As the local elections dawn, councils may find they are asked to help the far right parties with their election campaign. Some will comply - not because they want to, but because they think the law requires them to.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 requires councils to provide premises for parties and candidacies to hold election meetings. Traditionally, this has meant letting candidates use premises including schools, subject to basic safety being ensured.
The position is all the more explosive because far right parties are liable to deliberately apply to use venues in areas where their presence will cause the maximum provocation - and media coverage.
Two further pieces of legislation add a legal dilemma to the moral and practical ones facing councils. The duty to provide premises can contradict the duty, spelled out in the Race Relations Act 1976, to actively promote good race relations. How can a council square this duty while the Representation of the People Act requires it to provide a platform to a racist party?
The Human Rights Act 1998 can initially appear to complicate matters further, in guaranteeing the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly. These basic rights can seem to leave councils powerless, but in fact, the act does not provide unrestricted protection to freedom of speech or assembly. It provides protection from threat and harm to all, and this includes threat from racist incitement, a fact that has been tested in continental courts.
Councils must weigh the obligations against each other. They do indeed have a duty to provide premises, but whether they fulfill it and in what way depends on the likely content of the meeting and its impact. A racist party will be entitled to a venue, but not to one where its presence may cause a threat to those present, or in the communities around, or who use the premises normally. This last point applies particularly to schools.
Councils need to do two things. They need to monitor the activities and views of political parties. And they need to maintain a list of venues suitable for political meetings. They then need to collate the two lists, picking venues that far right political parties may use given the likely effect of their views on the community. In that way they can satisfy the legal requirements.
But what about a political meeting that moves to a pub or club, having been barred from a council facility? Here too, recent changes to the law enable the council to extend the reach of the Race Relations Act. Under the new Licensing Act, councils will take responsibility for licensing premises, and will do so within the framework of a licensing policy that they will draft. This policy frames the binding licence granted to the venues.
The policy can, therefore, include provisions to restrict the activities of racist groups, making the licensee responsible and in some circumstances accountable for activities on their premises.
-- For more information go to the Commission for Racial Equality's website: www.cre.gov.uk.
Local Government Information Unit