Opinion: Civil Liberties or taking liberties?

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 retired solicitor who specialised in property law and is now the Treasurer of Orpington Liberal Club (www.orpingtonliberalclub.co.uk).

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  • mike cobley 21st Feb '12 - 1:19pm

    Splendid argument – for authoritarian regimes. This may come as a shock to you but the very essence of a demonstration or a protest march is not some polite presentation of opposing view, or some courteous Edwardian difference of opinion – a determined demo march should embody menace and threat. Governments should be made aware of the power of those in whose name they govern, perhaps even fear them. For as the saying has it, in a democracy the government fears the people but in a tyranny the people fear the government.

  • Lorna Dupre 21st Feb '12 - 1:31pm

    Regarding the ‘properly regulated right to protest in quasi-public spaces’ I am minded of the situation in Harlow, where I used to be a councillor. A large area in the south of the town centre was ‘regenerated’ with the addition of shopping, a large car park and other amenities, including a new town hall as part of the package. This could not be achieved with public funds, so the then Labour council entered into a partnership with a private developer and thus with a private management company. The large area of the town centre concerned is therefore now no longer public space, but owned by the company. As a result, there is no automatic right for people to gather to protest, distribute leaflets etc outside the building where decisions are taken on their behalf. Increasing areas of once-public land are being ‘privatised’ in this way. Michael’s article reads as if the Liberal Democrats were calling for an automatic right of public assembly in individuals’ front gardens. It’s actually a rather more complex issue than that.

  • David Allen 21st Feb '12 - 1:32pm

    Define a quasi-public space. We shouldn’t let protestors disrupt shopping at Sainsbury’s by flooding the store. We should let them parade in the car park or outside the frontage (or indeed, just hand out Lib Dem leaflets or rattle tins for charities) provided they don’t block the way.

  • You are ignoring the dramatic acceleration, under the guise of regeneration, of the privatisation of public space which has taken hold of our cities in recent years. I don’t have a problem with Occupy’s tactics. In fact one useful thing they have done is demonstrate the extent to which spaces which we think of as public are actually owned and controlled by corporations. While I do, of course, support the rights of business to prosecute their trade I decry this growing trend for private interests to dictate the terms on which citizens participate in the public realm.

  • paul barker 21st Feb '12 - 4:14pm

    What about Demos that aim at intimidating The Public, those held by The EDL for example ?
    Or take the pickets organised by Labour & their stooges that stopped a planned Libdem conference in London last autumn, do we want to allow more of that sort of thing ?

    I take the point about quasi-public space, it need to be made public again. Im not sure that Occupy is auseful example though, surely they were trying to privatise the spaces even further by keeping other people out ? Their original aim was to prevent workers getting in to their work, how is that defending anyones Freedom ?

  • Brian Robinson 22nd Feb '12 - 9:55am

    I’d like to make two quick comments, the first relating to Michael Hall’s original article and the second to his reply to Gareth Epps.

    First, the article says: “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 […]. 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.”

    Did we have “anarchy and mob rule” before 1994?

    Secondly, the reply to Gareth Epps says: “The Government cannot grant people a right to demonstrate on your private property, that would infringe Art 1 of the 1st Protocol of the ECHR.”

    But the abolition of the *extra* offence of aggravated trespass would not introduce such a right, it would simply remove the extra offence.

  • David Allen 22nd Feb '12 - 1:01pm

    “Regarding public areas in privately owned shopping malls etc, Councils can impose conditions in planning agreements when granting permission to say that demonstrations must be allowed or they can require areas to be dedicated as public highway.”

    What would induce Council planning officers to give these ideas the time of day? Commonly they are wrestling with controversy and local protest against development, and doing their best to negotiate favourable Section 106 agreements involving payments by the developer for good things like transport improvements. They aren’t going to kybosh their negotiating positions by telling the likes of Asda to prepare for their new car park to become the local Tahrir Square (especially as nobody else’s established supermarket will be in that position).

    Let’s see a rational change to the law instead.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 22nd Feb '12 - 10:27pm


    Whilst you’re entitled to your view, I vaguely remember Michael from my time as London Region’s contact with Bromley and Bexley. Age and memory being what they are, I looked him up, and it turns out that he has spent almost as long as a councillor on a principal local authority as you have, having been one of the three councillors for Chelsfield and Goddington between 1994 and 2002, alongside an old mate of mine, Graem Peters.

    So, whilst you’re free to disagree with him, you might like to reconsider your suggestion that, as a lawyer and two-term Liberal Democrat councillor in a London Borough under a Lib Dem/Labour coalition, he has no knowledge of local government or of the law, as it seems that he might have rather more knowledge than you give him credit for. And whilst I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that he might have more knowledge than you do, your approach to debate might sway the argument towards him.

  • I think what Mark is saying is “be careful or you’ll find the Epps line barred by us.”

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 22nd Feb '12 - 10:46pm


    I genuinely hope not. As one of the newer day editors, I tend to a more laissez-faire approach to comments – robust debate can only help us to develop and defend policy and ideas. However, I can’t help but feel that Gareth is, in this instance, thoroughly playing the man and not the ball.

    One of the delights of being a liberal is the sense of constructive debate, and if we attack people and not their ideas, we are hardly engendering it. So, I can only ask Gareth to draw breath, count to ten, and then carry on as he sees fit. Or in other words, play nice(r), please…

  • Mark – apologies – jokes explained aren’t really jokes – I was trying to find a homophone for Epstein-Barr Virus …

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 22nd Feb '12 - 11:01pm


    Clever. My apologies for not getting it sooner – I’ve just returned from a trip away and am slightly distracted by piles of ‘stuff’ that needs to get done 🙂

  • It was a bit obscure … 🙁

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Feb '12 - 11:21pm

    Tabman — even for you, that was way beyond obscure! 😉

  • Malcolm Todd – I wish there was a “like” button!

  • Well, just as in Gareth’s example, I live in a town where the “public spaces” in the town centre are completely owned by a company, and I think he makes an excellent point. Its nothing to do with counter culture. If I buy up an unfenced pedestrianised open part of my town centre as an individual or a corporation I can’t realistically expect to control everything that happens in that space.

  • Michael,

    Clearly I shouldn’t have mentioned Tahrir Square. I was just imagining what kind of thoughts might run through the mind of (say) an Asda executive if the local council planners were to “impose conditions in planning agreements when granting permission to say that demonstrations must be allowed”. As Oranjepan indicates, the planners would indeed have been able to explain that coercive or disruptive demonstrations would be subject to the rule of law. If I were said Asda exec, I would have nevertheless felt rather underwhelmed by such an explanation, and would have taken vigorous action to make sure Asda were not being put at a disadvantage compared to the established Sainsbury’s down the road where no demonstrations were permitted. I suspect that threatening to expose the Council as discriminating unfairly between one supermarket and another would have done the trick.

    However, if I knew that all supermarket car parks were places where legally defined as people could occasionally get in and hand out a few leaflets provided they didn’t obstruct, I guess that I would report to my boss at Asda that we should shrug our shoulders and put up with a slight impediment to our optimised marketing which was shared by all our competitors.

    I dare say you have extensive Council experience, but demonstrating it would look better than grumbling at those who don’t agree with you.

  • Correction: “However, if I knew that all supermarket car parks were legally defined as places where people could occasionally get in….” .. Sorry!

  • There is clearly an issue with public space being turned in to private space. We are seeing it all the time with out of town retail developments and town centre regenerations.

    I used to live in a town in Oxfordshire and was a member of a fair trade action group. The town had undergone a redevelopment which meant the centre of gravity in terms of shopping changed from the main road i.e a public space to a retail development a couple of hundred metres away. The retail development was obviously a private space. The centre of the development was and is a large Sainsburys store. The manager of the retail park gave permission for a fair trade stall, but later took it away when he found out the stall was going to include a petition asking Sainsburys to stock more fairtrade goods. So the fairtrade group was prohibited from campaigning in an area where large numbers of people gathered. We were not going to do anything illegal or immoral, but it was felt we were threatening the interests of a local big business. Eventually, after intervention from The Chamber of Commerce, the stall went ahead but only after the petition was dropped.

    No sensible person would be in favour of anarchy, disorder, vandalism or preventing the police doing their work. However, the way our towns and cities are developing is threatening campaigning that might upset big corporations.

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