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Kate Hoey: Like other hon. Members, I am not minded to support the Minister on this point. Since when did this country start using kilometres and metres? Surely, if we are to put anything about area in the Bill, it should be in the terminology that people understand.
Caroline Flint: As we enter the 21st century, most children at school, including mine, are being taught in centimetres and metres. I think that those are appropriate measures to use, but we will differ on that issue, I am sure.
Caroline Flint: Let me just make this point. The clauses that we have framed show that we have listened to concerns expressed inside and outside the Committee, about what is appropriate and proportionate. I believe strongly that providing for advance notification means that we can have greater consistency in the process than if we just leave the matter to an individual police officer, because the person who gets the authority for the process will have it in writing and will be able to provide that if they are challenged by any police officer in the area around Parliament.
There is a difficult balance to be struck. There is, and will continue to be, a longstanding tradition in this country that people are free to gather together to demonstrate their views, provided that they do so within the law. Equally, access to Parliament must be maintained, and those living and working around Parliament should be able to do so in safety and free from harassment.
Those who organise demonstrations around Parliament should notify the Metropolitan police in advance, and the police should impose conditions in advance depending on the circumstances of each demonstration. That is the most effective way of achieving what we want, and of resolving the problem that has emerged. The issue is not just about one individual; it is about the fact that the problems of the past few years could be taken on by other individuals as well, and we need to deal with that. I state again that everyone is entitled to their point of view, but sometimes there have to be conditions on how that point of view is put across.
The Minister is right when she says that what she has come up with this evening is much better than what was before the Committee. That was frankly dreadful and this is an improvement on it, but there are several issues that the House ought to consider. Conservative Members will have a free vote on the subject, as it is a matter for Parliament.
My first point is that the system requiring authorisation for demonstration is one with which I do not disagree, but I am concerned that, under the provision, one should give not less than six clear days' notice. If that is the case, it means that any rapidly organised demonstration in response to a specific political event or situation will be impossible. If, for example, in response to an emergency, Parliament was about to vote to go to war, it would not be possible for demonstrators to stand in Parliament square to express their view. I simply cannot accept that it will require six days for the police to decide on such an authorisation. I hope that the Under-Secretary will assure us this evening that that matter will be revisited in the other place and that the period can be reduced substantially.
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Caroline Flint: It will be open for people to demonstrate outside the designated area, away from Parliament square. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] However, we are considering a shorter period of notice for exceptional circumstances, such as an emergency. We are looking into that but the circumstances would have to be exceptional for such a demonstration.
The second problem is that we will delegate all the responsibility to the commissioner. I accept that the commissioner has to make difficult decisions but the matter is political and I wonder whether it is fair on him to have such choices and responsibilities delegated to him. That causes me some anxiety.
Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the provisions focus on one man, Brian Haw? Does he also agree that that puts political pressure on the commissioner to make a judgment on whether Brian Haw's demonstration is acceptable? The crucial point is that it shifts political judgment in the wrong direction and takes us away from it.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. When the measure was originally framed, I shared that view strongly. Speaking for myself, I could accept the idea of a regulatory framework to prevent excesses in Parliament square. I am focusing on my anxieties, which are about the commissioner, the ludicrous, unacceptable time for notification and the designated area, which I mentioned earlier.
There is no need for a designated area of 1 km around Parliament square. I heartily agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) that the distance should be expressed in miles or yards. Frankly, we do not need milesyards are sufficient. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) tabled an amendment that would provide for an area of 200 yd. That is eminently sensible.
That brings me to my final point. All the amendments that hon. Members have tabled are redundant because the moment we vote on the clauses, all possibility of further amendment falls. That shows how ludicrous it is to consider those matters on Report. I require concrete assurances. I shall either abstain or vote against the new clauses. I shall abstain if I have a concrete assurance that the deficiencies will be adequately remedied; otherwise, with regret, I shall have to vote against at least some of the new clauses.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab):
The process that we are going through tonight is absolutely shambolic. We have tabled amendments to what we
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thought were the proposals in the legislation, only to discover that the Secretary of State has signed our amendmentsI thought that we had achieved a revolutionary position at one pointand other amendments have been tabled that are an absolute travesty. This is not just a question of not having time to debate these issues.
That could include Methodist central hall, Westminster Abbey or Trafalgar square. Spontaneous demonstrations will no longer be possible. Worse, if I get permission to hold a demonstration, having given my six days' notice, and someone sees me demonstrating and thinks, "That's a good idea. I'll go and join him", that person would be committing an offence. As the organiser of the demonstration, I would have a defence, but I might have committed the crime of incitement. So I could go down for 51 weeks or a year, not for organising the demonstration but for incitement. What is the definition of incitement? A phone call to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) the night before?
Simon Hughes: One demonstration could take place, having given notice, but there might then be no opportunity for another demonstration to take place at the same time on what could be a hugely important and divisive issue.
John McDonnell: So, by the sound of it, we can no longer have competing demonstrations to counterbalance each other. In addition, the powers that the measure gives to the commissioner are absolutely staggering, and there is no provision for them to be circumscribed in the future, or for setting guidelines on them. Is the commissioner really to have the opportunity to designate how many people can turn up to a demonstration, how many placards they can bring and what the design of the placards should be? Is that what we employ the Metropolitan Police Commissioner for? He is going to have a wonderful time choosing between the different designs on Brian Haw's placards.
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