Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)

Mr Gareth Crossman, Mr Mike Schwarz, Baroness Mallalieu QC and Mr Milan Rai

3 JUNE 2008

  Q240  Martin Linton: So there is a case for the police saying, "No large demonstrations immediately outside Parliament"?

  Mr Schwarz: There are different levels. The first is, is there criminal legislation here to criminalise the activity in principle. Answer: without SOCPA, yes. Are there the police powers to enforce that, powers of arrest across the country? Yes. Do the police have the resources to deal with it? Ask Charing Cross, but they can deal with protests anywhere. As far as I am aware Parliament does not pose particular problems, in fact quite the reverse. There are police all over the place, CCTV all over the place, a police station up the road. If anything Parliament is, frankly, one of the most protected areas in the country.

  Q241  Martin Linton: Baroness Mallalieu is in a particularly good position here, being both the President of the Countryside Alliance and a parliamentarian herself. Do you accept that there are particular circumstances that apply to Parliament that make large scale demonstrations more of a threat?

  Baroness Mallalieu: No, I do not. I think that, properly policed, a demonstration should not present a problem purely based on size. I will, if I may, deal with the particular instance you referred to in a moment, but going to the general question of access to Parliament, which is clearly crucial, my recollection of that particular day when there was a large demonstration taking place outside is that, certainly so far as the House of Lords was concerned, there was no difficulty at all with access or moving outside and the annunciator was giving indications of which gates were open for people to go in and out during that time. That may be an inconvenience but it seems to me that with a demonstration which after all is not going to arise in those sorts of numbers spontaneously; there is going to be some indication that there is to be a demonstration on that particular day, it does enable Parliament to deal with the inconvenience in exactly the way they did then. Certain gates were closed at certain times but Members were made aware by the annunciator of how they could come and go.

  Q242  Martin Linton: There were a number of injuries though.

  Baroness Mallalieu: There were injuries, unfortunately, on both sides. If I can deal with the specifics of that, it was the first demonstration where there had not been what I would call satisfactory liaison. The liaison officers dealing with those in charge of the demonstration were placed in my view in the wrong place, on the wrong side of the barricade, so they could not be communicated with easily, and about 20 minutes before the incident which you are referring to the stewards of the Alliance became aware that there was about to be an attempt to push through the barriers so that people could sit down outside Parliament. They contacted the liaison officer but no apparent steps were taken and the sensible course at that stage would have been to put the stewards of the Countryside Alliance in front at that spot where they would have told their people to go back. In fact what happened was that the police, in close formation, wearing riot gear and many of them, as the Police Complaints Commission found later, concealing their identities, took up a confrontational stance. That had never happened before save in one instance when access to Parliament was denied. Of course, police in that instance had a duty to ensure that no-one broke into the House. That was key and crucial.

  Q243  Chairman: Thank you for that explanation. I think we have probably gone as far as we are going to go on that.

  Mr Rai: Could I please add a practical point as an organiser? Can I just say that while frameworks of legislation may or may not be well tuned to those kinds of circumstances, the existence or non-existence of SOCPA or any other legislation is irrelevant in that circumstance where a section of a demonstration has formed the state of mind to create an incident of the kind that you are talking about, so whether or not there is a SOCPA or a super-SOCPA will have no bearing. It will be on the relationship between the organisers, the police and the demonstrators as to how incidents of that kind resolve themselves. Whatever replacement to SOCPA there is, that will not enter into those relationships which will determine a successful or unsuccessful outcome.

  Q244  Martin Linton: In my day demonstrations were always in Trafalgar Square and the difference with demonstrations in Parliament Square is that they are only about 20 yards from the gates to Parliament so that if there were a breach it could lead to a security incident whereas a demonstration in Trafalgar Square could not. That is the point I am trying to get to.

  Mr Crossman: I would just like to make a very quick point. In the sort of situation you have described, where you have a large demonstration and as a consequence a rushing at gates, the problem with SOCPA is that the temptation is going to be that the next time you are doing it you say, "Okay, we are going to limit it to 500 people because that way it is less likely to happen", or however many people. If you are the organiser of a demonstration, and I imagine Milan would be more aware of this, how do you go about ensuring a certain number of people turn up? You are just not going to organise it. If I were organising a demonstration I would want as many people as possible to turn up because that is the whole point of organising a demonstration. That is why these limits on numbers and other restrictions are so destructive to the ability to organise a demonstration.

  Q245  Lord Tyler: I have a very small supplementary for Lady Mallalieu. The logic of what you said earlier is that there should be a different regime while a House of Parliament is sitting. As I recall as a participant, the first Countryside Alliance march took place on a non sitting day. Is it your view therefore that there should be different controls when there is a problem about Members of either House coming into the building?

  Baroness Mallalieu: I do not think so. I would like to know from those at the other end of the building whether there was in fact any practical difficulty that day in getting in. I know there were complaints, from Mr Alan Duncan among others, to the police about police not letting MPs out who wanted to go out and join the demonstration or see their constituents and refusing to accept the Commons pass, and that was the subject of a formal complaint. I was not aware, certainly at my end of the building, of anyone being prevented from coming in or leaving. There was a mention of Trafalgar Square and demonstrations there. Really I think that leads to my having to make the point that this House is the people's House, this square is Parliament Square, and it may be very convenient for the authorities to say the demonstration should take place down on the South Bank or elsewhere but noise and things that are unsightly or things that are inconvenient or irritating to MPs are things which have to be tolerated in a parliamentary democracy. People are entitled to come to their House and express their views to their MPs and that will on occasions lead to difficulties and to people getting fed up and to inconvenience, but it is a small price to pay in my view for parliamentary democracy and freedom of speech.

  Q246  Sir George Young: Can we move on to noise? Baroness Mallalieu, I was very interested to read the memorandum which you sent out but I was slightly surprised by one sentence, "There is no doubt that excessive noise impinges on the work of those working within the parliamentary estate. This however is a small price to pay for free speech ... ". I wonder whether on reflection you might like to qualify that. You have got the policemen at the gates of New Palace Yard within feet of these loudspeakers, you have got tourists who are trying to enjoy what is a world heritage site and you have got colleagues who are trying to work in the outbuildings of the parliamentary estate. Given that there are restrictions on noise for health and safety reasons in other areas, do you not think there should be some restraints on the sheer volume of noise that can be generated, much of which makes it impossible to hear what the message is? The message gets lost in the general noise. Do we not need some control?

  Baroness Mallalieu: We do have some control but it simply is not exercised at the moment. Under the Public Order Act, under the provisions for the control of Westminster Green, there are provisions in both cases. First of all, unless you have, as I understand it, the permission of the Mayor of London you cannot use your loudspeaker on the gardens themselves but there is no problem about the police, it seems to me, imposing a restriction on the length of time that noise may go on and it would be perfectly proper to say to a demonstrator, "An hour and then that is it", and the power does currently exist within the present legislation. I understand from those who work in, for example, 1 Parliament Street, that at times it is unbearable. I can only say that so far as the House of Lords is concerned we are slightly further down the line. When there have been major demonstrations the obtrusive noise has been that of an overhead helicopter. Otherwise within the chamber I have certainly not been aware of noise which interferes with the process of Parliament. That may not be the case in the Commons but I would be surprised if the Commons chamber was affected. It is absolutely right that people in working in offices must have some respite from what we have all heard, but it could be done now. The power is there.

  Q247  Sir George Young: If the length of time was exceeded or if the noise went over what was acceptable would it be appropriate for the loudspeaker to be confiscated?

  Baroness Mallalieu: Under the provisions the police would have power to make the restriction and then no doubt to take such steps as are necessary to ensure that that happens. The powers are there. I was looking just now as I came in at Brian Haw's present set-up and his fellow demonstrators and they are within the law in every respect in that they seem not to be blocking the pavement, they are not on the gardens, for which they would require the Mayor's written consent, and they are not making any noise. They are entitled to take out their megaphone and shout until or unless they are subject to a restriction by the authorities on the timing or the duration, and that could be done, but, perhaps because there is a recognition in the authorities that although they have the powers this is something that must be policed sensitively, it has not been done. Going back to the old powers would give the authorities power to do that. There is nothing to stop them.

  Q248  Chairman: The power you mentioned about confiscating loudspeaker equipment—

  Baroness Mallalieu: I did not mention it. It was a suggestion that was put.

  Q249  Chairman: Does anyone know what power that is because we are not quite clear about that? Certainly the Mayor of London is suggesting that such a power should exist so we have made the presumption that it does not exist.

  Baroness Mallalieu: I have no knowledge that there is a specific power of confiscation but presumably, as there is a power to limit the duration of noise, steps can then be taken, whether by injunction or whatever means I am not totally clear, I am afraid, to enforce that order.

  Q250  Chairman: Would you accept that it would be a reasonable power to give to a local authority or to the police if indeed a nuisance did continue?

  Baroness Mallalieu: Persistent noise I think in those circumstances, yes. There is just one thing I would add to the question of microphones if I may and it has already been raised by Milan Rai. When there is a demonstration in Parliament Square microphones, loudspeakers, amplification are crucial in our submission for two reasons. First, without them there can be no proper speech made to a crowd who can hear it, and, secondly, and this comes back to the matter that Mr Linton mentioned earlier, on the occasion when there was trouble in Parliament Square permission had been refused for there to be loudspeakers at each corner in order that the crowd could be contacted. When trouble brewed up the single loudspeaker, which was some distance away from what was happening, was used to give an order to the crowd simply to sit down, and those who could hear it did so, to try to defuse the situation, but there was no means of communicating with those who were in the area where there was conflict and there was a crush. The loudspeakers are important in the case of a demonstration both in order to allow the demonstration to be effective for those who attend but also to maintain some control over a really large crowd.

  Mr Schwarz: I do not think any special powers around Parliament to do with loudspeakers is necessary because if someone is doing something with the intention of harassing, alarming or distressing parliamentarians or with the intention of interfering with their lawful activity or their work, the powers are there in the Public Order Act under aggravated trespass and under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act. Those offences exist and if those offences are proved then the courts have the power after conviction to order confiscation.

  Q251  Chairman: That is not quite what we were looking at. We are talking about the here and now rather than after a trial. Would it not be reasonable to give the police the power to remove the offending item at the time and then, of course, it would be subject to review subsequently?

  Mr Schwarz: When you say "review subsequently", what you are saying is that the police have a unilateral power, using their own discretion, to take someone else's property without due process. If the Committee is considering that, that is quite a serious inroad into human rights and protest and the right peacefully to enjoy one's possessions and to protest. I think that would be a very serious step without some due process to order the confiscation of someone's property.

  Mr Crossman: I refer back to section 14 of the Public Order Act, but it does cover a lot of ground. It allows conditions to be imposed for a number of grounds, including serious disruption to the community. That is one of the specific grounds set out in the Act. If I were a police officer and I decided that use of a loudspeaker was doing so I could place a condition upon you to stop using the loudspeaker. I could not take it off you but I could tell you to stop doing it. If you then continue to do it you have committed an offence under the Public Order Act because you are breaching that, to which I presume not only would you be arrested but that loudspeaker would be taken off you because it is a material piece of evidence that is relevant to the prosecution that you will no doubt be facing. Prior to arrest I do not think you could justify it. Post arrest the power exists.

  Q252  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Some of the points I was going to raise, Chairman, have just been answered and thank you very much for that. As someone who has been a protester and organised protests in the past I have a little knowledge of this but, of course, it is past knowledge. I think a lot of what we are discussing in relation to the powers around Parliament does really concentrate on noise. I really do think that noise is something that people get particularly angry about. Can I just say that it is not just the noise from Parliament Square because what seems to be happening at the moment is that if demonstrators come they are sent down to demonstrate around the King George statue and, as someone who has an office overlooking the King George statue, I can assure you it does affect work, so I am very interested in the whole question of how we come to what is a satisfactory answer for allowing people to protest to our Parliament, which I totally agree should be allowed, but how at the same time we can keep control of the rights, if you like, of those who work in Parliament and those who are on the marches or whatever. One of the things that I have been thinking about during your answers is, is there a difference—and I thought of this when Milan raised issues about marching and then assembling—between the use of loudspeakers on a march where you ask people to keep in, keep up and not to go onto pavements and things like that, and when you get to the assembly point and are using it then constantly? I think that is (and Baroness Mallalieu raised this issue) about whether there should be a length of time for it. If there is a length of time at the moment are we able to tease this out in a better fashion than we have done because there do seem to be some genuine feelings that a certain amount of time should be allowed for a very loud loudspeaker if you are addressing a group, or indeed keeping a group in order. If there was a time limit that people knew about would that not make things easier for both the demonstrators and those who are being demonstrated to?

  Baroness Mallalieu: Protests take various different forms but I do agree with Baroness Gibson that incessant noise is not fair to anybody. I think it is very difficult to be prescriptive. This is something that presumably is best agreed between the organisers of the march or the demonstration and the police in a proper liaison, and it is one of the factors that should be taken into account. It seems to me these are things that the police have power to agree already. The time and duration of the demonstration are two of the features that the police can specify in relation to an assembly and they can certainly do that and more in relation to a march, so I think the complaints that are quite justified about the noise are ones that could be met under the existing legislation if there was a willingness to do it.

  Q253  Emily Thornberry: As somebody whose office is on the second floor of 1 Parliament Street I again have some sympathy with the complaints people are making about noise, but I was interested in the answer you gave, Gareth, about the Public Order Act and about police officers' powers to be able to confiscate megaphones. How many people need to be on a demonstration? It is two, is it?

  Mr Crossman: Two. It used to be 20. When the legislation was passed it was 20. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 reduced the number from 20 to two.

  Q254  Emily Thornberry: So if one person turns up with a megaphone it is not able to be confiscated?

  Mr Crossman: It may be if you feel that they are acting in a way which is in effect under section 5 of the Public Order Act, for example, behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. I would say that if a person with a loudspeaker turns up in Parliament Square and starts speaking through that loudspeaker it is not activity (depending of course on what they are saying) which in my view of itself would justify taking action and not activity that a single person on their own is such that is going to significantly affect the people working around Parliament Square. I do not work there so it is probably easy for me to say that.

  Q255  Lord Morgan: I would like to consider a different matter if I may, which is not how many people are on demonstrations or the form they take but their duration. Mr Haw, for example, has been there for many years. One could imagine, for example, people being opposed to Britain having nuclear weapons, and that is an ongoing issue which has lasted almost the whole of my life and no doubt will continue long after I am dead. Do you see any possible justification for saying that there should be some kind of time limit; otherwise we all have consciences which are, of course, eternal?

  Mr Schwarz: Can I respond with a question, which is what is wrong with a permanent demonstration about war or nuclear weapons if it is quiet, peaceful and otherwise not committing an offence? That is what I do not understand.

  Q256  Lord Morgan: Could I suggest one possible objection, which is that it prevents other people of equally strong consciences on other issues demonstrating. I would support this hypothetical demonstration that you mentioned; I wish Britain never had nuclear weapons, but it does also raise the issue of small minorities allocating to themselves particular positions of conscience and protest which other people have and indeed other people might be in favour of Britain having nuclear weapons and equally campaign for ever.

  Mr Schwarz: I think Liberty have made this point in their own representation, which is, and perhaps you are better placed than I am to comment on this, that there appears to be no evidence that there is a conflict in terms of time or space or politics between protesters. I remember the time when the Countryside Alliance were there with their banners and Brian Haw and anti-war campaigners were there, and as far as I am aware they got on pretty well.

  Q257  Lord Morgan: The Alliance was not there for weeks on end, was it?

  Baroness Mallalieu: Yes, at one stage. It ran from, I think, April to September, a small demonstration. I can only endorse that. They got on extremely well, and on one occasion I think there was a pig also in the corner of the square and that seemed to fit in perfectly well with everybody else protesting.

  Q258  Lord Morgan: That almost makes my point because I was not aware that you were there. I suspect the reason why I was not aware was the loudspeaker of Mr Haw which prevented you impinging on my consciousness.

  Baroness Mallalieu: Perhaps we did not make our point strongly enough.

  Q259  Lord Morgan: But there is surely a point about permanent occupation for the rest of time by any group, whatever it might be.

  Mr Crossman: As I said a little while ago, the rather unusual nature of the authorisation process has this very narrow L-shaped strip which is controlled by Westminster Council which is the part of Parliament Square where you do not need to get authorisation from the GLA. Part of our concern is that there is this great big swathe where you do have to jump through a great number of hoops, which is why Mr Haw's demonstration is where it is and why anyone who wants to compete for space with Mr Haw would find themselves in a very narrow area in which to do so, so I think that says more about the problems arising from the severe restrictions imposed elsewhere than any concern in itself about a demonstration taking place over a long period of time.

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