Select Committee on Procedure Third Report

3 Access to Parliament

Order relating to the Metropolitan Police

11. There have been several recent occasions on which demonstrations have blocked Parliament Square and Members and others have been unable to enter or leave the building through the entrance into New Palace Yard. In a free country the right to demonstrate peacefully is highly prized and is a fundamental right, and we have no desire to prevent the public expressing their concerns to Members of Parliament in this way.[9] However, the Sessional Order is intended to ensure that Members are not hindered in attending the House, and we examine in this section of our Report how it works and whether other measures are necessary to achieve this objective. We also examine other complaints about demonstrations in Parliament Square.

12. The House's Order to the Metropolitan Police (together with a similar order made each session by the House of Lords) is transmitted to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and results in his giving directions to constables under powers in section 52 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839.[10]

13. Directions made under this provision of the 1839 Act can apply to anywhere in the metropolitan police district and may contain measures to prevent obstruction not only of Parliament but also of "Her Majesty's palaces and the public offices, ... the courts ... , the theatres, and other places of public resort". The Commissioner's directions resulting from the Sessional Order relate to the dispersing of assemblies, processions or any other cause of obstruction within a specified area surrounding the Palace of Westminster to enable free passage by Peers and Members on days on which Parliament is sitting.

14. Directions under the Act do not confer any specific powers of arrest on the constables to whom it is addressed; to enforce it, the people concerned need to be informed of the Commissioner's direction, and any subsequent arrest would have to be under other, general, powers, such as for wilfully obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty, for breach of the peace, or for public order offences.[11]

15. Thus, although passing a Sessional Order may, in the words of the Clerk, "make the House feel better",[12] it does not confer any extra legal powers on the police, and the Clerk and Serjeant told us that the lack of powers to enforce the 1839 Act mean that "the police's approach to the control of the streets in the immediate vicinity of the Palace of Westminster cannot in practice be different from its approach elsewhere". They conclude that passing the Sessional Order means "that successive generations of Members are encouraged in the mistaken belief that its effect is to confer special and additional legal authority on the police in relation to the precincts of Parliament". As this misapprehension would apply equally to any updated Order, they recommend discontinuing the Sessional Order and considering new legislation.[13]

16. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner also believed that legislation was necessary.[14] In a supplementary paper, he pointed out that powers to impose conditions on public assemblies under section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 do not apply to groups of under twenty persons and operate only in specified conditions including that the assembly might cause serious public disorder or serious disruption to the life of the community; these powers do not necessarily prevent obstruction.[15]

Parliament Square

17. Although demonstrations some distance from Parliament have caused difficulty for Members in reaching the House, a major issue raised with us during our inquiry relates to demonstrations in Parliament Square, opposite the main vehicular entrance to the House of Commons ("Carriage Gates"). Complaints that we have received included hindering of access, the appearance of long-standing and visually unattractive demonstrations and the disruption of work in Members' and staff offices by noise from loud-hailers used by demonstrators. Set against this were representations in favour of the right to demonstrate.

18. Responsibility for Parliament Square is divided. The central garden of the square, including the grassed area, is vested in Her Majesty the Queen, but its control, care and regulation are functions of the Greater London Authority, which in general does not give permission for demonstrations.[16] The pavement, however, is the responsibility of Westminster City Council, which recently sought an injunction to restrain a named individual from obstructing the pavement by displaying there a considerable number of placards. The injunction was refused, notably because, as the pavement is difficult to reach, and is consequently little used by pedestrians, there was no evidence of actual obstruction of passers-by. The judge also took into account the defendant's right of free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[17] Although this demonstration does not impede Members' access to the House, representations have been made by the Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey that the long-term display of placards reduces one of the most important squares in London to an eyesore.[18]

19. Several recent demonstrations have used loud-hailers, and it has been pointed out that these can be disruptive of work within the Parliamentary precincts. The Serjeant and the Commissioner told us that the issue was being discussed with the Crown Prosecution Service;[19] and Hazel Blears, the Home Office Minister, mentioned the possibility of the use of environmental health laws, but that these might not apply in relation to noise produced in the open air.[20]

20. Opinion among Members (both those who appeared before us and more generally) is divided. A New Clause proposed to the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill by Graham Allen (but not selected for debate) would have given the Secretary of State the power, on request from the Speaker, to make an order that individuals 'forming part of any permanent or semi-permanent group on Parliament Square should be dispersed'. This attracted 42 signatures, but was criticised by Mr Corbyn in evidence to us.[21] Mr Corbyn himself had tabled an Early Day Motion (No 1452) calling on Members to uphold the right to protest in Parliament Square, which attracted 24 signatures (as well as a critical amendment referring to the use of loudhailers). One possibility to remove demonstrations would be to remove the pavement,[22] although the Greater London Authority told us that plans for Parliament Square as Phase 3 of the World Squares for All project were only 'in very formative stages'.[23]

21. For legislation to be produced, the following propositions need to be considered:

—  It is not acceptable for any demonstration to prevent, or seriously impede, access to the Houses of Parliament by Members and others whose attendance is necessary for the work of Parliament to go on;

—  this is the case whether or not such a result arises from a deliberate attempt to interfere with the work of Parliament (which would be a contempt of one or both Houses);

—  specific legal provision might be needed about Parliament; or increased general powers in relation to demonstrations might be sufficient for the police to ensure free movement to and from Parliament;[24]

—  demonstrations which do not significantly impede access should be allowed, but they should be limited in duration, and well organised, to avoid long-term occupations which would limit the number of demonstrations and undermine the aesthetic and environmental value of Parliament Square as an important heritage square (this would apply to other such squares);

—  it is unacceptable for work in Parliamentary offices to be regularly disrupted by noise from loud-hailers (as it would be for work anywhere else) and it is unclear whether the law is adequate to prevent this.

22. We therefore recommend that the Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations and to ensure that the laws about access are adequate and enforceable. We also expect the appropriate authorities to explore fully the possibility of using existing legislation to control the use of loud-hailers and other amplification equipment; failing that, the Government should consider legislation on this subject.

Westminster Hall

23. The Sessional Order requires the Commissioner not to allow disorder in Westminster Hall, or in the passages leading to the House. As the Serjeant pointed out, this provision dates from the time when Westminster Hall was a public area outside the control of the House authorities. Policing within the precincts is now provided by an agreement between the authorities of both Houses and the Metropolitan Police, and the Clerk and the Serjeant confirmed that this part of the Order is unnecessary.[25]

Conclusions on the Sessional Order

24. We believe that legislation on demonstrations is the only way to ensure that the police have adequate powers to achieve the result intended by the Sessional Order. Without such legislation, the Sessional Order is misleading; with such legislation, it would be unnecessary.

25. Until the legislation comes into force, however, we believe that it would be sensible to continue with a Sessional Order, to reflect the House's concerns and to act as a marker that it expects Members' access to Parliament to be maintained as far as the existing law allows. (It would also act as an annual reminder that the new legislation had not yet come into force.) References to Westminster Hall and the precincts of the House could, however, sensibly be removed from the Order, and it might also be desirable to insert words to include the whole Parliamentary estate, rather than just the House itself. We therefore suggest that, until legislation is passed, the Order should take the following form:

That the Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis do take care that the passages through the streets leading to this House be kept free and open and that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of Members to and from this House during the sitting of Parliament, or to hinder Members by any means in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties in the Parliamentary Estate; and that the Serjeant at Arms attending this House do communicate this Order to the Commissioner.

9   Previous Acts which prevented large groups of people approaching the Houses of Parliament for specific purposes (Tumultuous Petitioning Act 1661 and s 23 of the Seditious Meetings Act 1817) were repealed by the Public Order Act 1986 (Ev 2). Back

10   See Ev 2 for the texts of section 52 of the 1839 Act and the Commissioner's direction. Back

11   Ev 2; Qq 9-12, 60 Back

12   Q 26 Back

13   Ev 3, paras 13-14 Back

14   Qq 60, 80 Back

15   Ev 42-3 Back

16   Greater London Authority Act 1999, s 384(1) and (3); Ev 44-6 Back

17   Ev 3; Qq 16, 18, 74, 89-91, 115; Westminster City Council v Haw , Queen's Bench Division, October 2002 Back

18   Ev 41-2 Back

19   Qq 20, 96-8 Back

20   Qq 109, 113 Back

21   Q 122 Back

22   Q 121; Ev 44 Back

23   Ev 45 Back

24   See Q 80 Back

25   Ev 3; Qq 323 Back

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Prepared 19 November 2003