Holyrood Attack on the Right to Protest

There are serious concerns about the freedom to protest in Scotland after Holyrood announced plans which could ban activists from gathering at the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood is changing its legal status to make it easier for the police to remove protesters. Scottish Parliament bosses have asked the Home Office to designate the building and its grounds as a “protected site” in the interests of national security. From 1 October 2021 The Scottish Parliament building and surrounding land at Holyrood will be added to the sites covered by the The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in Scotland (SOCPA). See legislation here. This is a serious attack on civil liberties and the right to peaceful protest. As human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar has said: “There was a huge outcry when Westminster stopped 100s of years of ‘right to protest’ outside Parliament, so why are we copying them by banning protest outside Holyrood?” This is all at the request of the cross party Corporate Body within Holyrood and appears to be solely directed at being able to control protest. Jane Tallents reports.

It is not likely,  as some are suggesting, that all protests outside the parliament will be banned. It will however make it a criminal offence to remain on the parliamentary estate “without lawful authority”. Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone said that “in practical terms this offers grounds for removing those on site in contravention” of Holyrood’s estate management policy. The big question is who sets that policy and who decides when it is being contravened. The Scottish Parliament Corporate Body has asked officials to work up a protocol between themselves and Police Scotland “which will set out how and when powers to arrest or remove persons from the site will be invoked and the essential role that the SPCB will play in such decisions.”

Previously activists who have occupied the debating chamber, chained themselves to the outside of the building or climbed on the roof or entrance canopy have been arrested for a variety of alleged offenses from Breach of the Peace to Reckless Endangerment. Although the new SOCPA legislation has a maximum penalty of £5000 fine or a year in jail after a conviction which is less than the maximum for other charges the reality is that peaceful protest does not ever get punished by anywhere near the maximum.

What is more concerning is that up to now protesters  finding themselves in court could offer a variety of defenses about the reasonableness of their actions and the efforts they made to avoid putting anyone in danger or disrupting innocent bystanders. The judge would have to balance the impact of a demonstration with the rights people have to protest. With the introduction of this new legislation we enter new territory “if a person enters, or is on, the site designated in this Order without lawful authority they will commit an offense under section 129(1) of that Act.”

When the police decide to tell you to leave and you don’t (or maybe they won’t even give you that chance) you could be arrested and the courts would automatically find you guilty.

The Herald article quotes Alison Johnson saying that the change brings Holyrood into line with Westminster. In fact when SOCPA came in in 2005 it made protest within a kilometer of Westminster illegal unless you applied for police permission at least a week in advance. However, it was repealed in 2011 after it was shown to be unworkable. Mark Thomas organised mass ‘lone demos’ peaking with  2,486 DEMO’S WITHIN THE SOCPA ZONE IN ONE DAY! That was more paperwork than the police wanted to deal with!

Holyrood, 11th Sept 2013

Now provisions in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 create a ‘controlled area’ area around the Westminster parliament where the unauthorised use of loudspeakers, the erecting of tents and the use of ‘sleeping equipment’ is prohibited.

Byelaws of the Greater London Authority (GLA) require protestors to seek written permission from the GLA to hold a demonstration on Parliament Square Garden.

Up to now SOCPA only applies to nuclear sites in Scotland which just means Faslane and Coulport.  After initial nervousness from the usual activists about it meaning much higher penalties three women climbed over the Faslane fence and were taken to Dumbarton Sheriff Court in March 2008 and prosecuted by the head Procurator Fiscal. One was found not guilty because she was still on top of the fence when she was arrested. The other two were found guilty but then admonished with the judge suggested the PF had taken a sledge hammer to crack a nut. At that point the PF appeared  to go back to lesser charges and the pot luck of the District/JP court in Helensburgh!

“A full impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument as no, or no significant, impact on the private, voluntary or public sector is foreseen.”

Many of us from the myriad campaigns who have protested at Holyrood since it was built feel the impact could be a devastating blow to democracy.  Watch this space.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Robert says:

    Thanks for this piece, Jane.

    You write: “Previously activists who have occupied the debating chamber, chained themselves to the outside of the building or climbed on the roof or entrance canopy have been arrested for a variety of alleged offenses from Breach of the Peace to Reckless Endangerment.”

    Just for the record, the actions you’re referring to were organised by Extinction Rebellion Scotland during 2019 and 2020.

    Three climbers dropped a banner from the Parliament roof in October 2020 (the action pictured); a single climber did the same in March 2021. The climbers from October 2020 were charged with Reckless Endangerment, I believe, but the charges were dropped. The case from Mach 2021 hasn’t concluded yet but I’d imagine it will have the same outcome.

    On the other hand, neither the occupation of the debating chamber by 45 XR Scotland activists on Burns Day, January 2019, nor the “5 Keys to Future” action in June 2019 when five of us locked ourselves to the railings of Parliament, resulted in arrests. Likewise, a banner drop from the gallery during FMQ’s in March 2019 resulted in zero arrests. In all these cases no laws were broken—just Parliamentary guidelines.

    It seems the politicians are terrified of being embarrassed in front of the whole world during CO26. And so they should be—as they continue to claim Scotland as a “world leader” in climate action, despite the yawning gulf between this claim and the real performance of the Scottish (and UK) governments.

    The creation of this new law to suppress protest at Parliament was initiated (back in June) by the SCPB which is made up of 5 MSPs: PO Alison Johnstone and one each from the four main parties represented at Holyrood . But there’s no question in my mind that Sturgeon, Slater & Harvie must have known of and approved this action.

    It’s especially disappointing that a pro-Indy majority committee, made up of 2 Greens and 1 SNP MSP (alongside 1 Tory and 1 Labour), shoud see fit to ask the UK Home Office to create a new law to chill protest. (Johnstone might have renounced her party membership but she was, after all, elected as a Green.)

    I’m afraid this action reveals the sinister authoritarianism lurking behind the progressive mask of the Green-SNP coalition, who have no qualms in recurring to the strong arm of the UK state when it comes to chilling protest.

    But, as Jane says, watch this space.

  2. Malcolm Kerr says:

    (Alison Johnson says) the change brings Holyrood into line with Westminster. Leaving aside the burgeoning authoritarianism, is this really what anyone want to hear from a Parliament with an Indy majority? Independence is a state of mind, not an event.

  3. Sean Clerkin says:

    That is why we have organised a protest next Thursday 16th September 2021 at the Scottish Parliament at 11 am against this massive infringement to our civil liberties. All who believe in the right to protest shave to come along.

  4. Jacob Bonnari says:

    Good to highlight this and I also saw that Pat Kane highlighted it too.

    I’d like to know *why* the SP body thinks that this is required and specifically what kind of protest they see being a problem. It very much seems like power for power’s sake and has a strong whiff of authoritarianism.

    I’d go as far to say that it is in the same vein as the Tories’ plans for voters ID. This is a policy that is targeted at a problem which doesn’t exist. So I’m very suspicious of who is behind this and what the real motive might be.

    Very much a shame on any Green or Labour Party MSP involved in endorsing this request.

  5. Murray says:

    It’s a lot worse than that ,they’re getting more like Westminster’s as the days pass, it’s that blind eye ,deaf ear brigade with no shame or blame. No point in protesting ,I complained about a minister that hadn’t done their job and because they were no longer in that post this is what I got in reply . Dear Sir “ because the person you mention is no longer in that ministerial position,there is nothing to been done . Regards” . The minister breached the 20 peoples rights , an RSL had fraudulently forwarded paperwork to the HRC and Scottish government to unlawfully withdraw the tenants right to buy . The minister did nothing to right the wrong ,in fact they helped the criminal offence to stand by blocking and not forwarding the complaint on a £2.7million fraud. Shame on the SNP ministers that did nothing and shame on the SNP for not doing what they needed to right the wrong. More like the Tories than you think, so protesting is a right and here’s hoping some get to exercise that right . Because we didn’t .

  6. Wul says:

    This is bad.

    One of the reasons I support Scottish independence is that me, and other Scots, could easily journey to, and protest outside, our country’s seat of central government. If this right is removed from me, I will re-consider my support for independence.

    What a bunch of shite bags! If they can’t hack the heat of public scrutiny and dissent, then give up the job of MSP and do something lower-profile instead.

    All officialdom is retreating behind barriers, becoming more difficult to engage with, becoming more anonymous and unaccountable whilst simultaneously expounding “transparency” and “open-ness”. Hypocrites and cowards.

    1. Wul says:

      As an aside; This retreat from directly facing your electorate is a good indicator that lies are being told. The greater the mis-truth and gap between facts and PR spin, the greater the retreat.

      Thus, Tory Govt. ministers will only be present at stage-managed and crowd-controlled events. Their lies are so big they can’t be in the same room or street as those who would ask truly difficult questions. I can only assume that Scot Gov. is finding it’s own plate-spinning of lies and cognitive dissonance increasingly difficult to manage.

      1. Jacob Bonnari says:

        That’s a good point – the further a group of politicians remove themselves from real people the more likely it is that they’re lying to you.

  7. Graham Ennis says:

    Weel, actually, they have made fools of themselves.
    If the protestors had fomed themselves into a dog walkers club, and paraded as such, the law would fail. (Walaking a dog outside Holyrood is not a criminal offence.)Even if 100 people walked their dogs. they would have the individual right. Likewise, if they formed or borrowed brass bands, and did the same, and used other subterfuges, like a farmer walking his tame pig around the Hoose, it would be legal. it would also make those responsible look completely idiotic. All protestors should carry political banners and flags. AFAIN large Scottish banners being ripped from the hands of the um, Dog walkers, who just happenmd to feel like flyinhg the Saltaire, would be illegal. The act would be illegal,. if applied. Likewise, a mass of Indy women, with pushchairs and Bairns, would also be mightally silly for the Holyrood regime. The variations on this would be huge.The defence in court would be hilarious, and the Goverment would look very foolish. Since the modfied would then have to be stringently changed, and would always be forced into new strictures, this could be mightaly hilarious fun. Parrot lovers of Alba unite, and do your bit for freedom. I am sure that many Scots would be ingenious in this escapade. If I attended, I would bring a large Alsation dog, with a tin of dog food. My defence would be that I was mertely by coincident walking my animal, and dog walking around Hoolyrood was not a criminal offence. I think juries would take a very broad view of this. Horseriders welcome, bearing sal;tairs. “Officer, I am only exercising my rights to ride a horse in Edinburgh. ” I am not with these demonstrators. “

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Trouble is, Graham, that a protest is a public expression of objection/support, disapproval/approval, or dissent/consent towards an idea or action. Any activity – dog-walking, horse-riding, singing sectarian songs, waving saltires, flying airliners into iconic buildings – can be a form of protest, providing that it’s done to this end.

      Moreover, the Scottish Parliament wants to ban such public expression, not because it wants to emulate the UK Parliament, but because it considers such expression to be a risk to its security.

      You can see where we’re going with this ‘independence’/state-building malarky.

  8. Kevin says:

    “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” – Howard Zinn.

    The only conclusion to this action is that the law must not be respected.

  9. Sean clerkin says:

    As well as the Protest against this infringement on our civil liberties on Thursday 16th September 2021 at 11am a number of us are prepared to be arrested on October 1st to defy this lurch into authoritarianism.

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