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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I remain unclear about the process that we are going through today. I would welcome any intervention from the Chairman of the Committee to clarify exactly what we are doing. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told us that consultation will take place to seek a remedy in law to some of the problems that the Committee identified. He said that consultation would take place about the development of a new measure and that an order would be introduced under existing environmental legislation to tackle the supposed nuisance or problem.
Yet we are also being asked to support a motion with a form of words for a new Sessional Order, which tries to provide a remedy for several problems that the Committee identified. The Sessional Order is incredibly wide-ranging. It states:
We all agree that enabling Members of Parliament to get into the House of Commons to do their duty in voting and participating in debate is criticalno one wants to underestimate the problems that have occurredbut the order goes far beyond that.
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The breadth of that is remarkable. It covers any activity that we undertake to hinder hon. Members. I want to hinder some of my hon. Friends in reaching some decisions on specific Bills. I want to do that through argument, lobbying and debate. [Interruption.] The breadth of the order means that an individualwhether or not the placard is small or a terrorist threat existscannot stand outside the House.
Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman may have missed the sedentary intervention from the Front Bench that I heard, implying that what he described did not constitute hindering. However, in the absence of a definition of hindering, what else are we to think? Some hon. Members appear to believe that noise pollution hinders; I do not. I should like to know exactly what hindering means.
John McDonnell: That is the very point that I am making. If hindering is about noise that causes some obstruction to clear thought or work in an officethere are other obstructions to clear thought in the building, but we do not need to go into them nowperhaps we could have a definition of an acceptable decibel level or the problems that some hon. Members experience.
John McDonnell: I have to say that that is not what the Sessional Order says. This order will have to be interpreted by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I think that we are putting him in an impossible position because of the breadth and loose wording of the order, which states that
That is a breathtaking range of provision to insist that the commissioner should interpret. Individual constituents, Members or members of staff could insist that the commissioner take action, but against what? Perhaps against a megaphone being used in Parliament square, but at what level? On what frequency? On what days? At what time of day? According to the Sessional Order, the provision would apply when Parliament was in session, but that could be late at night when there was not much going on in the building. This measure would require a subjective judgment on the part of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, which I think would be inoperable.
The particular wording that the hon. Gentleman is criticising has been in the Sessional Orders since time immemorial. The provision used to be enforced by the police, but a change in the law means that that no longer happens. However, this is nothing new; it is very old.
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John McDonnell: But now we are trying to use the order against a practice that has been acceptable for a long time. It has certainly been acceptable for the past few years, because Brian Haw has been out there for that long. It has been acceptable behaviour to a large number of us.
I am trying to clarify this question. If the Minister is arguing that we need to consult on new legislation, and that, in regard to some of this supposed nuisance behaviour, we have to introduce a new order that we shall eventually debate, why is that taking place when we are introducing a Sessional Order? Are we pre-empting that consultation? Are we pre-empting the debate on the new order? Why is this necessary? I am completely unclear on this, and I would welcome any intervention that will clarify the matter.
Dr. Julian Lewis: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has explained, the provision has been there all along. It has also been ineffectiveI see the Minister noddingwhich is why the Government have, rightly, to introduce new legislation. The hon. Gentleman is arguing that we should weaken the Sessional Order more than it has been weakened in the past. This proposal is carrying forward something which, though ineffective, has been there all along, with a promise that something effective will be brought in further down the lineand about time, too.
John McDonnell: So we are being asked to approve something that we all agree is totally ineffective, totally useless and therefore unnecessary. What are we doing here? What is the point? Well, we know what the point is. It is that one person out there is exercising his democratic right to free speech. When Ministers introduce legislation, they have to assure us in writing, as part of the process, that it complies with the European convention on human rights. What is remarkable about this order is that we have had no such assurance today in relation to it.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is lamenting the need to interpret the legislation, while at the same time effectively conceding how easy it will be to do so in this particular, rather extreme case. I know the vantage point from which he is perfectly legitimately approaching the subject. We all believe in the right to free speechI am periodically inclined to exercise it myselfbut there is a difference between free speech and a licensed, permanent cacophony of a destructive character.
That is interesting. In none of the submissions to the Committee that I have seen has there been any mention of "permanent cacophony". It is true that there has been intermittent use of a loudhailer, and I am sure that that has caused some offence to some people, but I think that that is one of the tolerances that we should have in a democracy. With the greatest respect, I find some of the statements that are made in this Chamber offensive, but I accept the democratic right of hon. Members to make them. I also accept the
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right of Brian Haw to make his statement out there. As soon as we start to undermine that process of free speech, it becomes a slippery slope to intolerance.
Lembit Öpik: Is it not perhaps in order for us to remember as well that we are in a position of relative power in this Chamber? We have the capacity to express our views and occasionally get them reported in the media. A man such as Brian Haw does not have that luxury. It is to his credit that he has caused a debate to take place on account of the fact that he has found an effective means of demonstrating.
John McDonnell: It is a means of demonstration that also shadows what has happened across the world. The Aborigines in Australia and the campaigners in America have all used this tactic to bring something that they feel strongly about to the attention of democratic Parliaments. I welcome Brian Haw. I think he has been a hero for the past few years, suffering throughout those winters to bring to our attention a fundamental issue, which is about peace and opposing war.
On some objections that have been made to Brian Haw, I accept the integrity of a large number of Members who have intervened today to raise their concerns about nuisance and so on, but some interventions and some opposition to what he is doing out there have arisen because some Members do not like to be reminded of what they have done in this Chamber in terms of voting for war and the deaths.
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