Give us back ancient leafleting rights, says Lib Dem peer

image captionLeaflets are used by community groups to publicise events

A Lib Dem peer is campaigning to restore the traditional right to hand out leaflets promoting plays and community events in England and Wales.

Many local councils have brought in charges and restrictions on distributing leaflets since a new law came into force in 2005.

The legislation is aimed at reducing litter in town centres.

But Lord Clement-Jones, who is raising the issue in the House of Lords, says it is restricting free speech.

The peer was behind a successful campaign to reverse legislation in the 2003 Licensing Act, making it easier for small venues to host live music.

He said he was now turning his attention to the restrictions on leafleting, which according to a report last year by personal freedom campaign The Manifesto Club has had a "catastrophic effect" on village halls, circuses, political campaigners, comedy clubs and nightclubs.

The report calls for a more liberal regime that recognises leafleting "as part of a free and vibrant civic life".

'Free speech'

Lord Clement-Jones said he was backing the Manifesto Club campaign and wanted the government to issue guidelines exempting cultural and community events from the restrictions.

He plans to raise the issue with the government in the House of Lords on Monday, but told BBC News: "If I don't get satisfaction from the government I am considering putting together a private members' bill."

He added: "It is a matter of free speech. I think the fines that are being levied are having a chilling effect on it, all in the name of reducing litter."

He said restrictions on handing out leaflets were lifted in the 18th Century, which saw the birth of a thriving pamphleteering tradition.

"Do we want to go back to Elizabethan times when pamphlets were restricted? We have had these liberties for a very long time," said Lord Clement-Jones.

The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 allows local authorities in England and Wales to designate areas within which people need a license to "distribute free literature".

Some 27% of local authorities have taken advantage of the law so far, according to the Manifesto Club, with some charging as much as £50 an hour for a Saturday or up to £262 per distributor.

Critics say the charges are out of reach for smaller organisations such as arts clubs, fairs and many local businesses, although professional leaflet companies can afford to carry on distributing literature.

Keep Britain Tidy welcomed the crackdown, saying leaflets handed out in the street contributed to the UK's £885m a year litter problem.

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