Demonstrators who desecrate war memorials could face prison sentences of up to ten years, under plans being considered by ministers after the Cenotaph and a statue of Winston Churchill were boarded up to protect them from violent protests.
Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, are understood to be discussing proposals to make it easier to prosecute people who damage monuments to those who died during wars. The measures under discussion could also cover some of the statues currently being targeted by activists.
The talks began after 125 Conservative MPs backed plans for a new Desecration of War Memorials Bill, which is due to be presented to the Commons on June 23 by two backbenchers, Jonathan Gullis, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and James Sunderland, a former Army officer.
Ministers are facing a growing revolt from backbenchers about the handling of protests which have seen the Cenotaph daubed with graffiti, while demonstrators pulled down a statue in Bristol and are targeting many others across the country. In another incident last week, paint was found to have been thrown at two memorials in Lincolnshire.
On Saturday, missiles were thrown at riot police attempting to move far-right activists away from Whitehall as their self-proclaimed mission to protect the Cenotaph and statue of Churchill descended into hours of violence.
In a letter to The Sunday Telegraph, half a dozen backbenchers from the Blue Collar Conservatives group of MPs say the Government “must send a clear signal that the Conservative Party is the proud party of law and order … and that it will not stand idly by as our democracy is dismantled in this way.” The group, including Esther McVey, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, call for “specific sanctions against those who deface and damage war memorials and monuments.”
Separately, writing in this newspaper, Ben Bradley, a government aide and the MP for Mansfield, warns: “My constituents expect a Conservative government to be the staunch defender of our culture and our heritage, and to take as strong a stance on law and order today as we did in the election. Otherwise it is not a conservative government at all.”
Mr Gullis and Mr Sunderland are due to meet Ms Patel, Mrs Braverman and Mr Buckland this week to discuss their proposals to crack down on those who target monuments – an issue causing particular unease among backbenchers.
“At present there is no specific law to protect these important monuments and unless £5,000 worth of damage is done, it is incredibly hard to prosecute,” Mr Gullis said.
One option being considered by ministers as a way to tackle the issue is to amend the Criminal Damage Act to make war memorials exempt from a stipulation that damage amounting to less than £5,000 should be treated as a lesser offence and handled by a magistrates court.
Such a move would leave those who vandalise such monuments facing a crown court hearing and a potential prison sentence of up to ten years.
Mr Johnson said “racist thuggery has no place on our streets”. He posted on Twitter:
Racist thuggery has no place on our streets. Anyone attacking the police will be met with full force of the law. These marches & protests have been subverted by violence and breach current guidelines. Racism has no part in the UK and we must work together to make that a reality.
— Boris Johnson #StayAlert (@BorisJohnson) June 13, 2020
Ms Patel condemned the “unacceptable thuggery” of far right activists who attacked police with sticks and bottles during prolonged and sustained violence in Westminster.
Six police officers were treated for minor injuries suffered during the clashes and at least 15 people were treated in total, with six people – all members of the public – taken to hospital.
The violence – which came as Black Lives Matter protestors gathered in mostly peaceful protest elsewhere around the country – were described by Ms Patel as “thoroughly unacceptable”.
On Friday, Conservative MPs privately began to accuse police and ministers of “surrendering” the streets after the Cenotaph and Churchill’s statue were boarded up ahead of further demonstrations today. Black Lives Matter later called off a planned march in Hyde Park after threats from far-Right groups to descend on their protest.
In a statement on Twitter, Mr Johnson warned that to tear down statues “would be to lie about our history”, as he condemned the “intolerable” highjacking of peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 26.
In their public letter to this newspaper, Ms McVey, along with MPs including Lee Anderson and Brendan Clark-Smith, state: “The recent protests have been dominated by criminals who are
undermining the very real fight against racism by burning flags, vandalising sacred war memorials and attacking police officers and this has caused outrage in our newly won constituencies in the Midlands and the North.
“It’s time for these subversive individuals to be arrested, prosecuted and punished in accordance with the law.”
Meanwhile, Bim Afolami, the Conservative MP for Harpenden, described the “Topple the Racists” campaign to bring down statues as “bonkers”.
“You have to judge people to a large degree by the standards of their time. History is mixed and messy and has nuance,” he said.
“In 200 years time I’m pretty sure that future societies will regard things we do today, such as driving cars that pollute the atmosphere, as completely unconscionable.”
Nusrat Ghani, the former transport minister, added: “Racism is a disease of our society and causes immense individual pain, as those of us who have experienced it know very well.
“But defacing statues and daubing the Cenotaph does nothing to support black and ethnic minority people.
“Too many of these protesters are more interested in making statements and virtue signalling than advancing practical solutions that would improve the lives of people from communities like the one I came from. If only the energy of the violent protestors was directed into changing systematic racism which denies equal access to opportunities, security and stability.”