Scottish Parliament's anti-protest law: Why does Holyrood need to be like Coulport and Porton Down? – Ian Swanson

When the Scottish Parliament's new home at Holyrood opened in 2004, the then presiding officer George Reid was clear about the building and its relationship with the public: “This Parliament belongs to its people. It has been built to invite them in.”

Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 4:55 am

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He continued: “Our land and our history have shaped us as an egalitarian society, reflected in our founding principles of accessibility, accountability, equality of opportunities.

"These are the real foundation stones of this new parliament. If we listen to the building, it will help us. It says to all – our wealth creators, thinkers, civic and voluntary Scotland, the whole community of the realm – 'Come on in.’”

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But now the parliament seems to be sending out a different message. From October 1, it will be a criminal offence to be on the parliament estate "without lawful authority" and offenders could face up to a year in jail or a £5,000 fine.

The decision by the cross-party Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, which oversees the running of the parliament, including the building, to ask the UK Home Office to designate Holyrood a “protected site” under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act – making it easier to remove and prosecute demonstrators – has prompted much criticism and concern about the threat it poses to peaceful protest.

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It’s important to recognise the SPCB’s responsibility for the well-being and safety of everyone on the parliament premises, whether MSPs, staff or visitors.

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But it is unclear why such an extreme step is required, putting the Scottish Parliament in the same category as the Faslane naval base, Coulport nuclear arms depot and Porton Down research laboratory.

The SPCB has not published the background report which informed its decision. There has been no consultation with either MSPs or the public over the move and the necessary order had already been laid in the House of Commons before MSPs were told about the plan.

Presiding officer Alison Johnston has pointed out both Westminster and the Welsh Senedd are already designated as protected sites. The SPCB insists it is not trying to curb protest and expects the new police powers would only be used “in a small number of the most exceptional circumstances”.

But once powers are available they can be used whenever the authorities decide – and it doesn’t matter what anyone said before.

And it is worth remembering Westminster is planning to give police in England and Wales the power to shut down protests deemed too noisy or too disruptive – legislation which has been criticised by the European human rights commissioner, but which MPs have so far supported.

It seems some politicians regard measures like mask-wearing and working from home – simple steps to help stop the spread of a deadly virus – as somehow being an infringement of their liberties and evidence of totalitarian tendencies, yet they are prepared to vote for laws which undermine and frustrate the fundamental right of ordinary people to exercise their right to peaceful protest.

The SPCB’s decision is unfortunate, to say the least, and sends the wrong message about a parliament created to bring democracy closer to everyone.

They would do well to recapture the tone set by George Reid’s 2004 comments: "This Parliament belongs to its people. It has been built to invite them in.”

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