Campaigners have condemned controversial new legislation designed to shut down protests outside the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh, warning new police powers will have a “chilling effect” on the right to protest. The timing of this new legislation – just months before COP26 arrives in Scotland – is significant.
In a move condemned by the Scottish Greens last week and rejected by the Scottish National Party membership at their conference earlier this month, the Scottish Parliament has appealed to the government in Westminster to make the Holyrood parliamentary estate a controlled zone, giving the police new powers to remove demonstrators from the area at will.
The new rules, which will come into force on 1 October, are an extension of the extremely controversial Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), which since 2005 has been used in London to criminalise protests around the Palace of Westminster. Those arrested and found guilty under the new legislation could face a maximum penalty of a £5,000 fine or up to a year in prison.
Campaigners have warned that the new restriction order is a serious attack on the right to protest, as it allows the police to arrest people arbitrarily for remaining on the Holyrood site “without lawful authority”. This gives the police huge discretionary power to decide when and if a particular protest will be ‘allowed’, and many see it as a precursor to shutting down protests ahead of the COP26 UN Climate summit.
Previously a “designated Scottish site” under SOCPA has meant a nuclear installations such as the submarine base at Faslane and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport, where nuclear warheads are stored.
Jane Tallents, a member of the Trident Ploughshares group who have spoken out against the new legislation, said:
“This will create a climate of uncertainty for activists. Since it opened people have been free to gather in front of the parliament at any time, for any reason, including often meeting with MSPs. The police will soon have the power to arrest any of us who set foot there and the onus will be on us to prove we have ‘lawful authority’ rather than the courts proving we have broken the law. We are not reassured by claims this new law will be used infrequently. When the police are given powers they use them. The parliament needs to withdraw this shocking change in the law immediately.”
Kat Hobbs, Communications Coordinator for Netpol, added:
“This new legislation gives an absurd amount of discretion to the police, and will have a chilling effect on the freedom to protest. Campaigners will now be left wondering whether or not they will now face arrest for a peaceful protest outside their own parliament”.
Police Scotland have promised a “human rights based approach” to policing the COP26 protests, but have been unable to justify the need for theses sweeping new police powers. Netpol will be reporting on the policing of the COP26 protests as they unfold, in partnership with the Scottish Community & Activist Legal Project (SCALP).