The SOCPA victory and the ‘blanket’ ban

IssueApril 2012
Feature by Emma Sangster

Since restrictions on ‘demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament’ were first mooted in response to Brian Haw’s anti-war protest in Parliament Square, individuals have been standing up and creating a collective challenge in defence of the freedom to protest.

The restrictions received wider public attention when PN’s own Milan Rai and Maya Evans were convicted for reading out the names of Iraqi and British dead opposite Downing Street. Mark Thomas’s lone mass demos made fun of the law, as scores of people each registered numerous individual protests about nothing and anything.

The law became part of a larger controversy around the clamp-down on civil liberties, and, in 2007, after hundreds of people responded to a Home Office consultation, the Labour government announced the repeal of s132-138 of SOCPA.

Limiting dissent

However, the repeal’s progress demonstrated parliament’s inability to allow a straightforward reversal of the law. It made an appearance in two aborted bills but was only finally introduced in 2011 in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (PRASRA) alongside new restrictions on protests by way of a blanket ban on blankets, or any equipment to facilitate an overnight stay, and on amplified noise.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, PRASRA shares a number of SOCPA’s characteristics.

Both introduced dangerous new precedents with inadequate debate in order to deal with specific circumstances. Both laws have created ill-thought-out and disproportionate restrictions, such as the delegation of police powers to ‘authorised officers’.

Officials working for a local authority or members of private security companies can now use ‘reasonable force’ to enforce PRASRA compliance and to seize offending items.

Liberty and Parliament’s own joint committee on human rights have detailed a long list of human rights concerns about the new restrictions.

... across the land

Slipped into the section on ‘Parliament Square Garden and surrounding area’ are clauses that allow the new power of seizure to extend well beyond this narrow geographical area.

In fact, any local authority in the land can now include the powers in their byelaws.

As previously reported (PN 2542), authorities covering the area around parliament have all acted quickly to bring in such byelaws to make overnight protest (with any degree of comfort) impossible. Acting on a ‘fear’ that Occupy-style protests are ‘becoming more prevalent’, Westminster council may only be the first of many local authorities to pre-emptively restrict protest in this way.

In early March, peace campaigner Maria Gallastegui’s case for a judical review of the new law received a two-day hearing, with Westminster council as defendant and the home office and Metropolitan police as interested parties. The high court heard that the new restrictions are incompatible with the Human Rights Act on a number of grounds, including that spoiling the view or affecting public use of Parliament Square are not legitimate justifications for restricting expression and peaceful assembly in a location central to political debate.

Maria’s barrister argued that in applying what is effectively an absolute ban on sleeping equipment and/or amplified noise equipment around Parliament, the new law is disproportionate and will have a chilling effect on protest.

Work to do

The dozens of individuals who stood up to SOCPA can give themselves a pat on the back that their actions helped defeat it. It’s important to witness small victories every now and again. But, as the new law shows, it was only part of the continuing struggle in the defence of dissent.

SOCPA is dead, now what are we going to do about PRASRA?

Topics: Civil liberties