Notice of Street Processions

Part of Nottinghamshire County Council Bill [Lords] (By Order) – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 13th February 1983.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman , Southwark Peckham 8:15 pm, 13th February 1983

Under the duties of stewards, the code of practice states: The police have a duty to avoid breaches of the peace where possible and on occasions have to direct a procession by another route. The only ground on which the police are entitled to redirect a march is if they fear that a particular route will cause "serious public disorder", not a "breach of the peace." So the police have reduced the hurdle over which they must jump before they can alter a route.

The code of practice continues: The police will inform the organiser(s) in writing confirming the arrangements and the route to be followed subject to the proviso that the route may be varied by police either before or during the event". The chief constable is not entitled to vary the route before or during the event. He is entitled to vary the route chosen by the organisers only if he fears "serious public disorder"—and he must go through certain procedures before he is entitled to do that. That is part of the criminal law. Yet something quite different has been drawn up by a chief constable. It is a serious constitutional point.

It is instructive to note what the code of practice does not state. For example, it does not say, "You, the organiser of a procession, have a perfect right to demonstrate peacefully in a democracy." There is nothing encouraging or reassuring anywhere in the code of practice. It is full of inhibitions and prohibitions. It does not convey the idea that most demonstrations are entirely peaceful. It sounds as though one is organising a military operation. That will put off the inexperienced person organising a demonstration for the first time. It also transgresses the principle that the organisers decide the route. It does not anywhere suggest that the police will do all they can to help, support and encourage an exercise by citizens of their rights in a democracy.

The best course would be to knock out the clause altogether. The second best course would be to knock out the code of practice, which gives the chief constable the opportunity that I have mentioned. The third best course would be to accept amendment No. 6 which, although it puts forward the least desirable option, is better than what is offered in the Bill as it stands. If we accept amendment No. 6, at least we would have in the Library a copy of a code of practice so that we could at least study it. If the Minister does not approve of a code of practice, there is not much that he can do about it, but at least the House will know what it contains.

Laying a copy of the code of practice before the House does not deal with the constitutional status point; it does not explain how the criminal courts should interpret the code of practice; it does not deal with the lack of accountability at local level; it does not deal with the problem of accessibility to the code; and it does not deal with the House abdicating its responsibility by allowing chief constables to make criminal law.

We are dealing not with a requirement to give notice, but with a criminal offence—no matter how peaceful a demonstration or whether it is spontaneous. We have no statutory right to march, and there is already over-policing of peaceful marches. The code of practice will be seen as extending the area in which one has to apply to the police for permission to hold a march, to follow a particular route, to display flags or banners or to use vehicles. The House has no business to delegate such authority to chief constables, whether in Nottinghamshire or anywhere else. The matter constitutionally lies with us. We should not limit the freedom to demonstrate.