CONSULTATION ON TACKLING INTIMIDATION OF NON-STRIKING WORKERS
DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS INNOVATION AND SKILLS
TRADE UNION BILL 2015
I am Professor of UK Human Rights Law in the Law School at the University of East Anglia (UEA), a Chair I to which I was first appointed in 2012. Over the past twenty years, I have written extensively on protest/public order and the law, including the main academic treatise The New Law of Peaceful Protest: Rights and Regulation in the Human Rights Act Era (Hart Publishing 2010, )as well as on the Human Rights Act and on policing more widely. I should also declare an interest as a member of the University and College Union (UCU), and Vice-President of my university branch. I am writing in an academic capacity.
I wish to make only a short comment on the plans to regulate industrial picketing yet further. In my view, the consultation document suffers from two defects: first, it fails to identify with enough precision why further legislation is needed (though I accept that consultation responses may do so) and, secondly, it is silent on what must (obviously in my view) be the knock-on consequences for the right to protest more widely. It is not an in-depth dissection of the proposals (such as offering the view that democratic accountability and reputational protection – para 26 – are matters surely for a union to opt for, not to have foisted upon it?).
Before doing so, it is surely worth noting some key points from the Article 11 jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court, the European Court of Human Rights:
• The right to “peaceful protest” is not equated with lawfulness; a protest can be unlawful – say, for breaching permit requirements – but remain peaceful. The consultation document in para 8 seems to conflate the two, wholly incorrectly.
• There is no such concept as an unlawful or unpeaceful assembly; it is an individual right and, as such, the right is not lost by the (violent) behaviour of others; it is lost only if the person is (or perhaps intends to be) violent
“The guarantees of Article 11 of the Convention apply to all assemblies except those where the organisers and participants have violent intentions or otherwise deny the foundations of a “democratic society”… Any measures interfering with freedom of assembly and expression other than in cases of incitement to violence or rejection of democratic principles – however shocking and unacceptable certain views or words used may appear to the authorities – do a disservice to democracy and often even endanger it… If every probability of tension and heated exchange between opposing groups during a demonstration were to warrant its prohibition, society would be faced with being deprived of the opportunity of hearing differing views on any question which offends the sensitivity of the majority opinion. The Court would add that a demonstration may annoy or give offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims that it is seeking to promote. (Faber v Hungary  ECHR 1648 -)
• 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 a society (Promo Lex v Moldova  ECHR 216 )
• Where demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence it is important for the public authorities to show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention is not to be deprived of all substance (Oya Ataman v Turkey  ECHR 493 )
• If every probability of tension and heated exchange between opposing groups during a demonstration was to warrant its prohibition, society would be faced with being deprived of the opportunity of hearing differing views (Öllinger v Austria  ECHR 665 
1. What is the gap?
The consultation identifies (para 4) various unsavoury incidents said to have occurred on picket lines, noted in the Carr Report of 2014. Bar the last, photo-shaming of non-strikers, it is hard to see why the police would not be able to arrest anyone reasonably suspected of committing them. Each is (either clearly or more than likely) a free-standing crime, as the consultation points out later on p.7.
What more is planned to be added, and why? The police can perfectly properly arrest. If they have no evidence or indeed (para 8) “no direct evidence of criminal behaviour” then creating a greater range of offences will either not solve the problem or will be so widely drawn as to capture a whole host of obviously and clearly legitimate activity. In short, as I comment in my book, the problem is less likely one of insufficiency of laws but inadequacy of enforcement; the latter is not solved by dealing with the former.
There is nothing that should prevent officers both (i) arresting individuals for ostensible criminality and (ii) facilitating the right of every one to protest peacefully something which the document seems to presume is mutually exclusive. They are not and indeed it could be argued are actually mutually reinforcing. Further, in general terms arresting those who are violent raises no Art 11 concerns since such an individual has removed themselves from the scope of the right by ceasing to be peaceful, while arresting those who are “merely” intimidating non-strikers may likely be a proportionate response and so protected under Art 11(2).
It is, in other words, hard to see what a new offence of intimidation on the picket line would add: using threatening or abusive words causing another to fear immediate unlawful violence is already an offence under s.4 of the POA 1986, whereas if someone were “merely” harassed or alarmed by such language or behaviour, that too is an offence but under s.5. It would have to quite low level intimidation – and therefore (arguably) not actually intimidation at all or certainly not intimidation that the law should punish – for that test not to be met.
It would be hard to justify punishing such language as being a proportionate restriction on a striker’s free speech rights (under Art 10) given, in the words of Lord Justice Sedley in what is a well-known case of DPP v Redmond-Bate  EWHC Admin 733 at 
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
2. Wider ramifications
What is lacking in the consultation document is any analysis or even recognition that – where change is planned for what it refers to as “leverage” tactics i.e. away from the place of work – either (a) these are already regulated quite heavily by the general law relating to protest or (b) there would need to be tandem schemes, for industrial protests on one hand and for other protests on the other or (c) that the planned changes for industrial protests are a portent for change more widely.
Developing all that a little:
Very few consider the current framework to be especially pro-protest; indeed the government (albeit as part of the 2010-2015 Coalition) has previously pledged to restore the right to non-violent protest, indicating surely there were problems? The legislation passed in that period – removing “insulting” from s.5 and altering the position for protests around Westminster – has not, I would suggest, done a great deal and certainly not as much as required. The law and, more importantly, (policing) practice largely does not tend to favour protest, certainly not forms of protest outside the archetypal norm of marching and assembling.
It is hard to see quite why new and greater restrictions are needed but only for industrial protests away from the picket line. There will always be consequential harm for third parties, or the risk of it at least – the fact that it arises in the context of an industrial dispute does not seem to alter the underlying dynamics sufficiently.
Taking that second point, a few seconds’ thought would surely be adequate to dispel any idea of trying to initiate a regulatory scheme solely for industrial protests. There is under the Public Order Act 1986, no current need to notify the police of anything unless a public procession (march) is being planned; static assemblies are immune from that six-day prior notification rule. There is literature indicating that schemes of notification ultimately often become ones of authorisation, and where organisers concede more in negotiations “bargaining in the shadow of the law”. If we wish to tie the courts up with litigation (one avenue that springs to mind would be an Art 14 challenge to the differential rules as between industrial and non-industrial protests, something where the onus would be on the government to show a proportionate link to the different harm suffered in industrial disputes), to provide academic lawyers with hours of fun and to render the police in stasis as they worry about definitional scope, then that would be the route to go. If not….
The fear that this would lead, by design or default, to greater restrictions on the democratic right of us all to protest, to dissent, and to put across an alternative point of view, even forcibly – something we must surely acknowledge is a public good, irrespective of the temporary, perhaps directed harm suffered privately? – must be a real worry. It is something the Department has simply failed, entirely, to address. An urgent response on that seems to me an eminently reasonable demand.
David Mead, 8/ix/15
Professor of UK Human Rights Law,
University of East Anglia,