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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Should there not be some distinction between an immediate problem of someone preventing an MP from entering the House, which clearly should be an arrestable offence in which the police would be expected to be involved, and a long-term nuisance, which is a civil matter and should be subject to civil remedy, not criminal remedy?

Mr. Heald: I do not agree and I shall explain why.

Mr. Salmond: What did the hon. Gentleman think of Mr. Justice Gray's judgment on 4 October 2002, in which he declined to grant Westminster city council an injunction to prevent the long-term demonstration, citing article 10 of the European convention on human rights? Does the hon. Gentleman think Mr. Justice Gray was wise or unwise to refuse to grant the injunction?
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Mr. Heald: As one who served as a barrister for many years, I never criticise the judiciary and I shall not do so on this occasion. The point is that we have a say in article 10 and the operation of the convention, whereas we have not had a say in respect of Parliament square, and I believe that we should. I believe in freedom of expression and of speech—for some years, I spoke at Speakers' Corner as a Hyde Park Tory and I have been on demonstrations. It is important that we are able to conduct our politics, but there are parameters within which one should do so.

Dr. Julian Lewis : May I remind the House that the court case mentioned by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) had nothing to do with the noise nuisance? Noise did not feature in the judgment and was an entirely separate matter. The judgment was based entirely on whether the protester was obstructing members of the public or Members of Parliament.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend is correct.

The long-term protester in question is about to embark on a fourth winter as a permanent resident of Parliament green. Although we can admire its durability, his form of protest causes real problems for Parliament and for others. The problem is not aesthetic—it is not just that the posters do not look nice or anything like that. The fact is that he has created something akin to a fence-like structure. That mars the appearance of the square, but the main problem is one of security: to allow a barrier of that sort directly opposite the gates of Parliament is unwise. The Speaker has raised that as a point of concern. Police are forced to check around the barrier on the square several times a day to see what is happening behind the posters and placards, and the fence obscures security sightlines. Today's reality is that we cannot ignore such security concerns, and I think that Mr. Speaker is right to have raised the issue.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that those who are concerned about the barrier in Parliament square could also be concerned about someone sneaking around the statue of Churchill and jumping an unsuspecting Member of Parliament on the way home? The police are present in part to defend our right of free expression under duress, and to say that the gentleman in question presents a security risk is a preposterous argument against his right of expression.

Mr. Heald: Nobody minds someone attending to make a protest carrying a banner—that is part of our democratic process. The point is that that man has set up something like a fence with placards all the way around and the police have to go over there many times a day to check round, because we live in world in which security is tight.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that there are enough police in and around the Chamber to match the protesters one for one, and if they have to go out and check behind the fence every now and again, they are probably more usefully employed than they are in here?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend has his fun, as he is entitled to. Nevertheless, security around here is
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important, and it is not right for there to be a permanent barrier that creates cover directly opposite the gates of the Palace and takes up a huge amount of police time and effort. We should not be too amusing about the police presence here, because they do a good job. We need their help, and it is right that we should have it.

Mr. Salmond: I do not know Mr. Justice Gray, but having read his judgment I would strongly advise the hon. Gentleman not to appear before him citing the arguments that he has used in the past few minutes. In effect, the judge said to Westminster city council, "Don't come before me with such rubbish."

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman has clearly not looked into this, because the arguments that were deployed were not based on security considerations.

This is the predominant institution of our democracy and an important symbol of democracy world wide, and it is a terrorist target. Hon. Members may want to have a bit of fun, but these are important matters and we must not ignore them.

Dr. Julian Lewis: In support of my hon. Friend, I remind the House that we have armed police on duty who put their lives on the line every minute of the day—

Mr. Swayne: What, in the Chamber?

Dr. Lewis: I am talking about those on the street. If necessary, they would have to deal with a potentially lethal terrorist attack. How are they expected to make split-second decisions, and to do so wisely, when there is a constant barrage of yammering noise distracting them and putting their safety at risk at a time when it is sufficiently at risk already?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of noise. Blaring away into a megaphone is a completely pointless exercise, because nobody can understand a word that is being said, yet it disturbs people all over the Palace and the parliamentary estate. I do not mind somebody wanting to protest in a reasonable way—as I say, I have often spoken at speaker's corner in Hyde park—but the level of noise here is unacceptable, and I welcome the fact that something is going to be done about it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the matter of security entirely, will he clarify whether he opposes, on security grounds, long-term demonstrations by an individual, but is prepared to accept short-term demonstrations involving thousands of people in Parliament square, which, as we know from recent experience, are far more dangerous?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The point about a major, policed demonstration is that it is exactly that—a large demonstration that the police know about in advance and for which they are able to prepare. In the past year, I have been on two such demonstrations—one against the Stansted proposals, and the other in favour of people who have been disadvantaged through the Government's policy on pensions. Proper notice was given, we marched up Whitehall, and the policing was more than adequate.
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The permanent demonstration is different because it is there all the time, it is a fence-like barrier directly opposite the gates of the Palace, it is taking up a lot of police time and effort, and it is a security risk.

John McDonnell : I wish to be clear about the judgment that the hon. Gentleman is making. If the placards were small enough to ensure that a terrorist could not hide behind them and sufficiently aesthetically pleasing to him, would they be acceptable?

Mr. Heald: I have no objection to someone—or a greater number of people— standing outside the House of Commons with a banner and making a point. I simply stress that such activities should be carried out in a proportionate way that does not create a security hazard, and that the noise should not be unreasonable. I fully accept that a loudhailer is needed on a demo but constant, loud wailing is not reasonable.

Mr. Hain: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, despite all the discussion about the loudhailer, the sole individual and so on, we are also considering some of the problems that we have experienced recently when access to the House has been blocked. The individual whom we have discussed does not pose such a threat but all sorts of demonstrations, including those on hunting and Iraq, have, for the first time in my experience, blocked access to the House. That is the problem and the measures are primarily designed to deal with that.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making that point; I was sidetracked when I was about to make it. It has always been established that hon. Members should have access to the House to do their job, especially when we are voting, so that democracy can do its work. The measures will underpin that well established principle with the sort of powers that are needed to make it work.

5.1 pm

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