Arms factories in the UK now have legal protection from protests

  • Post last modified:May 21, 2024
  • Reading time:6 mins read

The Tories have quietly changed the law to allow arms factories to call themselves “prohibited places”. This is under the guise of national security. It means companies such as Elbit can get protesters like Palestine Action arrested for simply protesting over Israel – and don’t think Elbit is already taking full advantage of this.

Arms factories: National Security Act protection

Campaigners say they will not be intimidated and will continue taking action against the arms trade despite a clause in the National Security Act that potentially outlaws protests at hundreds of arms companies across the country. This includes some of the UK’s biggest arms companies and others who are complicit in arming Israel’s genocide in Gaza, including BAE Systems and Elbit Systems.

The act, which received Royal Assent in July 2023, was highlighted as a draconian threat by the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) in 2022 in relation to protests outside military bases.

However, campaigners in Bristol noticed on 25 April that Elbit Systems is now displaying notices advising people that its premises is now a “prohibited place” under the act. A notice to defence contractors issued in April 2024 further reveals that its provisions have been extended to all arms companies that have contracts to supply UK defence.  The document also advises companies to display signage to show they are “prohibited places”:

According to the notice, under the act, the factories and offices of these companies are now designated as “prohibited places” with a raft of offences attached to them.

Banged up for protesting

This includes an offence, with a maximum penalty of 14 years, if a person “accesses, enters, inspects, passes over or under, approaches or is in the vicinity of a prohibited place” and they “know or ought reasonably to know” their actions are “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.”

There is also a lesser offence, with a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment for accessing, entering or inspecting without prejudicing the interests of the UK.

The act also gives the police new authoritarian powers to compel anyone in, or adjacent to, a prohibited place to leave the area if an officer “reasonably believe[s] that exercising the power is necessary to protect the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.” Failure to comply with an order carries a maximum sentence of three months imprisonment.

However, a briefing published by Netpol highlights that while the use of signs and the threat of this legislation is designed to scare and deter people, protest against arms companies is still legal.

The briefing also points out that while there is potential for repression and abuse of this legislation, there will be a very high threshold for a successful prosecution that shows anti-arms trade protesters are acting against the UK’s safety and interest.

Repressing protest at arms factories

Campaign Against Arms Trade’s media coordinator Emily Apple said:

This is clearly an attempt to repress and deter protests against arms companies – but this is an attempt that will fail. These companies are complicit in the horrific war crimes Israel is committing in Gaza. They are profiting from genocide, and ordinary people across the country are taking action on an almost daily basis against these merchants of death.

We will not be intimidated and we will not be deterred. Our government is refusing to impose an arms embargo despite overwhelming evidence Israel is breaking International Humanitarian Law so it is down to all of us to take action. It is not in the UK’s interest, and it does not make the UK safe, to break international law and arm a genocide, and we will challenge any attempt to use this act against campaigners.

Network for Police Monitoring’s campaigns coordinator Kevin Blowe said:

The wave of recent new anti-protest laws over the last few years have left many in the movements we work with uncertain about their rights and the limits of police powers. We feel this confusion is exactly what government wanted and the intention behind new signs threatening arrest on the grounds of “national security”.

This is why it is so important for campaigners to know their rights and stand their ground when confronted by police efforts to try and move them. In Netpol’s experience, the prospect of arbitrary misuse of the stated aims of this legislation, simply because it is convenient in the moment for the police when facing demonstrators, is far greater than the likelihood of successful prosecutions.

This is one of the reasons why we call on the Home Office to publish – sooner rather than later – its promised guidelines on how prohibited places are “policed appropriately”. We need to know what to expect – or else to expect the worst.

Featured image via Netpol

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