Beware the thought police

Whatever happened to freedom of speech?

When Tony Blair remembered the dead, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in November, nobody interfered with his performance of that sacred rite. But when Maya Evans tried to do the same, in virtually the same place, two weeks earlier, minibuses containing two police sergeants and 12 constables arrived in haste to arrest her.

The part-time vegan chef, 25, was charged with taking part in an unauthorised demonstration in a public area, under Section 132 of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act 2005. She was taken away to a police cell, and held for nearly six hours.

This week she became the first person to be convicted for holding an unauthorised demonstration near parliament – and the latest of many, many people prevented by sweeping New Labour laws from exercising ancient freedoms of movement and self-expression. Many believe the assortment of legislation comprises all the essentials of a police state.

Evans, a history graduate, became politically active after 9/11. She deplored the attacks on the US and feared that they would be used to justify reprisals. She joined a group in Hastings, Justice Not Vengeance, which this year became involved in a wider campaign to commemorate 100,000 violent deaths in Iraq. (That figure was calculated by the medical journal, The Lancet.)

“The aim was to get 100 groups to ring a bell 1,000 times, and to name the dead people individually,” she says. Altogether, 1,000 rings would take 16 hours, because each name would be followed by a minute’s silence. “It might sound tedious, but when you realise that these are the names of people who died in a horrible war, it focuses the mind. It’s quite meditative.”

Since August, anyone else wanting to make a peaceful protest within a one-kilometre area has had to give at least 24 hours notice to Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair. His officers decide who can protest, where they can do it, how many placards they can carry and even what they can say.

“If you put in a request to hold an overnight vigil for 200 people outside Downing Street,” says Evans, “they can change that to just five people, on the other side of the river at the London Eye, and during daylight.

“We informed the police that we were coming, and we got hold of an application form. But as we started to fill it in I said I didn’t feel comfortable asking for permission.”

So when she came to London on 25 October, she knew she might be arrested. The maximum penalty for Evans would be a £1,000 fine. For her colleague Milan RaI, who had identified himself as organiser when he sent off for the application form, it could mean 51 weeks in jail.

“My initial feelings of fear soon passed as I concentrated on the names of the UK soldiers who had been killed in action. I was fully aware that arrest was imminent, but standing outside Downing Street on a drizzly Tuesday morning seemed the least I could do.”

One of the arresting officers explained that the new Act was brought in to help police organise a busy area. “He presented the scenario of a pro war group and an anti war group demonstrating at the same time outside Downing Street. He asked what I thought might happen if the two groups came into conflict, and who would have to step in to protect my safety. So I asked if I had been arrested for my own safety. He said yes.”

In 2002, at the George Bush Snr Presidential Library, Tony Blair presented himself as a friend of free speech. “I pass protesters every day at Downing Street and believe me, you name it, they protest against it. I may not like what they call me but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.” It seems we have lost that freedom.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 makes it illegal to protest within one kilometre of Parliament Square unless authorised by the police. It was designed to evict one long-standing protester: Brian Haws, who came to Parliament Square in 2001 with a plastic chair and a sign, and has kept a vigil there ever since, gathering support from hundreds of others.

The original Bill was introduced by David Blunkett, who conceded that the relevant clauses were “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”, but said that sometimes a sledgehammer was needed for that purpose. In fact, the sledgehammer failed: courts ruled that the Act could not be applied retrospectively, so Haws’s campaign continues. Meanwhile some 20 other cases like Evans’s are coming up for trial.

Barrister Lucy Moorman, of Doughty Street Chambers, says that pre-existing legislation, such as 1986 Public Order Act, gave the police ample power to intervene if protests presented real danger. The difference with the new legislation is that it treats the area around parliament as different from everywhere else. In effect, it offers special protection from dissent to parliament.

“I have given lectures in Eastern Europe and tried to explain that the president should not be entitled to special protection from criticism – many of these countries have provisions in their law saying that kind of thing is a criminal offence. Well I used to preach quite smugly in places like Belgrade, four years ago, but I don’t feel so smug any more.”

Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister, has said he sees nothing wrong with the act. But the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten has accused the government of “playing fast and loose with hard-won British freedoms”. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, says: “All governments have been sensitive to criticism, but this Government has taken the suppression of dissent to a new level. It is nervous to the point of paranoia and frightened of being told the truth.”

John McDonnell MP, chairman of the Campaign Group of Labour MPs, added there was an increasing build-up of anger in Parliament: ‘Freedom of speech has never been under such attack in the UK and it is shameful this is happening under a Labour Government. We need a concerted campaign in Parliament and if necessary in the courts to counter this attack on our centuries-old democratic rights.’

Using wartime excuses to suspend aspects of civil politics is not unprecedented. No general election took place during the first or second world wars. During the Napoleonic War the British government used anxiety about invasion to suspend Habeus Corpus, introduced the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act.

Is it really so bad – or do our civil liberties remain, as the government insists, intact? To find the answer, it’s necessary to consider the sheer range of restrictions and interventions being used today.

In May, the Ministry of Defence applied for a 10-year anti-social behaviour order against a 61-year-old health visitor and peace movement veteran, Lindis Percy, to prevent her carrying out protests outside a military intelligence base near Harrogate. The judge declined to grant the order, but imposed an eight-week curfew, with the additional indignity of an electronic tag.

A month later, Paul Lesniowski, became the first political activist to be remanded in custody for breaching the Protection from Harassment Act. Originally designed to protect women from stalkers, that law now protected an arms manufacturer, EDO MBM Technologies, outside whose factory Lesniowski had been encamped.

Then there’s the Terrorism Act 2000, which defined a terrorist as someone prepared to use violence to create a serious risk to the health and safety of the public. This was used extensively in September, when the Labour Party went to Brighton for its annual conference. John Catt, an 80-year-old RAF veteran, was among those stopped and searched: the official record of the encounter confirmed that the “grounds for intervention” (under the Terrorism Act) were that Catt carried a “placard and T-shirt with anti-Blair info”. Then Walter Wolfgang, 82, a Labour party member for 57 years who fled Nazi Germany as a teenager, was bundled out of the conference hall after shouting “nonsense” as Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, defended Britain’s role in Iraq. Wolfgang was later stopped under anti-terrorist powers as he tried to re-enter the hall.

Isabelle Ellis-Cockcroft was just 11 when she stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act. She had gone with her father David Cockcroft, a former town councillor in Stroud, to a protest outside Fairford air base in Gloucestershire. David Drew, the Labour MP for Stroud, whose constituency neighbours the base, said: “The legislation was used inappropriately. It was made unnecessarily difficult for people to carry on with their right to protest peacefully.”

Others trying to join that protest at Fairford, in 2003, in three coaches from London, were pulled over on the road. Jane Laporte was one of them. “We were searched for weapons. They took all kinds of things from us, including pots of hummous and toy soldiers. They conned us into getting back on the coach and told the drivers they would be arrested if they stopped on the way back to London. We put up signs in the windows. They said things like, “Help! We are being kidnapped!” There was some interest from people in the cars near us, but after a short while the police stopped anyone overtaking us.

The Court of Appeal held that the police acted in breach of the Human Rights Act in detaining 120 protestors for two and a half hours without arrests. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, said: “The passengers were virtually prisoners on the coaches for the length of the journey.”

Were these people asking for it? Perhaps, but it’s not only activists who find themselves arrested. Sally Cameron, 34, is a property developer, from a family of Tories, who lives in a smart area in Dundee. To keep fit, she has for a long time walked home from work on a path owned by the local port authority. But one day this year a guard told her she could not use the route any more because it was solely a cycle path. If she did it again, she’d be arrested.

“The next thing I knew,” she recalls, “the harbour master drove up behind me with a megaphone, saying, ‘You’re trespassing, please turn back’. It was totally ridiculous. I started laughing and kept on walking. Cyclists going past were also laughing.” She was arrested and held for several hours. Shortly after, the procurator fiscal’s office wrote to say she would not be prosecuted even though “the evidence is sufficient to justify bringing you before the court on this criminal charge”.

“If you’re a normal citizen,” Cameron says, “being threatened with a criminal record is scary. It’s heavy handed.”

Lynette Burrows is an author and mother of six children who recently took part in a discussion about adoption on BBC Radio Five Live. She said placing boys with two homosexual men was as obvious a risk as placing a girl with two heterosexual men as parents. The following day, she was contacted by the police, who said a homophobic incident had been registered against her.

She was horrified, but had the sense to probe for more information. “The PC only actually told me that it wasn’t a crime because I asked her straight out. Otherwise I could have been left thinking, well, I must have missed this legislation, it must have gone through parliament without me noticing, and now I’ve broken the law.

“I said to her, ‘You’re just feeling my collar, aren’t you? You’re leaning on me, in fact?’ She replied: ‘I’m just telling you what our policy is. We have a policy that prioritises homophobia, racism and domestic violence.’ I felt a certain outrage, because I could see that she was trying to intimidate me. Otherwise there was no point in phoning me.’

Burrows believes that we are living in an era in which people feel cowed, too scared or embarrassed to express their opinions.” As well we might.

In November 2002, the former presenter of BBC2’s One Man And His Dog, Robin Page, was locked in a police cell after making a speech at a country fair in which he said: ‘If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you.’

Another TV presenter, Robert Kilroy-Silk, was forced to resign after describing Arabs in a newspaper column as ‘suicide bombers, limb amputators and women repressors’. His remarks wrongly generalised, and betrayed ignorance of Arab culture – but at their core was a series of truths about the murderous and repressive trends in many Arab states.

Harry Hammond, an elderly evangelical Christian, held up a poster calling for an end to homosexuality, lesbianism and immorality. The sign caused a furore as a group of 30 to 40 people gathered round and Hammond had soil thrown at him and water poured over his head. All the same, it was Hammond who was prosecuted, on a public order offence, and convicted.

On Top Gear, recently, Jeremy Clarkson made fun of the German-made Mini by analogy with that country’s Nazi history. He said its “satellite navigation system only goes to Poland” and made the Hitler salute. The consequence was all too predictable: formal complaints from sensitive Germans and friends of Germany.

“You can’t say anything now without someone telling you that they feel upset about it,” Clarkson says. “There is always someone, somewhere, who finds something upsetting. And upsetting people is deemed to be the worst possible crime.”

When the BBC broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera, Christian evangelists published the address of individual executives, some of whom were threatened with violence. The small but vociferous group behind that campaign, Christian Voice, recently pressured Woolworth’s and Sainsbury into removing DVD copies of the show from their stores. Sainsbury has admitted it received just 10 complaints.

The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, faces losing his job after likening a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Complaints from the Jewish Board of Deputies led to formal charges: Livingstone faces a five-year ban, suspension, censure or being forced to apologise or undergo training if he’s found guilty.

North Wales Police spent nearly £4,000 on an inquiry into “anti-Welsh” comments made by Anne Robinson on the BBC show Room 101, which asks guests to list pet hates. She described the Welsh as “irritating and annoying”, adding provocatively: “What are they for?” After permitting a repeat of that programme, the Director-General of the BBC became the centre of an investigation under the Race Relations Act.

No charges were pressed, but North Wales Police recently interviewed former Downing Street spin-doctor Lance Price after he reported in his published diaries that Tony Blair swore over bad Labour results in the 1999 Welsh assembly election. Mr Blair is quoted as saying “f*****g Welsh” repeatedly as the election results arrived. Price described his two-hour long interview with senior officers as “an extraordinary waste of public money”. It’s unclear why Blair himself was not interviewed, but a spokesman for North Wales Police said they were obliged to investigate whether the disputed comment constitutes “incitement” under the Public Order Act, after it was reported by a member of the public.

Moorman, the barrister, agrees that if police are given powers, they may feel obliged to use them. “They are under pressure to make an example of people. I can’t think what other justification they have for arresting and then prosecuting Maya Evans.

“It’s not just the arresting officers who should exercise discretion. The crown prosecution service should do that too. They have to apply two tests before prosecuting: is there enough evidence, and is there a public interest? On the facts, the case was open and shut, but was a conviction necessary and proportionate?”

Even taking account of the dreadful excesses of the 1970s, says Moorman, when Irishmen in particular suffered at the hands of some police as a result of the widespread fear of terrorism, the situation today is worse. “Those few individuals were treated very badly, in the 1970s, but there was not such a wide range of measures, affecting such an enormous part of the population.”

And the problem isn’t only existing legislation: there’s more on the way. One bill is intended to protect individuals against religious hatred, but writers such as Salman Rushdie and Phillip Pullman, lawyers Anthony Lester QC and Dame Helena Kennedy QC, the theatre director Nicholas Hytner and the comedian Rowan Atkinson have all contributed essays to a new book, Free Expression is No Offence, setting out arguments against the proposed law.

One who helped to publicise the book on its launch last month was the Somali-born Dutch MP, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She has been accompanied everywhere by bodyguards since she wrote a film that offended Muslims. The film, based on her extensive research into brutal treatment of women within the Dutch Islamic community – treatment supposedly justified by certain verses in the Koran – showed a woman being raped by her husband and her uncle. Not long after it was broadcast, the director Theo Van Gogh was chased in the street and murdered by a self-styled defender of Islam. A letter was pinned to his chest, promising that Hirsi Ali would be killed too.

This softly spoken MP, who grew up in Somalia, is appalled by the British government’s plans to criminalise “religious hatred”. “It’s a human right to criticise religions,” she told me. “it’s a right to hate religion, or to love it. I can’t change the fact that I’m a woman, or that I’m black. But religion is a matter of choice.”

As for the forthcoming Terrorism Bill, which will make it an offence to “glorify” terrorism, Hirsi Ali says: “Imams have every right to glorify terrorism. Let them say what they want. We need to scrutinise these dogmas, and show the public they’re wrong. If we push them underground the state will never be able to control them. You will need a huge police force. And you will start to look like one of the countries that we don’t want to look like.”

Dave Cockcroft, whose daughter was stopped and searched at Fairford, agrees. “The government says the new laws will only be used judiciously, and carefully – but they’re not. And if you have these kinds of things on the statute book, what happens when another, nastier government comes in? You have potentially executive powers to implement a police state. And I think that is very scary.”

According to Burrows, we live in a police state already. “We really do. Somebody, somewhere, can decide that they don’t like your opinions, and in response the police will either lean on you or threaten you. It is insidious, it really is.”