By Roy Havers
The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, part of Charles Clarke’s latest tranche of dubious “public order” legislation, has attracted much negative attention for the ambiguity of its provisions concerning “incitement to religious hatred”. Protestors contend that the proposed legislation is so badly worded that it could effectively outlaw reasonable criticism of religious beliefs. However, this is not the only area of concern in the Bill.
Overall, this Bill is a shambles. Another dose of potentially dangerous ambiguity comes in Section 121 (crime Bills are getting longer!) making it a criminal offence to pursue “a course of conduct which involves harassment of two or more persons” in order “to persuade any person … not to do something that he is entitled or required to do, or to do something that he is not under any obligation to do”.
Under this provision, a company could seek an injunction to prevent protestors — say, the McLibel Two, or anti-sweatshop protestors — from handing out leaflets outside the company’s shops or offices. Granted, the company would have to establish that two or more members of the public had suffered “alarm or distress”, but in British law that tends to be very easy to “prove”.
The following two Sections of the Bill, aimed mainly at animal rights protestors, ban protesting outside people’s homes in incredibly wide terms: a protestor merely needs to ask anyone either to do or not to do something, “in the vicinity” of any residential premises, to be committing a criminal offence.
The Government claims, of course, that neither the “incitement to religious hatred” provision nor these latter provisions will be used against protestors. Unfortunately, they also said that about the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Protection From Harassment Act, and both of these laws have, in fact, been used against protestors.
The multiplication of ever-longer “criminal justice” legislation emanating from Parliament isn’t just because MPs don’t like trees. It has a purpose. The government is trying to stop protest, to stifle public participation in politics. We must stop them.