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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 May 2004

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Sessional Orders

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Derek Twigg.]

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me begin by thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting for debate this morning the subject of the Government's response to the Procedure Committee's report on Sessional Orders and resolutions. As of now, there is no response, despite the fact that it is six months to the day since the Procedure Committee published its report, on November 19. The Government have agreed to reply to Select Committee reports within two months of publication, and a longer delay of up to six months may be permitted with the acquiescence of the Committee concerned. There has been no such acquiescence in this case—on the contrary, the Chairman of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), whom I am delighted to see here today, myself and others have insistently and courteously prodded the Government for action during those six months, so far without result. I hope to flush the Government out during the course of this debate, and I am delighted to see the Deputy Leader of the House in his place. I understand that a reply may be published imminently. If it is, I propose to take some credit for that—

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I intend to give the right hon. Gentleman some.

Sir George Young : I am delighted to hear that some credit is on its way, and I am sure that adequate time will be allowed for the ministerial response to this debate so that no short cuts can be taken with that tribute.

When my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the shadow Leader of the House, asked about a response on 6 May, no hint of any forthcoming response was given. The announcement on 12 May that this debate was to take place might have acted as something as a catalyst.

Although it is six months since the Procedure Committee reported, it is nearly three years since the problem in Parliament square, which the Committee investigated, manifested itself. That problem is, in the words of the Select Committee:

What I am after this morning is a balanced solution: a solution that respects an individual's right to protest—we are basically talking about one individual protesting—but also respects the rights of everyone else to appreciate and enjoy one of the most historic sites in the world, the rights of those who work in the vicinity to
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do so without constant disruption and harassment, and the rights of all who work in or visit the Palace not to have our security compromised. I will return to those three issues in a moment. One of my constituents has summarised the issue in two sentences:

Nearly three years ago, in June 2001, Mr. Brian Haw, now 55, erected the familiar structures opposite the gates in New Palace Yard. He began by camping on the grass in Parliament square, but was moved on by the Greater London authority, which manages it. He has camped outside ever since, sleeping on the pavement under a plastic sheet, accompanied by an unsightly accumulation of placards, flags and hoardings, and assaulting the eardrums of anyone within range—audible graffiti on the walls of Parliament publicising his mini-shantytown. This is not a conventional demonstration of the type that we know, accept and sometimes enjoy, but an unacceptable visual and audible intrusion that risks becoming permanent. We can all make the distinction between a one-off demonstration that is here for a day and is targeted and disciplined—like those of the Countryside Alliance—and a permanent encampment with constant high-volume slogans and abuse. Mr. Haw is entitled to protest in the same way as anyone else, and in a free country there are many opportunities to do so. What is taking place is the exploitation of a legal loophole that a Select Committee has recommended should be closed, and on which the Government have so far failed to act.

The legal position is complex, but is well set out in the report. The pavement immediately opposite Carriage Gates is the responsibility of Westminster city council. The grass in the middle belongs to the Queen and is looked after by the GLA, whose policy it is not to allow demonstrations there. Mr. Haw is, as I have said, primarily on the pavement, not the grass. The Highways Act 1980 provides that the wilful obstruction of the highway without lawful authority or excuse constitutes a criminal offence and empowers the council to seek an injunction to prevent highway obstruction. When Westminster city council sought an injunction in October 2002 in the High Court to restrain Mr. Haw from obstructing the pavement, the Court found that a wilful obstruction of the highway was established; however, Mr. Justice Gray refused the injunction, referring to the European convention on human rights and freedom of expression and the fact that the pavement was lightly used. The Court concluded that the obstruction caused is not unreasonable—a decision with which I disagree.

The patience of many of us began to fray and in June 2003, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), a mild and tolerant man if ever there was one, tabled an early-day motion saying that the protest constituted harassment, with MPs and Commons staff having to put up with

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): My staff and I and many other Members occupy offices in No. 1 Parliament street. On many occasions, the noise that is generated makes it impossible for us to continue our work. On a number of occasions when I have been
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studying complex papers, I have been forced to abandon my office and come over to the Library in order to get the peace and quiet necessary to do the work that is essential to my job as a Member of Parliament. Members of my staff, and other Members and their staff, have been equally compromised.

Sir George Young : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who occupies No. 1 Parliament street and is much closer to the noise than I am in Portcullis House. I take very seriously the difficulties that he and his staff have encountered.

In July last year, the Procedure Committee carried out its inquiry. It addressed sensitively the issue of Parliament square and produced a balanced and unanimous report. Its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, is in his place, but may have to attend a sitting of the Modernisation Committee shortly. The Procedure Committee heard not only from those who supported the protest, but from the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk of the House, and the Metropolitan police. I quote the key sentence of the report, in paragraph 22:

On the related issue of noise, the Committee recommended that the Government should consider legislation if existing legislation was inadequate. I believe that the past six months have shown that it is. It is those recommendations that I seek to promote in this morning's debate.

Of course the Committee gave weight to the right to protest. It heard evidence from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). It knew of the judgment in the Westminster city council case, which referred to the European convention on human rights, but the Committee's view, with which I strongly concur, was that such factors did not and could not justify what is happening in Parliament square. One Labour Member sitting on the Committee referred in the oral evidence to

The Archdeacon of Westminster protested about what is happening, referring to a "refined form of squalor" that

Even the Mayor of London—no stranger to demonstrations—stated that his

What a paradox that a demonstration that even Ken Livingstone finds inappropriate should be tolerated by Parliament.

We know that Mr. Speaker shares the concern. The Procedure Committee report states:

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Giving evidence, the Serjeant at Arms said that the demonstration:

He added that it

In her evidence to the Committee, the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety said:

She went on to say:

Finally, she said:

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My right hon. Friend does the House a great service in securing this debate. I refer to recommendation No. 6 in the Procedure Committee's report, in which we say:

Having briefly studied the Government's response, which I picked up from the board only today, I found that they agree with the Committee's recommendation; unfortunately, the Government do not indicate that they will take any action to put the matter right. Does my right hon. Friend not accept that with the Speaker, the Clerk of the House, the Serjeant at Arms and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner all agreeing that action needs to be taken, the Government's decision is unfortunate?

Sir George Young : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has had sight of a document that I have not seen. If he is right, I see a whole new series of business questions looming until we get some final action from the Government. If that is the Government's response, I find it deeply disappointing.

I have briefly summarised the key findings of the report and I wish to return to the three issues that I mentioned at the beginning: noise, security and visual intrusion. On noise, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) for his intervention. The Birmingham Post, which has on the whole been moderately sympathetic to Mr. Haw, put it well on 22 November last year:

My office is located on the other side of Portcullis House, so I do not hear Mr. Haw, but those with offices facing on to New Palace Yard and within Parliament do. Members and staff find the noise distracting: it makes meetings difficult and it interferes with the work of the
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House. I agree with those who say that it constitutes harassment. The Press Gallery is particularly affected by the noise.

If one's neighbour behaved in that way at home, I am sure that there would be grounds for legal action, but as the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety appeared to concede, a loophole apparently permits it in the centre of London. The police told the Committee:

Since the report was published, the Serjeant at Arms has followed up the noise issue diligently with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He has referred to the problem,

The police, however, appear powerless to stop the nuisance. I hope that the Minister will agree when he replies that the noise is an unacceptable intrusion, and that steps will be taken to stop it.

On security, I referred to the concerns of the Serjeant at Arms and the evidence that he gave. The flags and the placards are right opposite the gates into New Palace Yard. Anyone could hide behind that cover and pick us off as we arrive at or leave the House. Those on a bicycle are especially vulnerable—particularly perhaps after giving this speech. The security services have to search the site three times a day, but arguably that is not enough. Given the security precautions being taken inside and outside the House, it seems absurd to leave that potential cover intact.

There is also visual intrusion. We are talking about one of the most historic sites in the world. We have the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, Parliament square, the Churchill statue and the Guildhall, but the eye and the ear of the visitor is drawn away from those attractions towards the unsightly cacophony in the middle. We simply do not have the balance right. No other democracy would tolerate this shantytown in the middle of the capital for three years. There is no history of protest at that location—unlike at Hyde Park Corner. There is a loophole in the law. An abuse that has gone on too long risks becoming established and durable.

Mr. Haw is well advised by Messrs. Bindmans, and the police had to return all his props after they removed them. I see from a press cutting from 15 May that by the end of Monday last week,

If we need legislation to sort the matter out, so be it. The organisation Liberty asserts:

That is an absurd exaggeration. A Liberal Democrat MP has proposed "constant watering" to make demonstration impossible, but I do not think that that is the best solution.

In the period that has elapsed since publication of the report, I and other hon. Members have asked the Government courteously about progress. I have to say, however, that I feel that we have been strung along by the Leader of the House. It is worth spending a few
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minutes explaining the steps that have been taken, which show why my patience eventually ran out and I applied for this debate when, to be frank, I would rather be debating other matters.

The report was published on 19 November. On 26 November, the first of many requests for progress on it was made. In his statement at the beginning of the Session, Mr. Speaker said of the report:

On 27 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and I raised the matter at business questions. I was told that the matter

I tried again on 18 December, asking the Leader of the House

He replied:

On 8 January, I had another go. I was told:

On 29 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield had another go at business questions. He was told:

On 11 March, my hon. Friend tried again, saying that there was little point in producing such reports unless they were reported. He was told:

Our hopes rose briefly when we received that response, so on 25 March, I tried again, referring to the unsightly cacophony in Parliament square and asking what was going on. The Leader of the House referred to Mr. Speaker's interest in the matter and said:

On 29 April, I had another go. I was told that the Leader of the House was "on the case" and

Finally, on 6 May, the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, asked for action and a timetable. He received the rather brusque response:

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House understands that, given the prevarication and lack of any progress, I have sought to escalate the matter by
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having this debate. There has been an inexcusable paralysis, which I hope he will say is shortly to be resolved.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I did not intend to speak, but I have been present since the beginning of the debate and I should like to thank the Leader of the House for now producing a Government response. In his covering letter to me, to which I think I am entitled to refer even though the response has yet to be reported to my Committee, the right hon. Gentleman says:

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, we and others, including the shadow Leader of the House, have time and again requested the Government's response at business questions on the Floor of the House. The Leader of the House writes:

It is appropriate to say in today's debate that we are grateful to the Leader of the House for the response, however belated, and that we are reassured that the matter has been considered at the highest level of Government.

The matter is of great importance to Members of the House, and I am pleased that a member of my Committee, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), is in his place. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who occupies an office in No. 1 Parliament street, intervened a minute ago to say that his work is frequently interrupted by unacceptable levels of noise. Staff undertaking important work on behalf of their Members of Parliament are similarly inconvenienced. Surely that is not right.

Mr. Speaker has expressed deep concern about the current situation. The Serjeant at Arms, who is responsible for security and other matters in the House, the Clerk of the House and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner all support that concern and have urged that action be taken. On behalf of many Members and staff of the House and, in particular, on behalf of my Committee, I must say that although we are pleased to have got the response—I do not intend to go into its detail on this occasion for obvious reasons—and although the Government apparently accept and agree with every recommendation in our report, it is disappointing that there is no specific indication of action on the new legislation that is necessary to curb what is happening.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire has done a great service to the House, and it is no coincidence that we have received the Government's response on the very day of his debate in Westminster Hall. However, I hope that in advance of
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any debate on the Floor of the House and bearing in mind what has been said today, the Government will understand that Members, staff of the House and those who serve the House, such as the Serjeant at Arms and the police, believe that legislation is necessary. However, although I have read the Government's response only briefly, I cannot see any specific commitment to introduce legislation to remove the abuses to which my right hon. Friend has referred. That is the one unsatisfactory aspect of the response. I put that marker down.

The Minister knows that I might have to leave early, although I am tempted to stay throughout the debate. However, I am a member of the Modernisation Committee, which is chaired by the Leader of the House—to whom the Minister is responsible—and that Committee is meeting in the Palace of Westminster. As such, I should be there, but as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, it was appropriate to spend some time here to highlight my Committee's concerns.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine may take a slightly different view from me—I am happy that he can do so—but I hope that he will assure the House that ours was a unanimous report and we believe that legislation is necessary.

Sir John Butterfill : Although my hon. Friend says that legislation is necessary, it seems to me that some existing legislation has not been adequately enforced. Some of the wording on the placards is racist—it is certainly anti-Semitic: one of the placards equates Judaism with Nazism. The wording of the anti-American propaganda is so strong that I understand the police were forced to restrain some American tourists from attacking the gentlemen concerned and tearing down the placards. They only narrowly prevented a serious breach of the peace. There is existing legislation that might be used, even before the Government bring in new legislation.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has gone into rather greater detail about what is happening on Parliament square than I have done. It was not my intention to do so. However, I entirely endorse his view: some of the placards are provocative and could be considered racist. They have caused a number of people severe offence. I have not referred to the fact that Parliament square is extremely important from the heritage point of view. To an extent, my hon. Friend's intervention indirectly relates to that. The demonstration is an abuse of an important part of London.

I was talking about the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine who is a member of the Procedure Committee and makes a major and positive contribution to all its work. I suspect that he will refer, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, to the important ability of citizens of our country to demonstrate and to express their political views and concerns. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that the report that the Procedure Committee produced last November was worded sensitively.

The Committee greatly appreciates the importance of people in this country being able to express their views to Parliament by way of well managed and responsible
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demonstrations. In a way, there is no better way to do that than in the close proximity of Parliament, so that Members who are coming and going can witness the concerns that are felt by certain groups and individuals. However, the demonstrating should be carried out responsibly: it should not cause offence, inconvenience or nuisance to people who work in Parliament and the surrounding areas, nor should it affect the traffic in our capital city. We took evidence from a range of views, including from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Even he, if my memory serves me correctly, appreciated that demonstrations should be responsible and should not create inconvenience and nuisance. I await with interest the views that may well be expressed by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. I hope that he will add his voice to the Committee's expressions of concern.

I should like to express my gratitude on behalf of the Committee to all those who came and gave evidence. They included the Sergeant at Arms, the Clerks, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and one of his colleagues, and Members of this House, who all had a variety of views. In particular, we were grateful to the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, who gave valuable evidence, some of which was quoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire. She accepted that legislation would be required to put right what is happening, but that it should not prevent people from legitimately demonstrating and expressing their views to Parliament. Through the Deputy Leader of the House, I thank the hon. Lady for her evidence.

My final words are for the Leader of the House. Although I accept that the Government will review whether existing law, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West referred, is being used fully to control the situation on Parliament square, I am concerned that the review has not taken place in the six months that have elapsed between the publication of the report and the Government's response. There has been adequate time to conduct such a review. However, I do not want to be ungracious, so on behalf of the Committee I thank the Leader of the House and the Government for their response. I hope that the review of existing law and of what new legislation needs to be introduced will be dealt with urgently, and that it will have been completed by the time that the Government find time—hopefully in the near future—for a debate on the matter in the main Chamber.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing this debate. He may have wanted to raise many other issues, but by bringing this up he has finally prompted a response from the Government. Only last week we were debating the Procedure Committee report on estimates. On that day I was bemoaning the lack of response to two other reports, but as I spoke a letter was arriving from the Leader of the House in response to the report on debates. The Procedure Committee meets this
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afternoon. No doubt we will have a chance to consider the Government's response on this issue, so we cannot debate it now.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : As the hon. Gentleman knows, this afternoon the Procedure Committee is hearing evidence from the Leader of the House and the Minister who is responding to this debate on another important inquiry that we are undertaking into programming. We shall have an opportunity for the odd comment to the Leader of the House about the content of this debate.

Sir Robert Smith : I thank the Chairman of the Committee for highlighting that prospect. We do not always give away our questions to witnesses before they appear before us, but I am sure that they could have guessed that there was a chance that that topic might come up.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire set out much of the history and the problems confronting the House and the Government in trying to deal with what is before us. This debate is on the Government's response to the whole report, but the rest of the report is uncontroversial and was prompted by the fact that hon. Members feel increasingly disconnected from the arcane words used to open our Sessions of Parliament. The Sessional Orders were becoming a bit of an embarrassment to the House and we were trying to find a way of improving them. In considering that, we looked at the substance of the more important aspects surrounding access to the House and the demonstration on the pavement of Parliament square. Many people felt that when the Speaker "commanded" the Metropolitan Police to do this, that and the other on our behalf, those words had force, but it turns out that although the police are happy to acknowledge that requirement, they do not feel that they have the powers to implement it. Therefore, in paragraph 24 of our report we point out that it may be necessary to consider the law in terms of maintaining access to this Parliament at a time of major demonstrations when there is difficulty getting Members in and out to vote, take part in debates and keep democracy functioning.

Until 1986, none of that would have been an issue, as the Tumultuous Petitioning Act 1661 prevented anyone from getting near the precinct of Westminster. That Act was repealed with the recognition in more modern times that people should be able to get closer to those who had been elected to represent them. In that context, another member of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), made an important point. When he joined the Marines, his father said to him, "You have not joined to shoot people but to be shot at." My hon. Friend pointed out that those who are elected to Parliament must accept that messages will be brought to them by people who are unhappy about they way in which Members carry out their functions, and that demonstrations are part and parcel of the life of an MP. It is slightly different for the people who work for us in our offices and for the people who work to make the House function. They are in a less public position and are probably more entitled to convenience in their life than are Members. Members have to develop a thick skin and accept the disruption that comes with demonstrations.
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As the right hon. Gentleman said in opening the debate, there is no history of a right to demonstrate. In fact, there is a history of not being allowed to demonstrate. The pavement has become a legal loophole, but that did not begin with the current occupant. A pig lived there for some time at the height of the crash in the pig farming industry. I suppose that the security situation was not quite the same then. The pig endeared itself to many people, and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for it for a time.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): For the record, the pig was changed frequently. It was not always the same pig.

Sir Robert Smith : It might have been a different pig, but it was the same pigsty.

It is important to be flexible in allowing people to bring messages to Parliament. A pragmatic approach has evolved across from Downing street. People get their message to the Prime Minister but no one is able to monopolise that part of the pavement. People who are concerned about protecting the right to demonstrate must recognise that it is not right for one person to monopolise demonstration. That must be an important part of the Government's consideration of how the law operates, because one person taking a site excludes others from using it and bringing their message to Parliament. Demonstrations cannot be of a permanent nature.

As the Chairman said, the Select Committee made a unanimous recommendation. Like all Select Committee reports, this one is carefully worded. It refers to "appropriate legislation". The Government must come to grips with that and not produce sledgehammer legislation that would make any means of demonstration throughout the country impossible because of the way in which the legislation might be interpreted, but finesse a solution to the permanent demonstration on our doorstep that prevents other people from demonstrating and voicing other concerns.

The second half of the recommendation found at paragraph 22 is about noise and nuisance. Everyone seems to accept that existing legislation does not provide a means of preventing noise intrusion. It is debilitating to the people who work in the offices constantly to be harangued with the monotonous, regular tones of the same message again and again. I wonder whether bylaws to be introduced in London might apply to this situation. Unfortunately, that new noise control legislation, which will include a power to confiscate noisy equipment if it causes a nuisance, will probably apply to residences only, but it is an interesting solution that could be worth exploring. There could well be a problem in that this case involves a pavement and not someone's residence, and much of the legislation has not been drafted in a way that would affect the behaviour of someone who is, in effect, in permanent residence. It is, therefore, important to control the noise of such an intrusion in the area.

I repeat that, if a demonstration is going to get its voice across, it will often contain an element of noise. That reflects the enthusiasm of the demonstrators to
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make their point and to be heard, although my own experience in Aberdeen many years ago, at the height of the financial cuts facing the university, was that one of the most powerful demonstrations organised by the university was a silent march through the city. That seemed to have far more impact, and we noticed far more people on the pavement turning and looking. Noise can be a barrier to the message and drive people into switching off and turning away. Noise is not necessarily a benefit to a demonstration but it would be somewhat draconian to say that no noise can be produced by demonstrations.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : It would be wrong if our concentration were focused on Mr. Haw only. It is fair to say that there have been other demonstrators with other causes. Only last night, there was a group of Palestinians outside, again using loudhailers. I accept that they have a just cause that they seek to bring to the attention of the United Kingdom Parliament.

So, the issue is not just Mr. Haw, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. We need to consider the issue sensitively. Legislation is necessary but it must be appropriate to the use of the area and how long it can be used for one form of demonstration. The Government must also deal with the noise nuisance, using either new or existing legislation.

Sir Robert Smith : One other thought that we explored partly was whether, in any way, the simple solution of transferring ownership of the pavement back to the Queen would solve the problem overnight. Obviously, the jurisdiction and legislation that would then apply would be that of the Greater London authority. If the pavement is not being used, can the council decide that it wants to close it? There are longer-term plans for the whole of Parliament square, but I do not think that we can wait for it to be rebuilt to tackle the concerns.

In conclusion, the Government's response means that, when we come to the next Sessional Orders, we have something for the Speaker to say to the House that is more focused and appropriate to the times that we live in and that can achieve the goals that the House wishes to see achieved when those Sessional Orders are made. I urge the Government to consider the matter carefully. They have had six months to consider the recommendations and I urge them to enlighten the House on how they plan to tackle the concern. That concern has reached a point where people expect a solution.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I am standing in for the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on bringing the subject to the attention of the Chamber and on his persistence during the past six months in seeking an answer from the Government to the important report of the Procedure Committee.

Although there are few of us in the Chamber, I think that it has been a high-quality debate and I will try not to detract from that. Those who have spoken all have a clear knowledge of the report. My hon. Friend the
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Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) a member, but the situation that we have been discussing concerns many Members of the House, including laypersons such as I, and a formidable array of people have been involved in seeking a solution.

I find it extraordinary that it has taken the Government so long to give their response, although we are delighted to hear that it is now available to the Procedure Committee. When there has been time to consider what the Government propose to do—I hope that it includes introducing the necessary legislation—I trust that it will be discussed by the whole House, as many hon. Members will want to contribute to the debate. We should take my right hon. Friend's opening words as a steer. He is seeking a balanced solution, because we all recognise the freedoms that democracy brings us. More than anywhere else in the country, people are entitled to come to the House of Commons, where their Members of Parliament are working, and the heart of our democracy, to make their views known. However, the encampment on the pavement opposite the House causes great problems.

My right hon. Friend divided the problems into three categories: noise, security and visual intrusion. In respect of visual intrusion, the encampment is a sad and shabby sight in a place where many tourists come expecting to see London at its best. On security, I had not realised that it was necessary, even now, for regular security checks of that site to be made. The fact that those checks are carried out must indicate that the security services believe that it presents a risk, although I do not know how it is evaluated. Given the other matters that we discuss in the House and the measures that we are taking to try to make the building as secure as possible, the fact that the site is just across the road from us should ensure that it is taken very seriously indeed.

We are all familiar with the noise. Anyone arriving on foot through the barrier at Carriage Gates has sympathy with the police officers on duty there, because they get the full blast of the noise. I do not know whether the people who use the megaphone realise it, or, if they do, whether they care, but even from Carriage Gates, you cannot hear what they are saying or what their message may be. It is disturbing that people who are on duty at the gates for several hours have to put up with that deafening noise. As other hon. Members have made clear, it is not something that would be tolerated in any other circumstances. On behalf of the Conservative Opposition, and especially of my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, let me say that we support my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire in urging that a balanced solution be found, and that the three categories he mentioned—noise, security and visual intrusion—be addressed.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine mentioned a demonstration that he went on years ago. All hon. Members have probably been on demonstrations at one time or another, but I must have led a very sheltered life, because I did not go on a demonstration when I was younger. However, I have
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been on several in middle age, and I have taken to it like a duck to water. I feel I am catching up on part of my youth.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : I intervene to give an example, which I have already given to the Procedure Committee, of a demonstration in which I participated. Members of all political parties, trade unionists from the textile industry and I all took part in more than one very large demonstration. We assembled in Hyde park and came as close to Parliament as we were allowed to in those days, which was the Tate gallery. Today, things are very different. Through my hon. Friend, I say to the Minister that, in those days, no one took exception to the fact that we could not come right into Parliament square. The demonstration was impressive: it was ordered and responsible. Perhaps we should consider going back to those good old traditional standards.

Mrs. Browning : Since then, the House has passed legislation covering the control of marches through the capital, the rules on how they are conducted and what the police allow. They are now much more controlled and I hope that everyone believes that the balance is correct in that people have the right to march and demonstrate in the capital but must do so within certain parameters. Those of us who have taken part—I am pleased to say that I have—know that we can make our point known. People have the opportunity to speak, to gather and to get their point across without, causing the sort of noise abuse that is occurring at Carriage Gates.

I urge the Minister, when he responds to this debate, to give us not only a flavour of the Government's response to an important Committee report, but an indication of the sort of timetable to which the Government are working—a point on which he has been pressed before. Simply to put the response into the public domain without following it through will cause even more business questions on the subject to be asked in the main Chamber.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I thank right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to this debate. I appreciate in particular the presence of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), Chairman of the Procedure Committee and I am aware of the time pressures that he is under this morning. I shall change the order of my speaking notes to give him the meat that he is looking for before discussing the details.

I shall start with a few personal comments, as one who has been on more demonstrations than a Rank Xerox salesman. On many occasions, I demonstrated to lobby the hon. Gentleman about student issues and other matters. He was right to say that, until 1986, bearing a placard was not allowed within a mile of the precinct of the Palace of Westminster on this side of the river. On the other side, one could come as far as County hall or Westminster bridge, but anyone who attempted to take their protest or demonstration further was told by the police superintendent that they would be charged with treason. The Public Order Act 1986 changed that and gave more discretion to police commanders to ensure public order. That was the response to what was seen as unacceptable behaviour by some protestors when some of the anarchist groups caused a problem.
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The Government agree with the sentiment that the hon. Gentleman and others have expressed that protest and demonstration, which everyone accepts is a basic and important right in our democracy, should take place reasonably. When I was stopped from crossing Westminster bridge, I came and had a cup of tea and talked about the points that I wanted to raise. I remember being very disappointed by the response, but I was pleased that I had been able to put my point of view. That was important. What is happening across the road is of a different order. It is not a protest to get a message across to Parliament. It is something else entirely.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for introducing this debate. It is a normal courtesy to congratulate the hon. Member who secures a debate, and it would be churlish and wrong if I did not say that his securing this debate has had an effect on the Government in terms of obtaining the long-awaited response to the report and getting it on the record. I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has helped us to achieve that. In his letter to the Chairman of the Committee, the Leader of the House of Commons stated:

It is precisely because we needed to consult widely across Government Departments on an issue that might seem trivial, but is, in fact, important.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : I remind that Minister that I quoted verbatim the letter from the Leader of the House, to whom I paid full tribute for his courteous apology and for stating that the delay had indicated that the matter had been given

of Government.

Mr. Woolas : I fully recognise that, and wanted to emphasise the point to endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. Actually, I owe the House an apology: because we wanted to make the Government response available to the Committee before this debate—we thought that it was proper to inform the Committee beforehand—and because the response is the property of the Committee, not of the Government, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and other hon. Members taking part in the debate have inadvertently been put in a difficult position. They have not had the chance to read the response in full; perhaps they have had only a cursory glance at it. That was not intended as a discourtesy: quite the opposite, in fact. I want to flush out the issues and have a full debate, which is why I repeat the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to debate the matter on the Floor of the House at the earliest opportunity.

On the face of it, the subject that we are discussing might seem small to the public and to hon. Members. A single protester with a few placards is more suggestive of "Citizen Smith", the infamous 1980s sitcom, than of the rights of UK citizens of a democracy to protest at their Parliament. However, it is symbolic of a very important
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matter. The central difficulty that the Government are resolving is that other problems often spring up as a result of legislating to solve a particular problem. We must resolve the problem, and that may involve legislation, in a way that neither ignores the principles on which there is unanimity in the House, nor causes the Metropolitan police problems, which none of us wants to do.

I am grateful for the manner in which this debate has been conducted. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said that he had incessantly and consistently raised the issue. He has: it is the first item on the agenda of our weekly meetings to discuss business questions. and I have a filing cabinet full of documents relating to the matter. I hope that it is taken as it is intended when I say that the process shows the real value of our Select Committees and of this Westminster Hall debate. It is an interim debate; it would have been difficult at this juncture to secure a debate on the Floor of the House, although there will be one in future.

To return to the letter from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to the Chairman of the Committee, I re-emphasise that we apologise to the Committee and to the House for the delay in the Government's response. I am well aware that it has been six months since the Committee reported and, as has been said, the matter has been raised with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House regularly in business questions and in correspondence. The Speaker has made clear his strong views on the matter and his impatience to see the Government's response. I wish to put on the record the fact that no discourtesy to the Committee was intended; nor was the delay, as the letter states, an indication that the subject was not being taken seriously.

I shall skip some of the uncontentious recommendations in the report for now, but I shall return to them if I have time. It will not surprise right hon. and hon. Members to learn that the Government support the principles set out in those recommendations. If I have the time I shall respond to them.

The debate has focused on the Sessional Order on the Metropolitan police, which orders the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to keep the streets around the Palace of Westminster "free and open" so that Members can freely pass to and from the House, and to prevent disorder and annoyance in the area. The Committee finds the Sessional Order misleading and ineffective, since it does not confer any additional powers on the police, and the police lack the powers to enforce it.

The Government accept the Committee's recommendation that the Government should introduce legislation for two separate purposes: first, to prohibit long-term demonstrations in Parliament square and, secondly, to ensure that the laws about access are adequate and enforceable. Those are indeed separate issues. The long-term demonstration in Parliament square, however much of a nuisance it is, does not impede access to the House. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to that, as did the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). Occasional marches or temporary mass demonstrations can prohibit access to the House, and right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of examples of that.
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It will come as no surprise to Members to learn that it is the latter recommendation that the Government have considered long and hard. It is not a trivial matter. It creates a dilemma at the heart of our democracy. On the one hand, it is essential to our democracy that Members are able to get to Parliament to represent their constituents and express the democratic will of the people. On the other hand, the right to demonstrate peacefully is one of the most cherished of our democratic freedoms. When those two factors are in conflict, as can be the case in Parliament square, it is difficult to determine the appropriate balance.

I acknowledge freely that the Government have hesitated to intervene, which is testimony to the importance that we attach to the right of citizens to demonstrate their views, however uncomfortable that may be to the Government. Nevertheless, in recognition of the strong views on the matter held in Parliament, not least by the Speaker, and elsewhere—as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has pointed out, it is not only in Parliament that such opinions have been expressed—the Government have agreed to consult on the appropriate level of police powers to deal with such demonstrations. That is covered in our response.

The Home Office will issue a consultation paper shortly and the Government will give careful consideration to the views expressed in response to it. I take the liberty of referring Members to the specific recommendations. The consultation exercise that we propose will be on the development of police powers, which might involve legislation. As I say, our aim is to ensure that legislation designed to solve one particular problem while adhering to the general principles that I have outlined does not result in another problem. Although I do not want to deflect from our determination to pursue that strategy, there may be other ways in which to deal with the problem during the interim period.

The Committee considered the use of loudhailers in Parliament square and recommended that the appropriate authorities explore fully the possibility of using existing legislation to control the use of loudhailers and other amplification equipment. Failing that, it recommended that the Government should consider legislation on the subject. Again, it will not surprise right hon. and hon. Members to hear that the Government accept that that is a sensible recommendation. I shall go into detail about the particular powers in respect of loudhailers if Members want me to. The difficulties that are faced by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner relate to the specific purposes and intent of the use of loudhailers under both Westminster byelaws and section 62 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which governs the use of loudhailers in the street. The essential point is, in layperson's terms, that the police do not believe that existing byelaws and laws give them the power to stop an individual in such circumstances. Again, that matter will be covered in the consultation as we move forward.

The Committee considers that until new legislation comes into force, the House should continue to pass the Sessional Order on the Metropolitan police in the modified form, removing the references to Westminster Hall, because it is now firmly part of the parliamentary estate. Such an order will serve as a reminder and

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That is a sensible way forward.

Sir George Young : Before the Minister leaves this point, I should like to ask him a question. On 8 July last year, the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety mentioned that existing legislation on loudhailers might not be satisfactory. It is a little disappointing to hear that the Government are planning to consult only now, 10 months after they knew that there was a problem. Has the Home Office taken any action in the intervening period?

Mr. Woolas : The right hon. Gentleman's question strikes at the heart of the dilemma. Although the problem has been known for some time, if one pursues a course of legislation to solve it, other problems may arise. To amplify that point, I note that the Procedure Committee report recommends that the authorities make full use of existing legislation to deal with loudhailers before considering new legislation. Since giving evidence to that Committee, the police have started to use the City of Westminster byelaw that makes it an offence punishable by a level 2 fine to cause or permit to be made any loud or continuous noise by operating an amplifier or similar instrument after being warned to desist by a constable. Although the byelaw has been successful in preventing some demonstrations using loudhailers, the more persistent groups of protestors have simply passed the loudhailer among themselves, which forces the police to warn each protestor in turn. The byelaw therefore does not adequately cover situations in which there is more than one protestor.

The changes to the definition of assembly might prevent the use of loudhailers by putting a condition on the assembly, for example limiting its duration. However, the police would still have to prove that someone outside Parliament using a loudhailer is seriously disrupting the life of the community or intimidating MPs. The provision would therefore not help the police to deal with a lone loudhailer user. It is believed that that provision is not contravened by the protest that is causing the problem. Some hon. Members will disagree with that interpretation; all that I can do is reassure the House that the option has been considered, but, as hon. Members know, a prosecution has to have a good chance of success to make it a wise course of action.

Sir Robert Smith : Has the Minister received any briefing on the role of environmental health departments in noise pollution prevention? Local authorities are being given new powers so that if individuals play music too loudly or make too much noise in their own house, their equipment can be taken from them. I am not sure whether that new legislation could be interpreted to work for the situation outside Parliament.

Mr. Woolas : The hon. Gentleman made that point in his opening remarks. I can tell him only my understanding at this stage. If I am wrong, I will write to him, but I understand that that legislation refers to communities and neighbours and would not cover the circumstances of Parliament square.

We had hoped that legislation that has been on the statute book for 30 years—section 62 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which governs the use of loudhailers
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in the streets and prohibits their use between 9 pm and 8 am—would apply. I am sure that if I were to check Hansard, I would find, first, that the hon. Member for Macclesfield took part in the debate on that legislation, and secondly that that Parliament's intention in passing the 1974 Act was to prohibit that sort of noise nuisance during the night. There would have been no cognisance of the fact that, 30 years on, people would abuse the legislation and cause a real nuisance to those who work in this precinct.

The nuisance affects the press in the Palace of Westminster in particular. The offices in No. 1 Parliament street have been mentioned as being particularly affected by the noise, and the staff who work there all the time are probably more affected than MPs who come over to the Chamber or the Library. However, the noise also has a great effect on the gentleman and ladies of the press, whose offices face the loudhailer and who are often in the Palace for many hours into the evening and start work very early in the morning. Irrespective of what may be written in the newspapers, I know that their strong personal view is that Government action should be taken. I am between a very big rock and a very hard place, which is why I was delighted to see the Government response.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : With his last remarks, the Minister gives me the opportunity to ask a further question. I am disappointed that there are no specific proposals in the Government response to deal with the problem, but would like clarification regarding the period of consultation. How long will the consultation take? Will there be a specific period of consultation, after which the Government will consider the findings and introduce legislation? As the Minister has indicated, most people are hoping for legislation to correct the current abuse.

Mr. Woolas : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which I had anticipated. I am sorry that I am not able to give him the specific details that he requires. However, I can say two helpful things. First, the proper procedure for the Government to follow is to begin by the response to the Committee's report, which is now with the Committee and represents the collective view of the Government. That having been done, it is important that the House debates the matter. Having had six months to deliberate our response to the Procedure Committee's report, progress on the consultation on the legislation could be expected to be swift. I am sorry that I cannot go further than that.

So far, I have tried to cover the areas covered by recommendations 7 and 8, relating to the demonstrations in Parliament square. I shall now move on to the other recommendations, and invite interventions.

Sir George Young : Will the Minister place on the record his statement that he finds the present position unacceptable?

Mr. Woolas : Oh yes, I will put my own view on the record. As someone who holds the right to demonstrate particularly close to my heart, having taken part in
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demonstrations on many issues over many years, sometimes effectively, sometimes less so, I do not believe that what we see across the road falls within the definition of a reasonable demonstration. It certainly does not fall within the definition of an effective demonstration, and it is counter-productive to the causes that that gentleman in question wishes to support.

I hope that the Mayor of London's working group on world-class squares—a strange title, referring to the wonderful squares in London—may provide a way forward for the problem in Parliament square. The shantytown across the road is a scar on one of the most beautiful architectural and heritage sites in the world, let alone the United Kingdom.

I am conscious that people who take a contrary view will say that we are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, one cannot say that there is in this country anything other than a proper and adequate right to demonstrate peacefully. It is one of our great traditions. The marches of the Peterloo universal suffrage campaign started from my village of Lees, near Oldham. If I were to say anything other than that, I would be out of my office with my P45 looking for a job.

Mrs. Browning : Will the Minister focus on the clear security aspect to the site across the road? However helpful the Mayor of London's plans for the square may be, we should not wait for them in order to deal with security. The Minister has already described his position as being between a rock and a hard place, but that is his job and he knows that—that is what the red box gives him. I hope that he will not wait for third parties, such as the Mayor of London, to come up with a solution, and lose sight of the security risk.

Mr. Woolas : That is a perfectly reasonable point. I hope that I did not imply that we were looking for somebody to get us off the hook. We are not, and we have laid out our strategy. The hon. Lady referred to security, and the Government's general policy, in line with the previous Government's, is to take advice from the security services. If their risk assessment states that action is required in respect of the demonstration, it becomes our view. The charges laid against the demonstrator, which were subject to court proceedings yesterday, originally resulted from that very concern about security.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : That indicates that the Government should deal with the whole matter as a matter of urgency. It is no overstatement to say that we are spending millions of pounds to prevent any incident within the Palace of Westminster—the glass screen being but one such measure. If there is, as the police admit quite readily, a security risk on the other side of the road, should not the Government examine the situation as a matter of real urgency?

Mr. Woolas : The hon. Gentleman affirms the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, but there is a slight difference between the situation under discussion and the situation within the precincts of Parliament. I recognise that he has supported the measures taken and I am grateful to him for that. There are two pertinent points about the demonstration
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outside. First, the assessment of that risk is that it is not permanent: banners might conceal something from time to time, and that assessment has led to the police and the security services judging it right to intervene from time to time. The second point, which is more difficult, is that one would have to be sure that any police action—which would, no doubt, be subject to a challenge in the courts from solicitors minded to support such an action—would be successful. Otherwise, one would worsen the situation and cause even greater expense to the taxpayer. We all want to avoid that.

Many questions have been asked and I sense that hon. Members think that they have got all the answers that they are going to get, even if they are not satisfied with them. However, there are many other important recommendations in the report. There are three Sessional Orders and three resolutions—helpfully set out on page 3 of the report. The Procedure Committee deals first with those on elections, witnesses and votes and proceedings. The Committee found that they were obsolete or unnecessary, saying that:

According to the Committee, the provision about double returns—two Members returned for the same seat, which I am told used to happen frequently, although in the modern world it seems strange—

The report continues:


that means the formal daily minutes of the House, the Order of Business and the journals—

According to the report,

It is recommended that those orders and resolutions be discontinued. That is a sensible recommendation.

The Committee recommends that, once and for all,

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That seems a sensible recommendation. The Committee notes that

but says that

and of the House's historic claims to privilege. That, of course, means freedom of speech and freedom from legal challenge. It seems appropriate to mark the beginning of the session with a reminder of matters of importance by the Speaker. The report suggests that the Committee on Standards and Privileges—the Chairman of which is present—may wish to recommend a suitable form of words.

The Committee considered the Outlawries Bill, which is

For the benefit of Members, the House of Commons Library has an interesting general factsheet explaining the background to the Outlawries Bill. In that document, I discovered the intersection between the modernisation wing of Parliament and the traditionalists. The intentions of the Outlawries Bill are agreeable to Labour Members, who are perhaps more radical than others in desiring swifter change. The Bill achieves its goal while being implemented in a very traditional way. As it takes only a few seconds to read out at the beginning of each Session, it is sensible not to mess with it—in the Lancastrian phrase, "If it ain't bust, don't fix it." I am told that the practice dates from at least 1558 and was referred to by Sir Thomas Meres in 1676 during a debate on this subject in which he said:

Those are wise words in relation to this debate.

The Procedure Committee then addresses the Sessional Orders on the Metropolitan Police. I hope that the House accepts that I have covered that matter in detail. I look forward to the debate in the House and to pursuing the matter in a sensible and consensual way. I hope that the two important principles to which I referred, of protecting the rights to demonstrate and protecting the privileges of this House, can be adhered to.

I thank the Procedure Committee again for its report. I emphasise my regret about the delay in the publication of the Government response, but I hope that hon. Members will accept that it signals the importance that the Government attach to the issues that the Committee raised.

Sitting suspended.
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