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Friday, July 29, 2005

The role of protest

Anybody who has visited the National Assembly for Wales when it is sitting will notice straight away the large variety of protestors who gather there. We have had hunger-strikers, demonstrations, lobbies and a wide-range of colourful and imaginative banners draped across the pedestrian guard-rails outside. When I called in earlier this week all of these had packed up for the summer. They will be back in September.

It is my view that this is a good thing. Protest has an important place in a democratic society. It really can change things, it can help hold politicians and governments to account and it can shape public opinion. The worse thing that a Parliamentary body can do is to seek to repress such activity.

Similar encampments have grown around the House of Commons in recent years. Some of the more enduring have been focussed on the Iraq war. However, instead of tolerating this as an essentially democratic act, New Labour has sought to follow the example of other regimes and suppress this dissent. They passed an Act of Parliament ruling that from 1 August 2005 all protests in a half-mile zone in Westminster, London, must have prior permission from police.

Now, they have had their comeuppance. Will Howells has drawn my attention to this item on the BBC website. It seems that the man who prompted the Government to act by holding a four-year anti-war protest outside Parliament, has won a legal battle to continue his vigil. High court judges ruled by a 2-1 majority that secondary legislation could not be used to catch Mr Haw, who sleeps in the square in front of a large display of anti-war banners, placards and flags. They also granted a declaration that Mr Haw is not required to seek authorisation to continue his protest.

Lady Justice Smith, sitting with Mr Justice McCombe and Mr Justice Simon, said the new law did not catch Mr Haw because of a drafting error.

She said she was surprised that it had been suggested that such an order could be used "to criminalise conduct which would not otherwise be criminal".

It is enough to make me want to cheer.
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