Demonstrating respect for rights?

Originally posted on OurKingdom

Matthew Brian: The right to protest is undeniably one of the most essential pillars of a free society. The suppression of dissent often draws the international media spotlight when it comes to the actions of regimes and governments around the world whom we in the West describe as repressive. Britain styles itself as a champion of freedom and democracy, able to lecture those nations it regards as less democratic than itself , but these lectures are now sounding more and more hypocritical as we witness a steady decline in the rights and opportunities for British people to protest, and a steady rise in heavy handed police tactics when they do.

It would be going too far to label Britain a police state, of course. But, as David Davis pointed out in his keynote speech to the Convention on Modern Liberty, by the time we are a police state it’ll be much too late. At best these increasing restrictions on the right to protest embarrass the notion of British democracy: at worst they are the beginning of a parting of Britons with a  fundamental human right.

The publication this week of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’s report on the policing of protests, Demonstrating respect for rights?, (pdf) provides a welcome chance to bring the issue into the limelight.  Whilst concluding that they could find “no systemic human rights abuses in the policing of protest”, the committee admitted to concerns over the reported increase in heavy-handed policing and proposed several changes to both the legal and operational aspects of policing acts of demonstration.

In a move to protect freedom of speech, the committee feel that Section 5 of the Public Order Act should be amended to remove the right of police to arrest protestors who use insulting language or behaviour, as they are currently able to do. The report also pushes for the repeal of the ban on protesting around Parliament, as established in the Serious and Organised Crime Act 2005. This restriction brought into sharp focus the extent to which freedom to challenge Parliament has been eroded, creating a physical distance – to add to the metaphorical distance – between those in power and those who dissent in one stroke of a pen.

Perhaps most importantly, the report firmly stresses that counter-terrorism powers should never be used against peaceful protestors. The use of a law designed for use against a specific group, to control a totally unrelated section of society has been a hallmark of Labour’s tenure. Aside from terror laws, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, originally designed to protect women from stalkers, has since been employed to very different effect, in one instance shielding the energy company Npower from peaceful environmental protestors concerned at the destruction of a beauty spot in Oxfordshire.

The report concludes that police and protestors need to engage in more active communication, and that human rights training should be integrated into  police training to avoid human rights breaches. All very well and good, but recommendations which do not reach the heart of the problem: a private and unaccountable body in the form of ACPO setting police policy and lobbying a willing Labour government for ever-more draconian powers.

One needs only to look at the story that surfaced just days after the report was published, revealing that the police have been storing thousands of innocent activists’ personal information on hidden databases, to recognise that the stifling of dissent is a serious creeping probem which we would be

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