 30 people. Political gatherings are exempt, but cooperation with the police is required and filling out a risk assesment for the event is obligatory. But still then – as the events of this week show – you run the risk of getting into problems.
From 28 August, Police Scotland officers have been given the power to break up indoor house parties with more than 15 people in commercial properties – up from eight people under the last regulations.