Pledges on protest rights overshadowed by moves against 'peace camp'
A pledge to safeguard the right to protest as part of the "new politics" promised by the coalition Government will be undermined today as a legal challenge begins to remove peace protesters camping outside Parliament.
As part of a Queen's Speech that vowed to restore lost freedoms and civil liberties, David Cameron's administration said it would allow "members of the public to protest peacefully without fear of being criminalised". However, The Independent understands that No 10 was aware of a plan by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to use the courts to remove protesters from Parliament Square.
Legal papers are expected to be delivered to the High Court today as the bid to remove the protesters formally begins. The first hearing looks set for next week. Mr Johnson signed a mayoral decree at 5.30pm on Monday, allowing officers from the Greater London Authority (GLA) to begin civil proceedings against the protesters for trespassing on the land, which the authority controls.
The camp, made up of dozens of small tents, was set up by anti-Iraq war protesters in 2001. It is occupied by climate change activists, anarchists and opponents of the Afghanistan war.
Yesterday the camp's longest inhabitant, Brian Haw, was arrested in a separate incident. He allegedly obstructed police security checks ahead of the Queen's Speech. A total of 1,465 police officers were on duty as the Queen made her way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster. If the Mayor's legal challenge is successful, protesters will be removed by bailiffs hired by the GLA. Police will only step in if protesters refuse to leave the site.
A statement on behalf of the Mayor said: "Parliament Square is a world heritage site and top tourist attraction that is visited by thousands of people and broadcast around the world each day. The Mayor respects the right to demonstrate – however, the scale and impact of the protest is now doing considerable damage to the square and preventing its peaceful use by other Londoners, including those who may wish to have an authorised protest."
Lawyers acting for the GLA expect the Human Rights Act will be used by protesters to argue they should be allowed to remain in the camp.
The Prime Minister had signalled his support for the removal of the protesters before entering a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who have traditionally given strong support to freedom of speech issues. However, Nick Clegg, the party's leader and Deputy Prime Minister, appeared to swing behind the plan to end the protest last night. It is understood he agreed that protecting the right to protest was different from protecting activists who had "overtaken" the square.
Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said that it was not for the police to decide "what should and should not be done on private property," but added: "The one thing we would look for in any government is to properly clarify around Parliament what it is they want and what they do not want."
The Tory leader of Westminster City Council, Colin Barrow, welcomed the move to remove protesters, who he accused of "hijacking" the area.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "We are very sad to see that on a day that is supposed to celebrate British democracy, peaceful dissent is also shut down. The new coalition Government has promised to restore the right to non-violent protest. Attempts to clear Parliament Square are not the most promising start."
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