London night safety volunteers arrested in coronation protests crackdown worked in partnership with Met Police | Politics News
A volunteer arrested before the coronation as part of a crackdown on protesters has told MPs her organisation works in partnership with the Metropolitan Police.
Suzie Melvin and two of her colleagues were detained on the Friday ahead of the event while patrolling streets in central London as part of Westminster City Council’s Night Stars programme, which offers help to vulnerable people on evenings out to keep them safe.
But despite explaining their work to officers – and wearing hi-vis vests with the force’s logo emblazoned on them – the three women were taken into custody following reports people were handing out rape alarms to cause disruption.
Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Ms Melvin said she “fully accepted it was a challenging situation for the police” around the crowning of the King but she was concerned the experience may deter others from joining the volunteer group.
The Commons committee is holding an inquiry into police activities at the coronation after the force faced a backlash over the arrests it made around the event.
Officers took a total of 64 people into custody, including 13 people to “prevent a breach of the peace” and a man with an unused megaphone, which police said could “scare the horses”.
The Met said officers policed the coronation “proportionately” and within the “context” of the large-scale event, though they later expressed “regret” for arresting six protesters who were later released without charge.
A number of critics blamed a new law, the Public Order Act, brought in by the government just days before the coronation.
New powers under the law include letting officers stop and search anyone they suspect of planning to cause disruption and making “locking on” an offence.
How have protest laws changed and how were they used at coronation?
A senior police source told the i newspaper there had been “firm instruction” from the Home Office to crackdown on protests – amid speculation about political pressure on officers.
But speaking at the same committee, Assistant Commissioner of the Met, Matt Twist, said the police “rigorously guards [its] operational independence”.
He added: “The stakes were enormously high so I absolutely felt pressure. But that wasn’t political pressure, it was pressure to do a good job.”
The committee itself also faced interruption by protesters from Just Stop Oil on Wednesday – leading to groans from one MP.
Volunteer describes arrest despite work with police
Ms Melvin was asked to describe her experience to the committee by its chair, Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson.
She explained how the team of three volunteers started their shift at 7pm, patrolling areas like Soho, Leicester Square and the Embankment.
“We were walking about with our rucksacks [and in our] high visibility vests,” she said. “The rucksacks would contain things like bottles of water, sick bags, slippers, lollipops, hairbands, ponchos – anything you’d need at the end of a night out.”
The volunteer said it was “quite quiet compared to a normal Friday night so we were mainly giving people directions from outside of London on where to watch the coronation”, as well as speaking to police officers on the beat “as we always do”.
After returning to their base at a nearby church, the three decided to do “a final circuit around Soho” before heading home.
“Soho Square is always the last area we would patrol because there are often people waiting for taxis on their own there and a large part of our role is trying to keep people safe towards the end of a night,” said Ms Melvin.
“As we were entering the north side of Soho Square, we were approached by a number of [police] vans and then a large number of officers got out of the vans, approached us and said they were going to stop and search us.”
The police went through their bags and their pockets and kept the three volunteers separated, but appeared to ignore their pleas, she said.
“We explained to them who the Night Stars were,” said Ms Melvin. “We showed them emails from Westminster City Council, showed them the Night Stars website, we gave them leaflets which had been printed by Westminster City Council.
“And our high visibility vests do display the Met Police logo as well because we are in partnership with the police.”
But an officer told her they were specifically looking for volunteers from the organisation – and rape alarms.
“We do carry rape alarms which are part of a larger anti-spiking kit,” said Ms Melvin. “But neither myself or one of my colleagues have ever handed out a rape alarm.
“I think across the three of us, we had potentially three or four rape alarms on us.”
Despite this, the trio were arrested and taken to Woolworth police station, and their church base was also searched.
“I was interviewed at approximately 1pm the following day and then we were released a little bit after 4pm on Saturday,” Ms Melvin added.
Dame Diana was shocked at the story, saying: “That’s such a long time for you to be detained. I am a bit speechless having heard that account of what happened to you and your colleagues.”
Asked by another MP whether the experience had put her off volunteering, Ms Melvin said no, but added: “I can certainly see that it would dissuade other people from volunteering.
“If there’s a risk that you could be arrested and detained in the course of carrying out your volunteering. It certainly is a worry.”