|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions on which I have agreed with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), but this just might be one of them. How on earth are Members to judge whether this new form of words, this mission statement from the code of conduct, this splendid encapsulation of the duties and responsibilities of a Member of Parliament, is better than the Sessional Orders, without seeing the form of words with which we are being invited to replace them? Given the complaint from various Committee Chairmen that this has taken too long, we might have expected to see the alternative formulation by now.
I have no doubt that others involved in this will come up with some splendid formulae, but I must say I have always thought that the Good News Bible does not quite capture the majesty of the King James version.
With due deference to the distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee, let me say that the fact that something has not been used for a while does not always mean that it is not necessary. We have not seen a motion for impeachment in the House since 1848, but in the current circumstancesagainst the current Prime Ministerit is very important that it remains available to Members of Parliament. The fact that some of the protections conferred by the Sessional Orders have not been used for a while does not mean that they are not important.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does the hon. Gentleman not take seriously the advice of the Clerk of the House, who is a servant not of Government, not of Opposition, but of the House? His recommendation was very much along the lines of the recommendations in the report.
Mr. Salmond: I am not concerned about whether the Chairman of the Procedure Committee took seriously the recommendations of the Clerk of the House; I am concerned about the fact thatnot showing his usual robust independencehe did not perceive the flaws and difficulties with which such advice presents us this evening. Under the guise of convenience, modernisation and "wrapping things up", we see the mishmash of nonsense that we are being invited to support when no one can even explain the reasons for the change in the wording of the sessional order.
might refer to noise pollution. We are assured that that preoccupied the Committee and preoccupies certain Members, but I do not think it is worth the candle if it means restricting the right and freedom to demonstrate that some Members have mentioned. They are not thinking of themselves, of course; they are thinking of the poor policemen and members of staff.
The reality, as anybody who has attended business questions knows, is that those Members do not like the message coming through the loudhailers. It is not the loudhailers that they object to, but the occasional pricks to their bloated consciences. We should see through this cant and humbug and question why on earth we are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, to support formulations that nobody can explain, and to reject the Sessional Orders when we do not even have their replacement before us this evening.
I became concerned when I read the Procedure Committee's report. Despite my enormous admiration for the Committee Chairman, I was aghast to read the exchange between him and the Serjeant at Arms concerning the difficulties that the police experienced during a children's demonstration in forcibly removing them when they lay down in front of the House of Commons. Rather than understanding that there might be some difficulties and sensitivities in terms of how the police carry out such dutiesjust as might occur in dealing with a disabled demonstrationthe Chairman said in response the Serjeant at Arms that there was "Almost anarchy!" I suppose that we should be
3 Nov 2004 : Column 413
surprised that he thought it "almost" anarchy. Usually, in his ebullience, he would have thought it true anarchy. Many of us, regardless of the proclivity of these children to take an unauthorised day off school, were actually rather glad to discover that so many members of the younger generation were thinking about something more than what was going to happen in that evening's soap, and that they wanted to come to this place to demonstrate about an issue that they thought particularly important.
Some people address these issues as if there is something absolutely special about Members of Parliament. Well, there are two things that are special, the first of which is the right of privilege: the fundamental right of Members to say what they like without the encumbrance of any threat of action against them. Secondly, there is a fundamental right of access, as all who have spoken in this debate agree. Over and above that, there is no need for special rights, or for protection for Members against noise pollution entering their place of work. On the contrary, there should be additional rights to demonstrate around Parliament, not less. We should want people to demonstrate around here; the time to worry is when nobody can be bothered to do so.
Unusually, a Member with the sanity and perception of the Committee Chairman is telling us that it is only "long-term demonstrations" that the Committee objects to, and that the occasional short-term demonstration will be okay. He is worried about the crowding out by Mr. Haw of other demonstrations. He is worried about the intimidation of thousands of huntsmen and women by this one man's demonstration, which apparently occupies too much space in Parliament square. That such a distinguished and insightful Member can come before us with such nonsense suggests that he has been over-influenced by some of our more sensitive souls. They cannot see beyond their own minor inconvenience to detecting something in the Sessional Ordersabout the right to demonstratethat might be important in terms of protecting our rights and the people's rights.
So I shall join the rebellious Labour Back Benchers and others who are concerned about the suborning of witnesses, although I suspect that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) could have given us more recent examples of Committees being influenced. We look forward to his memoirs and to accounts of more recent Committees in which he has participated, to see whether such things do in fact happen. I shall join that rebellion and share the concern of those who want to maintain freedom of speech, and I shall insistif I canthat we see what we are meant to be voting for before we fling out the Sessional Orders. They may be archaic and arcane. They may not be noticed by many hon. Members at the start of each Session, but I suspect that they contain some things of greater importance than the grumblings of a few Conservative MPs and the inability of Government Front Benchers to detect anything of historic significance in them.
3 Nov 2004 : Column 414
In particular, I note that the Leader of the House is a man who specialised in demonstrations in the early stages of his career and I think that he was absolutely right to campaign on those issues. Yet he now comes before us to support proposals whose purpose is, inter alia, to obstruct and restrict a gentleman who has done nobody any harm and is demonstrating for a cause that is fundamentally good.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I rise to support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others because I believe that we really have a personal responsibility to defend the rights of those who have a quieter voice than ourselves.
As I have said before, we are greatly privileged to be able to express our views directly in the House to decision makers and those who run the country, and at the same time to have them expressed occasionally through the media, whether it be on television, radio or in newspapers. By comparison, our man outside, Brian Haw, has proved that people have to work pretty damn hard to get heard and have a voice by proxy in this place. To his great credit, we have had what amounts to a three-hour debate prompted in large part by his three-and-a-half year sacrifice and his willingness to inconvenience himself by virtually living outside the Palace of Westminster in the daytime.
Other hon. Members have spoken about balancing the right to demonstrate with other concerns. I would suggest that we have the balance about right in this country. I do not need to repeat what others have saidthat Brian Haw presents no danger to us; that he has not restricted our ability to come in and out of the premises. He is clearly a non-violent demonstrator, and as we know, he does not even break the law. As far as I am concerned, introducing legislation to outlaw such behaviour is in itself a crime.
I also cannot help wondering whether, if the message were different, we would be having this debate. If Brian Haw stood with his megaphone on Wednesdays as the Prime Minister left Downing street and shouted, "Up with the Prime Minister; we want four more years!" or shouted out to the Ministers before us today, "Long live the hon. Member for Don Valley!" or "Good luck to the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth. We love you!", would we be debating this gentleman as a dangerous scourge on society?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|