Joan Bakewell: You can be arrested for picnicking now

We all risk breaking this fiendish Act that throws a cordon round Parliament
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The Independent Online

The producers must have been hugging themselves. Publicity for the new Marks and Gran comedy, The New Statesman: The Blair B'stard Project - 2006, was in full swing outside Parliament, with its star Rik Mayall indefatigably entertaining the gathered paparazzi.

Over on Abingdon Green, the media pack was in full cry. Cameras were flashing as Rik cavorted against this appropriate background, mother of Parliaments, ancient seat of democracy, cradle of our rights and defender of our freedoms, when two embarrassed police men came over and, somewhat sheepishly, explained that they had been asked by someone within Parliament to move the caravanserai on. The publicity jamboree risked breaking the recent Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.

Indeed we all risk breaking this fiendish new Act which throws a cordon round a great swath of Westminster and over Westminster Bridge, and gives police the power to move on anyone they don't like the look of. Rik Mayall is someone the Government of the day very much don't like the look of. It was the same back in the Eighties, when as the fictional television hero Alan B'stard - then a Tory MP - he was tracking the venality of Mrs Thatcher's government. The wheel has come full circle. Now it is Tony Blair's turn to be in the firing line for mockery. But the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act is something new.

It has come into effect with scarcely a whimper from the public, who only by anecdote and small scale challenges are coming to realise how draconian these measure are. Here are three such. On a Sunday last August Mark Barrett held a mid-day picnic on the grass in the middle of Parliament Square. Around a dozen activists turned up to join what he insists could not be termed a protest, because it had neither a name nor banners. His purpose was to demonstrate how severe is the one-kilometre ring around Parliament, where you cannot foregather in groups without six days' advance permission from the Metropolitan Police.

Ironically the law was prompted by parliamentarian irritation with the untidy presence of Brian Haw, the indomitable protester who has lived on the pavement opposite the House for some four years. He is visited by tourists, bought sandwiches by local office workers and chatted to by patrolling police. He is harmless, if a little simplistic in his arguments. The irony is that because this new law is not retrospective he has dodged its impact and is there to this day. Meanwhile Mark Barrett has been found guilty and fined £250. He says he'll be back.

Already last October Maya Evans had been arrested at the Cenotaph for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. A particularly poignant and thoughtful form of protest, one would think. Not one to draw attention to if you are considering sending more troops out there. Nonetheless she was charged, convicted and given a conditional discharge. She now has a criminal record. There have been a further total of 11 other arrests following protests aimed at flouting this unreasonable law. And so it goes on.

Only this week, two women, grandmothers, both veterans of Greenham Common, were arrested for breaking the same law for protesting at a US military base in North Yorkshire. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act now makes it a criminal offence to trespass on designated MoD sites across the north. The rationale, says the MoD, is to stop protesters distracting the security services from their job.

Once again, as with Alan B'stard, we have come full circle. The country's defences, supposedly there to protect the values we hold dear, are being mobilised against the very people speaking out in their defence. Idealistic and even playful people - Mark Barrett's protests including cake-icing demonstrations - are being harassed for their innocent faith that British law should be on their side.

If such mild and modest people persist in claiming the right of peaceful protest, they will, eventually have to be arrested. That's what happened in the early 1960s when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, marching under the banner "Ban the Bomb", attempted to defy the police with mass sit-ins. Its own "committee of 100" volunteered to be arrested, and go to jail. John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Vanessa Redgrave were among them.

When a groundswell of unease grows into a mass movement things get rough. Will protests against SOCPA come to that? And if so, with our prisons already groaning with inmates and the courts overcrowded, how will the criminal justice system cope, and where will they all go? More important, does any of this make you feel safer?