Notice of Street Processions

Part of Nottinghamshire County Council Bill [Lords] (By Order) – in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 13th February 1983.

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Mr. Dave Nellist:

I wish to speak to clause 6, concerning the right to hold processions and demonstrations. The Bill seeks to introduce a criminal offence. Should the organisers of a demonstration not give the required notice under the Bill, those who have organised it will be liable to criminal proceedings and fined.

Over the past century or more, many of the rights that working people in Britain enjoy—including the right to vote—were won as a result of protests, marches and demonstrations, and by the coming together of public feeling. Therefore, it is wrong that a Bill should seek to limit the rights of freedom of assembly, of demonstration and of procession, thereby curtailing free speech within a particular area.

It is notable that many Conservative Members have spent much time, particularly in the past three or four years, in arguing about the lack of human rights in Eastern European countries that I would categorise as being in the hands of a Stalinist bureaucracy. In those countries, for millions of working people the rights of assembly, of free speech, and of belonging to a political party of their own choice or a trade union of their choice, are curtailed, as are the rights to demonstration and to assembly. Therefore, it seems a little odd that supporters of the Tory party should seek to confuse the lack of rights enjoyed by people in eastern Europe with the genuine ideas of Socialism in Britain. On the one hand, they criticise the lack of freedom in eastern Europe; on the other hand, by their presence here tonight, they seek to support the erosion of freedoms that can only be guaranteed by the pressure of working people in Britain.

It has been said in many learned reports on public order and on the rights of procession that in approximately 80 per cent. of all cases the organisers of processions give notice to the police. That is understandable. Anyone organising a procession or demonstration wishes to get the maximum publicity to ensure the largest possible turnout. The police, with their ever-increasing resources, do not seem to have too much trouble in finding out about the majority of demonstrations.

Reports by Lord Scarman and others have referred to perhaps 20 per cent. of demonstrations of which notice has not been given. But when, during the Committee stage of the Bill, we asked the representatives of the police in Nottingham what problems they had with the demonstrations of which they had not been given notice, they could not give us one example.

The Bill, by clause 6, seeks to limit the spontaneous right of assembly, of procession and demonstration, and it is incumbent on the promoters, and the Tory Members present here tonight, to justify to this House and to working people outside, by practical examples, why they think it is necessary to have such a clause in the Bill. The clause is not reflected in the local legislation of the surrounding authorities of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Within the areas of those authorities, no such provision exists to limit the organisers of a demonstration through the requirement to give notice of it. Spontaneous demonstrations arise from circumstances to which they are an immediate and necessary response. I shall give an example that will illustrate the process. Let us suppose that there were a serious traffic accident and a young child was maimed or killed. I know from reading my local papers and the national press the feelings that can be engendered among parents in that area. I have seen reports of parents organising a spontaneous demonstration, perhaps to block the road for an hour or so to show the need for a pelican crossing or a zebra crossing.

Under the clause, if parents organise such a demonstration and then proceed to march to the town hall to demonstrate to their local council the need for improved facilities on the road to prevent such serious accidents, such action will be illegal. The organisers of such a demonstration, if it were possible to identify them—this is another point that we may debate later—could be liable to fines of up to £200.