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CIVIL LIBERTIES: BANNED - From 1 August 2005: no permit - no protest

Emma Sangster reports on the latest repressive legislation and the plans for civil disobedience to defy the ban.

On 1 July, substantial new restrictions on protest around Parliament came into force, the breaking of which becomes an arrestable offence from 1 August. Any person thinking of making a political public statement in the centre of political power in London will be legally obliged to apply for permission from the Metropolitan Commissioner and abide by a range of possible restrictions or risk a large fine and year's prison sentence. 

The measures, contained in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCP), are seen by many as the latest in a number of recent legal and policing developments that make peaceful protest increasingly difficult.

With the attacks on 7 July in London likely to give further momentum to those who argue for curtailment of civil rights, and state monitoring of all individuals, campaigners need to work even harder to ensure that permission to protest does not replace this country's hard won right to protest. Ironically, even a spontaneous protest in solidarity with the victims of the bombs, taking place in this location, would not be able to gather legally.

The first target

For the Government, the SOCP Act represents the end of a long battle to remove Brian Haw from his 24/7 peace protest opposite the Houses of Parliament, a protest that began in June 2001.

Mr Haw's protest has since been accepted as lawful since a landmark High Court case in October 2002 when the judge denied an injunction to Westminster City Council on the grounds that Mr Haw's freedom of speech under the Human Rights Act outweighed any obstruction he may be causing. As a result, the government has had to pass new legislation to evict him and his huge display of placards, banners and information boards calling for peace and justice, in particular for the children of Iraq.

"I am to be the first target of a law to tackle serious organised crime," Brian Haw commented. "It is members of the Government who are the seriously organised criminals." Brian's solicitors are seeking a judicial review of the legislation.

Permission granted?

In passing this new law the Government has taken the opportunity to curtail protest (other than processions covered by the 1986 Public Order Act and protests that fall under Trade Union legislation) near any Government building. As the legislation was debated earlier this year, MPs questioned the need for such a wide exclusion zone - up to 1km - but many allowed themselves to be reassured that the Government would be reconsidering the extent of the "designated area". Now published, the area is as extensive as feared - Whitehall and Charing Cross, a large area of Westminster and parts of the South Bank are included. The only concession is that Trafalgar Square, seen as a traditional venue for protests, is not included.

Under section 132 of the SOCP Act, it is an offence to organise or take part in a demonstration in a "public place" within the designated area if authorisation has not been given. Permission must be sought at least six days in advance or, if not "reasonably practicable", 24 hours before.

Although the law states that "the Commissioner must give authorisation for the demonstration", it allows him to impose severe restrictions for a variety of concerns including "disruption to the life of the community".

Not only could this apply to every public protest, but the ensuing conditions are potentially stifling. The police can determine where and when the protest may take place, how long it can last and how many people can attend, how much noise can be made and the number and size of banners or placards used. The use of "loudspeakers" by protesters is not allowed in any circumstances. Furthermore, additional conditions can be imposed while the demonstration is taking place by "the senior police officer" present. 

Political policing

Supporters of Brian Haw and all our freedom to protest are currently organising opposition to the new restrictions. As one protester said, "this amounts to the official sanctioning of the police to make political decisions as to who may protest. There are many questions regarding how the new laws will be enforced. Could someone wearing a T-shirt with a political slogan on it, or going to lobby their MP, be arrested? We must use all avenues to show both how unjust and unworkable this ridiculous legislation is. We hope people will join us at the beginning of August to defy the new laws and support Brian as they try and evict him."  

The Stop the War Coalition have called a demonstration on 1 August (see http://www.stopwar.org.uk/ExclusionZone.htm ); however, as Peace News went to press, an active campaign of civil disobedience in defiance of the ban was also being planned. For details see http://www.parliamentprotest.org.uk

Topics: Civil Liberties