By Elsa Buchanan
You may not know, but under a law called the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (PRSRA) 2011, the local authority for the City of Westminster in London has the power to confiscate items that could be used for “sleeping” or “staying” in the square. More, the use of amplification, banners and even tarpaulins, is also illegal.
And the very law that the authorities are using to regulate peaceful protestations and the police’s role in this touristic area of Central London, could be breaching human rights.
This is what believes Paul Ridge, a Partner in the Public Law and Human Rights Department at Bindmans, a London leading law firm.
“What I would like to see is a total removal of these by-laws. But how that is achieved is up in the air. The double standards, sometimes of the media, praising what is going on in Hong Kong, and the irony that people in Hong Kong may have more rights to protest than people outside our Parliament, is worrying. Deeply worrying,” Ridge explains.
His comments follow a police crackdown on the peaceful occupation and protest, dubbed the #tarpaulinrevolution and #occupydemocracy on Twitter, which had decided to stage a nine-day protest on the Parliament Square.
The sleeping bag that violates the law
Protestors there say the whole idea behind the occupation is using the space for debates and to tackle issues not discussed in the mainstream media.
However, every day, after night falls, dozens of police officers swoop on the protestors, confiscating sleeping bags, sheets, inflatable mattresses, backpacks, dry clothes, coats, plastic bin bags, and even empty cardboard boxes.
Law firm Partner Ridge explains: “In practice, the PRSRA law devolves the judgment calls to individuals on the street, police officers, heritage wardens, the Greater London Authority (GLA) officers to interpret the law. They will take items that are perfectly legitimate like a coat, or a piece of tarpaulin where one might want to sit on to have a discussion group, or a forum. Yet, the GLA and the officers, without any judicial sanctions, or without any control of the courts, confiscate items. I think we are now seeing essentially them abusing that power.”
Merel Prescott, 53, a protestor and qualified maths teacher from Newport, South Wales has been laying on the pavement surrounding Parliament square with her 16-year-old daughter Emily, since day one. Both their bags were confiscated on the third night. Emily draws a list of items confiscated from protestors – items deemed to violate the PRSRA.
“Umbrellas were confiscated because they were “structures”. A portable mattress was dragged out from beneath my mother even after we informed the police she was disabled. Sleeping bags were also taken away. Not to mention empty pizza boxes.”
And Prescott adds: “My daughter’s bag contained my medication [Prescott has a disability]. I had a tent and a megaphone with no batteries in my bag, but even if there were no batteries they took the whole bag, which also contained my coat, my purse, socks and dry clothes. I still believe it was illegally seized.”
While her bag was returned on the condition that she “didn’t abuse the use of any of the items”, Prescott daughter’s bags still haven’t reappeared.
“I was told to go to a station in Kensington [West London] to get mine back, but when I got there and demanded it was handed back, the officer looked confused and told me they hadn’t seen it. I informed the police about it. I am still waiting to get my bag back. It’s a mystery where all the things that were seized are. According to the act it could take up to 28 days before I get my stuff back.”
Meanwhile, other protestors confirmed the authorities have told them their belongings would only be handed back “at the end of the protest”.
As she lays on the pavement, a heritage warden kneels down to speak to the 53-year-old. As Prescott insists she is disabled, the officer asks her to show him the sleeping bag she is keeping her legs warm with.
With her faltering voice she explains to anyone who will listen, “They are warning me that I mustn’t use a sleeping bag as a sleeping aid. But I’m not sleeping; I’m speaking to you and using it as an aid to keep warm. That makes no sense.”
A ban on protests
For Ridge, who acted for long-time Peace Campaigner Maria Gallastegui in the now-famous 2012 Court cases during which she argued the laws violated her rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly under the European Convention on Human Rights, the difficulty with the PRSRA is precisely that the sleeping equipment definition is open to interpretation.
“Obviously, a tent or a sleeping bag are sleeping equipments built and designed for sleeping. But let’s say a Japanese tourist fell asleep on a hot day in Parliament Square, would you say that the clothes that tourist was wearing suddenly becomes a sleeping equipment?”
“The definition has been stretched to incredible lengths. Now, if someone fell asleep and they happen to have a coat covering them, suddenly the coat becomes sleeping equipment. That seems to me to be an abuse of the language of the act.”
This view is shared by George Barda, a social and environmental justice campaigner who shot to fame during the Occupy London protests when he spent weeks camping in St Paul’s Churchyard.
“The scandal of this law, and this is a huge and increasing problem, is that it is worded so absurdly openly that it pretty much allows totally arbitrary policing. The law itself is clearly an anti-protest law that any kind of credible justice system would have shot down,“ he says.
“If the Courts allow protests 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it is a legitimate activity but that you cannot have shelter, it is a breach of human rights in terms of that provision. Under this law, you can do this thing [protest] but you are not entitled your human rights [shelter] while you do it.”
By-laws to the PRSRA, including the GLA’s Parliament Square by-laws 2012, also prohibit the use of displayed signs, banners, flags and loudspeakers within the square.
Matt Bonner, a 32 year old a freelance graphic designer from London who has spent every night since Friday on the green with the exception on Sunday confirms the police presence has been continuous.
“At 7am on Saturday as a new [police officer] shift came in, a canvas on which was outlined our ‘Safe Spaces Policy’, a 1.5 square meters canvas, was confiscated. We were left with very little. It is a sad irony that they decided we could have no written material. Even our plain yellow bunting, which was made by a couple of protestors, was destroyed. We’re literally obliged to reinvent things every day and every night.”
Further, the fifth paragraph of the PRSRA also dictates that if you want to protest, you need to get written permission.
“This is what I find so offensive,” says Ridge.
And he is not alone. After the United Nation General Assembly’s special rapporteur report on 17 June 2013 looked into the freedom of assembly and association in the UK, the UN voiced grave concerns about the by-laws and restrictions placed around Parliament Square.
“The UN was offended that you have to go to the state to ask permission to protest against it. Again, the removal of banners is a removal of the integral point of a protest. If you remove that, those wanting to make a point about inequality and distribution of wealth can’t even make it,” Ridge adds.
“Even if a banner falls under a by-law, I have huge concerns about the removal of banners and I do think it is an abuse of the by-laws and certainly I share the concerns of the UN. Peaceful assembly is a long standing British right and it is abused when you remove somebody’s banner.”
Campaigner Barda says he was forcefully dragged off the square on the fifth day of protest. This was to enable police forces to erect metal fences around the entirety of the square “so the GLA can carry out some maintenance work” on the grass.
“Consequently, dragging me off that undamaged bit of square without explanation or providing me with any other justification other than the damage to the grass where I was not sitting on, was clearly a travesty and a breach of my human rights of speech and movement.”
Barda asserts there have been breaches on both sides of the law, and confirms he intends to take his case to court.
“The law as it stands allows all sorts of breaches of human rights of the right to assemble and protest freely, the right to shelter, the right of free speech via amplification systems in a noisy environment,” he continues.
In 2012, when Ridge stated that the new act would serve as a ban on protests during Gallastegui’s Appeal, the government argued that protests were not banned.
“At the time, the government pointed to an example of Barbara Tucker who was maintaining a 24h presence on the square by sleeping in a chair under a golfing umbrella. They claimed this was an example of somebody protesting. But now, when somebody is, for example sitting in a chair or has a coat covering them, they say [that person is] breaking the law for having sleeping equipment.”
Ridge continues: “I am concerned the Court of Appeal has been misled, and that the police are now engaged in political policing. This is not a genuine response to civil problems. It’s actually political policing. If the demonstration was there to say ‘We are campaigning for more funds for the Royal Family’, one wonders whether they would have the same level of opposition from the police and the heritage wardens”.
He takes the example of the Royal Wedding, during which people would camp on Parliament Square, and wait to get a spot, and nobody removed a tent.
Carrying her five and a half months old son Luca, demonstrator Maria Sanders, 25, says the protestors are “not been given the chance to sit and discuss in this square as we would like to, because we are not allowed a shelter, we are not allowed somewhere to sit down that is dry to be able to have those conversations”.
Instead, the young mother, who grew up in Herefordshire before moving to London, says demonstrators are mentally fighting with the police on a day-to-day basis. “But that is their choice and it is bringing more attention [to us]. We are still managing”, she concedes.
“It does seem that judgements have been made about the nature and the type of the protest,” Ridge believes. “And rather than the police and heritage wardens facilitating lawful activity, actually they are trying to use the act and twist the act to prohibit lawful activity.”
While allegations of brutality by the police on the third night have been widely discussed on social media – videos and photos of the event show police using pressure-points on the protestors and young Emily confirms she witnessed a young woman being dragged by the front of her hair by a police officer – campaigner Barda explains most of the “brutality” has happened at night.
“When it was more difficult for people to see and there are fewer people in the square. That is not a new thing, and they always do the dodgy stuff in the middle of the night.”
He insists: “From the beginning, it’s important to say that the only breaches of peace have been triggered by the authorities, and even though they have been incredibly provocative and attacking us, at no point have they suggested that we have breached the peace. We’ve remained peaceful, we’ve remained democratic, we’ve remained reasonable. The brutality is all theirs.”
When contacted, a spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the non-departmental public body which monitors human rights said, “If anybody thinks their human rights have been breached they should contact the Equality Advisory Support Service or a lawyer in the first instance. The Commission is unable to comment without knowing all of the facts.”
It is also worth mentioning that legal observers such as Glyn Jukes are present on the square on the behalf of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol). The team also acts on the behalf of Green & Black Cross [GBC] Legal, which is not a legal firm per se, but recommends solicitors known to have significant experience in representing protesters.
While he could not comment on his observations, Jukes confirmed he is part of a co-ordinated team of trained volunteer legal observers seeking to monitor public order, protest and street policing, and making notes about what they get up to.
The Metropolitan Police wish not to comment, but explained officers were present “to prevent a Breach of the Peace”.