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I shall now address the aesthetics. It was one demonstration that provoked the Government. In
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What I cannot believe is that the Government, in response to a demonstration that they happen not to like, in a place where they happen not to want it to be, are prepared to bring forward not a civil remedy to provide for an injunction but a new criminal offence..[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee D, 20/1/05; cols. 434-35.]
Did the Government realise the mess they were getting themselves into with their route for addressing what they saw as a problem? Last week Mr Haw won his court case. He also featured in The Trial of Tony Blair a fictional TV drama, and he certainly made his point in a much wider way than he probably thought when he started his protest. His principles and perseverance are admirable. I had only one reservation about his original demonstration, which was that it took up the whole south side of Parliament Square, a prime position which was then denied to other causes. But my Bill is not about Mr Haw because he will demonstrate no matter what. My proposal is about Sue Smith from Salisbury, Mr Jones from Cardiff or Jeff Brown from Yorkshire who have been put off from joining demonstrations by the chilling effect of the SOCPA clauses.
The last of the Governments reasons for bringing forward the legislation was the wish for undisturbed parliamentary business. The fact is that Parliament needs disturbingnot disrupting or obstructing, but there is already enough legislation to prevent that.
I turn now to the mechanics of the system imposed by the Government. How does it work? The demonstrator who wants to demonstrate has to fill in a form. I shall tell the House what happened to me last week when I wanted to get a form to do just that. I looked through the Metropolitan Police website for a form. I could not find the form, so I rang Charing Cross police station where a very helpful policeman agreed that there might not be one on the site, but that I could download it from the Mark Thomas website. It is lucky for the police that Mark Thomas has it because it saves a lot of trouble. So some demonstrations take place with the form filled in but other events take place which may look and sound like demonstrations, but are not. My Parliamentary Questions have revealed that there is no statutory definition of demonstration, so it is left entirely to the police to decide.
Last week at the Mark Wallinger exhibition, a young woman told me that she had stood outside Downing Street wearing a T-shirt saying, Rogue state Britain. The policeman on duty told her, You cant wear that here, it is a demonstration. She replied, I am advertising an art show at the Tate. He said, Oh, thats fine then.
My noble friends will give several other examples of people who have been arbitrarily arrested for matters which I am sure the Government never imagined would be arrestable offencesfor example, reading out a list of names of the people who have died in Iraq. The police have chosen not to apply the law to others such as the carol singers or the owners
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As my Parliamentary Question 109 revealed, as I have said, there is no statutory definition of demonstration, so the police must make it up as they go along. Is a picnic a demonstration? Perhaps not if it contains only sandwiches, but if it contains a cake iced with the words Blair out then, of course, it could be. I do not believe that the time the police have to spend on T-shirted individuals or cake decorators is time well spent. I am not blaming the police. I feel it undermines their credibility and the law in general to give them such ill-considered legislation to enforce.
Many noble Lords will be much better equipped than I to address the issue of whether the arbitrary nature of the enforcement is likely to have any implications under the Human Rights Act. It is a matter which may be debated again.
Why was the legislations so ill considered? It was rushed through Parliament just as it was about to rise for the 2005 election. The remainder of the Bill dealt with very weighty issues and so voting down the Bill as a whole because of these clauses was not an option. But now the Government can have a cool, considered look at the whole matter.
As well as the principle of free expression, the other major reason for the Government to have this cool, reasoned look is that vast amounts of police time and public money are being wasted. We know that the cost of policing only one unauthorised demonstration on 9 October last year was £298,000. As of last week, we also knowbecause Judge Purdy, in his judgment on the Brian Haw case, said sothat it is the police commissioner himself who must impose the conditions on the demonstration. Judge Purdy said:
This may not be so simple, as Brian Haws defence lawyer, Mr MacDonald, showed As he cross-examined police witnesses the absurdity of some of the conditions imposed in that case became very clear. The Minister may say that conditions are applied in only a very few casesindeed, only about 10 demonstrations have received added conditionsbut the experience of how the Act works has revealed something else. For every demonstration, under Section 133(4), an applicant must state the date, time, place, length and size of the proposed demonstration, and these become the binding rules for the demonstration. Section 134(7) states:
The requirement for 24 hours notice is completely unacceptable anywhere but all the more so outside Parliament where people may want to respond to events as they happen. What will happen if a ministerial statement causes unexpected uproar? Are people to wait a day before they express their feelings?
I have concentrated on the situation affecting Parliament Square but the sections of the Act which my Bill seeks to delete also give the Secretary of State the power to designate any site in the UK in the interests of national security, and so far he has designated 13. In practice, these sites will carry similar problems and penalties for demonstrators.
I have set out the moral, legal, economic and practical reasons for repealing Sections 128 to 138 of SOCPA, which represent the very worst of hurried legislation in an especially serious way. I was struck by the speech of the Leader of the Conservative Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on the gracious Speech on 15 November last year. He said,
I was born in the Cold War era, in which we faced a society where the surveillance of every individual was a commonplace, where the state was master and not servant, and where freedom was conditional and every citizen a suspect. That is not a society in which I wish to die, and I suspect that that goes for many noble Lords on all sides of this House. Freedom does not die in one blow; it dies by inches in public legislation.[Official Report, 15/11/06; col. 120]
I thoroughly agree with that sentiment, and I therefore suggest to the House that the time is right to remove these completely disproportionate restrictions on peoples liberties, both here outside Parliament and around the country. What we had before may not have been perfectcarefully circumscribed rules limiting the disruption of protestsbut they were adequate. If it had been really necessary, they could have been strengthened by more moderate amendments that were laid down during the passage of the Act, but which the Government chose to defeat in order to introduce their much more extreme solution. What we have ended up with, however, is totally unworkable and unacceptable.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I urge my noble friends on the Front Bench to co-operate in giving time for the proper consideration of this Bill. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on having introduced the Bill, and on the powerful way in which she has just spoken. I always see her as the epitome of the decent civilised society in which I want to live. She is caring and creative, and has a great sense of history and of social responsibility. No one better could be moving a Bill of this kind.
In that context, I am glad that in her concluding remarks she referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in the debate on the humble Address. I, too, was very struck by those words, and I am sure that at that moment he drew a good deal of good will and support from all parts of the House. The point is to make that sentiment a reality.
I emphasise two points in supporting the need to debate the Bill. I choose those words carefully, as the
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My first point is that if we believe ours is a democratic, free society committed to human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, described it, and if restrictive legislation is introduced, that restrictive legislation has to be defended and constantly kept under scrutiny. That legislation undermines and damages the very society we say we are trying to protect. The difficulty is that while we may on occasion feel that such restrictions are necessary, they must be watched with great care and scrutiny and constantly be put in the position where they have to be justified. I am fearful that we in this House and in the other place and, indeed, society as a whole, could drift into a kind of complacency whereby the erosion of rights to which the noble Baroness referred becomes a grim reality. So it is absolutely right that Parliament should scrutinise whether the Bill is necessary and remains necessary or whether modifications, at least, are appropriate.
Secondly, there are aesthetic considerations. I was affronted by the activity of Mr Haw; I found it unpleasant. I did not find his displays of literature attractive, and I found his constant megaphone an irritant. Indeed, if I were advising people how to pursue a campaign about which they felt strongly, I would suggest that he was an example of the way not to do it. I think he probably made more enemies than friends, whatever his subsequent successes through the legal system.
As I said, there are aesthetic considerationsthis is a fine square, before a great building, in our history. But that square has a greater significance than just its aesthetic considerations. It is the place in the heart of our freedom and our democracy, where people have traditionally been able to come with spontaneity, concern and, yes, decent emotion, to express their outrage on occasion at what may be happening in either of our two Houses. In effect, to have removed that tradition from our society is a very grave step indeed. We have to be certain that it was not overplaying what may have been necessary in security terms.
I conclude by referring to part of a very significant speech given recently by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, to the Criminal Bar Association. Sir Ken Macdonald is a very important public figure, for whom I have great respect. He said that it is critical that we understand that,
What always troubles me in this area is that we give the extremists a victory and do exactly what their private scripts want. We destroy our own society
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Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I add my voice to that as yet small group of people who remain unhappy about certain clauses in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. It seems worth while underlining the point that silence until now has not necessarily implied assent. The Bill went through in a rush in 2005 and compromises had to be made. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on her courage and persistence in enabling us to express our discontent.
Once designated, that site becomes subject to the controls set out in the Act. The second issue concerns the controls and the rules that govern them. Thirdly, and most crucially, any deviation from such rules can result in criminal sanctions.
I have worked for many a long year on censorship issues and I can fairly say that the most common justification throughout the world for curtailing free expression, which of course includes freedom to demonstrate, is that a restriction is in the interests of national security. It is a blanket term that can cover anything and everything from prohibiting ridicule and/or the supposed insult of a president to the concealment of large-scale corruption. It is a wide term and in the SOCPA, where it is combined with the powers of government to designate sites and the criminal sanctions, it appears to be entirely disproportionate. That fact immediately puts these measures up against fundamental freedoms, because they go beyond what is necessary in a democratic society. For the Government to assert that a single peaceful demonstrator near the Cenotaph reciting the names of those killed in recent wars is a threat to national security is ludicrous and shameful.
It cannot be denied that putting the onus on any single would-be demonstrator or group of demonstrators to inform the authorities as much as six days in advance as to the time, date, place and anticipated number of participants has a chilling effect on political expression. It will deter the few people who, for example, want to show their indignation and anger about the demise of a village post officepeople who are not seasoned demonstrators, but who nevertheless wish to use the democratic means available.
This chilling effect as we know all too well from non-democratic countries gives rise to self-censorshipthe most insidious form. Censorship in whatever form has a habit of increasing. You designate sites around the country where people are forbidden to express concern unless strictly controlled by the police and then you start imposing criminal sanctions for those who flout the rules; then you widen the exclusion zones and add extra rules, perhaps limiting the numbers in any one
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The importance of the right to peaceful assembly is recognised time and again in national, regional and international jurisprudence. Let us consider India 20 years or so ago, where a serial television broadcast portrayed the communal tension and violence in Lahore between Muslims and Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs just before partition. The Central Board of Film Certification thought the series suitable for general showing. However, the petitioner applied to the Supreme Court in India for an order to prevent its broadcast on the grounds, among others, that it was likely to incite people to violence and as such was against public order.
The Supreme Court of Israel ruled in 1984 that the right of the Committee Against the War in Lebanon to demonstrate outweighed other conflicting human rights and interests. In 1973, the House of Lords ruled on the conviction of a protester who disrupted a sports match, threw leaflets around and used highly insulting language. The Law Lords set aside the conviction and in so doing said:
It would have been going much too far to prohibit all speech or conduct likely to occasion a breach of the peace because determined opponents may not shrink from organising or at least threatening a breach of the peace in order to silence a speaker whose views they detest.
Recently, several more judgments have come from the European Court of Human Rights which strongly uphold the unfettered right to demonstrate peacefully and I would argue that, taken together, the clauses in the Act that we now wish to see amended already have and will have a profoundly chilling effect on this democratic freedom. A truly democratic society recognises that there has to be positive and unequivocal support for freedom of expression, because while people can express their will at general and local elections, in the intervening period between elections, individuals cannot have a direct influence on political decisions. Furthermore, the state has a positive duty to enable such freedoms to be enjoyed. Clauses 128 to 138 of SOCPA do not reflect this positive duty.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer on introducing this Bill, which is appropriate and timely. I also thank her for organising many of us to be here to give it the best possible start. Two things emerge very clearly from the fact that we need the Bill so badly. The first demonstrates the role of Parliament, and particularly of this House, in scrutinising legislation. The Serious
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Secondly, I stress that one of the crucial elements of that law has created a crisis that all of us have read about this morning; the effect of lightly creating criminal offences when civil action, as my noble friend said, would be completely adequate to deal with the problem. Then we wring our hands because prisons are becoming increasingly full of human beings and civilians with no criminal intent, who have suffered receiving a criminal offence simply because they have expressed their viewsfor heavens sakewithin 1 kilometre of the Houses of Parliament. That is ludicrous; and we really have to stop this business of drifting towards creating more and more criminality among fellow citizens of impeccable standing, decent integrity and high ideals.
I have two quotations, and noble Lords will see why I use them. The first comes from our Prime Minister. He said it in the United States on 7 April 2002, at the opening of the presidential library for the first George Bush:
The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the town square test: if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.
My goodness; we do not allow anyone simply to walk into the square of this town, which is called Parliament Square, and express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm. Frankly, we should be ashamed of ourselves that we have not protected this particular crucial, historic purpose of Parliament Square.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, in expressing the values that ran so deep in his party for so long, was expressing what many of us feel; a sense of shame that that square is no longer the place from which men and women can declare themselves. Incidentally, this is not just a statement about freedom of speech; it is also a critical statement about using Parliament Square as a barometer of how people feel. Mrs Thatcher learnt about the anger about the poll tax because there were demonstrations up and down the country. We should warn ourselves about the dangers of closing off those kinds of steam valves and expressions of feeling from our fellow citizens, because it means that we become more and more distanced from knowing what they really feel.
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