The Campaign for Free Assembly

Mark mark at
Sun May 4 13:54:54 BST 2008

The Campaign for Free Assembly: "It’s time we had freedom to publicly
assemble in the UK. The Campaign for Free Assembly is a group of
individuals campaigning against the existing legislation restricting our
freedom to assemble and the continued police repression of protest."

Read article (further down) written by the Campaign for Free Assembly -
"Freedom to Protest: What Does the Proposed Repeal of Sections 132-38 of
SOCPA Really Mean?"

Firstly, What is SOCPA?
The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) (2005 c.15) is an
Act of the United Kingdom Parliament aimed primarily at creating the
Serious Organised Crime Agency, acting against organised crime, such as
the illegal drugs trade, money laundering, and people smuggling.

However, the Act introduced changes to the powers of arrest utilised by
both "constables" and "other persons" in England and Wales. The term
'arrestable offence' ceased to have effect as, bar a few preserved
exemptions, one power of arrest now applies to all offences when the
arrest is made by a constable. Where the threshold of an arrestable
offence was previously used to enable specific powers of search or powers
to delay certain entitlements, these powers are preserved, but the
threshold is changed to that of an indictable offence.

The Act is controversial primarily for an additional, entirely unrelated
provision, which restricts the right to demonstrate within an exclusion
zone of up to one kilometre from any point in Parliament Square. Sections
132-138 of the SOCPA declares that demonstrators have to apply to the
Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police six days in advance, or if this is
not reasonably practicable then no less than 24 hours in advance. The area
itself is defined by a Statutory Instrument rather than the Act. It
specifically excludes Trafalgar Square, a traditional site of protest on
the northern boundary of the area. Apart from Parliament it also includes
Whitehall, Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, the Middlesex Guildhall, New
Scotland Yard, and the Home Office. It also covers a small section of land
on the other bank of the River Thames, including County Hall, the Jubilee
Gardens, St Thomas' Hospital and the London Eye.

Critical Mass and the Stop the War Coalition have both been affected by
the legislation. A year ago, participants of the Critical Mass bike ride
which has been happening monthly since 1994 have been given leaflets by
the police warning them that they were participating in an illegal

The law controlling demonstrations in parliament square is modelled on the
powers introduced by the Public Order Act 1986 (POA), particularly
Sections 11-12 which relate to all processions (e.g. marches) no matter
how small, requiring organisers to give advance notice to the police and
allowing a wide range of conditions to be imposed. Section 14 of the act
deals with assemblies (e.g. static demonstrations and pickets) but these
do not require advance notice and it allows only a limited set of
conditions to be imposed. Originally conditions could only be imposed on a
gathering of at least 20, but this was reduced by the Anti-social
Behaviour Act 2003 to a mere two people. Exactly what constitutes an
assembly is left up to the police, similarly SOCPA does not define what it
means by demonstration, exemplified by its use to prosecute a Parliament
Square picnicker.

The Public Order Act (POA), originally the Criminal Disorder Bill, was the
culmination of six years of planning and propaganda by the Thatcher
government, followed by a mere six weeks of public consultation, sold on
the now familiar basis that "in establishing a new legal framework
covering processions, demonstrations and assemblies, the Government wanted
to ensure that the right to protest, march and picket peacefully should be
regulated only to the extent required to preserve order."
For more info, see:

>From The Campaign for Free Assembly:


Freedom to Protest: What Does the Proposed Repeal of Sections 132-38 of
SOCPA Really Mean?

It seems another consultation on our freedom to assemble and protest is on
its way. The House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights has just
launched a ‘Call for Evidence’ in order ‘to enquire into the human rights
issues arising from policing and protest’. These are some of the questions

• What limits, if any, should be placed on the right to protest and why?

• Should specific limitations be placed on the ability of certain groups
to protest? If so, who and why?

• Should the right to protest be more strictly curtailed in relation to
certain geographical areas? If yes, where, why and what limits would be

• The Government proposes to repeal sections 132-8 SOCPA dealing with
protest around Parliament and invites Parliament to consider whether
additional provision is needed to ensure that Parliament's work is not
disrupted by protests in Parliament Square. What, if any, additional
provision is required?

• In what circumstances would it be permissible for the State to take
pre-emptive action, which curtailed protests?

• Are existing police powers necessary? Are more or fewer required?

• Are counter-terrorism powers appropriately used in the policing of

• In what circumstances may actions during protests be justifiably

• How should the balance be struck between the rights of protesters and
other competing interests (such as the rights of others or the prevention
of disorder or crime)? Would legislative changes be desirable to strike a
better balance between competing rights, or is the current legislative
framework about right?

This talk of ‘legislative changes’ might be the first step for new
policies that will allow for a further criminalisation of certain groups
who are now protesting against the State and its criminal actions inside
and abroad [1]. The introduction of a new set of restrictive laws
regarding protest will send a clear message to protesters: “Stay at home
and shut up or you might end up in prison”. This remains to be seen.

Whether the intention of this consultation is to introduce more draconian
legislation or not, the consultation itself should not be conducted in the
first place. Our freedoms should never be put to consultation or to a
vote, regardless whether a majority votes for or against them.
Consultations of this type are just an attempt to give a democratic look
to a very undemocratic practice: the removal of individuals’ freedoms and
rights by the State. It perpetuates the misleading assumption that
democracy is based on the rule of the majority. The Italian and German
experiences from the 1930s tell us that that is definitely not the case.

At the beginning of April, the government published two separated
documents, 'The Governance of Britain: Analysis of Consultations' and 'The
Governance of Britain – Draft Constitutional Renewal White Paper'. The
first document includes an analysis of the results on the consultation
‘Managing Protest Around Parliament’ – that ended on the 17th of January -
while the second details the Government’s policy proposals in light of
these results. Among the proposals there is the repeal of sections 132-138
of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which tacitly forces
protestors to apply for authorization from the police in order to hold a
demonstration within a 1 km exclusion zone around Parliament. Other
provisions up for repeal included in these sections are the ban on the use
of loudspeakers in the designated area and police powers to impose
conditions on demonstrations around Parliament regarding place, time,
number of people, banners/placards and noise levels. No doubt the repeal
of these sections can only be good news to everyone. However, it did not
come as a surprise. The consultation was, first of all, published with
this intention in mind. We know this because the Metropolitan Police
itself asked for a repeal of these sections, as it came clear in their
response to the consultation. The problem was not whether they wanted to
repeal SOCPA or not. For many campaigners it was the question of what
would come to replace it, since that legislation has proved highly
ineffective regarding the original intentions of the Government when they
managed to pass SOCPA: to get rid of Brian Haw peace camp and to ensure
that political protest around Parliament could be rendered as ineffective
as possible so they could go on about their normal businesses without
being disturbed.

The worrying aspects of the consultation paper were the questions
regarding the ‘harmonisation of legislation’. Also, a direct request by
the Metropolitan Police and reflected in their response:

'In summary, the MPS believes that a prior notification scheme should
continue to apply to processions that fall within s11(1) POA and should
also apply to assemblies of 2 or more persons within the proposed area
outlined above. The MPS also believes that it should have the ability to
place conditions, on the basis of the grounds laid out above, on any
procession, assembly or lone protest wherever it occurs prior to it taking
place or during its currency.' [2]

The feature article published in Indymedia on the 16th November, 2007
titled ‘Preserving Disorder: Freedom to Protest and the Future of SOCPA’
(proposed by 'State of Emergency') first described the chilling effects
such an ‘harmonisation’ could have on our ability to assemble and protest
freely. ‘Harmonisation’ meant that the pre-SOCPA legislation that applied
to ‘processions’ could also be extended to apply to all demonstrations,
including assemblies, and in the whole country, not just the exclusion
area. The pre-SOCPA legislation refers to sections 11-13 from the Public
Order Act 1986 that forces organizers to notify the police in advance when
they are holding a procession, also allowing for the police to impose
conditions on that procession and even giving them the power to ban it
altogether. A ‘procession’ is any two or more people moving in the same

Section 14 of POA 1986 gives the police the power to impose conditions on
assemblies, although they cannot ban them. An ‘assembly’ now means any two
or more people with the same idea, standing still - as defined by the
Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, Section 57/123. Conditions that can be
imposed on assemblies refer to place, maximum duration and maximum number
of people. Therefore, the good news in the recently published government
white paper was not really the repeal of SOCPA but rather the fact that
they seemed to have backtracked on their intentions of harmonisation. It
looks like they are not going to propose new legislation that would make
it an offence not to notify the police in advance that you will be holding
an assembly and also removed the possibility of a straightforward ban of a
public assembly:

'Given the strength of feeling in responses to the consultation document
on potential restrictions on legitimate protest, and in the absence of
greater evidence of a policing problem, the Government will not pursue
harmonisation of the sorts of conditions that can be placed on marches and
assemblies in the Public Order Act 1986.' [3]

This said, it is also clear from this paper that the Government is not
giving up on the idea of introducing new legislation restricting freedom
of assembly and protest around Parliament:

'In moving to repeal sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and
Police Act, the Government nonetheless takes seriously the need to ensure
that the operation of Parliament is safeguarded. 

The Government therefore invites the views of Parliament on whether
additional provision is needed for the purpose of keeping passages leading
to the House free and open while the House is sitting, or to ensure that,
for example, excessive noise is not used to disrupt the workings of
Parliament.' [4]

This intention has now been spelt out by the questions asked by the House
of Commons Joint Committee on their call for evidence on the right to
protest. Many of these questions directly refer to suggestions made by the
Metropolitan Police and the Mayor of London in their responses to the
consultation. Among the many there is, for example, the need to identify
and target certain groups (with the help of the Forward Intelligence Teams
no doubt) in order to impose restrictions on them. For example, the Mayor
of London states in his response:

'It may be appropriate to develop criteria to distinguish between
assemblies and marches to focus on timing, scale, size, and information on
organisers requesting permissions, for example .' [My italics] [5]

The Mayor of London also expressed its desire to limit the duration of any
protest [6]. What form these new measures and legal changes might take is
not clear yet, but what is puzzling is the fact that we know they already
have legislation in place that allows for the repression of protest when
and if needed. That legislation is the Public Order Act 1986.

Last October, the organizers of the Stop The War Coalition march to
Parliament had notified the police in advance and sat down with them in
order to negotiate the conditions of that protest (stewards, route, time,
etc.), thus complying with Sections 11 and 12 of POA 1986. However, the
Police walked out from negotiations with the Stop the War Coalition,
announcing that they were not ‘facilitating’ their march – an euphemism
meaning that they would use any means, including force, to stop that march
happening. Many people were under the impression that, in doing so, the
police had used powers granted them under SOCPA. In fact, when the police
tried to justify the ban they mentioned a Sessional Order, under the 1839
Metropolitan Police Act [7], that was in reality an order from Parliament
to the Police ‘to enable free passage by Peers and Members on days on
which Parliament is sitting’ [8]. However, it was not actually possible
for the police to legally use this Sessional Order to criminalise the
organizers of the march, especially because non-compliance by protesters
could not have constituted any offence. That Sessional Order is just an
instruction of Parliament to the police and not legislation. However,
Section 13 of POA 1986 gives the police the power to prohibit marches.
This section justifies the prohibition of a procession in a particular
area for no longer than three months when the police ‘reasonably believes’
that the procession could result in serious public disorder. At the end,
the police decided not to exercise this power and finally allowed the
march to happen.

These facts were largely mis-represented not only by the organizers of the
8th of October march but also the mainstream press. For example, in an
article published in the Observer on October 7, 2007, Henry Porter forgets
to mention that the STWC had been complying with POA 1986 all along and
that power to ban that march was not really contained in SOCPA or the
Sessional Order, but in POA 1986:

'That is where it becomes a problem. Instead of using the Serious
Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, the law preventing demonstration
within a kilometre of Parliament Square without police permission, the
authorities have disinterred a Sessional Order of the House of Commons of
the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, passed at the time of the Chartists.

With archaic relish, they have banned the march because it may impede the
progress of any MP or peer who wants to attend Parliament (it is
surprising there is no mention of Mr Speaker's coach and four). The
organisers have guaranteed that access, but the ban stays in place, which
is odd given that the Prime Minister is on record as saying he wants to
repeal the section of SOCPA that requires police permission.'

Even more worrying, the results of the consultation seem to have
reinforced POA 1986, as most of those who sent a response merely stated
that provisions under this Act are ‘sufficient’ to deal with processions
and assemblies. One of the most paradoxical examples was Liberty’s
response to the consultation, where they ask for a repeal of SOCPA while
at the same time declaring:

'While Liberty may not support the level of interference permitted under
the POA, the law exists, and in our view provides the police with more
than adequate powers to manage public assemblies.' [9]

So, in light of these type of statements, where so-called civil liberties
campaigners are not even able or willing to campaign against existing
legislations they know to be wrong, the Government’s paper analyzing the
results of the consultation finally states: ‘The overall view, however,
was that the current framework of the Public Order Act should not be
changed.’ [My italics] [10]

When the first day of action for free assembly was held on the 12th of
January 2008, those present at that protest exercised non-compliance with
both legislations, POA 1986 and SOCPA 2005, since what happened that day
was at the same time an ‘assembly’ and a ‘procession’ (Under POA 1986 a
march is a type of procession). Semantics aside, it might be the case that
- even if at the end they do not introduce more restrictive legislations -
the repeal of sections 132-138 of SOCPA will not mean that things will get
any better since the police do not really need those sections in order to
effectively repress protest all around the country. They will only need to
stick to POA 1986 and the other legislations and measures introduced since
then – such as the declaration of ‘dispersal zones’ - and apply them more
often and harshly than they have done until now.

However, on the more pessimistic side, there is a high chance that the
results from the call for evidence by the House of Commons Joint Committee
will be a further extension of police powers contained under POA 1986.
There is a good reason why Parliament is now listening carefully to any
request by the Police. As the MPS clearly expressed in its response to the
consultation, their suggestions are indeed to the interest of those now
sitting in Parliament:

'The MPS believes that implementation of its proposals will ensure that
those who wish to protest can continue to do so but in such a way that
they do not hinder the operation of Parliament.' [11]

Certainly, the Government and Parliament in general are desperate to
minimize the effectiveness of any protest, knowing they are right now
embarked on a genocidal foreign policy and unjust – and criminal -
treatment of individuals inside the UK. The result: the progressive
removal of our freedom to assemble and protest for a long time to come
and, therefore, the disappearance of nearly the only tool we have in order
to defend ourselves and others from the increasing power and abuses of the

[1] This is already happening under Sections 145- 149 of the Serious
Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 that target animal rights groups.
These sections are not up for repeal.
[2] 'The Governance of Britain - Managing Protest Around Parliament.
Response from the Metropolitan Police Service', p. 6
[3] 'The Governance of Britain – Draft Constitutional Renewal White Paper
March 2008', p. 15
[4] Ibid. p. 16
[5] 'Managing Protest around Parliament-Response from the Mayor of
London', p. 2
[6] Ibid. p. 3
[7] Sessional Orders are passed every year under this Act: ‘The House's
Order to the Metropolitan Police (together with a similar order made each
session by the House of Lords) is transmitted to the Metropolitan Police
Commissioner, and results in his giving directions to constables under
powers in section 52 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839.’ See:
[8] Ibid. Select Committee on Procedure Report, Nov 2003
[9] 'Liberty’s response to the Home Office Consultation: Managing Protest
Around Parliament' – January 2008, p. 7
[10] 'Governance of Britain – Analysis of Consultations ‘Managing Protest
Around Parliament’, p. 10
[11] 'The Governance of Britain - Managing Protest Around Parliament.
Response from the Metropolitan Police Service', p. 7

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