Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20  Mr McWalter: It need not be long.

  Mr Sands: I certainly understand the psychology behind Mr McWalter's suggestion. It is soundly based in parliamentary tradition because the one thing that the memorandum suggests should continue is the first reading of the Outlawries Bill and the historical significance of that is that that is the way that Parliament demonstrated its ability and determination to transact business other than that that was being laid before them by the Executive in the Queen's Speech. To that extent, I agree with Mr McWalter, it is quite a good part of that tradition that the Speaker gets the first word before we go to the moving of the humble address and I am sure that some way could be found to do that. I just fear that the effect of what he now has to read out is rather the reverse. It diminishes his authority because people are laughing and chiacking and it does not reflect well on his dignity.

  Mr McWalter: I was in a meeting in W2 on Monday and it was impossible to actually conduct our business because of the cacophony from the site in question and the effect was that it was impossible to proceed with business which obviously we are enjoined to do by our electorate. Surely, it is the case that there must be some breach somewhere here if people are making such a din that Members of Parliament are utterly unable to conduct their business. Has that avenue been pursued?

  Q21  Chairman: I think that is a matter for the Serjeant.

  Sir Michael Cummins: I understand that there is some legislation with regard to nuisance and noise comes into this. What the police have done so far is that they have taken some environmental experts to Parliament Square, they have measured the level of the noise put out by what we all know are very large loudspeakers functioning in the evening and a case is now going to the Crown Prosecution Service to assess whether that is substantial evidence that can be brought to stop this noise coming about. Sadly, the police do feel that they can do nothing peremptorily without such a court case being brought.

  Q22  Chairman: While we are on that—and this is a matter which occurred at the Ways and Means Panel of Chairmen meeting this morning—it was raised that the Tate Gallery is promoting itself with a boat that is going up and down the river outside the Houses of Parliament playing music extremely loudly. I think that some of the music perhaps on one occasion is tolerable—it was either My Fair Lady or something of that sort. Complaints were raised that those in Committee found it extremely difficult to concentrate upon the matters before them. I wondered whether matters relating to noise nuisance from the river, in this case by a boat promoting I am not sure whether it was the Tate Gallery or the New Tate going up and down the river, is something again over which we can have some control and, if the noise is inconvenient and a noise nuisance to Members working particularly in Committees, I wonder whether there is anything that can be done.

  Sir Michael Cummins: Was this a recent event?

  Q23  Chairman: Yes, very recent. This week, I understand.

  Sir Michael Cummins: With respect, you may have it wrong about the boat. I do not think it was the Tate Gallery boat which caused the noise. I understand that today the Mayor of London is opening a bridge across The Thames and I think he is also opening the pedestrian walkway in Trafalgar Square. Those two events have caused loudspeakers to be erected in the area of Hungerford Bridge which had caused the noise which floats down the river towards us. It took me quite a long time to find out where the noise was coming from this morning because the Speaker had exactly the same point and I think that noise was purely from those rehearsals of celebrations first of all and today's actual celebrations of those two events.

  Q24  Chairman: One cannot comment on the activities of the Mayor of London except to say that I would have thought, having served in the House, he would have had some understanding, without being too frivolous in any way. Can I also suggest that the facts that I have stated or the case that I have stated may also be in addition to what you are talking about because certainly the Member who raised it in the Panel meeting stated quite clearly "the Tate Gallery". I have to say that I am not sure and I suspect that the clerk, Mr Cranmer, may well be approaching you but, when I indicated that I would be meeting you this afternoon, he said, "Sir Nicholas, you will carry much more weight with the Serjeant at Arms than I will, so, if you could raise it as well, I will do so later."

  Sir Michael Cummins: I will look into it and I will send a note to the clerk with my findings.<fu1>

<fo1>  Note by witnesses: The Tate Gallery boat has no sound system and I can confirm that the music came from the Hungerford Bridge area while, at the same time, the Tate Gallery boat happened to be passing in front of the House.

  Q25  David Wright: I would like to return to one of the issues about permanent demonstrations and also the noise involved. Clearly, the Palace of Westminster and its environs are a World Heritage site and clearly one of the things that is a problem here is that people visit the House and see this incredibly unsightly display of what can only be described as rags and flags along the pavement outside Parliament Square. One of the things that strikes me is, first of all, does the area need to be designated a pavement if it is going nowhere? Secondly, would it be appropriate within a sort of restructuring of the Sessional Orders to look at whether we could permit demonstrations whilst Parliament is sitting? For example, the Countryside Alliance had a very good demonstration the other day. I did not agree with them, but it was very, very well managed, there were some very impressive temporary structures erected and then, when Parliament finished at the end of the day, they were removed and fair play to them for that. Would that not be a better approach? I think that we have to get a balance between the right to demonstrate, clearly looking at European legislation which I think we would all accept, but we need to be able to remove what is, I think, a fairly unsightly display at the moment.

  Mr Sands: I think that would be the key point in the new legislation which I am implying is necessary. The power of regulation which applies to the central area, the grassed area, would, I imagine—although I think it would be necessary to seek further advice about this—cover the regulation of its use for demonstrations and could therefore be used in such a way as to rule out permanent demonstrations, if I can so describe them. That is really what we are talking about. It is the distinction between a one-off demonstration, which is here for a day and then goes and is targeted at a particular parliamentary event, and a permanent eyesore. The trouble is that the permanent eyesore is erected on something which, for the present, is designated as a highway and the judge has said that that obstruction is, in the circumstances, a reasonable obstruction, and it is impossible for the police to go behind that ruling.

  Q26  David Wright: Do you think that we could also include staff of Members of Parliament in relation to the Sessional Orders because clearly, in relation to the noise and very often the obstruction, the staff of Members of Parliament are inconvenienced in terms of getting into work and actually supporting Members in terms of delivering a service to their constituents? Do you think there would be a case for looking at issues around Members' staff?

  Mr Sands: If you look at the parts of Erskine May which cover contempts of the House, obstruction of the business of Parliament has been regarded as a contempt and that covers the staff of Parliament as well as Members of Parliament. It does not specifically apply to Members' staff, but obviously if you are keeping the approaches open, you are keeping the approaches open for everybody who has business in Parliament. I just slightly correct, Mr Wright, and say that he is still referring to the Sessional Order and the burden of what I am saying in my paper is that, however one rewrote the Sessional Order, it just would not help in the end, I am afraid. It might make the House feel better, but it would not help the police carry out the job.

  Q27  David Wright: What you are saying is that we have to actually frame a specific piece of legislation or add into a particular Bill that is going through the House.

  Mr Sands: I cannot see any other way out myself. The Home Office may be able to suggest something else to you, but I cannot see it.

  Huw Irranca-Davies: Following up on David's point first of all, I was greatly taken by the act of tumultuous petitioners, but much of the discussion we have had so far has been framed around the ease of access for Members, their staff and also constituents as well. However, in this day and age, it is quite simply a question of getting the balance right, but is not one of the aspects at which we should also be looking, if we were to look at framing some legislation, is not of tumultuous petition but actual tumultuous sedation with the threat of terrorism and so on? If we have whether it is temporary structures or permanent structures within such close proximity to the House, I wonder what your views would be on the use of that which could be of assistance to somebody. We are familiar with the Downing Street example where mortar was used from the back of a van. We cannot avoid it entirely, but is that something at which we should be looking within any framing of legislation?

  Q28  Chairman: Before you answer that, can I just add, because this is the critical element and certainly I know that you are concerned about it, Sir Michael, security, not only security of the Palace itself but also of Ministers, Members and staff. Is there not a huge security risk with allowing the sort of demonstration that has been there now for so many months?

  Sir Michael Cummins: You are absolutely right, of course there is, and it causes me great concern on security grounds. That permanent demonstration there could, for example, as the Chairman and I have discussed privately, hide someone who is going to somehow impede access to a particular Member maybe or indeed do him or her harm. The police now regularly search that area three times a day to ensure there is nothing there. Having said that, those searches only last as long as they last. After the search, then it is quite possible that something may be put there or someone may hide there. Unfortunately, this has not carried much sway with either, I think I am right in saying, the judge in the case that Westminster City Council brought or anybody else for that matter, so we have no great locus in which to put that security context. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police feels that he has no further action which he can personally take in this respect.

  Q29  Huw Irranca-Davies: If I could follow through on that particular point. One aspect is the assembly of people together with any bags or luggage that they may carry with them. The other aspect is in respect of, whether it is aesthetically appealing or not, any sort of actual temporary erection there to house those banners or whatever. If legislation were to be so framed, should we be looking at totally exempting that area/totally excluding from that area any sort of fixed erections, whether it is for one day or whether it is for a month?

  Mr Sands: The details of this are obviously for discussion. Whether you can have a concept of a fixed erection for one day, I am not sure. Of course, we have the experience of the area—I am not sure if that area has ever been used for media structures but certainly Abingdon Green is. During the time when Mrs Thatcher was in the process of being removed from the leadership of her party, it somehow felt that the whole of Westminster had become one vast television studio, there were so many temporary structures out there. So, there are difficulties about being precise and too prescriptive. I would have thought that the regulation of demonstrations and displays is the key thing.

  Q30  Chairman: For information, the area that was covered with television cameras and media tents and other things was Abingdon Gardens, almost opposite St Stephen's Entrance and really lying opposite the House of Lords. I cannot myself ever recall seeing permanent tentage or buildings out on Parliament Square. Huw Irranca-Davies has raised an important point. In the legislation that you are suggesting we might recommend to the House, we would deal not only with demonstrations, that is the physical presence of people demonstrating, but also the paraphernalia that they bring with them, whether it would be permanent, as this particular gentleman out here has had now for very many months, or the sort of demonstration that the Countryside Alliance organised on Monday of this week, which was put up and taken down and the place was left absolutely pristine and clean when they had done that. You are saying that this legislation would necessarily deal with that aspect as well?

  Mr Sands: I would have thought that was the crucial thing. I see a distinction between what is happening in Parliament Square and seems to be tolerated and the way demonstrations opposite Downing Street are managed. There are a lot of such demonstrations and they sometimes involve the display of placards, but they are kept within a tightly confined area and they do not stay for more than a certain time. So, somehow, there is a power to regulate that and the number one question that I would want to ask the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is, "If you can do that between Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence, why can you not do it opposite the gates of Parliament?"

  Q31  Mr McWalter: The answer to that is that the Parliament Square pavement is not basically used much as a thoroughfare and Whitehall is.

  Mr Sands: I think that is the answer.

  Huw Irranca-Davies: To move on slightly from that, you have mentioned already that the Sessional Orders we have discussed so far have very limited relevance indeed to the current situation. Would the same apply to Westminster Hall? Are the powers to control Westminster Hall fairly independent of the Sessional Orders?

  Q32  Chairman: There is a separate Sessional Order dealing with Westminster Hall.

  Mr Sands: There is a separate part of the Sessional Order. I think that the Sessional Order dates back to a time when Westminster Hall was in effect a public thoroughfare. It was the way in which you got to St Stephen's Chapel which, until the Great Fire, was where the House of Commons met. So, the physical circumstances have changed and the legal circumstances have too since 1965 when control of Westminster Hall was vested in a triumvirate of the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and the Lord Great Chamberlain. The Serjeant will probably have further and better particulars.

  Sir Michael Cummins: In my letter to the Commissioner every year after State Opening, I do say that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passages of Members to and from this House and that no disorder be allowed in Westminster Hall or in the passages leading to this House and this really supplements what the Clerk has just said. That is a very archaic message to give to the Commissioner with regard to the former relevance of Westminster Hall with regard to access to the House of Commons.

  Mr Sands: We now have effective control up to the perimeter and indeed we have a large and very expensive contract with the Metropolitan Police to provide us with security services within that perimeter. So, the matters which are dealt with in that letter in relation to Westminster Hall are effectively dealt with by our contract with the Metropolitan Police to provide our security around and within the perimeter.

  Q33  Chairman: To put it in a nutshell, are you saying that the security and access through Westminster Hall is now adequately catered for without a specific mention in a Sessional Order?

  Mr Sands: Certainly.

  David Hamilton: I was attempting to get in earlier and I would not like it to be misunderstood, but I remember in the Scottish Parliament, prior to it being established, that there was a permanent site outside the Scottish Parliament for I think three years; it was outside where the Scottish Parliament was going to be. I do not agree that we should do away with permanent sites; I think that an accommodation can be made. I do believe that you have to have the right to demonstrate and the right to establish a view. I understand the point that Huw makes in relation to terrorism, but that of course can be said when you have a train station just the other side and it is very difficult when you talk in terms of the whole of this campus, the whole of Westminster. There are any amount of places from which a terrorism attack could come. There is an old saying in Scotland that you do not throw the bairn out with the bathwater. I think that when you look at what happens across the road, what could be happening, I believe, is that we should not give a prime area for someone who is there every single day of every week of every month over a year or longer, but that that person should be relocated or that organisation should be relocated to another point to allow people who justifiably come on a daily basis, a one-off basis, to demonstrate in Parliament. To me, that would be a far more constructive way of moving than what we have at the present time. What we have now is a situation where an organisation or an individual has a prime site, and I have been across there on some occasions to meet organisations that have come here, and you find them around the corner because the prime area has been taken. I think that one of the ways of looking at it would be that we relocate that individual or that organisation if they are there for any longer than a set time in order to allow demonstrators who come all the way from all over Great Britain, at great expense in many cases, to come down and say what they want to say and I think they should be given the prime areas for doing that. I think that may be another way in which to look at it when we look at potential changes.

  Q34  Chairman: That is a different point of view from within this Procedure Committee. Would you like to comment on what David Hamilton has said? Should there be strict rules on time limits laid down in respect of any group of people or individuals for that matter who wish to come and make their views known to Parliament or is it your view—and perhaps I can add to what David Hamilton is saying—that that is not the ideal area because of its heritage and importance to this whole area of Westminster and that another area might be found and designated for the use of those who wish to make their views known to Parliament?

  Mr Sands: I remember the demonstration outside the old Royal High School when this Committee's Clerk and I used to take the Scottish Affairs Committee up to meet there from time to time; that demonstration was pretty permanent, although it was, I think, in a rather less prominent place than what we are talking about here. I am just reminding myself of the debate in the House of Lords when the land in Parliament Square was being turned over to the Greater London Authority and there was another clause in that same Bill relating to Trafalgar Square; one of the prominent ideas in Ministers' minds at the time was that this was part of what was called the World's Squares Project and Trafalgar Square was going to be recreated as a world square and of course that is happening now, it is being reconstructed, and the idea was that, having done that, I think that work could move on to Parliament Square and that that would be recreated in new form and not be a traffic island in order that the central area would become much more accessible than it is now. I do not know at what stage those plans are and I do not know if we have heard anything about that recently.

  Sir Michael Cummins: No, we have not.

  Q35  Chairman: Is it your view, bearing in mind that you raised this, Mr Sands, that such a project could make Parliament much more vulnerable?

  Mr Sands: I would not have said so, but I think it would add to the case for strong regulation of the central area if the central area were to become much more accessible.

  Q36  Mr McWalter: One of the things that did used to occur in the Sessional Orders was a matter related to, as it were, strangers infiltrating the premises in various ways. You may have seen in the Mail on Sunday that a journalist for that newspaper walked around the House with great freedom, including getting into lofts and into areas where there was piping and things like that. Is there not some ground for having a Sessional Order that runs along the lines that the Serjeant at Arms attending this House do from time to time take into his custody any stranger or strangers that he shall see or be informed of to be in the House or gallery where he is not supposed to be, to slightly change the Sessional Order that used to be there? It does appear that it is all very lax. There are all sorts of signs around saying "Members Only" but nobody takes a blind bit of notice of them. I wonder if you would like to comment on that.

  Sir Michael Cummins: The particular incident to which you have referred is being investigated. As soon as I heard about it on Friday evening before publication in the Daily Mail on the Saturday, I asked a very senior officer from Scotland Yard to come here and to undertake an assessment of access into Portcullis House. There is no doubt that the journalist concerned was properly received and searched when he arrived in Portcullis House and it was only by his own devious behaviour that he gained access to those areas to which he should not have.

  Q37  Mr McWalter: He also gained access in the main House as well to a large number of areas.

  Sir Michael Cummins: Yes, he did. Those matters are now being investigated. I would wish not to say too much more about it at this stage; a report is going to the Speaker about this.

  Q38  Mr McWalter: Do you think you have the power to deal with people who, as it were, behave in this kind of way? That is the issue.

  Sir Michael Cummins: The Security Force have the right to retain any individual who is not wearing a pass, whom they do not know and to ensure either their adequate identity by some other means or by taking them to a senior officer who can detain them and contact me or one of my staff.

  Q39  Mr McWalter: When did this last happen?

  Sir Michael Cummins: I cannot tell you that, I do not know.

  Mr McWalter: I think there is possibly a case there for some Standing Orders.

  Chairman: We have to respect the Serjeant at Arms's request in respect of the current issue.

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