Andreas Whittam Smith: The erosion of our liberties

A small but essential part of the democratic process is being removed
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The Independent Online

Ah, replied the Home Secretary, the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument. At a lunch the other day, I had found myself sitting next to Charles Clarke. He was excellent company, though he admitted that his heart sank when he saw the seating plan. For he'd read some of the criticisms I have been making of the Government's authoritarian tendencies.

Ah, replied the Home Secretary, the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument. At a lunch the other day, I had found myself sitting next to Charles Clarke. He was excellent company, though he admitted that his heart sank when he saw the seating plan. For he'd read some of the criticisms I have been making of the Government's authoritarian tendencies.

We discussed the pros and cons of introducing identity cards and whether fraud trials should dispense with juries. I said that I could understand the reasons for the proposed changes, but that in both cases I feared that they would lead to further erosions of personal liberty. At that moment, unfortunately, lunch was coming to an end and we went our separate ways.

Only afterwards did I see the Home Secretary's decision to impose a half-mile "exclusion zone" around Parliament. Inside the area, spontaneous demonstrations, even by a lone protester, will be banned. It will be necessary to seek permission to demonstrate . Even if granted, police will be able to set stringent conditions, such as a half-hour time limit or a ban on placards or loudhailers. Anyone failing to comply will face arrest.

In short we will no longer be able to show members of Parliament by our very presence outside their chamber that we are concerned about a particular measure. This small but essential part of the democratic process is being removed.

Like all bad law, this order under the new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act springs from a single case. For the daily, noisy presence in Parliament Square of Brian Haw, the peace campaigner, has undoubtedly irritated members of the two Houses of Parliament. Mr Haw has been protesting since 2 June 2001 - through his loudhailer - against British and American policy towards Iraq. Mr Haw will be silenced on 2 August when the new regulation comes into effect.

It is claimed that a ban on demonstrations outside Parliament is needed to allow MPs and peers free access. Mr Haw's encampment with its posters and slogans, which I pass by two or three times a week, doesn't inconvenience anybody entering or leaving the Palace of Westminster. Tourists are bemused by Mr Haw's presence. You sometimes cannot avoid listening to him. To that extent he is a bit of a nuisance. But I also admire him and I wish him to stay.

Mr Clarke has drawn the limits of the exclusion zone very widely. The forbidden area stretches from Lambeth Bridge to Hungerford Bridge. So would-be protesters, even if they are well out of sight of Parliament, will be moved on if they are not arrested. This is not a modest, tentative use of a new power but its full employment from the earliest possible moment.

Consider further what is involved in asking permission to demonstrate. It gives the Metropolitan Police the power to decide what is likely to be a "good" demonstration, what "bad". On what basis will they reach their conclusion? Will there be a right of appeal? If so, to whom?

Say I come along on my own to stand outside Parliament while a particular measure is being debated. My purpose could be silently to emphasise the importance of what is being considered. Presumably after a short time, a policeman would spot me and ask me to move on. Is that right? Sometimes, too, demonstrations form spontaneously. They aren't organised. What happens then? Must each would-be protester separately contact the police and ask permission?

On the same day that I learnt of these odious restrictions, newspapers carried photographs of rows of Victorian terraces in Liverpool being razed to the ground. This destruction is a consequence of the Government's plans, drawn up by John Prescott for "housing market renewal". Some 6,800 homes in Liverpool are to be destroyed, more than were wrecked by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. (I know, I was there during my childhood.) No going gently in Liverpool by reconstructing street by street so that some sort of assessment can be made of the advantages of the scheme. No, send in the bulldozers straight away and smash everything to smithereens.

I bracket this with the Home Secretary's exclusion zone. For they both display an arrogant impatience with the messy realities of ordinary people's lives, the protesters who don't know how to behave in front of Parliament and might interfere with the free passage of MPs. And Liverpudlians who are attached to their old homes.

They smash your homes, they take away your liberties. That is why every government announcement must be examined to see whether it can be "the-thin-end-of-the-wedge". And that is why distrust of Mr Blair and his ministers will shortly turn to anger.

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