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The right to protest in Parliament Square

This weekend the Occupy movement plans to once again demonstrate in Parliament Square under the banner “Equality and Representation”. The demonstration is part of the movement’s plan to demonstrate in the Square every month in the lead up to the General Election.

Parliament Square has long been an important site for protests against the government and in recent years has been a focus for civil liberties campaigners concerned about attempts by the authorities to control or curtail free protests on the site.

At the end of last year, amid the Occupy demonstrations in October and November, many demonstrators found their activities restricted, and a number were arrested, as a result of a combination of local byelaws and legislation (“The Police Reform & Social Responsibility Act”) specifically prohibiting certain activities in Parliament Square. The myriad of different regulations created a difficult situation in which protesters felt unsure of their rights and were therefore intimidated by heavy handed policing and threats of arrest.

Certainly there are currently incredibly strict regulations on what is allowed in the Square as we outlined in our guidance for Defend the Right to Protest. Restrictions are very widely drawn, including rules intended to prevent sleeping overnight as well as byelaws preventing activities such as making a speech or attaching banners or other items to trees, railings, fences or statues without permission from the Mayor. The restrictions regarding “sleeping equipment” were interpreted very widely, to include materials such as tarpaulin which protesters were using to sit on. Some protesters even described the confiscation of items such as food and bottles of water.

Another issue reported by protesters in relation to the protest in Parliament Square was the variety of different officers enforcing the various applicable rules. While the legislation could be enforced by police and “authorised officers” of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Westminster City Council, the byelaws can be enforced by any “authorised person” i.e. those working on behalf of the GLA, the Deputy Mayor and any local authority. This includes the GLA “Heritage Wardens.” One protester reported seeing police officers carry out arrests at the request of the GLA wardens, creating a strange dynamic whereby public servants were essentially acting on the instruction of a private entity.

Of the protesters we have spoken to some felt that the rules kept changing throughout the different phases of Occupy, leading to a nerve-wracking atmosphere, with scenes on some nights of police dragging protesters across the square. One described being arrested for sitting on tarpaulin on the Tuesday morning after the protest started as part of the first large scale arrests, which coincided with a state visit from Singapore from 21 October 2014, and added that he had seen others being arrested simply for refusing to leave the area on request. Protesters described how the enforcement of these rules had a significant impact on the later demonstrations, which had a lower turnout because of the resulting poor conditions. There was also more limited space as a result of the fence that was put up during the October demonstrations, so that the protest had to relocate to the area outside the Supreme Court.

Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones was arrested whilst at Parliament Square, albeit briefly. She told us how she felt that the Met were becoming less tolerant of protests in such a prominent place and that she felt that they were under pressure to prevent damage to the Square. She stated that while the October protest was allowed to happen but over-policed, the protests in November seemed to have been prevented from ever really getting started. Referring to the rules specific to Parliament Square, she added that “it is confusing that the GLA manages the square and has its own rules on top of the legislation governing the space.”

Freedom to protest outside Parliament is key to our democracy and increasing measures that seek to restrict it in such a significant spot is hugely damaging. As Jenny Jones put it to us: “Peaceful protest is part of our culture and Parliament Square is a perfect place for it. Parliament is where decisions are made and people should not be prevented from protesting there because it’s noisy, inconvenient and messy or looks bad for tourists. The police and GLA should do all they can to facilitate protest around Parliament, not restrict it.”

So as pressure from civil liberties campaigners mounts and protests continue, will we see a change in police tactics or relaxation of the rules? Last month Liberty stepped into the debate, launching a judicial review of the Mayor of London’s decision to fence off Parliament Square Gardens, reminding the Mayor of his duty to facilitate political activity rather than prevent it. Jenny Jones agrees that the Mayor should make it clear to security guards and the police that he is happy to allow peaceful protest and whilst stating that the London Assembly does not have any powers in this regard, she explained how it can lobby the Mayor on these issues. Lawyers, campaigners and MPs have also called for an urgent review of current legislation governing protest in Parliament Square in a letter to the Guardian.

It is hoped that in policing the demonstrations this weekend, the authorities will take into account the range of voices speaking up on the importance of allowing protest outside Parliament, the heart of our democracy.