CAMPAIGN groups have expressed deep concern at plans to ban the handing out of leaflets in the town centre.

New laws under the Clean Neighbourhood Act will come into force later this year, prohibiting the distribution of literature within the town centre by businesses and campaigning groups - although charities are exempt.

Groups as diverse as the No2ID campaign, Swindon Animal Concern, Swindon Stop the War Coalition, the Countryside Alliance, trade unions and religious groups will be banned from handing out literature.

The town centre management has recently written to Marilyn Harrison of Swindon Animal Concern who has a stall in Regent Street telling her that she will have to stop handing out leaflets intended to improve animal welfare.

Andy Newman, pictured, secretary of the Swindon Stop the War Coalition, said: "In a vibrant democracy, it is vital that different shades of opinion have a way of reaching the general public," he said.

"Five years ago in the build-up to the war on Iraq, the Stop the War Coalition handed out literally tens of thousands of leaflets countering the arguments from the Government.

"As a result we did shift public opinion.

"The proposed act would have impeded Swindon people from participating in the democratic debate."

The Act has been devised to reduce litter, but Andy said his volunteers always clear up any dropped flyers.

"On the pretext of anti-litter, Swindon Borough Council are bringing in restrictions on rights to distribute literature that are more severe than the restrictions that the Chinese Communist Party impose upon Hong Kong.

"We have to be clear that the town centre is not just for shopping, it is a public space that belongs to the people of Swindon, and we should be able to use it for peaceful debate, and handing out leaflets.

"I have no problem in restricting leaflets from companies promoting goods or services for profit.

"But they need to build in exemptions and safeguards for trade unions, political groups and religious organisations, who contribute to the vibrant life of the town."

The proposals still need to go before Swindon Council's Cabinet, but the town centre management is already advising companies what they will have to do to conform.

Bernie Maguire, the town centre manager, said: "Charities are exempt from the Act under this legislation.

"It is about restricting fliers and having the powers to issue fixed penalty notices and to take to court anyone who doesn't comply.

"When you walk down Bridge Street on a Friday or Saturday night you can see all these leaflets on the floor.

"But not just there - they are all over town. They have to be swept up, so this could make a vast improvement."