NEWS
04/04/2019 00:01 BST

Brexit: Police Chief Says MPs, Activists And The Press Have A Responsibility Not To Inflame 'Febrile' Atmosphere

Martin Hewitt said people with a platform should think carefully about how they express opinions.

People with a platform, including activists, politicians and the press, should be careful about the language used to discuss Brexit in order to avoid inciting bad behaviour, one of the country’s most senior police officers has warned.

Police chiefs said they had been planning for the worst case scenario and felt confident they were well able to react to any disorder caused by the UK leaving the EU, no matter what option the government chooses. 

The contingency planning has involved preparations for protests, riots, disruption at the UK’s ports and maintaining the supply chains of food, fuel and medicine.

Pointing out that there is an “incredibly febrile atmosphere” as a result of Brexit, the National Police Chiefs Council’s new chairman, Martin Hewitt, said prominent individuals who have a platform have a responsibility in the way they conduct themselves.

“This is highly emotive as an issue, as we all know, and everyone will have their opinions.

“But I think there is a responsibility on those individuals who have a platform and a voice to communicate in a way that is temperate and is not in any way going to inflame people’s views or cause any actions,” he said.

PA Wire/PA Images
NPCC’s new chairman Martin Hewitt.

Addressing journalists during a briefing at the National Police Co-ordination Centre, Hewitt, who only started the role on Monday, said there had already been protests and demonstrations and “a lot of angry talk” on social media.

“It’s incumbent on anybody in position of responsibility, and who has a voice, just to think carefully about how they express their views and their opinions so what they are not doing is inciting any behaviour ... or causing anybody to behave in a way we wouldn’t like them to behave.”

When pushed on whether there were any specific examples or people he had in mind, he said he thought “everybody” needed to think about that, and included the way the journalists report on issues related to Brexit to ensure the media isn’t “fuelling situations to make them worse”.  

He called for the media to report in a “temperate and factual way”.

Hewitt added that it wasn’t about stopping people having opinions, but asking influential people to think carefully about the way they express those views and the impact that has on others, warning they have unintended consequences.

PA Wire/PA Images
Police officers carry equipment through Downing Street in London, as multiple Brexit protests gathered in Parliament Square on March 29.

NPCC lead for operations, chief constable Charlie Hall, said despite the tension described by Hewitt, they had no intelligence that any future protests about Brexit on either side of the divide were going to be anything but peaceful. 

Hall stressed that the police felt prepared for any eventuality.

He said the number of crimes related to Brexit had remained at a modest level although the number more than doubled last week with 26 crimes pegged to leaving the EU, compared with 11 the week before. Half of the crimes last week were malicious communication and the other crimes included verbal abuse, harassment and protest activity. 

One protester admitted climbing on to a station roof and causing widespread disruption to Eurostar services, while British Transport Police are looking for another who planted devices aimed at bringing trains to a halt in Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire.

There were 94,000 hate crimes reported in England and Wales during 2017/18. However not all were Brexit related as the series of terror attacks during 2017 are thought to have been behind many incidents. 

Hate crimes did spike significantly following the EU referendum and although the levels have stabilised since then, they still remain higher than before June 2016. 

Hall said police “need to watch hate crimes really closely” and was very aware that hate crime is heavily underreported. 

With regards to other demands on police time such as at ports dealing with long queues, Hall said: “We’ve been very clear that policing support should only really be called on if absolutely necessary in dealing with the wider civil contingencies.”

He added: “Our push has been back to those sectors, those parts of government, the private sector, to say ‘it’s your responsibility to look at your individual supply chains and you should not be looking to police to come in to supplement and keep your supply chain running’.”

Local resilience forums, which include representatives from councils and the police, have carried out training exercises to deal with shortages, and police training has included dealing with disorder, including looting.

Under existing national contingency plans, every police force is expected to make a certain number of officers available to be deployed wherever they are required.

SIPA USA/PA Images
A police officer stands guard during the 'Put it to the people' anti-Brexit march on April 23.

More than 10,000 riot-trained officers can be deployed within 24 hours if needed, with 1,000 available in the first hour. This is more than were mobilised during the 2011 riots.

There are also specialist teams such as dog handlers, armed police and search-trained officers which can be called upon.

Asked how police forces will cope with the added demand on top of normal workloads, Hall said: “We are talking about worst case scenario here. That’s what we have planned for and at the present moment we have not got the intelligence that we are going to be at that point.

“What we have said to forces is you need to plan for that continuity and how you deliver the core policing services. This means extending hours of work, stopping training activity and stopping peripheral policing functions to be able to maximise the number of officers they can put on the front line.”

Hall said special constables - volunteer police officers - could also be used if required.

To cope with any additional disorder in Northern Ireland, 1,000 police officers have received extra training so that they can be deployed there if needed.

The police in the region use armoured Land Rovers and water cannons, unlike their mainland counterparts.

Hall pointed out that Northern Ireland had not yet requested any additional help.

So far 15 forces have placed restrictions on annual leave, and two have officially asked for mutual aid - Kent, which covers the port of Dover, and Hampshire, which covers Portsmouth.