The head of the Metropolitan Police has said his officers will be “ruthless” in policing and enforcing the law at protests, but said there could only be prosecutions when the law is broken.
It comes as Rishi Sunak’s government is reviewing the definition of extremism in a move that could allow councils and police forces to cut off funding to charities and religious groups found to have aired hateful views.
On Saturday, nine people were arrested in central London during a mainly peaceful pro-Palestine demonstration – with at least 100,000 protesters calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Seven of those were alleged public order offences, a number of which are being treated as hate crimes, while two are for suspected assaults on officers.
Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley told Sky News: “We’re going to be absolutely ruthless, and we have been – and you’ll see many more arrests over the next week or so.” He added that he would support a review into the legal definition of extremism and how it should be policed.
“There is scope to be much sharper in how we deal with extremism within this country,” he said. “The law was never designed to deal with extremism – there’s a lot to do with terrorism and hate crime but we don’t have a body of law that deals with extremism, and that is creating a gap.”
Levelling-up secretary Michael Gove is understood to have ordered officials to draw up a new official definition of extremism in a move designed to counter hate, including antisemitism. Separately, home secretary Suella Braverman is reportedly examining potential changes to terrorism legislation to expand some definitions in existing laws.
The Met said later on Sunday that two women had been arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred after an incident in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Officers also followed up on reports that a pamphlet was being sold along the route of the march that praised Hamas, the force confirmed on social media.
Cabinet minister Michelle Donelan said the current laws are “robust enough” – but did not deny ministers were reviewing the official definition of extremism as part of an attempted crackdown.
Pushed on whether the definition of extremism was being reconsidered, Ms Donelan said: “Everything is always kept under constant review … we believe the existing law is robust enough and the police should be applying that in these circumstances.”
The science secretary added: “Of course, if we feel over the coming weeks that that is not enough, what I’m saying is that of course we would [take further action].”
Ms Donelan also said she thought “personally” that some pro-Palestinian protesters were “inciting hatred” as she suggested police could do more to clamp down on any support for Hamas – a proscribed terrorist group.
Asked on Sky News whether some protests had crossed the line, she said “Yes” and mentioned activists holding images of Hamas paragliders. “That is inciting hatred,” she said. “I personally think it is inciting hatred, and is something the police should be looking at.”
Ms Donelan also told GB News: “It is not OK to be shouting jihad on our public streets.” It follows criticism of Scotland Yard for its failure to act against “jihad” chants and use of social media to explain why the term had “a number of meanings”.
Sir Mark said his officers have been policing pro-Palestine protest “robustly”.
The Met chief said there have been “distasteful” scenes at recent pro-Palestine protests but some of those actions were not at the level to be prosecuted. He added: “There’s no point arresting hundreds of people if it’s not prosecutable – that’s just inflaming things.”
In a development first reported by the Sunday Telegraph, officials in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are examining a suggested new definition of hateful extremism.
But The Independent understands that the work started before Hamas’s deadly attack on Israel on 7 October, during which terrorists killed 1,400 people.
A new definition of extremism would allow the government to alert local authorities and other public bodies such as the charities regulator to look at groups at risk of violating rules. The Whitehall department is considering definitions published in 2021 as part of a report Sir Mark was involved with.
The report urged ministers to do more to eradicate extremism, concluding then that gaps within current legislation had left it harder to tackle “hateful extremism”. Separately, the Home Office is examining potential changes to terrorism legislation, the Telegraph reported.
The pro-Palestinian protests in the UK took place against a backdrop of a worsening picture in the Middle East. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told his nation that the military has opened a “second stage” in the war against Hamas by sending ground forces into Gaza.
Ms Donelan said Mr Sunak’s government had not set any so-called “red lines” in relation to Israel’s response to the Hamas terror attack. The cabinet minister also blamed Hamas for civilian deaths in the Israeli offensive on Gaza, saying Hamas has been using the Palestinian people as “human shields”.
She told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme: “It is very difficult to get to Hamas without hurting innocent civilians.”
Senior Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran – who has relatives in Gaza – accused Ms Donelan of making “deeply offensive” remarks about civilians in the Palestinian territory.
Ms Moran condemned the Tory minister for saying Hamas was stopping people from leaving their homes. She said: “That is not what is happening. I find it deeply offensive to suggest that Hamas is giving my family any kind of marching orders. They can’t move … nowhere in Gaza is safe.”
The Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesperson also told the BBC: “The conversation now in Gaza has changed. No longer are people saying, ‘Where do we go to be safe.’
“The question they are now asking, ‘Where do we want to be when we die?’” BBC host Victoria Derbyshire responded: “Oh my God.”
Meanwhile, Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf said he has spoken to his in-laws who are trapped in Gaza. He said on Saturday that he and his wife, Nadia El-Nakla, had not been able to contact her parents since the previous day after communications were knocked out, and they did not know if they were dead or alive.
Ms El-Nakla’s parents, Elizabeth and Maged, travelled to Gaza from Scotland prior to the conflict to visit family.
“We heard from my in-laws in Gaza this morning. They are alive, thank God. However, they have run out of clean drinking water,” Mr Yousaf said on X, previously Twitter. “We need the violence to stop, and for significant amounts of aid to get through without delay.”