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Monday, August 11, 2008

Protesting at the Senedd

A few days ago the Western Mail picked up on concern on some blogs that the National Assembly Commission was allegedly stifling free speech by banning members of the public from protesting with banners outside the Senedd, unless they get permission.

They referred to a YouTube video in which a protester who has placed a banner on the steps of the Senedd is approached by a police officer who tells him he is a breaking a public order issued by the National Assembly Estate.

The policeman presents the protestor with a document, which says: “Signs or barriers must not be erected, attached or otherwise fixed to any part of the National Assembly Estate.

“Hand-held signs, banners or other promotional material may be displayed outside the Senedd with the approval of the Presiding Officer or a person acting on his behalf.” An Assembly spokesperson confirmed that this is accurate.

In today's Western Mail, Conservative Leader Nick Bourne has a letter in which he says that this rule as anti-libertarian and dangerous. He goes on to use Magna Carta in support of his argument. The problem is that Nick has misunderstood the rule, or I hope he has.

There have of course been regular demonstrations outside the Senedd since it opened, many of them brandishing banners, placards and pamphlets. Nobody has ever tried to stop these demonstrations taking place, in fact they have been actively encouraged. As the Western Mail points out this is in direct contrast with Westminster where MPs have passed laws to prevent protestors getting too close.

As I understand it the only issue that the Commission has with such protests is health and safety. We need to ensure that these protests do not prevent legitimate visitors accessing the Senedd or placing obstacles in their way that might compromise their safety. We are also reluctant to allow people to actually attach anything to the building itself for obvious reasons.

Like Leanne Wood I am not aware of any incidences where placards have been removed or confiscated outside the Senedd building. The order exists to enable Assembly staff to properly advise protestors with some authority as to what they can and cannot do as part of their protest. If it were there for any other purpose then it would be overturned.

Like Nick Bourne, however I have asked for a fuller explanation. Unlike him I am not going to jump to any high-minded conclusions until I get it.

Update: I now have full copy of the guidelines which were approved at a House Committee Sub Committee on 16 November 2006. I no longer have a copy of the minutes of that committee so I cannot confirm who was present though I know that I was a member, as was William Graham. The minutes of this sub-committee were approved on 7 December 2006 at a meeting in which both William Graham and I were present. I make this point because of William's comments in the Western Mail that 'he was unaware of this rule, but said he was opposed in principle to such a measure.'

As I suggest above the purpose of the rules are not to prevent protests but to ensure that they take place safely and peacefully, without obstructing other visitors to the Senedd. On revisiting them they do appear to unnecessarily employ belt and braces for this purpose and they could do with some revision but the point that they have never been used to prevent or limit any demonstration is I think pertinent as is the fact that all concerned apply them pragmatically and sensitively.

I'm of the opinion that the Senedd, in addition to Council Offices Police and Fire Authorities should have wooden doors, whereby protests can be nailed to said door, Martin Luther style.

G Lewis
Bridgend Lib Dems
isn't the Senedd getting a bit grand?

Stil, I suppose that if it doesn't try to take itself serioulsy, on-one else ever will!

viva protest!
This is semantics Mr. Black, and you know it. It's a curtailment of our civil liberties and as someone who lives in your list constituency I will take every opportunity I have to point out that you are complicit in it.
How can it be a curtailment of your liberties when it does not prevent you or anybody else protesting? The Assembly actively encourages protest and upholds your right to participate in demonstrations. We do though have a responsibility to the health and safety of everybody else. That is not semantics that is a very real responsibility. If you really want to know what it is like to have your liberties infringed then try protesting in Parliament Square.

You will also note that I said the rules need revising to remove any doubts about their intent.
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