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:

Despite that history of London today no local law is in operation that seeks to give a period of notice within which the organisers of a demonstration in London must inform the authorities. About 600 to 800 demonstrations take place a year in London. Despite a history of mass national protest, when those tens of thousands of workers illegally marched from Hyde park to Trafalgar square some 97 years ago, and the response of the police commissioner in banning public meetings, no requirement of notice to demonstrate in London exists.

7.30 pm

I ask Conservative Members who support the clause why, despite repeated requests in debate for example in the area of Nottinghamshire, on which they rest their case, no such example has been given. I ask Conservative Members why it is necessary to have such a clause, in the absence of such an example. It is not necessary to go back 100 years. An example in the last five, 10, 15, 20 years would be adequate to demonstrate why it is necessary to give notice of a procession.

Conservative Members may be looking further into the future, as I suggested. While there has been no example in the last five, 10, 15 years of the necessity to enforce such a provision because of spontaneous demonstrations of the unemployed, or of redundant industrial workers, the Government may be anticipating the necessity for such a provision as their policies of mass unemployment and of impoverishment of working people take further effect.

I consider next the attitude of those who advise local councils on the need for notice of processions, and the imposition of fines if no such notice is given. The most outspoken of such advice, which is given not only nationally but to the local chief constables in each area, including Nottingham, is that which comes from such chief constables as Mr. Anderton of the north-west area. In course of the BBC 1 programme "Question Time" on 16 October 1979 he said: I think that from the police point of view … basic crime … theft, burglary, even violent crime … will not be the predominant police feature. What will be the matter of greatest concern to me will be the covert and ultimately overt attempt to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state, and, in fact to involve themselves in acts of sedition designed to destroy our parliamentary system and the democratic government in this country. The Association of Chief Police Officers, to which Mr. Anderton belongs, complained to the parliamentary Select Committee on Home Affairs in February 1980 that the right to demonstrate is widely exploited, and marching is the most chosen form of demonstration adopted by protestors. Irrespective of the peaceful nature of the procession the numbers involved bring town centres to a halt, business is disrupted and the public bus services is thrown out of schedule. In short, a general annoyance is created to the normal process of daily life.

Despite the clarification given by one of my hon. Friends when the House last debated the subject, I firmly believe that senior police officers and police chiefs, acting under the general advice of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and repeating the protest they made to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in February 1980, are promoting in the Nottinghamshire County Council Bill —and in Bills relating to other areas in the other place, destined to come before the House —the extension of the control of marches by requiring advance notice and seeking to impose their own code of practice on demonstrators.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended in February 1980 that organisers of marches be legally requird to give at least seventy-two hours' advance notice"— the clause under consideration provides for a different period of notice of their intentions, or such notice as may be reasonably practicable after that time. As I said earlier, I believe that "reasonably practicable" will give rise to a host of problems relating to the burden of proof of what is reasonably practicable when organising a demonstration. The Select Committee recommendation stated that, in the case of organising a demonstration, it would then be an offence, punishable by a fine of £400"— this provision differs again from that in the clause under discussion dealing with proceeding with a march without notice, or contrary to police direction.

By the promotion of this clause by Nottinghamshire county council, receiving, as it does, support from Conservative Members, the democratic rights of working people, the right to freedom of association and of assembly and the right spontaneously to put a point of view to working people, through the organisation of marches and demonstrations, are put at risk and threatened.

Much was made in an earlier debate of the fact that this is not an uncommon measure, and that approximately 107 local authorities have included such a clause in local legislation. To my understanding that is less than a quarter of the total number of local authorities in the country. I still think it is necessary for Conservative Members who support the Bill to put before the House, and before working people who read reports of our debates, their reasons for seeking to insert such clauses in private Members' Bills covering one quarter of the country as opposed to the majority, of the country, that is not so covered. Do the Government anticipate problems in the Nottinghamshire area with spontaneous demonstrations of an industrial or community nature?

Although it is a small clause in a Bill that began in the other place and although until today it may have attracted little national publicity, there has been debate and argument of the kind that has taken place in the Nottinghamshire area—and that largely resulting from the organisations that I mentioned having promoted opposition to the clause. Accordingly, I argue that the traditional rights of freedom of assembly gained by the Labour movement, and the right to demonstrate and process without giving notice, are an essential feature of democracy. It is imperative to be able to hold meetings and protest by marching on a town hall, or company headquarters to protest about redundancies. The requirement to give notice is a restriction upon that right. During the remainder of the debate I hope that Government supporters will say why they support the clause. I also hope that others of my hon. Friends will explain in greater detail our opposition to the clause.