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Democratic right to protest curtailed in pre-election parliamentary 'wash-up'

Brian HawOne of 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 protest elsewhere

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 days.'

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 and association)."

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?).

Those who 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.


April 2005


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