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Standing Committee Debates

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Martyn Jones

†Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
†Cohen, Harry (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
†Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
†Goggins, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
†Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
†Herbert, Mr. Nick (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
†Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
†Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
†Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
†Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
†Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
†Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
†Ryan, Joan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
†Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
†Wareing, Mr. Robert N. (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
Frank Cranmer, John Gearson, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

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Wednesday 12 October 2005

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005
(Designated Area) Order 2005

2.30 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Designated Area) Order 2005 (S.I. 2005, No. 1537).

Having got the formalities out of the way, perhaps I can deal with the substance of this extraordinary order. At first sight, the legislation appears to be of quite stunning incompetence because, as has already been pointed out outside the House, the one person in the whole country to whom it was designed to apply is the one person in the whole country to whom it does not apply, as was established when it was tested in the courts. Therefore, there is a serious extension of powers in a very large part of central London that fails in its first intent, which is to deal with the nuisance, as some would have it, that has been occasioned in Parliament square. However, the issue is much more serious than the order’s ineptitude in dealing with that one individual and his prolonged demonstration against Government policy, because it has the capacity to affect a very large number of people who simply want to exercise their democratic right to exhibit their dissent to Government policy in the place that is, I hope, at the centre of our parliamentary democracy.

May I take the Committee back briefly to the genesis of this aspect of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005? The original proposals were put before the Standing Committee, on which I had the honour and pleasure to serve, in a form that was absurd in the extreme. At that point, the Government were suggesting that a police officer in no higher office than that of constable could, on his own say-so, determine that an individual whom he found in Parliament square was to the visual detriment of Parliament square, that that person could be subject to a criminal sanction for being to the visual detriment of Parliament square, and that unless that person was prepared to remove themselves to a considerable distance—1 km—away from Parliament, they could be subject to criminal sanction. That was widely ridiculed at the time.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Rightly so.

Mr. Heath: As my hon. Friend says, rightly so. The measure was changed slightly when the Bill returned on Report. The decision on whether someone was to the visual detriment of the square was, sensibly,
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dropped. Instead, there was, in effect, a blanket ban on anyone demonstrating without notice having been given to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Permission had to be given a number of days before the event. The legislation meant that a demonstration need comprise no more than a single person, so any one of us, were we not esteemed Members of Parliament, could be considered to be a demonstration if we happened to be holding a piece of paper somewhere in the vicinity of Parliament, and could be acted against on the basis that we did not have prior permission to exercise the right of demonstration. That is draconian and bizarre in its implications.

The measure would be bad enough if it were for the immediate protection of Parliament—I would argue against it, as Parliament square is a crucial part of our national democratic life—but it became clear during the Committee stage and on Report that the Government were not content simply to protect the movement of Members into and out of the Houses of Parliament. They proposed to extend the measure. Originally they denied that. When I asked about the extent of the banned area, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who was then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, said:

    “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.”

We therefore had a clear commitment from her that the proposal was to protect parliamentary buildings, Parliament and the exercise of our duties in this House. I was not entirely persuaded by her assertion. I replied:

    “I am glad that the Minister is reconsidering her 1 km zone, but I bet that when we get the definitive map, it will not cover only parliamentary buildings. I bet that it goes up Whitehall. I shall be amazed if the Government do not wish also to protect the surroundings of 10 Downing street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but we shall see. I give her the benefit of the doubt—for the moment.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 20 January 2005; cc. 439-440.]

Mr. Carmichael: Foolish

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend thinks I was foolish. I wish I had placed that bet because I would have won it with handsome odds. When we got to Report, we still had a profession that the measure was to have limited scope, but it had subtly changed: it covered not just parliamentary but Government buildings. There had been shift, but we still received assurances from the Minister that it would go no further and that 1 km was clearly excessive. She would consider—this was in response to a point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)—a much more limited scope but she wanted to take advice on how to map the area around Parliament and Government buildings.

We can reasonably say that we were surprised to find when the order was published that it is not precisely a 1 km ring around the Houses of Parliament, but it comes jolly close to it. It goes up to Trafalgar square along Whitehall—I won my bet in that respect.
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It covers Downing street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I was not entirely surprised about that. It covers those well known Government buildings, St Thomas’s hospital, County hall and the London eye. It covers the civil service recreation centre and Horseferry Road magistrates court.

In case Ministers would be in some way inconvenienced it also includes Grey Coat hospital school. It has a strange little lump at its lowest extent on Millbank, presumably to ensure that Pizza Express is included, as I cannot think of any other important buildings in that area that otherwise need to be covered by a strange little extension.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I am in danger of falling into the trap of not taking the hon. Member seriously because he was making a joke. I am sure that he knows that the building next door to Pizza Express is MI5 and the Northern Ireland Office. It strikes me as strange. His arguments are perfectly good ones. I am sorry that I interrupted him. I should not have done.

Mr. Heath: The hon. and learned Gentleman is in danger of not taking me seriously by not recognising the fact that I did know what those buildings were. I am surprised that MI6 does not appear to have the same protection a little further down the river, but apparently it does not need it.

Therefore, we have a quite extraordinary extension of the area, yet at no point has Parliament been given any justification for it. At no point has it been explained that the order is necessary in order to protect the environs of Parliament, which was what it was supposed to do. Arbitrarily, we now have an extension over a large part of the immediate area around Westminster of a no-demonstration zone. That begs the question of how the order is being used and what its operational consequences are.

I would be grateful if the Minister told me how many authorisations have been given for demonstrations to take place since the order came into effect. I am sure that he will have been given that information before coming to Committee. For example, there was a large demonstration yesterday against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Was that authorised?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I would obviously have provided the Committee with this information when I made my contribution, but it is helpful for the Committee to know now that the number of applications to hold demonstrations since the order came into force is 66.

Mr. Heath: I wonder whether the Minister can go on from that to say whether that comprises all the demonstrations that have taken place in that period, or are we talking about some and not others? If an unauthorised demonstration has taken place, is it without exception the case that the Metropolitan police have then intervened?

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Paul Goggins: That is a rather convoluted way of asking whether any people have broken the law since the order came into force. The answer to that question is yes—a number of people have. Eighteen people have been arrested by the Metropolitan police for participating in unauthorised demonstrations. Those people clearly were testing the law. They were arrested and they will be dealt with. The number of demonstrations that have taken place for which an application was received in the proper way is 66.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for that. I knew that 18 arrests had been made, because that was my next point. What I am interested in knowing is whether some demonstrations are more valid than others; whether there is a quality assessment by the Metropolitan police as to which demonstrations it will apply that particular requirement to; whether the terms of the order are applied rigorously to the spontaneous demonstrations that happen almost daily; and whether sometimes the order matters and sometimes not.

The majority, if not all, of the 18 arrests were of people who were here on a Sunday afternoon having a picnic on Parliament square. It seems to me that to have a picnic on Parliament square does not represent a serious threat to public order. That begs the question of why those arrests were made. We know why the Government introduced these proposals—they are in section 134(3) of the 2005 Act. The purpose of subsection (3)(a) is to stop

    “hindrance to any person wishing to enter or leave the Palace of Westminster”.

Somebody having a picnic in Parliament square is unlikely to hinder seriously anyone entering or leaving Parliament.

The purpose of subsection (3)(b) is to prevent

    “hindrance to the proper operation of Parliament”.

Parliament has not sat for the past three months, so I doubt whether there has been any serious hindrance to its proper operation.

The purpose of subsection (3)(c) is to prevent “serious public disorder”. I know of no serious public disorder associated with those arrests. The purpose of subsection (3)(d) is to prevent “serious damage to property”. Again I know of no damage to property. The matters are sub judice, so we probably will not be able to hear the details, but I am not aware of any damage caused.

The purpose of subsection (3)(e) is to prevent

    “disruption to the life of the community”.

The community of Parliament square appears to have carried on reasonably well in the interim period—all those residents who have had their lives disrupted seem to have managed all right.

The purpose of subsection (3)(f) is to prevent

    “a security risk in any part of the designated area”.

We know all about security risks. Pensioners outside a party conference can be considered a security risk when it is convenient to the Executive to call them a security risk. We are now entering a Kafkaesque area of definitions. The purpose of subsection (3)(g) is to prevent

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    “risk to the safety of members of the public (including any taking part in the demonstration).”

I am willing to be persuaded by the Minister that those arrests were required in order to achieve those objectives. However, I find it difficult to believe that, if the sole problem, so far as I can ascertain, with people having a picnic in Parliament square is that they have not asked for the permission of a police officer, that is a sufficient reason for criminalising them. That is the effect of the order, which makes it a criminal act to come to the centre of our capital city and say something that the Government do not like outside Parliament, and in a great deal of other areas. That is a serious blow to democratic expression in this country.

It is arguable—I understand the arguments advanced by senior hon. Members—that the present demonstration, which has been there a very long time, may on occasion cause nuisance to people. I understand people who say that; I do not agree with them, but I understand at least that they have an arguable case. However, if that is the case, surely civil remedy is the right response, not mass criminalisation, which is what the Government have decided on as their alternative. We can conclude only that this Government are not prepared to tolerate visible dissent, and will criminalise it and exercise those laws with rigour against people whom they do not like the look of.

I believe that the order, if it is required at all, is excessive and, if not excessive, incompetent. We are doing a service to the Government to suggest that the right move would be to annul it now and, if necessary, to start again with a civil remedy, although I do not accept that necessity. We, as the House of Commons, should not tolerate a wholly disproportionate and undemocratic curtailment of free speech in this country.

2.47 pm

Mr. Garnier: I agree wholeheartedly with everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has just said, so I hope that I can conclude my remarks with some speed.

It is possible to be illiberal and effective, and one could say that some of the former regimes that ran the former iron curtain countries were, in their illiberality, quite effective in suppressing freedom of speech and other freedoms. It is also possible to be illiberal and ineffective, and we are increasingly faced with a Government who are demonstrating themselves to be wholly lacking in self-confidence, desperately illiberal and increasingly ineffective in persuading the public that what they have in mind is sensible and efficacious in dealing with perceived problems. I say “perceived” because many problems that the Government come up with are more imagined than real.

Looking at the papers that the Government have produced for this debate, I shall begin by considering the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the statutory instrument. One goes straight to paragraph 6 because, as you will remember, Mr. Jones, when the
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right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was Home Secretary, he introduced on behalf of the Government the Human Rights Act 1998. They trumpeted the fact that they were bringing human rights home—not that that was an expression that I found particularly interesting because, as far as I could see, the courts had been wary of allowing people’s rights to be trampled upon by the Government. However, they introduced the Human Rights Act, domesticated the European convention on human rights and made it justiciable in our courts, and now the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, if it does not do much, certainly affects people’s human rights. Yet, under paragraph 6 of the explanatory memorandum, the European convention is apparently “not applicable”. I thought that it was my right under the convention to express myself freely and to assemble with my fellow citizens to express a view that might, for example, be contrary to the political aims of a particular Government. But according to this Government, the convention simply does not apply to this proposal. I find that puzzling.

We are faced with a disproportionate attack on the freedoms of the individual and we are facing an arbitrary interference with those rights. Some rights are properly interfered with in the greater interests of national security and of preventing crime, but I have yet to find an explanation in the Hansard reports of the debate on Second Reading, consideration in Committee and Third Reading of the Bill, and nothing in the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the order, that gives me any comfort whatever that the Government have seriously applied their mind to what they are doing.

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, this part of the Act was designed to get rid of one particular individual, whose activities, if one had a room overlooking Parliament square, as I do, were mildly inconvenient—at 5 o’clock most evenings, someone starts up on a loudspeaker system—but being a Member of Parliament is not always convenient, and neither is being in government. The citizen’s duty is not to make himself convenient to the Government; it is the Government’s duty to make themselves convenient to the citizen.

We seem to be facing a regime under this Prime Minister that has wholly overturned the proper relationships between the citizen and the state. One had only to listen to the Prime Minister at his press conference yesterday or to his ranting on at Prime Minister’s questions this afternoon to know that we are facing a completely different category of Government from any that I have seen in my adult lifetime. Members of the Government party used to think that Lady Thatcher was a tyrant—[Interruption.] Even intelligent medical practitioners, when they have not had their medicine, find that amusing, which is gratifying. The one thing this Government cannot stand is ridicule, which is one thing that this provision invites. It is absurd to attack the activities of one man by means of this criminal legislation.

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One has only to look at the content of the order to see the designated area, which we cannot amend. We either have to accept it in full or strike it down in full. I urge members of the Committee, if they have any idea about the seriousness of the chaotic nature of the Government’s policies in this regard, to vote it down, because we would be doing the public, and indeed the Government, a service if we were to do so.

Let us consider the outline of the total exclusion zone. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, it goes halfway up to Westminster cathedral, along Millbank towards the Tate gallery and on the other side of the river, incorporating St. Thomas’s hospital and the other tourist sites that he mentioned. I dare say that the Archbishop of Canterbury is sleeping easily in his bed because he is outside the exclusion zone in Lambeth palace. One has only to walk round, to beat the bounds of the area, to see how utterly ludicrous the proposal is.

I despair of a Government who draft such legislation and produce such an order to prevent people from expressing themselves in a way that is inconvenient to the Government. What is a demonstration? It is not defined in the Act and it is certainly not defined in the statutory instrument. What are we doing? We are handing over a licensing system to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and he will decide what a demonstration is and for whom it is appropriate to allow a demonstration—whatever that may mean—to take place.

If someone writes their application and submits it in time, an obligation is imposed on the commissioner to grant them permission—a licence—subject to numerous conditions. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has been through the things that might affect the granting of the licence.

It is wholly objectionable, in a democratic society, for a police officer to license demonstrations as envisaged in the 2005 Act and under the statutory instrument. Is one man with a sandwich board deemed to be a demonstration? Yes, of course he is. Is my daughter, or the children of other hon. Members who walk around wearing one of those rubber bands that people wear—I think that even the Prime Minister has one of those little white bands round his wrist, supporting some good cause or other—deemed to be demonstrating if she walks between the palace and No. 10 Downing street with a white rubber band round her wrist? Will people require a licence from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to do that?

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I am moved by what my hon. and learned Friend says. Does he share my concern, in reading this order, that nurses demonstrating across the river at St. Thomas’s hospital would, if they were demonstrating against Government pay policy, find themselves caught by the legislation?

Mr. Garnier: The terrible thing is that we simply do not know, and I do not expect the Minister does either. He will probably utter some warm words—he is a nice individual, and I am delighted to see him here—but he
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is as much a prisoner of this ludicrous legislation as the rest of us, although he has the unfortunate job of having to justify it.

I am also concerned that if someone were to walk across Parliament square or, more to the point, across Hungerford bridge—a mile down the river—wearing a badge saying something disobliging, they would be caught by the legislation. I use the example of someone who was arrested the other day by a police officer in Chelmsford—I am sorry, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire—because she had a badge on her coat that said, “Bollocks to Blair”. Is that an arrestable offence? We do not know. If I walk from Waterloo station across the river to the palace with “Bollocks to Blair” on my lapel, I will be caught by this statutory instrument. The whole thing is utterly absurd, and until the Government tell us what they mean by “demonstration”, which is not defined in the Act or in the statutory instrument, they must face the ridicule that they richly deserve.

We are living in strange times, when a Government who pretend to be liberal and to have the interests of the citizen at heart introduce such legislation. The character of this country is changing in a nasty, invidious and dangerous way—day by day we see it. The only pity is, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, that the Government do not have the self-confidence to allow instruments such as this to be debated on the Floor of the House. We are tucked away considering this measure under the negative procedure. It is already the law, Mr. Jones. It is already wrong—or could be wrong—for you to walk from Waterloo station across to the palace with “Bollocks to Blair” on your lapel. It causes me considerable worry on your behalf that you might find that an inconvenience.

The Chairman: I think you should use another example.

Mr. Garnier: The trouble is that there are so many examples that I could use, but this one most starkly demonstrates the terrible nature of the statutory instrument, not because you, Mr. Jones, or I have worn such a badge, but because a young woman has already been arrested for wearing such a badge. So, we do not have to guess what might happen in the future: it has happened already, in that wonderful British country town of Cheltenham.

I promised to be brief, and I shall bring my remarks to an end. I conclude by urging the Committee to have the courage of its democratic principles and to deny the Government the opportunity further to tighten the screw of illiberality and further to tighten the screw on the rights of the citizen to behave in a legitimate way, albeit one that is inconvenient to the Government. I wish the Government to realise that, at least in this Parliament, we will not allow them to ride roughshod over the rights of the individual.

3 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)
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have made very good points that are worth considering. I consider that peaceful demonstrations—for example, picnics—should be facilitated even if they are within this zone. I understand the Government’s concern about terrorism and that Parliament and Whitehall could easily be a target. They are likely to be a target and that has to be accommodated in legislation and police powers, but for some of the reasons that have been given, this is a heavy-handed approach, which is why I seek more information and assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister on how the measure will be implemented and whether he will make changes in the light of what has been said in Committee.

I received only today an e-mail about the order from a woman named Caroline Simpson from north London. She says:

    “I apologise for not having written sooner on this matter.

    I write about your meeting this afternoon of the Committee on Delegated Legislation. You are looking at the recent Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Please look specifically at the one kilometre zone around Parliament for which police permission must be applied for in advance of any demonstration. section 132.

    I was arrested on August 7th protesting peacefully in Parliament Sq about this clause. There are now 17 people who will stand trial early next year for opposing this legislation. We are objecting to the section 132(1)(b).

    I appeal to you to encourage your colleagues to recommend the amendment of this section of the Act.

    We were simply exercising our rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression incorporated in the Human Rights Act.

    In a country that prides itself on its civil liberties, which has gone to war to take ‘Freedom and Democracy’ to Iraq, which criticises other nations for lack of political and civil freedoms, it is totally wrong for people in the UK who wish to protest peacefully to have to ask permission of the police. Permission should not have to be asked of anyone. So long as the protest or demonstration is peaceful this should be encouraged in a democratic society. The police should be there to enhance our rights and freedoms to protest.

    There is an argument for the police being informed of any demonstration, so that they can ensure the safety of demonstrators and the general public, but there should not be any form of necessity to ask permission, in this area or any other.

    In recent years I have taken part in many peace demonstrations in Parliament Sq and Whitehall—sadly these have been necessary because there have been so many wars. These are symbolic public spaces where demonstrations can be seen to be against government policy. This is healthy. All these demonstrations have been peaceful.

    It is a shocking step towards a dangerously controlling state when citizens are denied the ability to protest peacefully without asking permission.”

I wanted to place that e-mail on the record and to ask the Minister to comment on Caroline Simpson’s points and particularly the central point about having to seek permission. I think that she has a good case. In the main, we should be leaning towards notification rather than specific permission. I understand that, within that, the police might say that there is still the danger of terrorists getting around and a danger to the buildings in this zone, and that they might therefore seek to alter the route. I think that there is a case for that, so I do not go all the way along with Caroline
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Simpson’s argument, but the gist of it is sound. The first call should be notification, rather than strict permission.

I should like to make a point about the lone anti-war demonstrator in Parliament square. I have met him and I can confirm that he is a dedicated and genuine anti-war protestor. Everyone must know that. In a strange way, he is also a tourist attraction. He enhances our democracy. His being unsightly should not be a reason for getting rid of him. His case will be tested in the courts in due course.

I do not follow the line in the e-mail from Mrs Simpson and others that there should be no restrictions in relation to the use of Parliament square. I can see that there is a case for it in the terrorist environment, but I think that it is better to do that after he has gone. I do not think that he should be uprooted. Once he has gone new powers can apply in relation to Parliament square. If the war were ended early, his presence would be ended early.

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