Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I agree with my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that, if workers in any other place in the country were subjected to the same noise and interference as those whose job it is to protect us suffer from the cacophony on the other side of road, all the health and safety legislation in the land would be brought to bear on them? The police officers have to put up with an intolerable burden.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which leads to my next comment. We are not considering deprivation of a long established right or a threat to freedom of expression. We are trying to close a loophole in the law to get back to where we believed we were three or four years ago. Brian Haw has discovered the loophole and, well advised by Messrs Bindmans, exploited it. If we were starting from scratch, would we introduce a law to ban such activity from every pavement in London but specifically allow it outside the entrance to the House of Commons? We would not, but the law currently provides for that and the House would be well advised to move to a more defensible position that removed the loophole.

John McDonnell: Health and safety has been mentioned. Has the Health and Safety Executive made
3 Nov 2004 : Column 406
a health and safety assessment? It has not been reported to any Committee. No offence has been alleged under health and safety legislation.

Sir George Young: I am sure that the Health and Safety Executive will note the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but if he talks informally to the policemen he will find that it is doing no good to the health of those who are confronted by that noise some 20 ft away at high volume, hour after hour. I hope that he does not try to defend what the policemen at the gates have to tolerate.

Liberty said:

That is absurd. I hope that hon. Members will put the matter in some sort of perspective. We have well preserved, well used rights of protest in this country, but the activity in Parliament square goes beyond what is appropriate or reasonable in a mature democracy. One of the rights of a mature democracy is setting some acceptable parameters for freedom of expression. In my judgment, they are being exceeded.

Lembit Öpik: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have debated the matter exhaustively in the media for most of the past 24 hours.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Does he recall that we did one of those interviews in exactly the spot that he describes, across the road from Mr. Haw's demonstration? We could do that and be heard. He says that he is looking for a balance, but the status quo is the balance because we are considering non-violent, legal direct action that does not obstruct us in our activities. To go further would take away rights.

Sir George Young: I do not accept that the volume of noise is reasonable. I do not accept that we were interviewed in good conditions. The reporter was happy to conduct the interview there because the loudhailer noise made the point and gave the listener to the programme some idea of what was happening, but the conditions were not ideal.

We can all distinguish between a one-off, well-targeted demonstration for a day 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, but as I understand it there is nothing to stop others doing exactly what Mr. Haw is doing all the way round Parliament square. That is not something that I would welcome.

Finally, I should like to make an environmental point. We are discussing one of the most important historic sites in the world. We have here the Houses of Parliament, Westminster abbey, Whitehall, the Churchill statue and the Guildhall, but the eye and ear are drawn towards the unsightly cacophony in the middle. We simply have not got the balance right. No other democracy in the world would tolerate what is happening in Parliament square, with a shanty town
3 Nov 2004 : Column 407
right opposite Parliament. There is no history of protest at this location; it is not like Hyde Park corner. There is a loophole in the law, and an abuse that has been going on for far too long. I support the Government in their attempts to put that right.

6.25 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) wants to create an antiseptic tourist attraction round here that has nothing to do with democracy or participation, and the suggestion that Brian Haw's presence outside is somehow damaging to the buildings is pushing it a bit. Brian Haw is there because he believes in something. Surely, in a democracy, we should welcome people who believe in something and who are prepared to make that statement.

This debate on Sessional Orders is very interesting and important. I gave evidence to the Committee on this matter, and I hope that the Ministers will think very carefully about what they are proposing here. We seem to be inviting the police to take certain actions concerning the presence of people in Parliament square, without being specific about the powers under which they would do so, on the basis that legislation on the issue will be proposed at some point in the future. That sets a dangerous precedent. If we accept it, the police will act in a certain way, having been given a kind of nod from Parliament as to how we now believe that Sessional Orders should operate, and, at some point in the indeterminate future, legislation that we shall have a chance to debate will appear. Unless something dramatic happens during the Minister's wind-up speech—which would surprise me—I shall vote against these proposals because I think that that is the right thing to do.

We have a duty to protect the right of free speech around Parliament just as much as have a duty to protect the right of Members to get to Parliament—that was the basis of some of the Sessional Orders—and we must ensure that that remains the case. During the Select Committee hearing, there seemed to be quite a lot of confusion about the rights of access to Parliament. It is perfectly clear that MPs must have the right to get to Parliament, otherwise a tyrannical situation could arise in which they were prevented from getting here and would therefore be unable to vote, resulting in legislation being carried or not, as the case may be. It is essential that they have that democratic right, because they are here to represent the people. However, the suggestion that a demonstration in the centre of Parliament square somehow impedes Members getting to the House is unbelievably absurd. Nobody would walk down Whitehall, cross two roads to get to the centre of the square, then cross two more to get into the building. That is absurd; they simply would not do it.

Mr. McWalter: Was it not the case that, during the hunting demonstration, those of us coming to Parliament by car were prevented from getting here?

Jeremy Corbyn: That is so. That demonstration was organised with the co-operation and consent of the Metropolitan police, and had nothing whatever to do
3 Nov 2004 : Column 408
with Brian Haw and his demonstration in the middle of Parliament square. Indeed, I received a copy of a letter sent to Brian Haw by the Metropolitan police suggesting that he might like to be somewhere else that day, because they thought that his presence might not be compatible with the aims of the hunting lobby. I do not know what Brian did, but I suspect that he probably stayed there.

Mr. Bercow: There is, of course, a distinction between liberty and licence. The hon. Gentleman champions Mr. Haw's right to articulate his views, but does he not accept that the right to free speech has to be exercised within a context? There must be some limitation and control because it is not a self-regarding act. This is an act that has an effect—many of us would argue that it is an unacceptable and damaging effect—on the rights of others. If the hon. Gentleman accepts that there has to be some limit, in terms of time and/or intensity of expression, where would he place that limit?

Jeremy Corbyn: I am deeply disappointed with that intervention. I was hoping that the statements in the weekend press about the hon. Gentleman's rapid move to the left—passing new Labour on the way—had real substance. Indeed, I was in his constituency on Sunday evening discussing just that matter with some of his constituents, and they were very interested.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has given me a welcome opportunity to exercise, in order, my right to free speech. I have always been a Tory, I am a Tory and I have to tell him and his relatives who live in my constituency that I will die a Tory.

Next Section IndexHome Page