Legislative scrutiny: Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; Video Recordings Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


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[166].

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 proposed.

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 the procession…' (14ZA(7)).

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 manner

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[167]. 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.

Conclusion

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.

November 2009


166   See Evidence 196, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200809/jtselect/jtrights/47/47ii.pdf Back

167   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.'

http://ww.redpepper.org.uk/Taking-back-the-streets?var_recherche=liverpool Back


 
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