HOLYROOD is changing its legal status to make it easier for the police to remove protesters.

Scottish Parliament bosses have asked the Home Office to designate the building and its grounds as a “protected site” in the interests of national security.

Legislation has now been laid in Westminster under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which is due to come into force on October 1.

At present, the police have limited powers to intervene if there is no substantive offence taking place, such as protesters making a prolonged noise outside the entrances.

But from next month it will be a criminal offence to remain on the parliamentary estate “without lawful authority” punishable by a £5000 fine or a year in jail after a conviction. 

The change, which will apply to all the landscaped grounds and ‘ponds’ area where most protests take place, brings Holyrood into line with Westminster and the Welsh Senedd.

Public gatherings are are an almost daily part of Holyrood life, with groups gathering to protest against Government policy, demand change or support a particular cause.

In the last week alone, hundreds of people have held demos in support of women's rights and against vaccine passports.

The grounds are also a popular place for relaxation in the summer.

Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone said that “in practical terms this offers grounds for removing those on site in contravention” of Holyrood’s estate management policy. 

This could apply to breaking up short-term protests, as well as preventing people setting up camps in the grounds, such as the pro-independence camp evicted in 2016. 

The area involved is defined in a map included with the new legislation, which shows that protesters could simply cross the street to avoid prosecution under it.

HeraldScotland:

In a letter to MSPs, the PO stressed that the change would not affect the parliament’s policy of “welcoming and facilitating peaceful protest that respects the rights of others”.

She said: “We recognise that such protests are an essential part of the expression of democracy in Scotland.

“The SPCB [the cross-party MSP-led Scottish Parliamentary Management Body] does not foresee invoking this power frequently, and only in cases where visitors are in breach of the terms and conditions for use of the parliamentary estate.

“At present, the police have limited ability to intervene if there is no substantive criminal offence taking place, and disruptive protests can become especially prolonged.  

“Civil legal remedies can be lengthy, expensive and an additional burden on civil justice resources.

"The SPCB therefore recognised that we need a proportionate means of maintaining parliamentary business whilst protecting the rights and freedoms of people."

She added: “As we have seen many times recently, maintaining a functioning Parliament to deliver and oversee the response to the current pandemic has clearly been in the national interest. 

“We are also operating in the context of an increasing level of disruptive activity, including protests on our roof requiring specialist policing and emergency services response, and unauthorised occupation of the Debating Chamber. Actions such as these have the potential to disrupt the Parliament’s ability to meet.

“Given these factors, the SPCB has, for some time now, been considering options to ensure Parliament’s resilience, including applying for approval under section 129 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) to be designated as a protected site in the interests of national security.

“At the SPCB’s meeting on 24 June 2021 we took the decision to proceed with the application for designation to the UK Home Office as the department with responsibility for national security. 

“Following approval, an Order was laid before the UK Parliament this week which is due to come into force next month, subject to the normal UK Parliamentary scrutiny process.

“Both the UK Parliament and Welsh Senedd are already designated as protected sites. 

“We were reassured to learn from their experience that having the designation as a protected site has not limited protest – far from – but has encouraged those engaging with the institutions to keep activities in line with their policies.

“SOCPA was enacted specifically to provide a solution to these competing tensions, to the extent that the right to protest and right to assemble at protected sites have already been balanced in law against the public interest in such sites being able to function safely and securely.

“The Act therefore provides an appropriate legal mechanism, providing the SPCB and Police Scotland with the required powers to effectively and safely manage access and security at the Parliament. Being a protected site maintains the right to protest in a manner which does not impede parliamentary operations whilst also giving police the power they need to support us.

“These powers must, of course, be exercised in a proportionate manner. The SPCB has asked officials to work up a protocol between us and Police Scotland 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.”