Protesting is 'important right' says Welsh Secretary recalling his own campaigning past

PA-2238602 Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance Simon Hart, arrives at the High Court.
Simon Hart in his role as Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, 2005. Credit: PA

The UK Government’s Welsh Secretary has told ITV Wales that his own history as a campaigner has taught him that protesting is an “important right” to be protected.

But Simon Hart has denied that planned changes to the law in the controversial Policing Bill will curtail that right. 

The Conservative MP has been talking to Political Editor Adrian Masters in the latest edition of Face to Face. In the programme he talks about his own time as a protestor when he led the pressure group the Countryside Alliance in demonstrations against the Blair government, particularly over the hunting ban.

Does that mean he understands why campaigners take to the streets?

“Oh, it does. I remember being on the same side in a debate in the House of Commons, with Jeremy Corbyn defending the right of people to protest in Parliament Square. I think it’s probably the only time Jeremy Corbyn and I shared common ground.

“I’ve been there, I've done it, and I also know what it's like when you've got nothing, you've got no other levers to pull. 

“It's a really frustrating thing to be when you feel that the state, as was the case then, was doing you an injustice. Whether that was right or not isn't really the point. The options open to you are quite limited. Yes, you can send an email to your MP and you can sign a petition and suchlike. 

“But actually, the anger was much more palpable that people felt really let down by what was going on and trying to channel that in a way that maintains a bit of public support and makes a political statement.”

Given that history, does he understand worries about the UK Government’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?

The bill is awaiting a vote in the Commons following defeat by the Lords on some of the most controversial aspects which include giving police new powers to stop protests in Wales and England if they are considered to be too disruptive. 

Does he think that’s too heavy-handed? 

“No, I think the key was everybody should have the right to come and as we used to say, rattle the gates from time to time and make your presence heard vocally as happens every day in parliament. 

“There's always somebody out in Parliament Square protesting about something, and that's a really important right.”

Simon Hart said protesting is an important right. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Simon Hart also hits back at those who accuse the UK Government of undermining devolution by using its ‘Levelling Up’ agenda and replacement schemes for European Union funds to bypass Welsh and Scottish Governments which are led by political opponents. 

In fact, he tells the programme, the UK Government is increasing devolution in different ways.

“We're just engaging in one of the biggest exercises in devolution ever, which is by giving hundreds of million pounds to 22 local authorities in Wales to do levelling up initiatives. That's actually devolution.”

“Nobody’s confiscating any power, nobody's marginalising the Welsh Government. But what we are doing is actually adding a little bit of icing to the devolution cake by making sure that even more decision-making and even more money is being spent, I hope in innovative ways across the whole of Wales. And there's nothing not to like about that.”

The Welsh Secretary said he still supports Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

I asked if he still has support for Boris Johnson, despite the accusations of Covid rule-breaking in Downing Street and the police investigation that those allegations have led to. 

“Absolutely, yes” he told me although he pointed out that the Prime Minister has acknowledged mistakes and is working to put them right. 

A Conservative party leadership election would be a distraction, he thinks, given considerable challenges facing the UK at the moment, namely tension with Russia and the scale of post-pandemic recovery. 

If there were to be a leadership election though, would he put his name forward as two previous Conservative Welsh Secretaries, William Hague and John Redwood and Stephen Crabb have? 

“Absolutely 100 percent not… that's a definite no for me, which will now be seen as, oh, he's up to something!” 

  • Face To Face is on Tuesday 22 February at 10:45pm and later online