Happy New Year everyone.
The Home Office have put out a discussion paper regarding possible changes to SOCPA following last year’s organised criticism of it (Mark Thomas, mass lone protests (mine and Claire’s) et al). They are asking people to write in with comment.
Public Order unit Flat 10
Home Office 40 Windmill Hill
5th floor Fry Building Enfield
2 Marsham Street London
London EN2 7AQ
30th December 2007
Dear Sir / Madam,
I am writing to you today in response to the discussion document “Managing Protest Around Parliament”.
I am very pleased to see that the government, through the Home Secretary, has acknowledged the strong and healthy history of open protest in the United Kingdom and furthermore the role that this has had in influencing many of our most treasured laws and social standards. In particular I call attention to section 2.5 of the document where I was extremely gratified to read that the ever increasing cynicism the public has for our political process was one of the reasons for publication.
The document contains a number of questions which I shall take the opportunity to answer here in turn :
1)I agree that the current situation of different laws for “march” and “assembly” is indeed confusing – especially for the police. I would be very hesitant to suggest a change to this highly charged area of law though without substantial consultation with both ACPO and the larger political NGOs. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005’s change to the situation in Parliament Square could seem quite trivial by comparison if this was mishandled.
2)I refer you to my answer to question one to which this question is extremely similar.
3)This is the heart of the matter. I refer you to section 2.14 for specifically listed differences between demonstrating in Parliament Square and the rest of the UK. I shall address each of these in turn :
a)The notion of “prior notification” is abhorrent to the nation of British democracy. The very notion of having to ask permission to express one’s opinion in a quiet civil manner on public ground is contrary to everything I believe we should stand for. To accept this is but a short step from constraning other forms of free speech. When the American Founding Fathers drafted their Bill of Rights they saw to it that the First Amendment contained the words “… the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” No mention is made of having to apply in advance. I feel so strongly about this issue that I would be very much in favour of such a right being enshrined in the United Kingdom “Bill of Rights” announced by Prime Minster Brown on 25 October of this year.
b)I believe that the current situation, where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner must approve every application for protest within the restricted zone, is a gross misuse of a senior police officer’s time.
c)There is no good reason I can think of as to why single peaceful protesters adjacent to Parliament should be treated differently to those in any other location elsewhere in the country.
d)There are a number of valid restrictions made in section d. Safety is, of course, a paramount concern as is access to Parliament for MPs. However I object to the phrase “hindrance of the proper operation of Parliament” as such operation has no strong definition and can therefore be used to mean anything. I would like to point out at this time that while safety, access and the other points rightly raised in section 2.8 are very valid concerns all of these are rightfully addressed by other currently existing laws – not least the Public Order Act 1986 referred to in sections 1.3 onwards.
e)I believe that these restrictions are unnecessary since, as I have stated above, anything contravening section 2.8 is already covered by existing law.
f)I believe this is fully covered by the Noise Act 1996 plus amendments and should be considered a matter for the appropriate local authority and police force.
4)At this time I do not believe there are any other considerations that should be taken into account.
5)I believe that the model for protests in Parliament Square should be the same as that used for protests anywhere else in the country – currently the Public Order Act 1986 .
6)Please see my answer to question 3a regarding prior planning. Any restrictions on size of protests should be in-line with with the Public Order Act 1986.
7)I have serious worries about both phrases “security risk” and “hindrance to the operation of Parliament” as neither is at all well defined and as such can be construed to mean a wide variety of things. Both cover important issues that are very much worthy of inclusion in this discussion but they require seriously stringent definitions.
8)I strongly believe that the area around Parliament, in regard to peaceful public protests, should be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom – with reference to the Public Order Act 1986.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Home Office for producing this consultation document. I hope that all due consideration is given to what I am sure will be a wide variety of respondents.
I look forward to hearing of the outcome of this process in the New Year.