Examination of Witness (Questions 489-499)|
Mr Tony McNulty MP
17 JUNE 2008
Good afternoon and thank you for coming along. We, as a joint
committee, are looking at a whole range of the constitutional
renewal issues, but within those is the question of protests and
the operation of SOCPA and the extent that some changes may or
may not be needed. We are grateful in particular in your role
in the Home Office for coming along to advise us on that. Can
I first ask you what you consider the main problems with sections
132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005
may have been? Were any of them foreseeable?
Mr McNulty: I think we are where we are now
because of a range of other things above and beyond the legislation;
principally, as I think everyone here will know, the security
provision now outside the House, the Parliamentary estate, and
I think that connected with a kind of growing concern, summoning
a version on mythology that SOCPA was all about banning entirely
any demonstrations remotely close to the House of Commons. The
combination of those two principally, which I do not think were
foreseenI think SOCPA has broadly worked in its own terms
very wellbut we do feel and the Constitutional Renewal
Bill was a chance to revisit this and consult in the end with
the House authorities and then see what the appropriate way forward
would be. I do not think it was a case of, as some would have
it, SOCPA being some huge sledgehammer to crack a very small nut
and now we have changed our mind or there is a massive government
u-turn. I do not think things in those terms are appropriate at
all. I think time has moved on and it is right and appropriate
that we reflect on both the legislation and other circumstances,
including the security provision now around the building and that
is why we are here now. I do not like the notion of the mythology
and I think the Government, as all these papers have made clear,
do start very strongly from the presumption of freedom of expression
in Parliament Square as well as everywhere else.
Q490 Lord Norton of Louth: The 2005
Act was brought in to deal with what were perceived as problems
and inadequacies in the existing situation. As the 2005 provisions
go, presumably those problems will still be there, so to what
extent will the police lack the powers to deal with those problems?
The Home Office provided this very helpful memorandum on policing
protests framework and there is clearly a lot of legislative provision
extant that would deal apparently with most of the problems,
so where would you say the gap remains?
Mr McNulty: I am not sure there is a gap that
remains save for the concerns that we do quite properly need to
raise with the House authorities around noise and access to the
House. In extremis in terms of a broad security threat
the counter-terrorism legislation will suffice. As the memorandum
tries to make clear, we think now that there has been this huge
improvement, as everyone will know, in terms of the security paraphernalia
around both Houses, that in that context all that is outlined
in the memorandum around public order and everything else do prevail
and we are on strong territory in terms of the legislative powers.
Q491 Lord Norton of Louth: The gaps
that are remaining from your point of view are relatively narrow
gaps in legislative terms.
Mr McNulty: I would say so but it is very important
that in partly handing over the responsibilities encapsulated
in SOCPA to the House authorities to review and partly through
starting from a very strong premise, I think both the legislative
powers and the security paraphernalia will work in future and
with a third assumption in favour of rather than against freedom
of expression and protest in the Square I think things will be
pretty much covered, save for those two small points about noise
and access that it is quite proper to raise directly with the
Q492 Chairman: Were the Procedure
Committee wrong then in suggesting that there were gaps that needed
to be filled by new legislation?
Mr McNulty: No, I would not say entirely wrong
because I have yet to take the view from the House authorities
about whether they think there is still something lacking in terms
of legislation around particularly those two issues of noise and
access. I have my own personal view on that. I think it is probably
premature to say they are entirely wrong in terms of something
lacking, but quite properly we need to consult with them as part
of this process having determined which way forward the Government
wants to go.
Q493 Chairman: Have you had the chance
of seeing the evidence yet that was given to us by the House authorities
Mr McNulty: I have had a summary of them but
I have not read them in absolute detail. We obviously can, and
we will, because the last element for us is quite properly to
talk to the House authorities about what outstanding concerns
Q494 Chairman: If we were able to
provide you with the transcript as soon as possible you would
be happy to provide a written response to that?
Mr McNulty: Absolutely.
Q495 Lord Armstrong of Ilminster:
I had the impression that the police thought that the Public Order
Act 1986 gave them the powers they needed to police marches but
did not give them the powers they need to police static demonstrations.
The first paragraph of the Home Office memorandum seems to take
a different view of that.
Mr McNulty: I am not sure that that is entirely
right. I think they think there are potentially more problems
with static demos rather than marches, but I thought that revolved
more around the power of arrest when the individual was known.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that almost goes in part
to the notion that you cannot continually arrest an individual
having clearly established who that individual is save, for example,
because he has been on a static demonstration for some time and
that quite properly you can only arrest that individual on evidence
or suspicion of an offence, whereas in the normal context in terms
of demonstrations and processions, if you have a suspicion that
someone may commit an offence, you can quite properly arrest them
to ascertain name, address and other details. I thought their
difficulty revolved around that rather than more generally.
Q496 Lord Williamson of Horton: In
this Committee we start from the position that the Government
has simply proposed to repeal sections 132 to 138 and when I read
that I was very pleased myself but that is en passant.
Can I follow up two points: the first one is what about maintaining
uninterrupted access for Members of Parliament to get into Parliament?
It might be possible to get in but if it is very difficult for
them to get in and in the mean time we have had to vote on something
or something difficult has happened, that is a rather tricky point.
My second point is that the Serjeant at Arms has proposed to us
that there should be a ban on protests on the whole of the strip
of pavement outside the main entrance to Parliament. I do not
know if you would like to comment on that? That was a rather drastic
solution I think but if you would like to comment on it?
Mr McNulty: On the second point, if I may, we
start from the premise of free expression of protest outside the
immediate environs of the estate, so I am not sure that I would
be at one with the Serjeant at Arms on that second point. On the
first point, the last piece of the equation for us is that we
do need to quite properly talk to the House and the House authorities
about their view on quite what uninterrupted access means.
I have only been here about ten or 11 years and I think even with
the new paraphernalia in place we could still be afforded proper
and full access. I know at the Lords' end there is provision to
get in. Under normal circumstances you do not go in and out that
way but that is certainly the way I used during one or two of
the rather larger demonstrations that were taking place. I am
sure the Countryside Alliance people are wonderful people but
I just did not feel like walking through them to try and make
my way in, so it is quite proper that we do have that engagement
with the House authorities to see if we can establish, no doubt
with the Metropolitan Police, what access there should be for
particularly large demonstrations. I would say that they are relatively
so few and far between that we do need to start from the premise
of there being that clear right to demonstrate.
Q497 Chairman: Do you think that
the police have sufficient powers in their right to arrest for
obstruction to ensure unimpeded access? Do you think that is a
sufficient sanction or do you think more is required?
Mr McNulty: I think there is an argument that
I know the Metropolitan Police have put forward that some of that
does rely on really rather antiquated legislationback to
the 1830s in one caseand I would be very happy in the broader
sense, not specific to either the policing of demonstrations or
in terms of Parliament Square, to look at that in further detail
with the police to perhaps update all that. In the broad sweep
of things I think the answer is yes.
Q498 Lord Tyler: In your very helpful
memorandum you differentiate between the Metropolitan Police Act
1839 and the Sessional Orders, but from what you were saying just
now should we take it that you think access for parliamentarians
is of critical importance and therefore that we should be differentiating
between when either or both Houses are sitting, or whether, for
example, there should be a different regime applying during the
long recess, or for a march on a Saturday? Access, as you have
emphasised, is something that we all take very seriously and you
obviously do too.
Mr McNulty: Access is important in both circumstances.
Clearly there are others who will want to access the House during
periods of recess, either to visit, or in many cases to carry
on with their business. You will know that the Select Committee
sit in September, et cetera, so recesses do vary, but I think
the House authorities main concern will be around the uninterrupted
access for Members and people employed gainfully to work here
during times that the House is sitting. My comments were directed
at both. I think there has been a mythology around Sessional Orders
in the sense that they are struck and signed and this means that,
come hell or high water, the Commissioner of the Metropolis must
make sure there is unfettered access. The reality is not quite
like that, either in legal terms or more generally, but I do think
that the broad point about uninterrupted access, yes, matters
in terms of recess, but clearly matters more in terms of when
the House is sitting, but I would still start from the premise
of trying to come up with a regime that did not differentiate
the two because that goes to the broader point of differentiating
this place from all other places in the context of policing protests.
I do not think that is a way we want to go.
Q499 Lord Tyler: As paragraph 10
in your memorandum makes clear, Sessional Orders are actually
very limited, are they not?
Mr McNulty: Absolutely.