The Freedom Bill must enable people to help change our society

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Ed Miliband’s ‘New Generation’ visions for Britain are both based on a strong civil society and grassroots initiative. This Freedom Bill must not disappoint if people are to be enabled to get involved in helping to provide solutions to the local, national and global challenges these visions seek to address.

With the coalition reported to be heading for a “car crash” over control orders, with Liberal Democrat ministers said to be unfuriated at plans by Tory home secretary Theresa May to allow the controversial powere to survive a review of counter-terrorism laws, Tim Gee, campaigns communications officer for Bond, looks ahead to the upcoming Freedom Bill

The rhetoric of the coalition government on civil liberties is undoubtedly impressive. In a speech earlier this year, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg declared “this will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state”. He promised to “remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest” as part of a “wholesale, big bang approach to political reform”.

The Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill, planned for this winter, is their opportunity to show what this means in practice.

The Liberal Democrat draft has plenty of good plans in it. For example, it includes removing restrictions on campaigning near to parliament and restoring the definition of a public assembly to 20 (it is currently two). Yet this is in effect only skims the surface of how the law restricts legitimate campaigning.

The truth is that that up and down the country, citizens just dipping their toe in the water of democratic engagement are intimidated and discouraged by the petty enforcement of unjust laws. Even the practice of collecting petitions on streets is becoming outlawed as formerly public areas fall into private hands.

For example, the area in front of the Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton has long been a space where citizen groups, such as the World Development Movement, have built support for their causes. But since it has become private property, members of the public wanting to take part in civil society have suffered intimidation from security staff.

Earlier this year, campaigners with the international development charity ActionAid tried to set up a stall outside an ASDA store in an out-of-town shopping centre to inform customers about the human rights of people in the supply chain. They were ordered out by the manager, and even removed from the car park by security staff. In the only location they were allowed to campaign in, only one person walked past.

Sometimes examples border on the absurd. In June, the Jubilee Debt Campaign ran a spoof cake stall on the pavement outside the offices of a London solicitor’s firm that was suing Liberia for unpayable debts. Police intervened and ordered the campaigners to move the table 40 centimetres forward as one leg stood on a strip of private property, indistinguishable from the public pavement.

These are just a few cases of the kinds of brushes with security and the police that democratically-engaged citizens face every day. Such incidents leave newer campaigners feeling shaken, disempowered and criminalised.

But there is a larger issue at stake here too – these experiences demonstrate how, in its current form, the law of trespass allows property owners to discriminate between different viewpoints and thereby act as the ultimate arbiters of public and political opinion. The problem is becoming more acute as larger areas of land are handed over for private ownership or management.

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Ed Miliband’s ‘New Generation’ visions for Britain are both based on a strong civil society and grassroots initiative. This Freedom Bill must not disappoint if people are to be enabled to get involved in helping to provide solutions to the local, national and global challenges these visions seek to address.

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