Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Demonstrating outside Parliament

Yesterday in the House of Lords Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked "What changes (are the Government) proposing to the law governing the holding of peaceful demonstrations in Parliament Square."

Lord West of Spithead replied "My Lords, the Government published a consultation paper in October seeking views on the framework for managing protests around Parliament. That consultation ended on 17 January and we are considering the way forward, taking into account the 500 or so responses we have received. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her full and considered response to the consultation."

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: "My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I am glad that he has had a large number of responses to the consultation. Does he accept that it is an affront to democracy if you cannot stand outside your own Parliament with as little as an iced cake saying “Peace” or a T-shirt saying “Free Tibet” without risking arrest? For taking an action such as standing there in a T-shirt you must seek police permission. Will he do his very best to make sure that when the Government review this issue, the law is not harmonised upwards—they are threatening to make all the conditions that apply to marches apply to peaceful protests—but is returned to the position where citizens can protest in front of Parliament peacefully and within the law?"

Lord West of Spithead: "My Lords, it is worth recollecting the history of this. The House of Commons Procedure Committee on sessional orders and resolutions recommended in 2003 that we should introduce appropriate legislation for a number of reasons. That was done, but it became clear that there were complications with it, and the law is not working in the way it should. That is why we have gone out to this consultation. As I say, we have had 500 responses and I really believe that we can move forward and achieve something."

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 created a new offence of demonstrating without authorisation in a “designated area.” A House of Commons Library Note states that

"This area is defined by order, but must be within one kilometre of Parliament Square. Under the provisions, people organising the demonstration have to give the police at least 24 hours notice in writing, and if “reasonably practicable” they will have to give six days’ notice. If the
notice complies with the requirements set out in the legislation, then the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has to give authorisation, but he may impose conditions on those taking part in or organising a demonstration, if he reasonably believes they are necessary for the purpose of preventing any of the following:

• hindrance to any person wishing to enter or leave the Palace of Westminster,
• hindrance to the proper operation of Parliament,
• serious public disorder,
• serious damage to property,
• disruption to the life of the community,
• a security risk in any part of the designated area

Under the provisions, it is an offence not to comply with a condition or to diverge from the particular requirements set out in the authorisation."