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Would that life were as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests. What I am actually saying is that
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somewhere between then and now there has been a change in the law. There has been a change in the rules and it looks as though it must have been brought in under the last Conservative Government in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, because according to a letter sent to me by Westminster council,
"section 79(1)(ga) defines noise that is prejudicial to health or a nuisance and is emitted or caused by a vehicle, machinery or equipment in a street, as a statutory nuisance. However, section 79(6A) provides that section 79(1)(ga) does not apply to noise made by a political demonstration or a demonstration supporting or opposing a cause or a campaign."
The fact is, we have heard a lot of humbug talked about freedom of speech. We have freedom of speech in this Chamber; we each put forward our differing views. When we have had our say, we let the other person have his. We sit down, we shut up and we listen. We do not go on shouting in the face of the other person whether he wants to listen or not. We obey the rules. That is not happening in Parliament square.
I have taken the trouble to go across and have extensive conversations with Brian Haw and I take much very much to heart the comments of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who tried to suggest that those of us who oppose the racket that Brian is making do so because we hate his message. I ask the hon. Gentleman and others to accept my sincerity when I say that I would take the same approach to anyone who demonstrated in the same way for a cause in which I passionately believed and who went on making a racket that was designed not to address the people who had come to hear the message but to penetrate the building of people who were trying to get on with their work, looking after the interests of their constituents.
Perhaps some of those who speak so glibly about the noise have offices that are somewhat better insulated than mine, but I assure them that it is very difficult to do one's work when there is a constant racket and a barrage of noise the words of which cannot even be heard clearly. It is a row, and it is made not to get a message across or in the interests of free speech but to harass and annoy parliamentarians. That is the beginning and end of it. Nothing other than a change in the law will prevent this abuse from continuing.
I am relatively agnostic on whether or Brian or anybody else ought to be able to demonstrate in Parliament square. I have spoken to him and I admire his commitment to his cause. I will make a point that no one else has made. I know that one of his motivations results from the fact that his father went into and liberated one of the Nazi concentration camps. With my family background, I have every reason to hold anyone motivated in that way in the highest regard.
I do not think that Brian used to make all this noise in the earlier part of his campaign, and when he did not make the noise and just put his message across, I had very little, if anything, to say about what he was doing. However, I now think that he has taken freedom of speech into areas that become an abuse of free speech. There is no freedom to impinge on the freedom of other people. That is what he is doing.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): We have had a very interesting debate, with 13 speeches from the Back Benches in addition to those from the Front-Bench Opposition spokespersons.
As a Home Office Minister, I will concentrate on the demonstrations in Parliament square, and while there has been a great deal of discussion about one individual, the legislation that we will introduce is not just about that individual: it is about dealing with a number of issues relating to both long-term and short-term demonstrations in the area around Parliament. It is important to address such issues.
"in an individual's right to protest but must be balanced with the security of protection from harassment and that protests outside Parliament are addressed. Londoners' safety could be seriously jeopardised by violent demonstrations around Parliament and Parliament Square. Current legislation provides a degree of safety for the Houses of Parliament, however recent demonstrations suggests they are insufficient."
I too have demonstrated, and perhaps like other Members, I remember the time when I could not cross Westminster bridge to demonstrate. There has been much discussion about the right to free speech and to demonstrate, but some of the contributions to the debate suggested that that right does not exist in this country. The right does exist in this country, and it does so to a much greater extent than in many other countries throughout the world, including Iraq under Saddam Hussein, whom Mr. Haw advocated that we should do nothing about. The matter is important, and as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said, we must examine the detail of the legislation when we introduce it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked about consultation. Consultation has occurred on new police powers and we have seen the publication of the consultation paper, "Modernising Police Powers to Meet Community Needs". The public consultation process lasted for 12 weeks and closed only recently.
Like several hon. Members, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) suggested that the powers were being designed to deal with only one individual. I do not know whether this will reassure him, but I re-emphasise the fact that the plans that we intend to introduce will allow the police to place conditions on all short and long-term demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament.
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) on his work on the Procedure Committee and thank him for his support. He raised a point about the important question of passes. Police officers and staff of the House who ask to see people's passes do so because they are trying to protect us and our security. I am sometimes guilty of not wearing my pass, but I am glad to do so today. We must appreciate the situation and act responsibly.
The Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), made an excellent speech. He has been accused of many things during the debate, such as preventing Parliament from scrutinising the Executive and doing away with traditions that should be part and parcel of Parliament in the future. He is the last person who could be accused of doing such things. He and his colleagues on the Procedure Committee have tried to make sensible suggestions about the way forward and have rightly taken heed of hon. Members' concerns. In preparation for our debate, I read the report of the Westminster Hall debateI did not attend itin which many hon. Members participated, including the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), to express people's worries about the way in which free speech can sometimes be abused. There must be a sense of order behind the way in which free speech may be expressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised several points about witnesses. I am assured by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House that his worries about witnesses are covered by other statutes. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, a debate is currently being held within the Liaison Committee on whether there is a clear way in which witnesses who are brought before Committees could be advised of their rights and responsibilities when giving evidence, which is a good idea.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire made a balanced contribution. The Government do not intend to ban demonstrations, so we are in accord with him on that point. We are saying that, given the times in which we live, we must consider hon. Members' access to Parliament and the protection of not only Members of Parliament and those who work here but other people who meet and gather in the square. When we introduce the legislation, we will have a full chance to debate how we may achieve that and deal with the obvious problems that exist while maintaining people's right to protest. It is absurd to suggest that the actions that we intend to take will deny people the right to express their views.
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