Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Heath: A person does not even have to demonstrate; they just have to look unpleasant.

Mr. Grieve: As the hon. Gentleman says, one just has to stand there. It seems to me that the provisions of the clause are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They are conferring powers that make me uncomfortable. The Minister will have to provide detailed justification for why the provisions are necessary.

I also share the puzzlement of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome as to why existing law cannot deal with the problem on Parliament square. I can see that other provisions in the section could have a general application that is worthy. Again, I share entirely the view of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the exception for the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 is bizarre, although I do not share his view about a public procession because, in such a case, one has to get prior permission. I can, therefore, see that that is a justifiable exception.

Mr. Heath: I do not entirely understand why the hon. Gentleman accepts that. It does not matter whether prior permission has been given; if a
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procession, although it is legal in terms of having gained prior permission, impedes a Member of Parliament attending a vote, it is equally culpable.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman may be wrong, because Standing Orders of the House apply even in the event of a public procession, so the rights of Members of Parliament not to be impeded in entering the House of Commons would persist even if there were a demonstration. The Minister can doubtless clarify that.

Mr. Heath: My understanding was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had indicated that he did not believe that he had the powers to execute the Sessional Orders given by Parliament to require that very thing. That is one of the reasons, I believe, why we have subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b).

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate that, and this would, doubtless, potentially replace that part of the Sessional Orders. On the other hand, it is worth bearing in mind when looking at subsection (11)(b), that as written notice has to be given for a demonstration under the Public Order Act 1986, if a demonstration were being properly conducted, one could expect provision to be made to ensure that Members of Parliament could continue to have access to Parliament while it was taking place. Let us face it, I can think of a number of demonstrations outside Parliament during the past eight years that have made access very difficult. Indeed, I can think of even more in the dim and distant past when people expressed their opinions even more vociferously than they do today. I am not over-troubled by that, but I share the view that there is something slightly wacky about putting in an exemption for the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and not for anything else.

The other amendment, which the Minister will have seen, suggests a designated area of 250 m. I share the view that 1 km is a very wide area. It covers, rather conveniently, the whole central Government area in London. That has nothing to do with demonstrations outside Parliament. I cannot possibly support a 1 km total exclusion zone round the Palace of Westminster. It must be drawn far more narrowly and I suggest that it would be sensible to draw it with reference to a map, rather than just putting a circle round the edges of Parliament square. That would be a better way of achieving the desired effect. It is possible to come quite a long way into Parliament square without causing a problem. I wait to hear what the Minister has to say, but I feel that aspects of the clause are excessive.

Caroline Flint: We had an extensive debate on the Floor of the House on this issue, and members of all parties made their views known, including the Shadow Leader of the House, who welcomed clarification on the matter. Let me deal with the questions of processions, marches and trade unions. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has highlighted, legislation exists to deal with disruptive demonstrations in Parliament square; marches have to be agreed with the
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Metropolitan police service, which can place conditions on them that include not impeding the workings of Parliament.

Secondly, there are strict rules under trade union legislation with regard to the way in which pickets can be organised, and those cover the obstruction of people accessing workplaces. Therefore, we oppose the amendments because they will take away the protection of trade unionists, some of whom work in this building, to exercise their rights. The current legislation covers how a picket line can be organised and how industrial protests can take place, and that includes tackling obstruction. It does not contradict the clauses before us.

6.15 pm

Amendment No. 190 removes the police's option of giving a direction to anyone spoiling the visual aspect or otherwise spoiling enjoyment by members of the public of any part of the designated area. That was debated on the Floor of the House. A number of people are concerned about the proliferation of banners, posters, placards, chairs and camp beds outside the Houses of Parliament. That is not just the Mayor of London: the Conservative-run Westminster council tried, through civil proceedings, to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, it failed; the judgment went against it. It is not for want of trying other ways to deal with the issue.

We are not against people protesting in Parliament square. The measures before us today will not prevent that. They will still ensure that people have a right to protest, but there is an issue about the conditions in which that protest should take place. There is clear guidance under present legislation on what directions and conditions can be laid down for procession or assemblies of more than two people, but we have found a gap. The fact that Parliament square is an important world heritage site should be taken into consideration. As a constituency MP, I would not be happy about some of the heritage sites in my constituency being surrounded by those sorts of display. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome may surprise me here, but would he be prepared to tell his constituents that he would be happy to have what we currently have in Parliament square at any of the heritage sites in his constituency?

The provision is about proportion and saying that people can carry placards. Perhaps one direction can be that people can have as many placards as they individually can carry. That might be a way of people demonstrating their point of view with a visual display. It is about what is proportionate. We live in a country where anyone can come into the House of Commons and seek their MP in Central Lobby. There are countless ways in which they can make their views known. It is unfair to suggest that we are somehow denying people their democratic right to protest.

Amendment No. 192 asks that the officer who gives the direction must be at least of the rank of inspector. That would cause operational difficulties for the police
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if there were not an inspector at the scene and they had to wait for an inspector to impose the direction. I am sure that hon. Members whose passage to the House was being blocked would be unhappy if a sergeant or constable at the scene explained that they could not impose a direction until an inspector had arrived. We have the added safeguard that the officer who gives the direction should be the most senior in rank at the scene. That is in line with current powers to impose conditions on public assemblies in section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986.

Amendments Nos. 307 and 193 seek to limit the area to which this applies. I understand where the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Beaconsfield are coming from on this issue. We intend to lay an order with a precise area to be covered, and we intend to consult the Metropolitan police. It will cover the area where the demonstrations will disrupt the work of Parliament and hinder access to the House. Parliament could mean Millbank, 1 Parliament street or Norman Shaw. We have to map out the buildings of Parliament that would be affected. Unfortunately 1 km may be excessive, but 100 m or 250 m might not incorporate some of those other buildings.

Mr. Grieve: That makes much more sense. I suggest that we have a definitive map showing the area in which it would operate, so that everyone can understand exactly what the consequences would be.

Caroline Flint: That is a fair point. As I say, it will ensure that parliamentary buildings are covered.

Amendments Nos. 194 and 308 would remove the exemptions for legitimate trade union disputes and marches that are notified in advance. I hope that I have explained why it is not appropriate to remove those provisions. We want to make it clear to the police that they cannot use those powers for those who are peacefully picketing but for those whose offices are in a designated area. It is therefore appropriate that the police can use those powers against those who are frustrating the workings of Parliament.

I have no more to say. We have tried to resolve matters in a number of ways, but we have not been successful. We want to make sure that people can protest, but there are limits on how they should be able to do it, and we have to take account of how it affects Parliament.

Mr. Mitchell: I am most grateful to the Minister for her response. It is a difficult issue. I am concerned about the encampment that exists for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, but I am equally nervous about the approach taken in clause 123. On Second Reading, I said that I thought that it would be appropriate for the matter to be decided on Report, as it clearly will be, because there is still a range of views across the House on the right
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way to deal with the problem. There are other ways of dealing with it apart from the way enshrined in the clause, but I am in two minds over the matter.

It may help if I say that the advice that we will be giving through the usual channels is not to Whip the vote on Report on this question. I do not know whether that advice will be taken, but on that basis we would seek to withdraw the amendment.

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