Unite Hotel Workers Branch protest

Unite Hotel Workers Branch members outside the Premier Inn at County Hall. PHOTO: Mark Kerrison / Alamy

Protesters increasingly face confrontations with private security and uncertainty about “quasi-public” spaces

The experience of Unite Hotel Workers branch members, protesting against bullying, harassment and victimisation of workers in London’s top hotels, has once again highlighted how the increasing privatisation of “quasi-public” spaces extends beyond shopping centres and malls to large parts of central London.

On Tuesday, union members promoting the launch of Unite’s ‘Unethical London’ report assembled on Queens Walk, on the south bank opposite the Houses of Parliament. A post on the branch’s Facebook page explains what happened next:

First we were approached by someone from Merlin Entertainments and told we were not allowed to hold up banners or placards on the public walkway in front of the London Eye. When we asked why we were told we were on private property and not allowed to advertise anything. What exactly were we advertising? The fact the right of protest and peaceful assembly is a human right, closely linked to the right of freedom of association, which is the whole point of our report?

While this was happening our National Officer and members of the Unite campaigns team were confronted while crossing Jubilee Gardens with Unite flags by park security linked to the South Bank Employers Group (SBEG). They were flashing some sort of letter around stating we were not allowed to be there as it was private property.

Our colleagues joined us and we started taking publicity pictures of our group on the grass near the London Eye. We were again approached by SBEG security who said we were not allowed to be there. We stood our ground and exercised our civil rights.

When we moved off to commence our protest outside the Premier Inn we were told we were not allowed to carry flags and placards as we crossed the park. The member of park security… then commenced to make several somewhat ridiculous, yet outrageous, attempts to confiscate a flag from Unite Regional Secretary, Pete Kavanagh. Needless to say, he did not succeed.

It will come as a surprise to many that Jubilee Gardens, what seems like a ‘public’ park in the centre of London, is a private space. Since 2008 it has been owned by the Jubilee Gardens Trust, whose ‘Founding Landowners’ include Merlin Entertainments, the owners of the nearby London Dungeons tourist attraction.

The Trust has adopted strict regulations banning “any meeting, rally or gathering involving any political or other protest or demonstration of similar purpose“.

Campaigning activities on Jubilee Gardens are not a criminal offence and most would consider this a legitimate use of private land, even without the permission of the owner, but Unite members had nevertheless committed a civil trespass.

However, as we highlighted in our recent briefing ‘Protest and Private Security’, the park’s security have limited powers. They can use ‘reasonable force’ to prevent a crime or if they have a reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, but that is all.

Unfortunately, private security personnel often have a mistaken idea of the extent of their powers: attempting to confiscate a flag risked the possibility of committing an assault.

When protesters arrived at the Premier Inn at the rear of County Hall, they were confronted with more security:

Whitbread, the company who are aiming to be accredited as a Fair Trading Initiative employer, had gone completely over the top and hired a private security firm who were lined up along with members of management on the hotel steps like members of a paramilitary squad from some sort of third world dictatorship.

A member of some other property development company then approached us and said that the street in front of the hotel was private property and we were not allowed to protest there. We carried on protesting, as was our right. The police had no issue with us.

Once again, the extent of private ownership of apparently public spaces may come as a shock. Twenty-one acres of land, including the street outside the hotel, is owned and controlled by a charity, the South Bank Centre.

It is not alone, other large swathes of land in London that are privately owned include the Broadgate complex at Liverpool Street, the Kings Cross Central development, the area surrounding the London Assembly and all eleven million square feet of the Canary Wharf estate.

Unite’s account also highlights another issue of concern we have previously raised, describing a “mystery man, who would not say whether he was employed by Whitbread or their hired security firm, [who] came out of the hotel and began taking pictures of everyone. When confronted he scuttled back inside.”

Security guards are known to record protesters on their phones, simply as a form of intimidation. We have spoken to Unite, who have confirmed that the individual filming its members was using a phone. However, firms employing security personnel are still liable to properly secure and retain this data.

if you think you have been under surveillance, you can apply to the security company to obtain a copy of data held about you. Unite is now following this up with Whitbread.

“Did we all fall asleep”, asks Unite’s Hotel Workers branch, “and wake up in some sort of dystopian privatised police state?” Unfortunately, both parliament and the European Court of Human Rights (in Appleby and others v the United Kingdom 2003) have decided not to extend protest rights to ‘quasi-public’ areas, preferring to prioritise property rights over rights to expression and assembly.

That does not mean that protest on private land is impossible. It it does mean, however, that campaigners need to know their rights and prepare to deal not only with the police, but with the unreasonable demands of private security personnel.

Our August 2016 briefing on private security and protest  is available to download here [pdf_icon, 377 kB]