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.

13 Responses to “The Freedom Bill must enable people to help change our society”

  1. Vote Global

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Freedom Bill must restore the right to campaign in quasi-public spaces http://bit.ly/a8HQ1M

  2. Greener London

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Freedom Bill must enable people to help change our society: http://bit.ly/df4y2H

  3. paul barker

    Excelent article Tim, Will you be trying to place it on Conservative & Libdem sites(eg LDV)? They are the people actually launching the Bill.

  4. Anon E Mouse

    Leaving aside the initial childish bias in this article in believing the remark from The Torygraph (car crash? – rubbish, nothing will happen) this is a well presented item and an important issue regarding the scrapping of the horrible laws infringing our civil liberties brought in by the last useless government.

    The fact remains however that many of the draconian laws forced on the electorate over the last 13 years are perhaps useful if used properly.

    I am reminded of the shameful arrest using the Terrorism Act of the 86 year old lifelong Labour Party supporter Walter Wolfgang who just disagreed with the home secretary or the woman reading out the names of the war dead at the Cenotaph – those arrests were just wrong.

    But the law itself is useful if used correctly.

    It was important to get rid of stupid laws like HIP’s and ID Cards but where the author here says they wish to protest in certain places such as Churchill Square in Brighton, he needs to remember that if that is now private land then he has no right to do so.

    I most certainly do not want to live in a society where people are allowed to invade private property for their own needs. It’s bad enough that the state can invade our living rooms and arrest us for not having a TV licence – even if we choose not to watch the IP to which that very licence applies – and to give permission for mobs to protest on private property should not be condoned.

    So yes to Nick Clegg and his all important Freedom Bill but let’s consider the big picture unlike the knee jerk responses from the last bunch…

  5. Joni Hillman

    And my other clever colleague Tim Gee @vote_global blogs about the Freedom Bill on @leftfootfwd http://tiny.cc/fwohv

  6. Shamik Das

    Actually, it’s not just the Telegraph reporting the control orders ‘car crash’ – lots of news sources are focusing on it. It is absolutely relevant to look at the schism between the coalition partners on control orders and speculating as to whether your beloved Clegg will cave in to Cameron yet again.

  7. Anon E Mouse

    Shamik – OK I am a Clegg supporter – he’s reckless and a bit irresponsible which I admit I do like but so far I’ve heard nothing but doom and gloom from the left so far and nothing yet has come to pass.

    However, from your link I accept the “Car Crash” comment is a fair one and not just made by the Telegraph.

    Accordingly I withdraw my first paragraph and apologise to the author for suggesting he was being childish by believing that remark. In this instance (only in respect of the first remark) I am wrong and thank Shamik Das for pointing out my inadvertent mistake…

  8. Simon Landau

    Anon – you may also considering withdrawing or modifying your comment that ‘… to give permission for mobs to protest on private property should not be condoned’. The examples given in the original post are both where existing rights of way exist for the public and yet police or security have used powers and methods which at best would be considered inappropriate in usual civil trespass cases.

  9. jubilee debt

    Freedom Bill is a chance to restore the right to campaign, http://bit.ly/bFdCZp, http://bit.ly/dD2LLN. Get in touch w/ yr best stories

  10. Anon E Mouse

    Simon Landau – No I’m going to stick with that part. That’s why I mentioned the area the author had brought up in Brighton.

    I do agree however that having seen the way the Met behaved at the G20 summit, leaving aside the issue of that poor fella having died at the scene, the rest of it was an absolute disgrace.

    The use of kettling is wrong and I also wish the police would behave like our servants instead of being a law unto themselves…

    …however the right to invade private property I cannot agree with. I don’t care how strongly and irrationally people felt about GM food or that big bad nasty company Monsanto – they shouldn’t be trespassing onto someone else’s land to destroy their property…

  11. Doug Goff

    The Freedom Bill must enable people to help change our society … http://bit.ly/9qIQ3j

  12. Tim Gee

    Paul Barker – Thank you. I hope they would be interested in blogging on this theme, as such a basic civil liberties issue should transcend party lines.

    Simon Landau – spot on

    Anon E Mouse – thank you for your compliment on the article’s presentation. To clarify – this article speaks specifically to the issue of Quasi Public Space – areas that are to all intents and purposes public – strips of pavement for example.

    We are seeking to address the widespread issue of people being intimidated when inadvertently breaking the law when taking part in quite ordinary activity.

    This is quite different from the acts of civil disobedience to which you refer.

  13. Anon E Mouse

    Tim – As a recent convert to the joys of taking trains and walking rather than driving everywhere and the fact I think as much land as possible should be available to the public I do agree with the majority of your article.

    I personally hate the Big Brother surveillance culture forced on us by Labour but where people are going about their lawful business you are right to suggest they shouldn’t be impeded by whatever means and I too look forwards to the actual publication of this important bill…

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