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Preserving disorder: freedom to protest and the future of SOCPA


The Home Office has recently published a consultation paper which hints at what was really meant by Gordon Brown's promise to look again at the law which restricts demonstrations near parliament, far from repealing this legislation the consultation indicates that the government wants to extend the restrictions on demonstrations to cover the whole country.

The current law on demonstrations around parliament bans spontaneous protests, requiring demonstrators to seek advance police permission, which allows the police to impose arbitrary limits on numbers and effectively act as political censors.

[ public meeting details ]

Brown's hollow promise

When Gordon Brown took office in June press briefings suggested that he would soon respond to criticisms of the law on demonstrations near parliament, the mainstream press lapped this up and dutifully informed readers that Brown "wants to scrap the law that forbids protests outside parliament" (The Guardian) to "allow Iraq protests" (The Times), others were understandably sceptical.

By the time Brown spoke to parliament on the 3rd of July this had already become only a vague pledge to change the law, for better or worse:

"While balancing the need for public order with the right to public dissent, I think it right - in consultation with the Metropolitan Police, Parliament, the Mayor of London, Westminster City Council and liberties groups - to change the laws that now restrict the right to demonstrate in Parliament Square."

A clearer warning of what lay ahead was buried in the grandly titled 'Governance of Britain' Green Paper, published the same day, which stated that:

"The Government will therefore consult widely on the provisions in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act with a view to ensuring that people's right to protest is not subject to unnecessary restrictions. This review will need to reflect the security situation and allow the business of Parliament to proceed unhindered, but will be conducted with a presumption in favour of freedom of expression. In return, protesters will of course need to obey the law and relevant bylaws."

The origins of SOCPA

The law controlling demonstrations in parliament square, Sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) is modelled on the powers introduced by the Public Order Act 1986 (POA), particularly Sections 11-12 which relate to all processions (e.g. marches) no matter how small, requiring organisers to give advance notice to the police and allowing a wide range of conditions to be imposed. Section 14 of the act deals with assemblies (e.g. static demonstrations and pickets) but these do not require advance notice and it allows only a limited set of conditions to be imposed. Originally conditions could only be imposed on a gathering of at least 20, but this was reduced by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to a mere two people. Exactly what constitutes an assembly is left up to the police, similarly SOCPA does not define what it means by demonstration, exemplified by its use to prosecute a Parliament Square picnicker.

The Public Order Act (POA), originally called the Criminal Disorder Bill, was the culmination of six years of planning and propaganda by the Thatcher government, followed by six weeks of consultation, sold on the basis that "in establishing a new legal framework covering processions, demonstrations and assemblies, the Government wanted to ensure that the right to protest, march and picket peacefully should be regulated only to the extent required to preserve order."

The SOCPA consultation

The Green Paper eventually (25th October) led to the publication of a consultation document ostensibly concerned with 'Managing Protest Around Parliament' seeking the views of "campaigning non-government organisations; law enforcement agencies; and those with specific business in and around Parliament Square".

However, the first two heavily-loaded questions in the document have no relevance to Parliament Square designated area (since Section 14 of the POA does not apply there):

"Q1: The Government believes peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society, and that the police should have powers to manage public assemblies and processions to respond to the potential for disorder. Should the powers generally in relation to marches and assemblies be the same?"

"Q2: Do you agree that the conditions that can be imposed on assemblies and marches should be harmonised?"

[s11 powers already extended by SOCPA, the exception becomes the rule]

What the police want

The police have long regarded public protest as part of a 'spectrum of disorder' which they define as:

"Disorder includes any act that is contrary to the general public's perception of normality. Disorder has the potential adversely to affect the status quo and is almost always a predictor of future crime."

The Labour government avoids talk of 'disorder' which suggests a lack of control and prefers to refer to 'anti-social behaviour' which blames the individual, but the underlying assumptions are the same. All of their 'anti-social behaviour' laws are based on Section 5 of the POA, which criminalised 'disorderly conduct', defined at the discretion of the police, so it is no surprise that the police have applied the full range of 'anti-social behaviour' powers to protesters including dispersal zones, demanding names and addresses, injunctions (EDO|Heathrow), ASBOs, and alcohol-related crime orders.

[Dag X]

[Brian Haw] [hunting demo 15/9/2004]

Indeed SOCPA is explicitly referenced in the November 2006 IPCC report on that demonstration:

"Under the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, demonstrations in Parliament Square can now only be held after obtaining a licence from the Metropolitan Police. The numbers of demonstrators will be able to be limited and should ensure that at any future demonstration in this area, the MPS will be able to erect a 'Wapping box' formation of barriers around the grassed area, and effectively control and limit the numbers of persons attending."

The Metropolitan Police's subsequent Public Order Review published in April announced that they were seeking "new legislation introducing powers to take pre-emptive action to prevent confrontation".

[police already assume all demonstrations illegal] [similarity with All Souls 1984 / Manchester Uni March 1985 / Wapping prior to POA] [public order review June 1979 Leon Brittan public order white paper May 1985] [Mex embassy, "illegal demonstration", 8 arrests] [Bashtherich, "illegal demonstration", 2 arrests for leaving] [habitually collaborate - rikki court report, stwc letter, open letter]

Their law

The police have been emboldened by a series of court decisions over the past year which have reinforced their belief that they are able regulate public gatherings entirely as they see fit. - Blum Fairford / Laporte - Austin Saxby 2007 - Kay - Singh

[all theoretically HRA compliant]

"The strongest weapon in the police arsenal is not CS gas or plastic bullets, the deployment of which causes some public concern, but effective control of a willing and uncritical press which causes none."

[Gareth Pierce, Guardian 15/3/1982]
Topic revision: r1 - 15 Nov 2007, ChrisC
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