Changing the rules

Is demonstrating in London really banned? Should I boil or bury my bunny? Let the <em>New Statesman<

How come last week’s anti-war demonstration in London wasn’t banned? I thought free speech in the vicinity of parliament was illegal these days.
Vijai Maheshwari, Shoreditch

I assume that you are being cynical. As you doubtless know, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Socpa) does not ban free speech near the Houses of Parliament; it simply criminalises people who do not tell the police that they plan to speak freely. The legislation was drawn up in response to Aaron Barschak's unexpected arrival at Prince William's 21st birthday party, and the government has always been acutely aware of its potential impact on free expression. David Blunkett acknowledged that permanently restricting protest in central London to protect the royal family from the risk of another gatecrasher might seem like using a "sledgehammer to crack a nut". But, he explained, a sledgehammer is sometimes needed for that purpose.

A similarly delicate approach towards civil liberties has been characteristic of new Labour's other legislation in this field. On introducing the Terrorism Act 2000, for example, Jack Straw told MPs that it was "not designed to be used in situations where demonstrations unaccountably turn ugly", because "the powers available under the ordinary criminal law will, as now, suffice" for such cases. The provisions have, in fact, been used against peaceful protesters on hundreds of occasions since then - but Straw chose his words with the care of a seasoned politician and none of those words is false, in any demonstrable sense.

To return to your specific question, the route of last weekend's demonstration fell outside the Socpa-designated zone, and evidently the police did not find it expedient to use terrorist powers to get their job done. Yet the ironies of silencing protest in the name of freedom were once summed up by Tony Blair himself. Speaking at the George Bush (Sr) Presidential Library on 7 April 2002, he observed: "When I pass protesters every day at Downing Street . . . I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That's called freedom." And who would dissent from that?

Our pet rabbit is looking pretty poorly, and may not be much longer for this world. My daughters will want to give him the usual garden send-off, but a chap at a nearby nursery recently told me that animal funerals have been made illegal by some godforsaken Brussels regulation. Can that be true? What do I tell the girls?
A W, Horsham, West Sussex

An EU regulation passed to tackle BSE-type diseases does indeed require the superterranean disposal of deceased animals, but national authorities are given plenty of leeway and the UK specifically exempts pets from the law's scope. There remains a potential problem, however. A "pet" is defined as "any animal belonging to species normally nourished and kept, but not consumed, by humans for purposes other than farming", and as rabbit farms do exist, the definition is ambiguous when applied to your case. It is therefore within the realms of possibility that you will find yourself with a legal fight on your hands.

To prepare your daughters for the worst, it might be sensible to download a copy of the Animal By-Product Regulations 2005 and then spend an evening discussing its implications en famille. Strike a balance between factual accuracy and sensitivity. I am no expert, but you could, for example, explain that new rules require that little Thumper (et cetera) be boiled under pressure for between 20 minutes and three hours to enter rabbit heaven. With luck, your daughters will then be happily surprised - on appeal, at least - to learn that interment rather than rendering remains an option.

Sadakat Kadri is a barrister and author of "The Trial: a history from Socrates to O J Simpson" (Harper Perennial, 2006). Send your civil liberties and human-rights dilemmas to: Changing the Rules, New Statesman, 52 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0AU. This column appears fortnightly

"The rules of the game have changed" Tony Blair, August 2005