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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD):
Why will this matter be left to ministerial discretion? Why cannot the Bill firmly state that the distance to Trafalgar square is specific, and the square will always be available for the sort of traditional demonstrations we have all experienced over the years? I am sure that the Minister has taken part in important demonstrations there, and certainly many of her colleagues have done so. Why cannot we make the provision specific, instead of leaving the question to the
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discretion of future Ministers? One day there may be a Minister from another party who is less open-minded on the issue than the hon. Lady and her colleagues.
Caroline Flint: There is an order-making power, so the matter will return to the House. The hon. Gentleman is right: I have taken part in numerous demonstrations over the years. However, I also remember only too well when I was not allowed to demonstrate in Parliament square but was stuck on the other side of Westminster bridge and not allowed to go any further. We should acknowledge that the opportunity to demonstrate in Parliament square is not particularly old, and that we are trying to ensure that that right still exists. The commissioner will not be able to refuse anyone the right to demonstrate in Parliament square, but conditions will be attached. That has been made clear both in correspondence and discussion, in Committee and in the other place.
Amendment No. 30 responds to the concerns expressed by hon. Members on Report in February about the requirement to give at least six days' notice of any demonstration. We recognise that there should be provision for a shorter notice period in exceptional circumstances. The amendment therefore provides that where it is impracticable to give six days' notice, notification may be given not less than 24 hours before the start time of the demonstration.
Amendment No. 35 allows the Metropolitan police to give authorisation for a demonstration by fax or e-mail if organisers agree. This is particularly relevant if an organiser is unable to give six days' notice for the demonstration.
The other amendments in this group are minor technical amendments. I hope that what I have said at least demonstrates that, on a hotly debated issue, we have listened and suggested amendments. The fact that the House of Lords, where there was also strong feeling about this issue, accepted them shows what progress we have made on this issue of concern.
Mr. Mitchell: This is a sensible group of amendments and I need not detain the House for long. I just want to pick up on two points that the Minister made. The first is about amendment No. 30, which deals with Parliament square. Although there are passionate views on both sides of the argument on both sides of the House, the debate was informed by a Select Committee report. There was a unanimous view in the Committee that something needed to be done about the situationif I may describe it in that neutral wayoutside the Carriage Gates in Parliament square.
We support the thrust of amendment No. 30 and accept that in normal circumstances six days' notice is not unreasonable, but where it is unreasonable, 24 hours is the right period. We are grateful to the Government for accepting that argument, which we put clearly in Committee.
I turn now to amendment No. 64. We have some doubts about the drafting, but we are inevitably concerned, as we said in Committee, about what I would call function creep for police community support officers. We want to emphasise that while we do not oppose the amendments, we think it essential that proper detailed independent analysis be done on the
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work that CSOs carry out; any form of function creep without that proper evaluation is unwise, and in that case the Government should think again. With that small reservation, we are happy to support the amendments.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I welcome the amendments, but in doing so I still find it dispiriting that on the last day of this parliamentary Session we are restricting our constituents' rights to demonstrate in Parliament square. I accept that the amendments will make demonstrating easier than the Government originally intended. We look forward to the details of the order that will ensure that Trafalgar square is not included in this legislation in a way that would allow future Governments, perhaps capriciously advised by the police, to restrict demonstrations there.
In most of the debates, people have detailed their experiences of demonstrating in Parliament square and Trafalgar square, but I have not yet done so. We all have a bit of form on these matters. I have been arrested on demonstrations in both Trafalgar square and Parliament square, and on both occasions I was not prosecuted. In fact, on one occasion I was represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), and I received compensation from the Metropolitan police for wrongful arrest. I just wanted to get my form on the record as well. [Interruption.] I heard from the Whips some form of expression of regret that I was not detained for longer, and I can appreciate that.
In interpreting this legislation we must be clear that the proposals may in some way limit the right to demonstrate in Parliament square. As the Minister saidit needs reiteratingno police officer or Metropolitan Police Commissioner can refuse authority to demonstrate in Parliament square.
Secondly, there is nothing in the Bill that provides that there is to be a restriction on the number of applications from an individual, or a group of individuals, to demonstrate in Parliament square. The amendments make it reasonably practicable, therefore, for an individual to submit applications on a regular basis, even by fax or e-mail, to demonstrate in Parliament square, so I hope that Brian Haw has obtained a fax machine and has access to e-mail. The amendments enable him or others to submit a series of applications, almost on a daily basis, to enable them to return to Parliament square to demonstrate in a way set out in the proposed legislation, which takes into account the issue of noise.
I welcome the amendments. I think that they assist the process in which we can say that Brian Haw and others are not going away, and will not be deterred from enabling themselves to demonstrate in Parliament square in future on issues of critical importance, such as Iraq and other matters.
I start where the Minister started, which was with DNA and fingerprint identification of those who may have died. It is worth making the point that under other legislation we should make provision for people voluntarily to provide samples for DNA
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testing or fingerprints for later identification, for those who are not on the national register. It seems that we are restricting the usefulness to those whose fingerprints or DNA may be held on the national registerbut that register will not contain everyone in the country. I am not saying that that should be compulsory, but we should make provision so that for whatever purpose may be useful in future, people can say, "I would like my samples and my fingerprints to be available where necessary." It is a point for the future. I welcome the provision made so far. The House will note that the Minister said that this is not only for the tsunami disaster but for other occasionswe cannot anticipate what they would be.
The ability to demonstrate is important. Indeed, it is vital, but I am a traditionalist in that I was brought up with the idea that there could not be placards too close to the Houses of Parliament, and that demonstrations would break off when they came past Parliament. It would be better if we returned to that situation. There is the question of transition. The noisy encampment that we have had outside Parliament has not been a blessing. The fact is that it has happened. The sooner we can ensure that people can protest in a way that does not cause health and safety problems for those who service this place, and the general public, the better. If it is goodbye Mr. Haw, then goodbye.
Caroline Flint: Clause 124 and schedule 10 are fundamentally about protecting vulnerable communities and closing an inequality in law that is exploited by those who seek to cause damage to those communities. By introducing incitement to religious hatred, we sought to deliver justice and fairness to members of all faiths, and I am sorely disappointed that the Opposition parties in the other place have chosen not to support the provision.
There is no ulterior motive for introducing the proposed offence. We have been committed to doing so for some time. In fact, it was considered as early as 1986, when it was rejected because there was not felt to be a problem to address at the time. We introduced an almost identical offence in 2001, shortly after 11 September and the disturbances in Bradford and Burnley. That was rejected because it was felt that the provision should not be included in an anti-terrorism Bill.
We have, however, remained committed to providing the protection needed since 2001. We listened carefully to the consideration of evidence by the House of Lords Select Committee, when the police informed the Committee that the offence could have helped to prevent
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the disturbances in Bradford and Burnley. We listened carefully when a wide range of faith communities twice asked us to extend the protection now available only to Jews and Sikhs, to ensure equity of protection in law. We tried to respond to that call. Other support has come from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Commission for Racial Equality, Justice, the Law Society and many other organisations.
To move forward on this issue, we replicated the offence of incitement to racial hatred, which for nearly 20 years has provided protection for Jews and Sikhs, without being misused or placing unnecessary restrictions on free speech. I am baffled by those who oppose the offence on the ground of its so-called loose wording. Clause 124 uses exactly the same wording as the provision that protects Jews and Sikhs already. I am equally baffled by those who would argue that Jews and Sikhs should have greater protection in law than Muslims, Hindus, Christians or Buddhists, despite the evidence from the police and the faith communities.
The only restrictions that we have seen as a result of the incitement to racial hatred offence are those that have helped to change our culture for the better. The offence has helped to set boundaries around what is acceptable behaviour and language in our society.
Clause 124 and schedule 10 are a crucial test of the society that we want to create. By supporting the Government's proposals, the Opposition parties would have sent a clear message about society's disapproval of those who abuse the loophole in the law to promote hatred of others because of their faith. Such behaviour has no place in modern Britain.
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