The Mayor of London has begun legal proceedings to have the Christian peace activist Brian Haw forcibly removed from Parliament Square. The news comes in the same week that the government has announced plans to repeal laws restricting civil liberties.
The Mayor, Boris Johnson, initiated legal proceedings on Monday (24 May) to remove Haw and his supporters, whose 'peace camp' consists of a small number of tents immediately opposite Parliament. Haw has been protesting outside Parliament since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. A court hearing is expected next week.
The government has not formally commented on the legal case. But the Independent newspaper claims that both the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg have given their backing to the plan.
Haw was arrested earlier this week for allegedly obstructing security checks during the Queen's Speech, which is delivered in the House of Lords.
Ironically, the Queen's Speech, which set out the first legislative programme of the new coalition government, included the statement, “legislation will be brought forward to protect freedoms and civil liberties”. The government says that this will allow “members of the public to protest peacefully without fear of being criminalised”.
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of the organisation Liberty, said “We are very sad to see that on a day that is supposed to celebrate British democracy, peaceful dissent is shut down”.
She added, “The new coalition government has promised to restore the right to non-violent protest. Attempts to clear Parliament Square are not the most promising start”.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London insisted that “Parliament Square is a world heritage site and is visited by thousands of people and broadcast around the world each day. The Mayor respects the right to demonstrate. However, the scale and impact of the protest is now doing considerable damage to the square.”
In response, civil liberties campaigners argue that the existence of free demonstrations opposite parliament sends out a message to tourists that Britain is a democratic county proud of free speech.
David Cameron called for Brian Haw's removal in July last year, speaking as Leader of the Opposition. He said that peace demonstrations had made Parliament Square look “like a pretty poor place, with shanty town tents and the rest of it”.