Parliament Square is the home of protest. Hardly a day goes by without demonstrators making their points, peacefully, to passers-by and politicians of all stripes. Sometimes it’s just a handful of protestors, in colourful costumes, issuing catchy chants. Sometimes the square is heaving, with thousands gathered to unite in support of a cause. Sometimes it’s a lone figure, steadfastly standing up for what they believe in.
There’s an obvious reason why so many protesters choose Parliament Square. It sits opposite the Houses of Parliament, and is within view and earshot of those whom we rely on to make laws on our behalf. Politicians cannot avoid it, and the media has one eye on it at all times. If you want to make your point, and make it effectively, there really is no better place.
So, it came as no surprise to see this Government, that tries to avoid responsibility at every turn, trying to clamp down on protests in Parliament Square. Clause 59 of the authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill seeks to criminalise the act of protesting in Parliament Square by making it logistically impossible to get permission.
So we decided to try to stop the Government in its tracks.
Working with Peers from across the House of Lords, we put forward an amendment which would allow protests to take place in Parliament Square with the permission of the relevant agencies. Our amendment is based on an existing precedent already in place for demonstrations in Parliament Square, and protects people’s right to demonstrate legally outside Parliament. .
Our amendments passed by 236 votes to 158.
We’re very pleased to say that our amendment was passed by 236 votes to 158. This is a small but important victory and we are thankful to all the peers who supported the amendment and helped us to get it over the line.
But we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture here. The amended version of the bill will soon return to the House of Commons, where MPs will be able to vote down our amendment to the bill. If the Government directs Conservative MPs to do this, our amendment will fall.
Even if this doesn’t happen, the rest of the bill still remains. It is true that the Government saw several defeats last night on the protest clauses in the bill, including the voting down of clauses that would ban ‘noisy’ protest. We also saw all the hastily added Government amendments which expanded stop and search and which targeted individual protestors fall - and as these were introduced in the Lords, these have now been fully defeated. Nevertheless, the majority of the content and character of the bill are detrimental to our democracy. Yes, the right to protest in Parliament Square is safe for the moment, and may remain at the end of this process, but it will ultimately be diminished in value by the fact that the overall right to protest has been undermined.
When the bill returns to the Commons, provisions that weaken individual rights and freedoms could be renewed. The ban on ‘noisy’ protest could easily return - and it will then fall entirely within the Home Secretary’s power to determine whether a protest is or isn’t acceptable.
This bill has always marked the granting of extraordinary powers to the executive, powers that come at the expense of our individual civil rights. If the Home Secretary is able to decide at will whether a protest is legal or not, it’s easy to see how the causes that this Government doesn’t support could become taboo topics in society as a whole.
Protest is meant to make an impact. It’s meant to be noisy and to disrupt the ordinary flow of life. If it didn’t, who would listen? How would people know that a protest was important if it didn’t make a mark? By trying to water down what can be done within the law, the Government is telling us that it has had enough of civil society’s aims to drive change.
But ordinary individuals and campaign groups like us won’t stop trying. Any democratic society ought to uphold its citizens’ right to express themselves and to express their disagreement with their Government. Hypocritically, our Government frequently condemns places like Hong Kong and Belarus for not granting their people these rights.
But there is not so much of a difference between the legislation in the Policing bill and the legislation for which our Government condemns other countries. Taking the moral high ground is hypocritical; our Government knows that it is enacting a systematic erosion of our rights at home.
And it’s not just the Policing Bill. The Elections Bill, for example, looks to give the Government power to ban certain campaigners, and will also weaken the ability of the Electoral Commission (which regulates elections) to challenge the Government. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill seeks to weaken the power of the courts to challenge Government decisions. In short, this Government is looking to erode the power of its people and consolidate its own.
But as we’ve shown, small victories can be won. And they mean something. They mean that the capacity to bring about change is not lost. They sustain hope and the will to keep fighting. They show the Government that we will not be silenced.
With our amendment passed in the House of Lords, it will soon be time for MPs in the House of Commons to vote to either adopt it or throw it out again. At Best for Britain, we will strain every sinew to ensure the right to protest in Parliament Square is protected for good. But we need your help.
Sign our petition to show that you believe in the right to freedom of speech and expression in the UK, and you will be able to join or campaign to persuade MPs to protect our right to protest.
You can find out more about our campaign for a better democracy here.