On 11 March we will debate at our Spring Conference in Gateshead an innocuous- sounding motion about Civil Liberties, but it needs to be looked at carefully to see if it is not more about letting people take liberties, than protecting our right to protest.
I know the Liberal Democrats do not support anarchy and mob rule, but you could be forgiven for thinking they do if you just read the motion, to be moved by Dr Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge and summed up by Tom Brake MP for Carshalton and Wallington.
I cannot see why the offence of aggravated trespass (sections 68 and 69 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) should be abolished as they propose.
The offence is only committed when trespassers interfere with lawful activities on any private property (land or buildings). An example is the Fortnum & Mason protest, where the shop was invaded by a large number of protestors who demonstrated in the shop and had to be removed by the police, as they would not leave when asked to do so.
Now, had the shop owners resorted to direct action to protect their business, this would have been perfectly legal, provided they did not use unnecessary force – they could have employed a private army of security guards with alsations to get the protestors out of the shop. Then they would have had to close the shop or keep the security guards there to keep them out. That is what they would have had to do if the offence of aggravated trespass had been abolished. Is that really what we want? Would we not be forcing people to take the law into their own hands?
We will not gain support or the respect of the public if we appear to side with those who do not respect the law. I think most of us would agree with the original aims of the Occupy movement, but disapprove of its methods. The Occupy movement antagonises the public when it refuses to respect the rights of others, which are supposed to be protected by the Human Rights Act. We will lose public support if we are seen to be on their side.
The motion proposes “A properly regulated right to protest in quasi-public spaces”.
This is wrong. There is no right to protest on private property without the owner’s consent, and rightly so.
You can read the full text of the policy motion by downloading the conference agenda. The motion starts on page 50.
* Michael Hall is a Solicitor, and Liberal Democrat Conference Representative from Orpington.