Liberty: Essex Police must allow homelessness protest

18 February 2016

Liberty has written to Essex Police demanding it facilitate a local campaign group’s proposed march in protest of Chelmsford City Council’s planned Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO).

On Tuesday 26 January Andy Abbott of Homelessness is Not a Crime (HINAC) gave Essex Police notice of the group’s intention to hold the march on Wednesday 24 February. He was informed that the police will not be taking steps to ensure that the march can take place safely.

Mr Abbott was told to apply to the Council for road closure orders, but was notified by the police that the Council would refuse any application.

Human rights violations

In the letter dated Wednesday 17 February, James Welch, Liberty’s Legal Director, warns Essex Police that refusal to permit the march will breach the human rights of the organisers and any member of the public who wishes to take part, highlighting that:

  • Mr Abbott and HINAC have complied with their obligation under section 11 of the Public Order Act 1986 to give notice to Essex Police of their intention to hold the march. They are therefore entitled to go ahead with the march.
     
  • The right to protest peacefully is protected by Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
     
  • Essex Police and Chelmsford City Council are public authorities bound by the Human Rights Act not to behave in a way which disproportionately affects those rights.
     
  • Essex Police and the Council must take necessary steps to ensure that the march can proceed safely and effectively.

Liberty’s Legal Director James Welch said: “The right to protest is an important democratic right, something stressed repeatedly by the European Court of Human Rights. Public authorities shouldn’t be placing insurmountable obstacles in the way of those planning demonstrations – particularly when the public body is itself the organisation that the demonstration is directed against. 

“Chelmsford Council’s consultation on its draconian PSPO proposals has closed. Protest is now the route by which townsfolk opposed to the plans can make their views heard. The Police and the Council shouldn’t be obstructing demonstrators.”

Andy Abbott said: “The police have always stressed that their role in any protest is neutral, but are now handing their responsibilities to the Council which clearly isn't impartial. We believe this a very serious assault on democracy and the right to protest, and contravenes the Human Rights Act.”

Chelmsford City Council’s PSPO proposals

Liberty wrote to Chelmsford City Council in January urging it to abandon plans that would criminalise the poorest and most vulnerable in the city.

As drafted, the PSPO covering the city centre places a total ban on begging. It also bans rough sleeping where it causes anti-social behaviour and accommodation is available for that person.

The Order gives police and council officers the power to issue on-the-spot penalties of up to £100. If those in breach are unable to pay, they could face prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.

Liberty believes the PSPO may, if implemented, breach the rights of the people of Chelmsford under the Human Rights Act. The Council is bound by the Act not to disproportionately affect those rights.

Notes to editors:

For more information, or for a copy of the letter sent to Essex Police, contact the Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656, 07973 831128 or pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.

The right to protest

  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has frequently stressed the importance of Article 11. In Berladir & Others v Russia, the Court stated: “… the right to freedom of assembly is a fundamental right in a democratic society and, like the right to freedom of expression, is one of the foundations of such society” (para.37).
  • The ECtHR has made clear that the purpose of a notification requirement must be “to allow the authorities to take reasonable and appropriate measures in order to guarantee the smooth conduct of [the protest]” (Sergey Kuznetsov v Russia (para.42)).
  • Last year the Metropolitan Police refused to facilitate the temporary closure of roads for a march organised by the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC). The group was told it should hire a private security firm to man their Time to Act march – at a cost of several thousand pounds. Westminster City Council also notified the CACC it would issue a temporary traffic regulation order only when they had produced their own traffic management plan and hired a private company to manage traffic. In the face of pressure from Liberty, the CACC and other campaigning groups, the authorities backed down and acknowledged their Article 11 ECHR obligations to take steps to allow the protest to go ahead. 

About PSPOs

  • Created in 2014 by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, PSPOs enable local authorities to criminalise activities that have a persistent and unreasonable detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the area.
  • Liberty opposed their creation on the basis that they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised and disproportionately punitive sanctions, and would result in the fast-tracking of vulnerable individuals into the criminal justice system.
  • Liberty is campaigning to end the use of unfair, overbroad PSPOs which penalise the most vulnerable in our societies. In June 2015, Liberty wrote to Oxford City Council calling on it to scrap plans to criminalise rough sleepers and buskers. The PSPO was passed in October with the Council making significant concessions.
  • Liberty wrote to Birmingham City Council in July 2015 in opposition to an intended PSPO placing a blanket ban on the use of amplification. In September, the Council dropped its plans.
  • Similarly, Liberty wrote to Cheshire West and Chester Council in October 2015. The Council dropped plans to ban rough sleeping from a draft PSPO in November.
  • Newport City Council radically overhauled its planned PSPO in November after pressure from Liberty. The Council completely removed provisions relating to rough sleeping.
  • Earlier in November, Liverpool City Council abandoned similar plans on the basis that they were simply “a bit daft.”