In My View: Harriet Harman, MP for Camberwell and Peckham

We’ve got the worst of all worlds when it comes to demonstrations during this Covid pandemic. The law is confusing, with some people being angry because they think they don’t have the legal right to demonstrate.

Others feel angry with the police because they believe they do legally have the right to demonstrate but that the police are stopping them.

Many people feel angry wondering why they see large numbers of people out demonstrating when they can’t see their own family and
friends.

The difficulty of understanding the legal position has been worsened by the fact that the law on the right to protest during the pandemic has been changed a number of times and there’s been a lack of clarity about what is the law and what is merely Government guidance.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I’m the  chairwoman, looked into this and heard evidence from the police and lawyers. At the start of lockdown last year people going outside without lawful justification was against the law.

There were a number of exceptions to that including, subject to limits on numbers and social distancing, gathering for religious assembly and for protests or demonstrations. So at that point protests were clearly lawful.

When the lockdown was tightened nationally in December, the right to gather for religious purposes continued to be allowed.

But the right to gather for a protest was dropped. But the law said you could still gather outside if you had “reasonable justification,” and bearing in mind that the Human Rights Act protects the right to protest, it’s fair to assume that protests would therefore be lawful as reasonably justified.

That was the legal position when the women’s group Reclaim These Streets sought to gather for a vigil to remember Sarah Everard who was found dead after going missing in Clapham. And they also wanted to protest about the general level of threat and harassment women routinely face on the streets.

Reclaim These Streets met with senior officers of the Metropolitan Police but said that the Met were only ever determined to refuse to let the vigil go ahead in any form. Reclaim

These Streets announced the vigil was cancelled but all day women gathered on Clapham Common, including the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.

But later in the evening many police vans arrived, scuffles broke out and there were terrible scenes of women being dragged off and arrested.

With no-one clear about the basis of the law it was necessary for the Government to move to clarify it quickly. They’ve done that now by, once again, putting into the Regulations that protests are allowed.

The right to demonstrate is of great importance. When we see TV reports of demonstrations abroad being broken up by the government, we believe it is a repression of freedom. And so it is.

But Government must clarify the law so the police are not blamed for the Government’s muddle. Now is certainly not the time to curtail one of the most important rights in a democracy, the right to protest.

 


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