Memorandum submitted by Voices in the
Wilderness UK |
Voices in the Wilderness UK has been campaigning
in solidarity with the people of Iraq since 1998. As a group based
in the UK, our focus has principally been the foreign policy of
the UK government - economic sanctions, invasion and occupation
- policies that have had devastating effects on the people of
Iraq. We have organised numerous non-violent protests in the vicinity
of Parliament, and elsewhere, to raise awareness amongst the general
public, and those in Parliament and government, about these issues.
We firmly believe that it is the responsibility of
a country's citizens to engage with public policy and that it
is the responsibility of the state not to interfere unduly with
that process. Protest and dissent are a necessary part of this
engagement and, as such, are vital to a democratic society. The
work of any campaign relies on public expressions of opinion,
and public protest is an important part of that. See our submission
to the JCHR inquiry into Policing and Protest for our concerns
about the policing of protest and the effect of the Serious Organised
Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) in particular.
While we welcome the repeal of s132-138 SOCPA contained
within the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (CRG Bill),
we are concerned about the alternative legislation that has been
There already exists legislation to deal with
situations that threaten access to Parliament
The proposed legislation is stated to be restricted
to situations which threaten access to Parliament. We consider,
however, that there already exists legislation to deal with such
situations. Police powers to restrict a demonstration because
of 'serious disruption to the life of the community' are contained
within the Public Order Act 1986 (POA) and cover the community
of Parliament and therefore access to Parliament. No additional
legislation should be necessary.
We oppose the use of secondary legislation
in this area
Schedule 4 of the CRG Bill amends the POA by adding
a new section 14ZA relating to public processions or assemblies.
The Secretary of State may make an order by statutory instrument
specifying 'requirements that must be met in relation to maintaining
access to and from the Palace of Westminster'. We are concerned
that both 'requirements' and 'maintaining access' are not defined
in the primary legislation and it is not clear why there should
be a need to vary the legislation over time with the possibility
that additional 'requirements' be made in secondary legislation.
Additionally, the proposed section 14ZC of the POA
would allow for the Secretary of State to make an order specifying
'requirements' that must be met to maintain access to a 'specified
building during any week in which the specified building is, or
is planned to be, used by a House of Parliament for the purpose
of holding meetings'. Again we are concerned how such secondary
legislation may be used and consider that the broad time limit
of a week will lead to unnecessary restrictions being put in place.
The POA currently sets out limited reasons why conditions
may be imposed on public processions and demonstrations. The proposed
legislation sets no limits on the reasons as new 'requirements'
may be designated by the Secretary of State. It also introduces
unlimited reasons why conditions may be imposed in relation to
public processions, stating that 'the conditions that may be imposed
under this section include conditions as to the route of
We are concerned about the lack of clarity
created by the proposed legislation
The lack of definition within the proposed legislation
and the use of secondary legislation to add further restrictions
will lead to a lack of clarity for the public about what the law
is and how it will be applied.
Furthermore, it is not clear how important details
relating to restrictions will be handled. This will affect the
public's understanding of the situation. For example, how far
in advance must orders issued by the Secretary of State be published
and for what time limit may they apply? What are the methods by
which the public can learn of the current restrictions in place
in the area around Parliament or other buildings provided for
in Section 14ZC? The SOCPA legislation is an example of how, whilst
the general restrictions on protest have been well known, the
specific detail of the law and the extent of the designated area
have often not been correctly understood and this has led to the
widely held perception that all protest in the area is banned.
Information that is important for the public to know has been
buried on websites and people only become aware of it once they
have fallen foul of the law.
On the ground, it is not practicable to organise
a demonstration which may be seriously curtailed by an order made
in secondary legislation which the organisers may have previously
been unaware of.
There is clear evidence that people have been dissuaded
from taking part in, or organising, protests around Parliament
because of the risk of getting a criminal conviction under SOCPA.
The presence of any additional powers around Parliament restricting
freedom to protest is likely to continue to have a chilling affect
on public expression as people decide it is too risky to participate.
We consider that a designated area of up to
250m is far too extensive for the purposes of the legislation
The limit to 'the area around Parliament' to which
the proposed powers would apply, to be defined by the Secretary
of State in secondary legislation, extends well beyond Parliament
and covers all of parliament Square and a significant part of
Whitehall (including the area around Downing Street - another
important location for demonstrations). The idea of a protest
'exclusion zone' and the associated uncertainty about the right
to protest in that area, will continue to exist. If the stated
aim is to ensure access to Parliament, the designation of an area
of this size is not necessary.
We are concerned that there is too much scope
for the legislation to be enforced in a partisan and inconsistent
The proposed section 14ZA allows for a senior police
officer to impose conditions if they are of the 'reasonable opinion'
that they are necessary to ensure that the 'requirements' laid
out by the Secretary of State in secondary legislation are met.
We believe that this allows a wide interpretation of 'requirements'
that are themselves not clearly laid out in primary legislation
and are subject to change.
There is clear evidence that the SOCPA legislation
was enforced inconsistently and often applied in a partisan manner.
Some unauthorised protests have been dealt with severely while
other unauthorised protests have been allowed to go ahead. On
the face of it, it appears that the police are making political
judgements as to which protests are acceptable. Elsewhere, there
is much evidence to suggest that such discretionary powers are
often used to limit or stop protest from the outset. The proposed
extensions to the POA will add a further element of uncertainty
onto what are already often prohibitive restrictions.
We consider that the SOPCA legislation has
had a negative impact on freedom of expression elsewhere and we
are concerned that extended POA powers could also be misappropriated
Since the restrictions on protest around Parliament
were introduced in 2005, we have seen evidence of changing attitudes
towards freedom of association and freedom of expression in other
parts of the country. For example, a recent campaign by the police
in Liverpool to remove political groups from the centre of the
city appears to have been greatly but erroneously influenced by
the regime of authoritarianism that SOCPA introduced.
We hope that the repeal of s132-138 of SOCPA will send out a clear
message that the measures introduced to restrict protest around
Parliament are no longer acceptable but we are also concerned
that extended POA powers may be misapplied in a similar way.
We consider that convictions under s132-138
SOCPA should be quashed
A number of people have received criminal records
for taking part in, or organising, unauthorised demonstrations
near Parliament. Some are taking their cases to the European Court
of Human Rights. Given the discredited nature of the restrictions
on protest introduced by SOCPA and the repeal of those provisions,
we would like to see convictions under s132 SOCPA quashed.
We consider that a repeal of s132-138 of SOCPA is
necessary and that no alternative and additional arrangements
that restrict protest around Parliament should be put in place.
This would help to re-establish a situation in which people feel
able to freely assemble and express their opinions without fear
of arrest because of their location near Parliament.
We are particularly concerned that the use of secondary
legislation, that has not been ratified by Parliament, is undemocratic
and creates a lack of clarity for the public and leaves the door
open for further restrictions on protest to be put in place. This
is likely to lead to the same situation as there was under SOCPA,
i.e. that people are unaware of what their actual rights are and
finding out what they are requires much research and reliance
on information from police officers.
We would therefore like to see section 32(2) and
schedule 4 removed from the CRG Bill.
We consider that, given the powers that already exist
to place restrictions on protest across the country, and the considerable
damage that the SOCPA restrictions have done to the perception
of freedom of assembly and expression, the opportunity should
be taken to put into legislation a more strongly worded presumption
in favour of the right to protest peacefully. Recent developments
in the policing of protests, which have been well documented,
suggest that the police often take a negative attitude towards
a protest from the outset and that they consider expressions of
active dissent as outside of 'normal' activity.
Finally, we believe that those in positions of power
and whose activities have a great affect on all our lives are
a natural focus for protests and should not be shielded from dissent.
Any restrictions must comply with human rights legislation and
must be limited, transparent and not subject to change.
166 See Evidence 196, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200809/jtselect/jtrights/47/47ii.pdf Back
Correspondence from a Merseyside Police sergeant to campaigners:
'Any unauthorised protests will be investigated and legislation
applied. I am sure you see the merits of a regularly organised
society, which benefits the residents and visitors to the city.
An environment where any group of people are allowed to conduct
random demonstrations or protests without control or organisation
can quickly escalate to anarchy.'