It is commonly accepted that a basic tenet of a democratic society is the ability of its citizens to hold those in power to account. Many people’s first engagement with doing so will be the simple act of collecting petitions in the street.
Yet this basic form of democratic engagement is gradually being made illegal. As shopping streets are increasingly owned by private companies, landowners are using the laws of trespass to ban any activity on their property that does not make them a profit.
For example, from 2006 - 2008, People and Planet ran a campaign asking Topshop to guarantee that no forced child labour is used in the production of their garments, following a spate of reports showing that clothes made from cotton picked by child labour in Uzbekistan was being sold in the UK.
Reasonably enough, small groups of students gathered outside Topshops to politely gather petitions from customers. When shops were situated on the high street, this passed without incident. When shops were part of shopping centre complexes, students were forced out, sometimes physically, by private security.
Therefore, the recently released video (above) of a group of campaigners being ejected from Birmingham Bullring shopping centre after just 38 seconds of attempting to collect petitions was unsurprising, but no less shocking. So too are the stories circulating the internet of the library assistants outside their workplace being moved on by Westfield heavies, the Jubilee Debt Campaign activists requested to move a street stall 40 centimetres forward and countless others.
Now, however, there is something that can be done about it. The government has announced a Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill in their legislative programme, which, amongst other things, promises to restore the right to campaign.
People and Planet is supporting a petition, hosted by 38degrees for the inclusion in the Freedom Bill of a legal right to protest in areas which are freely open to the public but which are privately owned, such as the walkways of shopping centres.
Jim Cranshaw is an activist with People and Planet.