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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. Nellist:

That example, particularly using the road that my hon. Friend described, proves my point. The fact that the areas that surround Nottinghamshire — south Yorkshire, west Yorkshire and Derbyshire — have no such provision could cause the problem that he explained. There would be no requirement in those areas for a procession to give notice whereas if the Bill were to be passed, that requirement would be in force within Nottinghamshire. That would cause problems where parents organised, in my hypothetical case, such a demonstration against the inadequacies of a particular stretch of road and the dangers that vehicles might cause to children.

My second example is that of a spontaneous demonstration about unemployment caused by a factory closure or redundancies announced by management. For a trade union to generate a mood among its members of solidarity, of sticking together and not allowing the management, sometimes at the behest of the Tory Government, to cause job losses, it is often necessary to hold a meeting and to protest at a town hall, a Manpower Services Commission office, the head office of the company at the centre of town, or a number of other places. Trade unionists, who initiated most of the rights that working people enjoy in Britain, would be under the threat of having committed an illegal act if the clause were to go through.

The rights of freedom of assembly and to process are a demonstration of the democratic rights that we still enjoy, although some of my hon. Friends may think that they are limited. Democracy is more than placing 13 or 14 crosses on a ballot paper and electing Parliaments during one's lifetime. It is more than electing a county council every four years. Democracy is about participation in the life of society, and the rights to freedom of demonstration and assembly and to free speech are attacked by the clause.

7.15 pm

Many organisations have launched petitions and complaints about clause 6 and the restrictions on the freedoms to demonstrate and process. One of the organisations, the National Council for Civil Liberties, has sent material to the Committee and to other hon. Members. It points out that while, in the United Kingdom, there is no constitutional freedom of assembly that includes the right of possession and therefore meetings and processions are subject to the law of trespass, the United Kingdom is the signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations. That provides that everyone has the right to freedom, of peaceful assembly and of association. The United Kingdom is also signatory to the European convention of 1950 and has ratified article 11, which provides that everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Despite restrictions placed on the freedom of demonstration by English domestic law, these obligations should apply in favour of freedom of expression and association. Clause 6 seeks to restrict that freedom.

I have said that the clause seeks to make the organisation of spontaneous demonstrations a criminal offence. I have tried to give community examples, such as that of parents and the effects of traffic, and industrial examples, such as that of the possibility of redundancies and factory closures. However, the clause also generates organisational problems. Those who are organising street demonstrations will be caused problems by the inclusion of the words: as soon as reasonably practicable". That would be difficult to prove in a court of law to the satisfaction of all concerned. If parents were to organise a spontaneous demonstration over the death of a child on the road, and at the same time tell the police, who would decide whether sufficient notice has been given? I have always thought that in English law one is innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the proof of guilt in a criminal offence lies with those who are prosecuting. With my limited knowledge of the law, it would seem to me that clause 6 would reverse that process and put the burden of proof on those who had organised that demonstration to show that they did not commit a criminal offence. That is a wider implication than can be dealt with by one local Bill from one local county council.

What is more, this Bill sets a precedent, as other Bills have set precedents. Political control can be exercised over the content of demonstrations. It could be argued that were this to remain on the local statute book in Nottinghamshire, it might give encouragement to other councils which seek to bring similar laws from the other place to this Chamber. That encouragement could induce other councils, perhaps less sympathetic in their political nature than Nottingham council, to differentiate between demonstrations that they like and those that they do not. A council could decide in some cases that the notice given for a demonstration with which it was sympathetic was all right but the notice given for a demonstration with which it was out of sympathy was not. Such a political orientation of the decision of councillors would be reinforced if the clause were to be passed. Why is it that the majority support given to the Bill in all stages of its passage through Parliament has come from Tory Members? By and large, the response of organisations within Nottinghamshire connected with the Labour movement has been overwhelmingly against this clause being introduced.

The local organisations that have petitioned for the removal of clause 6 include the Nottinghamshire association of trades councils, the Nottingham and district trades council, the Worksop and district trades council, the National Union of Public Employees social services branch Nottingham, the NUPE divisional council Nottingham, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff Nottingham No. 1 branch, the regional executive of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, Park Labour party, Beeston Labour party, Lenton branch Labour party, Newark and district trades council, Stapleford and Beeston trades council, Mansfield and district trades council, Retford and district trades council, Nottinghamshire administrative, professional and clerical branch of NUPE, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs Nottingham university branch, and a number of single-issue campaigns and other organisations in the area.

That widespread opposition of numerous democratic organisations in the Nottinghamshire area represents the views of tens of thousands of workers. Each trades council has a number of affiliated trade union branches, which may have between a few hundred and 1,000 members. So why, given that opposition, do Conservative Members support the clause?