UK
Westminster Council proposes banning "tents and similar structures" and "noise equipment" in crackdown on political protest
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11.01.12



London's Westminster Council is currently running a consultation on proposed new byelaws that seek to prohibit long-term or noisy political protests. The Draft Byelaws to Regulate Tents and Other Structures and Sleeping Equipment in Designated Areas in the City of Westminster and to Amend Existing Byelaws to Enable Seizure of Noise Equipment appear to have been drafted in response to: "a particular fear" that the long-term protest camp established by Occupy London at St Paul's Cathedral may lead to "a similar new encampment… in the precincts of Westminster Abbey."

If made law, the draft provisions would ban the erection or keeping of tents "or similar structures", whether for sleeping in or not, as well as permitting "constables and authorised officers" to seize "noise equipment" being used to cause "annoyance".

Don't carry on camping

There is a considerable history of protest camps in Parliament Square, perhaps most notably by the late Brian Haw. He spent a decade camped opposite Parliament in opposition to the UK's part in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, until his death in 2011. Over time he was joined by other protestors, and by 2010 a sizeable 'Democracy Village' was established. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, obtained an injunction against the Village, leading to the erection of "an unsightly fence, which remains in place, to keep people out." [1]

Part 3 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 (PRSRA 2011), which passed into law late last year, is intended to deal with "the continuing issue of the encampment, the threat of a re-occupation of the Gardens and the continued use of megaphones in Parliament Square."

However, the provisions of PRSRA 2011 apparently do not go far enough for Westminster Council: "It only applies to the gardens of Parliament Square and the pavements that immediately adjoin them." [2]

According to the Council, this means there is a risk of "displacement of the existing encampment." Furthermore, the limited geographical scope of PRSRA 2011 means there is an "increasing threats of new encampments appearing… and the use of megaphones and other noise equipment in other places in the City." Even if the powers available under PRSRA 2011 are "exercised successfully, the Council fears that the occupiers of the current encampment will simply move to a nearby area."

Thus, unhappy with the tented protests that already exist in Parliament Square, Westminster Council is taking the opportunity to prevent them springing up elsewhere in the borough following their likely removal.

It would seem that long-term, static protests are considered an illegitimate form of political expression. The explanatory note states that the Council "does not wish to prevent legitimate protest. That is why the Byelaws have been carefully drawn… specifically dealing only with the use of tents, other structures and sleeping equipment."

Reaction to occupation

The spread of the Occupy movement across the globe in recent months has led in several places to bans on camping, most notably in various cities in the United States. [3] The numerous references to the encampment outside St Paul's Cathedral make it clear that Westminster Council is fearful of the establishment of a similar, long-term protest within its jurisdiction. Some universities in the UK have also recently attempted to ban protests on their property. [4] Naomi Colvin, a spokesperson for Occupy London, suggests that the proposed byelaws highlight "a disturbing trend."

Discussing Westminster Council's proposals, as well as the more widely-reported possibility of demonstrations being banned during the London Olympics, Ms Colvin stated that:

"We are watching developments with interest and question whether government should be distinguishing between legitimate and non-legitimate protest… if it is going to do that serious questions must be asked about why the government is seeking to limit protests for which MPs across the House of Commons have expressed their support. We have had numerous [high-profile people] say that what we're doing is not just legitimate but useful."

Noise annoys

The new draft byelaws also contain a proposed amendment that would permit constables or authorised officers to seize "noise equipment".

Byelaws from 2001 state that a person can be ordered to desist from their actions if "by shouting or singing… by playing on a musical instrument; or… by operating or permitting to be operated any radio, gramophone, amplifier, tape recorder or similar instrument" the individual "[causes] or permits to be made any noise which is so loud or so continuous or repeated as to give reasonable cause for annoyance to other persons in the neighbourhood." [5]

It would seem that freedom of expression is to be cast aside as mere "annoyance". The explanatory note states that it may be possible to prosecute offenders under existing byelaws relating to noise in public places, as "there is no exemption for political demonstrations." However, there are limitations that require new provisions:

"The main problem with that is that it does not enable authorised officers of the council to stop the annoyance being caused, which the power of seizure would." [6]

Penalties

Aside from the confiscation of equipment that officials deem is intended for sleeping or making noise, persons found to be offending against the byelaws could be subject to a fine of up to £500. Courts would also be permitted to make orders for the forfeiture of items used in the commission of the offences.

Furthermore, even before a conviction, a direction given by a constable or authorised officer to cease an activity will remain in force for a maximum of 90 days, with the official giving the order able to specify a period of time as long as they wish (although it may not be longer than 90 days). This could effectively ban an individual from protesting on a particular issue for three months, unless they did so in accordance with the Council's idea of legitimacy.

Olympic extensions?

Individuals associated with Occupy London have been informed that the Home Office may be considering legislation based on Westminster's model, with the possibility of new rules based on Westminster's proposals being rushed through in time for the Olympics. A report from November 2011 noted that concern over potential encamped protests may lead to the banning of demonstrations for the duration of the event. [8] Naomi Colvin again:

"We would certainly be concerned if we see movements of this kind spreading beyond Westminster… It has become such a difficult place to carry out any kind of meaningful protest. I'd recommend they think extremely carefully about this. We are a democracy, and people have a right to participate in the political process. That means more than just putting a cross in a box every five years."

Consultation

The Council's consultation on the proposed new byelaws is open until Friday 13th January.



Sources
[1] City of Westminster, 'Consultation on the introduction of new and amending byelaws for good rule and government - Explanatory note', no date, p.1
[2] Ibid., p.2
[3] Missoulian, 'Missoula County bans overnight Occupy encampment', 4th January 2011, Free Times, 'Occupiers forbidden to camp at state house', 3 January 2012,
[4] Shiv Malik, 'Birmingham University protest ban attacked as 'aggressive and censorious''', The Guardian, 11 December 2011, Matt Burgess, 'Student pressure forces University of Sheffield to pull protest ban', Forge Today, 6 December 2011,
[5] City of Westminster, 'Byelaws for good rule and government (No.2)', 20 July 2001, p.1,
[6] City of Westminster, 'Consultation on the introduction of new and amending byelaws for good rule and government - Explanatory note', no date, p.5
[7] Brian Brady, 'Demonstrations 'to be banned during Olympics', The Independent, 20 November 2011

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