Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 217-219)

Mr Gareth Crossman, Mr Mike Schwarz, Baroness Mallalieu QC and Mr Milan Rai

3 JUNE 2008

  Q217  Chairman: Good afternoon. Can we welcome you to our Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill Committee. We are covering a whole range of issues, as you probably know, but this afternoon we are grateful to you for coming along to answer questions and offer advice on a very niche part of the consideration, namely that relating to demonstrations and particularly those outside Parliament to which the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 currently applies, as indeed does other legislation as well. Milan Rai, I know that you are famous because of issues that have arisen in consequence of the Act in question. Can you tell us what you think the main problems with sections 132-138 of that Act are? Do you think they should be repealed and, if so, what sort of replacement do you think would be appropriate? Perhaps you can tell us of your personal experience in dealing with that.

  Mr Rai: I am very happy to talk about my personal experience. I have been organising protests in and around Parliament for about 20 years and I have organised many vigils and demonstrations opposite Downing Street over that time. In September 2005 I was preparing to organise a small part of an international ceremony to mark the people who had died in Iraq as the result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and as part of that two of us, Maya Evans and myself, were going to be ringing a bell and reading the names of Iraqi civilians and British service people who had died in Iraq. I contacted, as usual, the Metropolitan Police and I encountered for the first time the new system. Previously I had contacted the Metropolitan Police and that was useful for me as an organiser also to make sure that I did not clash with someone else's demonstration, so there was a useful function in my notification for us. On this occasion I was told that new regulations had come in which I knew of but did not know the details of, and I was sent an application form to fill out. At that point I was very much committed to carrying out this remembrance ceremony for people in Iraq and when I first received it I was minded to fill out the form and send it back. However, as I studied it I became more troubled by the issue of principle involved in shifting from a process of prior notification to being required to seek prior authorisation. Having at first been minded to fill it in because completing that ceremony and remembering all the people involved was very important to me and to Maya Evans also, I became unwilling and in conscience unable to complete the form and seek authorisation. I contacted the Metropolitan Police again. I told them that in conscience I was not able to do that. They told me that as the organiser, and I had given my name and address as usual, I could face up to 51 weeks' imprisonment for that. When we went ahead with the demonstration the two of us were arrested. The police were quite reasonable in their treatment of us. We were non-violent and co-operative, while being unco-operative in the filling out of the form, and subsequently we were prosecuted, fined and in my case I was imprisoned for non-payment of that fine because I could not in conscience pay a fine for something which I did not believe was wrong, so I served a short prison sentence for that. The prison sentence and the prosecution and the arrest all turned on the fact that I felt that a very serious change had happened from a voluntary process of notification to a process where the police had powers to control our demonstrations and that we had to seek the permission of the police simply to remember the dead. In passing I should note that while this did not bear on my decision whatsoever the application form also imposes a much greater burden on the organiser in terms of having to attach advance publicity, having to tell the police when meetings are being held before or after the event and where they are, having to tell the police when the organiser is available for meetings with police, having to deliver this form once completed either by hand or by recorded delivery. All of those are significant changes to the system and the kinds of restrictions that are required now on organisers I believe also serve to give the police the right to effectively neuter political protest, and in the case of the ban on loudspeakers to have a significant impact on public safety and the control of demonstrations as stewards who have loudspeakers are much more likely to be heeded by demonstrators than by police because, in the nature of things, demonstrators tend to not be entirely obedient and sometimes to rebel against instructions given by authority figures such as the police.

  Q218  Chairman: Was it the nature of the form, the amount of detail, or was it simply the principle of applying for permission that you objected to?

  Mr Rai: It was the principle that it all turned on for me and these other matters were minor in the making of my decision.

  Q219  Chairman: Do you have any evidence that the police have ever refused an application?

  Mr Rai: I do not believe that they have. However, as the Committee will know, the police have the power to relocate demonstrations, to limit the duration of demonstrations and to reallocate the beginning and end of demonstrations within a very large area so that an evening rally of 500 in Parliament Square could turn out to be a breakfast event of half a dozen people under the London Eye under the powers that the police have, which obviously has a significant impact on the political message that you convey.

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