Andreas Whittam Smith: Our peaceful acts of protest should not be a crime

This is an undemocratic and inefficient way of bringing in new legislation
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The Independent Online

Ms Evans was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £100 costs. The Act states that if anybody wishes to protest in a half-mile "exclusion zone" around Parliament, then he or she will have to give six days' notice to the Metropolitan Police. And in granting permission, the police will be able to set conditions, such as a half-hour time limit or a ban on placards or loudhailers.

Just going down to Parliament on the spur of the moment to protest against something you don't like, perhaps after a discussion with a group of friends, is out of the question. You must first ask permission.

When Mr Blunkett introduced the original Bill, he well understood that what he was proposing was disproportionate. He said the relevant clauses were a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but that sometimes a sledgehammer was needed for that purpose. The hard nut was the daily, noisy presence in Parliament Square of Brian Haw, the peace campaigner. Mr Haw was arrested there at dawn last Friday.

The structure of the Bill was unsatisfactory for, as its title suggests, it was a portmanteau, stuffed full of disparate measures related to crime and policing in one form or another. Its main purpose was to set up the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. But, as well as the exclusion zone around Parliament, it also introduced new traffic and insurance offences, it provided powers to stop and search for fireworks, it dealt with incitement to religious hatred and it stopped trespassing on a designated site such as Buckingham Palace. As one Tory MP remarked, "the Bill covered almost everything but the kitchen sink".

A multi-purpose Bill is much harder for the opposition parties to handle than a single issue measure. They may concentrate on the religious hatred clauses, for instance, to the extent that they have little firepower left over for anything else. Added to which, the Government imposed severe restrictions on the amount of time available for debating each clause.

This is an undemocratic and inefficient way of bringing in new legislation. At the time the Government had a huge majority, but in its suspicious way it still couldn't trust Parliament to give the Bill thorough scrutiny. Ministers behaved furtively because in their souls they knew some of their proposals were contrary to the principles they used to proclaim.

Hadn't the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, himself said two years earlier: "When I pass protesters every day at Downing street ... I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That's called freedom." So the mood of the Government seems to have been: let's get this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Opposition MPs were put on the wrong foot, too, by their dislike of Mr Haw's encampment opposite the Houses of Parliament. The long-serving Conservative member Sir Patrick Cormack told the House: "I do not think any individual has the right indefinitely to deface the centre of a great capital city, which is what we have seen over the past three years with Mr. Haw." But he also admitted some self doubt when he remarked: "It is a pity that we have come to this pass."

Sir Nicholas Winterton, another old Tory, was very exercised by Mr Haw's presence. Had members paid sufficient attention to what the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had told a parliamentary committee about the issue of security? "Had they done so", Sir Nicholas went on, "they would be far more sympathetic to the case [the minister] is making, which from this side of the House I warmly support".

I confess I don't see the point of these knights of the shires, so concerned are they with their own comfort and so careless with civil liberties.

John McDonnell, the Labour MP, understood the matter better than Sir Tweedledum and Sir Tweedledee. He told MPs: "Tonight, we are seeing a small but significant part of our democratic tradition being chiselled away. Why? Because one person out there has the moral authority, the guts, the tenacity and the courage to stand in Parliament Square for several years telling us what we did wrong in this House by authorising a war."

In the committee which examined the exclusion zone clauses, nine Labour members voted in favour, two Liberal Democrats voted against and the Conservative members abstained. When it came back to the floor of the House, the clauses were approved by 299 to 86. Of members of the new Shadow Cabinet, David Davis voted for and Francis Maude against. The rest abstained. Not a very inspiring performance by Conservative MPs, was it? I say to them, remember the law of unintended consequences. Remember Maya Evans.

Some 14 police officers and two minibuses turned up to arrest her. She told the court: "I didn't think I was doing anything wrong standing there on a drizzly Tuesday morning with a colleague reading names of people who had died in the war." Nor was she.