Caroline Flint: I take my hon. Friend's point. I emphasise that our aim is not to prevent people from exercising their right of free speech. We simply believe that, in certain circumstances, certain conditions should be imposed because of the nature of the area in question. If I am allowed to make progress, I shall discuss the way in which the geographical area may be defined.
Neither the hon. Gentleman nor his party has a monopoly on defending the right of free speech. I defend that right and I have protested on a number of occasions in the pastindeed, I remember a time when I was not allowed to cross the bridge because of the restrictions then in place. I repeat, we are not denying people the right to protest in the area around Parliament. We are simply saying that, while
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recognising people's right to protest, we have to deal with some of the problems that Members of this House have raised in good faith.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): When the Minister was protesting, did she use a loudspeaker? I am concerned about new clause 23, because a fine of £5,000 for unauthorised use of a loudspeaker seems to me
Caroline Flint: In fact, I do not recall using a loudhailer. Some would say that I had a big enough voice on me without one. However, there are issues relating to the use of equipment to amplify voice, one of which is its impact, day in, day out, minute by minute, on those who work in Parliament, whether they are elected representatives or staff of the House.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): As the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I made it clear in the debate we had some time ago that we are not trying to stop people protesting or making their voice heard. Will the Minister ask those who are concerned about what we are trying to do whether they have read the evidence given to our Committee by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Clerk of the House, the Serjeant at Arms and Members of Parliament, who expressed grave concernparticularly the Metropolitan Police Commissioner on the ground of security? Had they done so, they would be far more sympathetic to the case she is making, which from the Opposition Benches I warmly support.
Caroline Flint: I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is for other Members to say whether they have read the full evidence. The Government have considered all the views expressed both by those who are concerned about measures that they believe might curtail protest and freedom of speech, and by those for whom such protests have become a real problem in terms of security and in terms of hindering the operations of the House.
Sir Patrick Cormack: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), I support the Minister, and thank her for what she is doing. Has she talked to members of staff in Portcullis house and 1 Parliament street, as well as the police who are on duty at Members entrance day after day, as their lives are made intolerable by those people baying away, without a crowd to address, merely repeating themselves ad nauseam? The hon. Lady has the full support of every right thinking person in the House.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Individuals can make a protest, but there are genuine concerns when that protest voice is amplified, affecting people who are carrying out their jobs. In many other circumstances, hon. Members protect the health and
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safety rights of individuals working in certain environments. That is partly what we are trying to address, and that is why the House authorities are concerned about the problem.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I, too, join my hon. Friends in saying that it is most unfortunate that staff in the House have had to put up with a cacophony of debilitating noise. As we are debating the issue, the noise continues. There is not an audience out therethe only audience are the staff of the House, and I am surprised that they have put up with it for so long. Does the Minister agree that if the judges had been more reasonable in their interpretation of the original measure to remove an abuse of freedom of expression, we might not have needed to pass new legislation to deal with an isolated problem and an abuse of free speech?
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): Has any representative of an environmental body attempted to measure the level of noise from the demonstrators in Parliament square? Does it in fact exceed the noise that exudes from Big Ben every 15 minutes? Does it exceed the noise of Division bells which, as we have heard this evening, can be frequently rung? The Bill attempts to silence one particular protester, who has been there for a considerable period. Far from attempting to silence him, every hon. Member should be extremely proud that we live in a society where he can continue to express his concerns.
Caroline Flint: I am very proud that we live in a society where people can express their point of view. However, I challenge my hon. Friend to spend a day out there and see how it feels listening to that noise. I wonder whether she could get on with her parliamentary work listening to it day in, day out, minute by minute. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) asked about the penalty for the use of loud hailers. It is the same penalty as applies under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which deals with the use of loud hailers at night.
Glenda Jackson: My hon. Friend invited me to spend a day out there. My office in 1 Parliament street is certainly open to what she and other hon. Members regard as unbearable noiseI regard it as the voice of democracy. I would point out to her that in my previous work experience one of the first things we had to learn was the ability to concentrate regardless of exterior noise or sound.
I am not persuaded by the Government's case, but may I ask the Minister about
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something specific? I accept that, in general, demonstrators need to give six days' notice, but we often do things at a day's notice in the house. Where do people who want to protest about something that the Government suddenly announce or introduce in Parliament go so that we can hear and see them, and there is a relationship between the people and their Parliament?
Caroline Flint: I do not think that there is a shortage of opportunities for people to protest and express their point of view. Week in, week out, while the House is sitting, there are lobbies of Parliament. People have free access to the Commons, and can come to Central Lobby and demand to see their Member of Parliament. I do not believe that there is a lack of opportunity for people to express their point of view. If one person, who may have a huge amount of paraphernalia and loud hailers, wants to hold a demonstration, they should seek the authority to do so, just as people holding a procession do.
Caroline Flint: No, I shall make progress and describe how we see the provision working in relation to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. When notice of a demonstration is given, the commissioner must authorise the demonstration. I emphasise that, in response to concerns about whether people would be allowed to make their protest and express their point of view. However, the commissioner may attach conditions for the purpose of preventing any of the following, which are listed in new clause 20: hindrance to any person wishing to enter or leave the Palace of Westminster; hindrance to the proper operation of Parliament; serious public disorder; serious damage to property; disruption to the life of the community; a security risk in any part of the designated area; or risk to the safety of members of the public, including those taking part in the demonstration.
Those conditions are more helpful than the original provisions in the Bill. Hon. Members may not know that officers from Charing Cross police station currently make regular visits to the site in Parliament square to check behind paraphernalia for devices left not by the people who are protesting, but by people who might use the protest for their own motives to cause a security problem. Some of my hon. Friends laugh at that, but these issues are taken seriously by the police. There are questions about how much police time should be spent unnecessarily checking behind placards, fixed posters and so on. Conditions attached to authorised demonstrations would make matters much easier for the police.