Thursday, 14 May 2009

Parliament moves in on protesters

Rule number one on the tube is not to make eye contact with anybody. Failure to comply could result in puncture wounds from a paranoid commuter. So on the Northern line today I shifted my gaze elsewhere, glanced over some merchant banker's shoulder and happened to land on an article in the Evening Standard, about proposed legislation to further curtail the right to protest outside Parliament, prompted by the ongoing Tamil protests in Parliament Square.

These proposals, drawn up by that bastion of democracy, Commons Speaker Michael Martin, would give police the power to move people on and make it illegal to camp overnight and is nothing less than another attempt to stifle the right to freedom of speech and to protest.

In August 2005, the government introduced a ban on all protests within a kilometre of the Commons without police permission. Failure to notify the police ahead of a demonstration could land organisers in prison for up to nearly a year. Famously, Maya Anne Evans was arrested and charged before magistrates conditionally discharged her for reading out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph.

On the proposed law, protester Robin Anthony told the Standard:
"It is not just about us, but the right to freedom of speech. We are supposed to live in a democratic state. Everyone in the UK should have the human right to come and express themselves here. If the British government prevents that, then they are no better than the Sri Lankan government who are committing a genocide against the Tamil people.”
Now I think that's going a bit far. As much as restricting the right to freedom of speech is abhorrent, it pales in comparison with the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians. However, his initial sentiment is right. The Palace of Westminster is the seat of our so-called democracy, the Mother of All Parliaments, and as such people have an inalienable right to protest there. I'd even go so far as to say that right extends beyond citizens of the UK to any citizen of the world affected by issues involving our government.

Barbara Tucker, a peace activist who has been camping outside Parliament alongside veteran peace campaigner Brian Haws, said:
“I've been arrested 30 times and faced a hundred legal action [sic] in the last three years. This is just another arbitrary attempt to prevent peaceful and lawful protest. How can they (the Government) deny access to a public square which is freely open to tourists? There are no public order offences. No violence. They haven't got a leg to stand on under European law.”
Not that the people in power give a toss.
"Councillor Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster Council, said the Tamil protests had shown that a change in the law could not “happen soon enough.”

Mr Barrow said: “Parliament Square is becoming a no go area for law abiding people who wish to enjoy the pleasures of one of London's great squares.

“The City Council wants to see the square policed for all, not for a vociferous minority of protesters. We'll back legitimate protest, but not when it becomes a permanent, or ongoing residence of a place that everyone - visitors and Londoners - should be able to enjoy.”"
Firstly, I don't see in what way it is becoming a no go area for law abiding people. People can still visit and go through the square. As did thousands of London Marathon runners a few weeks ago.

Secondly, he doesn't back legitimate protest, otherwise he would allow protest to take place regardless of the possibility it may continue unabated. I'm sorry Mr Barrow, but protest isn't a whimsical, throwaway, flash in the pan incident. In many cases it has good reason for continuing beyond an afternoon jolly in the London sunshine, as the current plight of the Tamil people shows.

Thirdly, as much as Parliament Square may be a leafy, attractive square in the centre of London, that doesn't mean it should be solely reserved for 'pleasure' and an enjoyable place for American tourists to snap pictures of Big Ben. It's a working environment, the beating heart and very symbol of British democracy, a system we are so proud of we brag about it to the rest of the world. And an integral part of that system is the right to freedom of speech and to protest. If anything, protests outside Parliament should be embraced and used in PR guff as proof that our democracy is alive and kicking. Maybe the Nikon weilding crowds would love to get protesters in the foreground of an iconic shot of Big Ben?

Protesters don't seem to wash much with Commons Speaker Michael Martin either:
"Commons Speaker Michael Martin has told MPs the continued presence of the protesters was a “highly unsatisfactory situation” and had caused an “absolute shambles” by blocking access to the Parliamentary Estate

In a statement, he told the Commons he supports the right to demonstrate but said the recent occupation of the square by Tamil demonstrators disrupted the work of the House, involved considerable cost and exposed many issues of health and safety."
Poor Mr Martin, doesn't like the proles protesting en masse. And as for the protest disrupting the work of the House, maybe if they stopped turning a blind eye and confronted the issues raised by protesters with the determination to resolve said issues, maybe they'd find this disruption would ease. In case you didn't realise, Mr Martin, the House was elected by the people, and when the people raise sensitive issues, you're obliged to listen rather than sweep them aside in yet more quasi-totalitarian legislation.

Furthermore, the cost of policing or managing a protest should never get in the way of the right to protest, but then I guess the House of Commons does have to pay back those expenses somehow. As for the 'issues of health and safety' I don't yet know what they are, as the Hansards haven't been published.

Finally, Deputy Mayor for policing Kit Malthouse weighs in on the action:
“It's for Parliament to decide what it wants - whether it wants protests and for how long - then the police will enforce the rules appropriately.”
Whilst I respect Mr Malthouse keeping the police out of the decision (though I do wonder what manner their consultancy took) the idea that Parliament has a say in whether it wants protests or is incomprehensible. It's our right to protest and they'll put up with protests whether they like it or not. Trying to ban protest from the centre of our government is a ridiculous notion. At the G20 Summit, protesters were kept out of sight of the world leaders at the Excel Centre, penned in by the river, demonstrating to thin air. It was a flimsy protest I wage many people in power failed to see and a worrying taste of what may be to come if Michael Martin has his way.
  • Photos all my own, taken at the World Against War protest, March 2008.

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