Britain’s most senior police officer has suggested the visit by the Duchess of Cambridge to the Sarah Everard vigil was legal because she was “working”, even though the trip was private and not an official engagement.
Kate Middleton’s visit to the bandstand on Clapham Common raised eyebrows, with many arguing her trip to south London was not “essential” under the nationwide lockdown restrictions in place at the time.
Just hours after the duchess’ visit, clashes erupted after police tried to disperse crowds – hundreds of people had turned up to pay their respects to Everard – citing coronavirus laws as the reason for the otherwise peaceful vigil’s illegality.
The ugly scenes attracted an outpouring of criticism on social media, with Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and Women’s Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer leading calls for Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick to resign.
‘She was working'
Referring to Middleton’s visit, Dame Cressida told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the duchess was “in the course of her duties, she was working.”
But the duchess’s visit was not listed in the Court Circular – the daily list of royal engagements – so it was not an official engagement. While private visits can constitute a royal duty, they would still usually be listed in the Court Circular.
Furthermore, a report on the handling of the vigil published on 30 March revealed that the police commander on the ground at the vigil was not warned that Middleton would be visiting.
Dame Cressida told the broadcaster it was “clearly” possible to attend the event under the law “for somebody who lived locally to walk, as many did, and lay flowers legally.”
The duchess’s London base is Kensington Palace – which is more than four miles from the Clapham Common bandstand – and she is reported to have arrived by car.
Under lockdown laws in place at the time, there was no specific distance members of the public were legally allowed to travel from their homes; the position on vigils or protests was that police were expected to look at each individual event and weigh up the public health risks.
Dame Cressida told the BBC that the force had known about the trip but said: “We take all sorts of precautions to make sure that we don’t unwittingly draw attention to visits like that.”
Institutional sexism ‘running through the force’
On Tuesday 30 March, an official report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), backed the Met’s handling of the event and found no evidence of heavy-handedness.
But it criticised the force’s “tone deaf” response to criticism of the way it dealt with protesters, saying the Met should have taken a more conciliatory approach.
Reclaim These Streets, the original organisers of the Everard vigil, said the report from HMICFRS was “disappointing” and demonstrated “institutional sexism running through the force”.
“Instead of taking responsibility for their actions," is said, “the Metropolitan Police is standing behind claims that we were inexperienced organisers, despite some of us being elected officials and others having a decade long track record of working with police and councils on events.
"We anticipated a fair and balanced inquiry and are instead being told not to believe what we saw and heard reported two weeks ago. “The HMICFRS had a responsibility to begin rebuilding the trust between women and girls across the capital and the Metropolitan Police.
"The disregard for us as women organisers in the report is clear there is still institutional sexism running through the force.”
Additional reporting by Press Association