Leading article: Disorderly conduct


The Lord Chancellor had a torrid time yesterday attempting to defend the Government's record on free speech. Like the Prime Minister, Lord Falconer seems to believe that merely saying something makes it so. "We are a country that couldn't be freer," he informed the Today programme. Maya Evans, who has a criminal record for reading out a list of names near the gates of Downing Street, would be unlikely to agree.

Lord Falconer put up such an inept defence of the new law under which Ms Evans was arrested that one wondered if he was secretly attempting to undermine it. He declared that "there isn't a country in the world that does not take particular measures to protect its parliament" and asserted that the restrictions were essential to "avoid disorder" around the institutions of government. But when asked how it was that Britain had managed perfectly well without such a law for hundreds of years, the Lord Chancellor had no reply.

It is increasingly clear that Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which makes protests within 1km of Parliament Square illegal unless authorised by the police, is a terrible piece of legislation. It was designed to evict one long-standing protester from Parliament Square. It failed in this because the courts ruled it could not be applied retrospectively. But it has, whether the Government intended it or not, added significantly to the powers of the police.

The police now apparently have the right to harass any member of the public within the vicinity of Downing Street or the Houses of Parliament deemed to be a causing a nuisance. It is up to them to define what constitutes a "protest". They are clearly not averse to using intimidating tactics in the course of their duties, as the deployment of 14 officers in two minibuses to arrest Ms Evans demonstrates. All of this diminishes the status of the public areas of Westminster as democratic spaces.

Defenders of this legislation claim that all Ms Evans had to do was inform the police that she would be demonstrating. But the idea of having to apply for a licence to protest is anathema to our liberal traditions. It is true that the police are required to approve licence applications unless public safety or national security is compromised. But that leaves dangerously vague grounds for rejection. The police should be forced to apply to the courts to ban a demonstration.

Mr Blair and Lord Falconer can proclaim their deep respect for Britain's traditions of free speech all they like. But the fact re-mains that an Act pushed through by their Government has had the effect of reducing it. In this instance, actions have spoken louder than words.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own