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The Right Of Residents To Protest

April 22, 2009

The Right Of Residents To Protest

At regular intervals, year in, year out, pockets of our central London constituency can be found under siege. Barriers are erected, roads diverted, residents’ routines disturbed. Noise from megaphones scissors through the tranquillity of quiet weekends and residential areas are left strewn with litter and stinking of urine.

What people forget is that the heart of the Capital, aside from providing a nice day out, a place to work and a focus for one’s political grievances, is also a home to many.

Over the past few months our constituency has hosted demonstrations about everything from the G20 and climate change to the behaviour of the Israeli and Pakistani governments. Over the past fortnight a vast contingent of Tamil citizens has moved into Parliament Square.

Not one of my constituents contests the right of people to protest peacefully. Most also accept that noise and occasional demonstrations come as part of the package of city centre living. But the regularity of and disturbance caused by demonstrations is making the lives of central London residents hellish. What of their rights?

Those in Lowndes Square in particular have had enough. As events in Pakistan have reached fever pitch over the past couple of years, anti-government protests have frequently sprung up outside the Pakistani Embassy which is based in the Square. Beleaguered local residents in that part of Knightsbridge have written explaining just how severe the disturbance is. Demonstrators, who turn up mostly on weekends, are so noisy that residents cannot hold conversations, watch television or listen to the radio even from within their own houses. One resident wrote that the disturbance had become so bad her son could not hear her on the telephone. Another told of protestors congregating outside her door, urinating behind her mansion block, chanting hysterically for two hours at a time and leaving vast amounts of litter strewn across the Square.

An elderly couple, one of whom is battling cancer, said that their normally peaceful square was becoming so unpleasant to live in that they would have to consider moving. Of particular concern to them was the feeling of intimidation on leaving their property – their vehicle entrance was regularly blocked and banners were being taped outside their property. On telephoning the Metropolitan Police they were not able to obtain timetables of protests nor track down a senior officer in charge of policing the protests. Westminster City Council’s hands are tied by legislation which exempts political demonstrations from constituting a statutory noise nuisance and Police Minister Vernon Coaker MP, emphasised the legal limitations of police in dealing with legitimate protests.

Turning back to the current encampment of Sri Lankan Tamil demonstrators in Parliament Square, residents have expressed concern about the constant buzzing of police helicopters overhead which has been persisting until 10pm at night and the diversion of a major central London artery when protestors cut off road access completely. Others travelling in Westminster have observed demonstrators using St James’s Park as an open lavatory whilst the flower beds in Parliament Square are being used as an impromptu dustbin. The fear is that this encampment could become a semi-permanent fixture. This is totally unacceptable.

If protestors vociferously demand consideration of their grievances, perhaps they might take a moment to consider the legitimate grievances of local residents. Everybody tolerates and accepts the open expression of political protest – it is a cornerstone of our democracy. But balancing rights and responsibilities is also crucial to a peaceful, tolerant and cohesive society. This traditional balance is now out of kilter. If the behaviour being displayed did not go under the banner of demonstration, its perpetrators would surely be penalised with an ASBO.

I understand the difficulty the government faces in protecting the rights of all when those rights conflict. Police are also understandably hamstrung in view of the controversy over the policing of the G20 protests, with their difficult job becoming even tougher at this sensitive time. But at the very least a clear and uncompromising message must be sent out:- Under British law it is acceptable to demand a voice through peaceful, controlled and confined protest. It is not acceptable to block roads, urinate in public, drop litter, be relentlessly noisy, attach your banners to private property and block the entrances to people’s homes. My constituents have rights – and voices – too.