Josie Appleton is director of civil liberties group the Manifesto Club, and author of the report Leafleting: A Liberty Lost?, which is being published today.
Over the past five years it has become increasingly difficult for local groups to hand out leaflets in town and city centres. In our Manifesto Club survey of local authorities, we found that 27% of councils have brought through leafleting licence systems, enacting ‘free literature distribution’ powers contained in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005.
Many local authorities are now charging residents vast sums (£50 an hour in Basildon) for the privilege of standing on a street corner and pitching their theatre or music night to fellow residents. You can’t just grab some friends and head out because it’s a nice day. Instead, leafleteers have to apply two weeks in advance, give national insurance numbers and addresses for all ‘distributors’, say what they will be handing out and where they will be standing, and ensure their ‘authorised leaflet distributor’ badge is ‘highly visible at all times’.
Leafleting licence costs are simply unaffordable for circuses, car boot sales, music nights and the host of other small-scale events that promote themselves hand-to-hand. A mere glance at a lengthy ‘free distribution licence application form’ is enough to deaden the will and put anybody off. The result is that smaller organisations – key to local economies as well as ‘big society’-type activities – get squeezed out of public space.
One unintended consequence is that more organisations subcontract to specialised distribution companies, which can negotiate the red tape and pay the licence fees. So flyering becomes more commercialised – and potentially more messy too, since paid promoters are likely to be less selective in their distribution. The growing regulation of public leafleting has also led to a boom in leafleting of private residences, which can be more annoying since you don’t get to choose whether you want the leaflet or not.
In theory, political and religious groups are exempt from these powers, but there are multiple examples of political or religious groups being told that they are ‘breaking the law’ for handing out leaflets. There is also the thorny business of defining ‘political’ or ‘religious’: some councils defined this narrowly as ‘political party’ and proceeded to issue on-the-spot fines to all other unlicensed political campaigners. The implications for local democracy are not good.
There is no need for these heavy handed regulations. Leafleting has been an established right for nearly three centuries: the streets were not knee-deep in leaflets and pavements were not impassable. If councils want to reduce street litter they should put in more bins, and empty them. After all, it is the person who dropped the leaflet who is littering, not the person who gave it to them.
It is good practice for leafleteers to clean up around them afterwards, and obstructive or aggressive leafleting is already prohibited in many local by-laws. But if somebody is just standing on a street corner, pitching their event or venue to passers-by, then they should be absolutely free to do so.