Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  Q40  Mr McWalter: There are also provisions about the protection of witnesses and about false evidence—they are Resolutions rather than Orders—and they express the House's intention to use its fullest powers to punish intimidation and false evidence but not intrusion. Do you think that those resolutions could act as a salutary reminder to everyone even if they are, strictly speaking, unnecessary?

  Mr Sands: I think if there were to be one of the existing resolutions to be kept just for the sake of it, that would be the one I would pick. I think the truth of the matter is that interference with a witness before a Select Committee, either prospectively or after the event retaliating on a witness because of the evidence he has given, would be regarded as a grave contempt of the House with or without the Sessional Order. There is a section in Erskine May, page 127, on tampering with witnesses and that power and the case law surrounding that is there whether we pass the Sessional Resolution or not. So I think that the existence of the Sessional Resolution on the Journal of the House does not make a substantial difference to the protection witnesses would be accorded if there were a serious case of interference.

  Q41  Mr McWalter: Are the powers of the House sufficient to punish attempts and such things and does the Provision of Witnesses (Public Inquiries) Protection Act 1982, actually provide sufficient protection of witnesses? Do you feel that the powers you have are strong enough to do the job?

  Mr Sands: If the House decided that something was serious enough to proceed with under the statute law, we would have to turn the case over to the prosecution authorities and that would be a different matter from dealing with it as a contempt. The same Select Committee can take the matter up after all. If one of its witnesses complains after the event that he has been intimidated on account of the evidence he has given, that same Select Committee can always summon the person who has done the intimidation.

  Q42  Mr McWalter: The date of this legislation is worrying, 1892. There may be all sorts of ways of getting round it that were not envisaged at the time.

  Mr Sands: The Act is slightly separate from the power of the House to pursue, as the Sessional Order says "with the utmost severity", people who have committed a contempt against the House which would be done within the House. Yes, the direct penalties which are available to the House are very limited, but the sanction of being pulled up and given a rough time by a Committee is—

  Q43  Chairman: Can you give us an example of when somebody was summoned to the Bar of the House for contempt of the House? Do you have any example that you can quote to us?

  Mr Sands: Not in the context of intimidation of witnesses, no, I cannot. The lack of recent precedents—my predecessor obviously could not find any or I am sure he would have mentioned them in the memorandum—does suggest that this is not in fact a very live problem.

  Mr McWalter: As a supplementary to that, the behaviour by that journalist, on which I started this line of questioning, was actually a contempt of the House, not under the terms of witnesses but it does certainly look as if the person was minded to, as it were, bring the House into disrepute or whatever.

  Q44  Chairman: Is that trespassing in an area in which you would hesitate to respond at this time, Sir Michael?

  Sir Michael Cummins: The only thing I would say—and I am not a lawyer—is that, as I understand it, if one wishes to take trespassing more legally, it requires some element of causing damage or that sort of thing and, having checked Portcullis House thoroughly, there is no incidence of damage having been caused by that individual. He gained access probably under devious means to areas he should not have done but no damage was caused.

  Chairman: I think my colleague is implying that what he did was really contempt of the House. He was seeking to bring the House into contempt by his action of coming into the House and going into places which clearly he was not supposed to be in.

  Q45  Mr McWalter: There is quite a difference between trespassing in somebody's wood, walking through it and not knifing any of the trees and what was done in this case, where somebody went into areas of Parliament. There is an issue about whether laws need to be framed to give Parliament a special status or not. Talking about normal trespass seems to me quite different from what the offence is here.

  Mr Sands: We have had incidents of this sort periodically over quite a time. I can think of at least two others in the not too distant past where the press have thought it was an amusing thing for their readers to try and demonstrate holes in the Palace of Westminster security arrangements. None of them has ever been pursued as a contempt in the technical sense of the word because to do that you would have to show that what they had done was seriously obstructing Parliament in its parliamentary proceedings and operations. No one has sought to pursue the matter on that basis. What has tended to happen is that Speakers have got very cross and have threatened to take press passes away and so on. Sometimes editors have been contrite and sometimes they have not, but still it happens again. It just seems to be one of these easy stories which every now and again journalists resort to.

  Q46  David Hamilton: Part of the order about elections prescribes what should happen if a Member is returned for more than one seat. On page five of the memorandum you suggest that either the House could agree that the current provision should continue to be the practice of the House or that the House could pass a specific order if the situation ever recurred. What is your preference?

  Mr Sands: It is a remote possibility that this situation might recur. I think it is very remote and I cannot in practice see it happening outside the confines of Northern Ireland where it is just faintly conceivable that it might happen. My recommendation, if the Committee was going to recommend that we no longer pass the sessional order on this subject, would be that the Committee at the same time recommend that the practice embodied in the sessional resolution be acknowledged to be the House's practice, which would be applied if the situation were to recur. If and when the House agrees to your report, which I think would be a necessary precursor to us getting rid of the sessional resolutions, that agreement of the House with that recommendation would be sufficient authority when the situation arose again.

  Q47  David Hamilton: As a Scottish MP, they are moving the number of MPs down from 72 to 59 and a number of us would be quite pleased with that sort of problem coming up. English regions are now under discussion within the House. We already have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a Northern Ireland Assembly. We also have the European Parliament. There is the possibility of individuals who stand for each of these areas. Would that not come into conflict or would that not be in the remit?

  Mr Sands: That is not covered by this sessional resolution. It tends to be covered, if at all, by the Act which sets up the relevant new Parliament or Assembly. In other words, if there is going to be a cross-disqualification from sitting in both a regional assembly and the central parliament, that would have to be provided for in the legislation setting up the regional assembly.

  David Hamilton: It would not be appropriate for us to make that decision here?

  Q48  Chairman: I think this Committee can consider virtually anything which relates to the procedure and the process of procedures in the House of Commons. It is not appropriate for us to get involved in matters relating to the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament or the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assemblies. I hope that the Clerk of the House would confirm that.

  Mr Sands: I think that is correct.

  Q49  Chairman: Can I come back on security and access to the Palace of Westminster? Am I right in saying that you would like to see legislation replacing the sessional orders and resolutions in respect of guaranteeing access to the Palace of Westminster and to enable the police to take appropriate action should any individual or group of people seek to block Parliament Square and access to Parliament, either with their own physical beings or with any other equipment, vehicles or whatever? Am I right in saying that is what you believe would be necessary: legislation to enable the police to act? You have highlighted it to us and it causes some concern, particularly if groups of people use children. People clearly are very concerned about the welfare of boys and girls. The police could take appropriate action to remove such individuals or equipment if it was barring access to the Palace of Westminster.

  Sir Michael Cummins: Yes, I would like that sort of legislation to be well known to Members, staff, to various people who wish to come to the House and well known and applied by the police, even if it were in terms of having to be made clear to those people who are potentially demonstrating that that legal process was easily made available to those people whom they may have to warn; but that the whole thing was much more clear cut and readily understood than it is now.

  Q50  Chairman: You may say it is not appropriate for you to answer this question but one or two of my colleagues have mentioned the European Convention on Human Rights, civil rights and all the rest. Why is it that it affects our police in that they are reluctant to take action, when in France no such reservation appears to exist? Yet they are governed by the same human and civil rights.

  Sir Michael Cummins: With respect, that may be a question you wish to ask the Commissioner. It may be that our own police force is highly conscious of what we resolve within Europe and it may not be the same in other countries.

  Q51  Chairman: Can I ask our legal wizard, the Clerk of the House?

  Mr Sands: I am not a legal wizard. You are taking me well beyond the law of Parliament. I can only hazard a guess that perhaps up to now the citizens of France have been less litigious than the citizens of the United Kingdom so the French police feel they have a slightly better chance of getting away with it.

  Q52  Chairman: Are you currently concerned about the ability of the police and the officers and staff of this House adequately to provide security for the Palace and those who work within it?

  Sir Michael Cummins: We have an awful dichotomy here within the Palace. On the one hand, we need to make the Palace available for Members to meet with their constituents, their overseas visitors and other visitors who come and see them. I think Members would take it very badly if we in any way attempted to obstruct that ability of access to the Palace, both to attend the chamber, committees, meeting with Members in the central lobby, for example, so from that point of view I very much respect Members' views. On the other hand, it would be very easy for us to bring this place to a halt with overbearing security arrangements. Somehow we have to strike that balance. It is a very difficult balance. I think generally we have it about right. We have a very strong perimeter, even recognised by the journalists as we discussed earlier. The mail journalist was properly searched and checked when he came through. By having that strong perimeter backed up by armed police, we have gone a long way towards achieving what we want to achieve. What we now lack is the ability of our security force to make the necessary checks on maybe Members who have not got a pass on, maybe other individuals who are not carrying passes, to say, "May I please see your pass?" That is not done sufficiently well enough at the moment. We want desperately to encourage both the security force and our own staff and indeed Members to make those checks on anyone they see around this place. We could not possibly have a police or security officer patrolling every corridor. The committee corridor and these corridors here are freely used by a number of people, so we do need that level of security consciousness throughout the whole of the parliamentary membership and staff, including the security staff, to bring those security considerations more into being.

  Q53  Chairman: I came here when the security was entirely the Metropolitan Police. Today, the number of police officers has declined and the number of security staff has dramatically increased. The security staff do seem to change quite frequently. Whether they are going off to another job or whether they are being transferred from one job within the Palace to another I am not sure. Do you feel there is a problem with the security staff as against the police because they appear to not know the House and its Members and staff as well as the longer serving members of the police force? Is there a problem, in your view? How are they trained? How long is the training of the security personnel, leaving the trained, professional police officers on one side?

  Sir Michael Cummins: The security personnel are recruited by the Metropolitan Police centrally. They are then apportioned to the Palace of Westminster in whatever numbers they are required here. At the moment, we have just over 300 security officers throughout both Houses. They are trained for about six weeks when they familiarise themselves with the practices of the Palace and with those elements of Metropolitan Police procedure and law which they need to absorb. That is the basis of their training and their being here. It is a sad but very relevant fact that in budgetary terms they are not paid even half as much as the average police officer. Our security budget at the moment for police officer and security officer staffing is about £22 million a year for both Houses. It is a tremendous amount of money. We are always very conscious of that amount and how we spend it. We hope we get the best value for money out of those security officers but by no means could we, as we would wish to in a perfect world, replace them by police officers. We try to have the more repetitive, mundane, internal tasks done by security officers and we try to supervise them as much as we can, as do their own senior officers. They are by no means perfect. We are at the moment trying very hard to make them more security conscious, as I have described, and I hope that will bear fruit in the near future.

  Q54  Chairman: Can I raise one personal matter? To me, one of the most vulnerable periods for people, particularly Members coming into the House by car, is when they come through Carriage Gates and are stopped by security which is inside the area of the Palace of Westminster, before Members of Parliament go down into the car park. There are occasions when quite a lot of vehicles are coming in at the same time. Vehicles are almost parked out into Parliament Square. Does this cause you any anxiety? Members have commented to me that a Member sitting in a car in Parliament Square is very vulnerable, should anyone wish to commit some offence against them or the vehicle that they are in. It does occasionally, particularly at peak times, take quite a long time to get through the security. Is it not sensible that at some times both lines of route—that is, the one that appears to be used exclusively by ministers' cars—might also be used by Members' cars?

  Sir Michael Cummins: We are working on this. We hope to have some progress on that second line very shortly. We are installing another camera in that position too, so that will help to ease the flow of traffic.

  Q55  Chairman: Coming in by car, we are all searched. You will then find people coming in on motor cycles, scooters, or even bicycles, with panniers on the back, which are not searched. There could be a bomb in the basket of a bike, a pedal cycle or a scooter just as well as in the boot of a car. Is there a rule that, in relation to security, they do not examine pedal cyclists or motor cyclists or those on scooters?

  Sir Michael Cummins: At the moment, our provisions are to establish the identity of those people on bicycles and motor cycles but we do not search them.

  Q56  Chairman: Even if they have panniers or baskets?

  Sir Michael Cummins: It is unusual to search them.

  Q57  Huw Irranca-Davies: This is in relation to David's comment earlier on about the attraction of having some opportunity. There is a potential here for quite some conflict of objectives. If we do have right outside on our path freedom of gathering for people, I can see it would be very attractive for myself as a Member of Parliament to take up an issue—let us say Post Offices—and say to a group, "Come up. We will have our day." When I talk about conflict of aims and what that place may be used for, that also ties into what plans Mr Livingstone might have for that area. I am conscious of the fact that last year the Palace was rated as number one tourist attraction in the United Kingdom. Does he have plans that would conflict with whatever, with the best intentions in the world, we might want to do with some sort of regulated assembly there that would conflict directly with it? The extension of that of course is if David, myself and lot of other MPs were to suddenly leap on this opportunity and say, "There is a regulated form of assembly now right opposite us", are we going to find that square filled on many days, particularly as we approach the summer period, with a lot of people of different groups? How do we regulate that? I am just flagging this up because I can see the potential for issues within my constituency that we could bring up in addition to the EDMs and so on.

  Mr Sands: If you ask me whether it would be filled up, I can guarantee you it would be filled up because that is the story of this place whenever we provide a facility. My favourite example is the siting of exhibitions in the upper waiting hall which was originally provided as a one-off favour for somebody or other and is now booked every week, months ahead.

  Q58  Chairman: Is that your view, Sir Michael?

  Sir Michael Cummins: Yes.

  David Hamilton: And no bad thing for a democratic country. Could I make one observation? I have been stopped twice this morning. I was stopped coming in through the gate for a security check because I had some visitors with me and that was quite right. They were hospitable. I was stopped when I came into Portcullis House this morning. I have been stopped three or four times but that was just a phase. They have always been hospitable and I have never taken exception to it so I think the balance that you are trying to achieve is right.

  Mr Luke: Last night, I was waiting at the Members' entrance. I was speaking to a policeman and a car pulled up. Mr Lammy got out of the car and he was stopped by the police who said, "Can I see your security pass?" I do not think he had it on him. I had to vouch for him as being a minister before the police would let him in the building.

  Chairman: You are clearly going places.

  Q59  Mr McWalter: I regard it as a great privilege to go round here without a credential on. It creates a wonderful atmosphere in the place, particularly if you are with a party of guests. If somebody is new to the job comes up to you and says, "Excuse me, let me see your credential", it does rather evaporate some of the sense that your guests otherwise have, particularly if there are five other MPs walking by and you are the one that they select. There is a very light touch and it is a remarkable achievement that the House has made it that way. Maybe Members need to be a bit more security conscious. Relying on police and security all the time might not be too sensible a thing. We know who the Members are; the police know who the Members are; most of the security staff know who the Members are so, in a sense, that is a good basis. Perhaps we could find some way of Members taking a bit of responsibility. If someone is lurking round Members' offices, at some stage or other we are going to get somebody who wants to do a lot of damage. Members are quite vulnerable anyway. We all go wandering around housing estates in the dark as part of our canvassing duties and our surgeries. What the sessional orders relate to consistently is the view that, where Members' work is in some ways a special place and it has special rules that characterise it, the sessional resolutions and orders are about those special rules. I would be very reluctant if in the end we lose sight of that and say the law of trespass will do here; the law of cacophony will do there, when in actual fact what we are trying to do is to keep that special character and protect Members and the traditions of the House.

  Sir Michael Cummins: It would be my idea of heaven and nirvana if every single Member and every single member of staff wore his or her pass conspicuously. It would be a tremendous help to our security staff and it would do away with all causes of embarrassment because everybody would be in the same boat.

  Chairman: I have a feeling that the Serjeant at Arms is getting at one or two of us and maybe I fall into that category.

  David Hamilton: I think a number of people do. The hands on that has been put through at the present time is delicate. It is very rarely that I am challenged. That comes out of the continuity of the police force. I do not get stopped by the police. It is normally security and that may be more to do with the turn around of personnel than anything else. In that sense, I am one who carries my ID with me but I do not show it all the time.

  Chairman: We have gone slightly beyond sessional orders and resolutions. We have raised a number of matters that are of relevance certainly to security and the way that you provide security in the Palace of Westminster. Can I thank you for the excellent evidence which you have given, the excellent memorandum which you have supplied to us and, if I may say so, the suggestions which you have made which I personally hope may well feature in the final report which we publish. Can I thank you very much for coming before us this afternoon.

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