Democratic right to protest curtailed in pre-election parliamentary 'wash-up'
the last acts of the Government before the dissolution of Parliament has been to
severely curtail the democratic right of individuals to protest at the
geographical heart of government.
In the just passed
Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, clauses relating to 'behaviour in the
vicinity of Parliament' (129-135) were primarily aimed at removing Brian Haw,
the Parliament Square peace protestor, who has spent nearly 4 years in a
continuous anti-war protest vigil opposite the Houses of Parliament . Other
measures have also been included that could have wide-ranging implications on
Tony Benn, who has
supported Mr Haw over the years, said that, "The clamping of political debate in
Parliament Square to silence the voices of opposition represents a leap
backwards to a pre-democratic age."
With the dissolution of
Parliament imminent, remaining business there is dealt with in a 'wash-up'
period in which the parties negotiate so that bills can be processed very
quickly. The highly controversial religious hatred clauses were struck so that
the rest of the bill could be passed.
However, many other
controversial clauses saw almost no debate in either chamber, partly due to lack
of time, despite many concerns that the legislation should be postponed because
of the 'very serious, contentious and important' implications for individual
rights of assembly. Baroness Shirley Williams said it was 'bizarre' and 'ironic'
that such rights to protest are 'praised in the Lebanon, in the Ukraine, in
Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere' but 'we are now beginning to make (them) almost
impossible in our own country.' Other MPs had previously pointed out how
unworkable the laws will be and how peaceful protestors could easily become
criminalised by breaching them in circumstances that are not in their control .
Mr Haw's protest has
been accepted as lawful since he won his landmark High Court case in October
2002, necessitating the government pass new legislation to remove him. In the
process of limiting his and others' free speech in Parliament Square, the
Government have taken the opportunity to place severe restrictions on protest in
a very wide area around Parliament, which will seriously curtail the rights of
everyone to protest in Central London, whatever the issue.
In response to the new
legislation, Mr Haw, who currently remains in Parliament Square, said,
'Genocide, or crying out against it, which is the crime? Mr Blair is ushering in
an increasingly Orwellian state. My concern is for the children suffering in
Iraq as a result of British policy. That is why I have been here over 1400
Demonstrators will now
have to give 6 days notice (or 24 hours if not 'reasonably practical' to give 6
days) to the Metropolitan Commissioner, who will say whether a protest may go
ahead and, if so, under what restrictions. Such unworkable restrictions include
how many people may turn up and how many placards they may carry. Restrictions
may be placed if the protest is seen as likely to cause a 'disruption to the
life of the community'. As most protest causes some disruption by its very
nature, this law will have wide-ranging implications. A single police office may
be able to change any of the restrictions at the time of the protest, creating
further impediments to peaceful assembly. The restrictions will apply to any
protest within 1km of Parliament Square, covering all government buildings and
much else besides. The penalties for breaching the restrictions are severe - up
to a year in prison and substantial fines. The Human Rights organisation
Liberty, say that they cannot see how these measures "can be compatible with
Article 11 of the Human Rights Act (the right to freedom of peaceful assembly
24 HOUR SOLIDARITY
We need to have people in the Square with Brian in
the event of his eviction and to show solidarity with him. When the police
arrested Brian in the middle of the night last May, having others actually there
at the time and as witnesses was important in winning the case.
It's important to
stress that we have no idea how, when, and even if, this legislation will be
fully enacted on all who those could fall under its category of protestor.
However, because of the new law there is a (slim) chance that anyone who may
look like they are protesting will, by doing so,
risk arrest. What 'looking like
protesting' means is an example of the probable unworkability of this
legislation (are curious tourists or a passing family spending time reading
Brian's boards part of this group?).
don't wish to risk arrest should
be able to visit Brian with no concerns until there is an attempt to move him.
He is after all, the primary target of this whole governmental manoeuvre and it
is unlikely that others will be targeted BEFORE Brian.
But it is important to
stress that, once the act becomes law, and from then on, there is theoretically
a POSSIBILITY of arrest if the letter of the act is followed.
Based on the vast
majority of previous cases of arrest in non-violent protest situations, we do
expect people to be warned first so that those who don't want to face arrest can
leave. If an arrest (you or someone else) was to happen, you can phone Bindmans
on 020 7833 4433.
THINGS TO TAKE IF
YOU ARE GOING FOR A PERIOD OF TIME: Take
the following for your own use: umbrella, waterproofs, warm clothes, drinking
water and food, sleeping bag, 50ps for the toilet, charged-up mobile phone.
Civil disobedience protests if Brian is evicted
We don't know how or when this will happen - if
there will be a notice period or if it will happen in the middle of the night
etc. What we must now prepare for is action if it does happen. We need to show
solidarity with Brian if/when/before he is evicted and we need to do civil
disobedience actions to defy the law and to show how unworkable it is.
If Brian is evicted there will be civil disobedience protests (involving the
risk of arrest) in Parliament Square.