Emergency statement over Holyrood protest curbs

HOLYROOD managers are to be quizzed over controversial plans to curb protests outside the building, after the Greens secured an emergency question. 

The cross-party Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) will be asked why it took the decision and whether it will publish the secret background paper involved.

Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone, who chaired the SPCB meeting that decided the change in policy, agreed to allow an urgent question from Green MSP Gillian Mackay on the issue.  

Unlike most such questions, which are answered by ministers, it will for another MSP from the SPCB to respond.

The move follows Ms Mackay and the Greens demanding the change be axed yesterday.

The Liberal Democrats today became the latest Holyrood party to raise concerns about the plans to make protestors outside the building liable to prosecution.

Leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said it could have a “chilling impact on our democracy”.

He also said parliament bosses had compounded people’s worries by failing to provide a “clear rationale” for the change or set out its limits.

Mr Cole-Hamilton raised his concerns in a letter to the Presiding Officer and chief clerk David McGill, but stopped short of calling for the move to be scrapped.

It followers the Scottish Greens and Alba party both demanding the change be axed.

In June, the parliament’s cross-party management group, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), deciding to change Holyrood’s legal status.

Despite an objection from Green MSP Maggie Chapman, the SPCB asked the Home Office to designate the parliament and grounds a “protected site” on national security grounds.

It means that from next month it will be an offence to be on the parliamentary estate “without lawful authority”, punishable to be a £5000 fine or a year in jail upon summary conviction.

Ms Johnstone only announced the change last week, after legislation had already been laid in the Commons under serious crime law to bring the change about.

There was no public consultation on the matter, and the SPCB has refused to publish a word of its background paper on security grounds.

Ms Johnstone has insisted protests will not be banned, and police will only use the new powers to remove people if they “seek to interfere with the rights of others at Holyrood”.

However details of when and how the police would use the powers remain vague.

Ms Johnstone has said the SPCB and Police Scotland are still working on a protocol ““which will set out how and when powers to arrest or remove persons from the site will be invoked and the essential role that the SPCB will play in such decisions”.

Although the SPCB’s decision brings Holyrood into line with Westminster and the Welsh Senedd, the Scottish LibDem leader said that did not mean it was right.   

In his letter, Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “Since this decision was made public there has been considerable concern that this could have a significant impact on the right to protest at the heart of Scottish democracy. This is not helped by the failure to provide a clear rationale for this designation, or meaningful issuances about the limits of its use.  

“While it is important that the police have the tools to keep the parliament and its staff safe, the new ability of law enforcement agencies to fine or imprison people who wish to protest raises significant questions about how this tool will be implemented and the role of the authorities charged with enforcing it.

“I have always been uncomfortable with a similar designation…. which prevents peaceful protest on the grounds of the Palace of Westminster and I am concerned that broad and arbitrary limits on the right to protest here could have a chilling impact on our democracy.

“I believe that it is in the public interest for the parliament to explain the trigger and the rationale behind these decisions. The public should also be offered guidance on how to ensure they can maintain their ability to peacefully protest.”

The SPCB decision was approved by Ms Johnstone, who is the group’s chair, Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw, Labour’s Claire Baker and the SNP’s Christine Grahame.

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “We need to be categorically clear – this decision will have no bearing on the tens of thousands of people who protest in a robust but peaceful way at Holyrood each year. 

“Such protests are an essential part of the expression of democracy in Scotland.

“There is no prohibition of protest or banning of gatherings.

“Designated status will give the Parliament the means to address individuals who try to prevent Parliament from meeting, or who seek to interfere with the rights of others at Holyrood. Protests remain welcome at Holyrood and will be supported by the SPCB.”


The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992