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Sir Nicholas Winterton:
We received evidence from Members of Parliament, including the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)he is sitting next to the hon. Gentleman this afternoonbecause we wanted to take evidence from everyone who had a view on this matter. That included people who were strongly opposed to the demonstrations in Parliament square, people who were rather equivocal about
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demonstrations, and people like the hon. Member for Islington, North, who were positively in favour of people being able to demonstrate.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: That view was expressed, although it may not have been minuted in the report. The view was put forward that Mr. Haw could be preventing other individuals or groups from demonstrating who wished to do so. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would not be unsympathetic to other groups using the square for that purpose, or to Mr. Haw returning at some stage in the future.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: No, as I want to be logical and constructive about this matter. I say to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington that, if a man cannot make his point and get his view across in three years, he will not do it in 30 years. Parliament square should be the place where other people can register their views. The Procedure Committee heeded the advice of those from whom we took evidence. They included the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Clerk of the House and the Serjeant at Arms. We also received the encouragement of Mr. Speaker, who is deeply concerned about the situation in Parliament square. Our aim is not to deny free speech or people's right to demonstrate, but to ensure that those activities are conducted in a more regulated and appropriate way.
Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for allowing me to present evidence to his Committee when it investigated this matter. Numerous other demonstrations have taken place while Brian Haw has been in the square. On one slightly bizarre occasion, I was talking to him when he decided he wanted a photograph of him in conversation with some peace protesters visiting from Canada. He went off and got one of the hunt supporters to take the photograph. The two sides seemed to have worked out a modus operandi, even though I suspect that they probably did not agree on anything.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I do not know about that. On most occasions, I very strongly disagree with the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman. However, I have the highest regard for him, as he is brave in his advocacy of free speech and of the issues that he feels are of paramount importance to this country and deserving of being raised in Parliament. In no way am I hostile to the hon. Gentleman: I want the situation in Parliament square to be regulated.
That will not help. I yield to no one in my admiration of the Chairman of the Procedure
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Committee, as he knows. That is why so many of us are so disappointed that he should suggest Mr. Haw's failure to put across his point in three years as the reason for introducing measures that, at least at first sight, appear somewhat draconian. It is our disappointment that the hon. Gentleman's usual strong defence of free speech is not represented in the report that is causing us to make these interventions.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the report. In no way are we trying to deny free speech: quite the opposite. In many ways, we are trying to give more people the opportunity of free speech in Parliament square.
I am grateful that the motion implements nearly all the Committee's recommendations, although I shall have something briefly to say about Parliament square a little later on. Let us go back into the history of these matters. As hon. Members will be aware, at the beginning of each Session we hear the Queen's Speech in the morning and we return in the afternoon to debate it, but before the debate begins the House is asked to agree six questions. Because it is the first day of the Session no notice can be given of the questions, so Mr. Speaker reads them in full to the House. They are the Sessional Orders and resolutions; the current ones are set out on page 3 of the Procedure Committee's report. They relate to elections, witnesses, the Metropolitan police and the Votes and Proceedings.
As we note in our report, it was Mr. SpeakerI highlight that pointwho encouraged us to look at those orders and resolutions to consider whether they should be abolished or updated. As Members will see, we recommended, with only one exception, that they should be abolished. That was not an easy decision for me to takeI say that especially to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)because I am a great traditionalist and I like some of the older features of the way the House operates, but we cannot stand against change when change is inevitable.
The one exception was the order instructing the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to prevent access to the House from being impeded. That order took up most of the Committee's time and I shall return to it after dealing with the other five
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my modernising Friend. To help the House, will he elaborate on the phrase he has just used, "when change is inevitable"? I would have thought that the whole point of our deliberations was to decide whether change was desirable and not for us to proceed on the basis of some odd inevitability.
Sir Nicholas Winterton:
I have great regard and respect for Mr. Speaker, so perhaps when I said that change was inevitable I should have added that it should also be justified.
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I repeat that Mr. Speaker was concerned, and if, on behalf of the House, Mr. Speaker requests us to investigate a matter, we are obliged to do so. We took wide evidence, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will see, and came to the conclusion that most of the orders were no longer relevant.
Mr. Heald: The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a point about tampering with witnesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the House has the power to deal with that, but it was rather inappropriate to put that matter alongside one that we had no power to deal with? Does he agree that the powers to deal with witnesses still exist and that there is no question of their going?
Mr. Bercow: On the Conservative Benches, following the dictum of Edmund Burke, we have always accepted that the state which lacks the means of change lacks the means of its own conservation. May I further encourage my senior hon. Friend not to be subjected to parliamentary bullying by our right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? In the earlier debate, when I chided my right hon. Friend for being opposed to all change since the 11th century, he corrected me by saying that he had in fact been opposed to all change since the fourth.
All the current Sessional Orders and resolutions date back to at least 1713, and many of them are even older than that. However, I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that they have not been considered unalterable. Several were converted into Standing Orders in 1852 and others, such as those about peers not voting in parliamentary elections and the printing of the Journal, were discontinued quite recently, in 2000. Various other minor changes have been made to them over the years.
The Procedure Committeeagain, I highlight thistook detailed evidence from the Clerk of the House, a learned gentleman who serves the House well, and from the Serjeant at Arms. We discovered that the orders about elections, witnesses and the votes and proceedings could all be dispensed with. That was their advice to the Committee. Some were unnecessary, some were obsolete and at least one was misleading. I refer to the order that says that
against those engaging in corrupt practices at elections. I am not for a moment suggesting that corrupt practices do not matter, but simply that the House has not been
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able to proceed against them since 1868, when jurisdiction on such matters was transferred to the courts.
Why do we proceed with reading out long Sessional Orders that are obsolete? The provisions for double returns are no longer necessary. They applied when there was a tie and the returning officer returned two names for a constituency instead of one. Now, in the event of a tie, the choice is made by lot. Why is that Sessional Order required? It is no longer needed; it is obsolete.
One other provision is probably obsolete, but it could theoretically still be needed. This is the one about a Member being returned for more than constituency. I am not sure whether the House knows when this last occurred, but it last happened in 1910. In case it happens again, the relevant part of the Sessional Order about elections is reproduced at the end of the day's motion to make it permanent.
Among the unnecessary motions are those about witnesses. In recommending the abolition of those motions, we are not ascribing any less importance to the principles that witnesses should not give false evidence or be tampered with. I see the Committee's chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), behind me, and hon. Members will surely recall that a case was referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee this Session
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