Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 500-519)

Mr Tony McNulty MP

17 JUNE 2008

  Q500  Lord Tyler: There is also a hiatus of course when they have not actually been passed so we should not be falling back on them as a reliable set of regulations.

  Mr McNulty: That is absolutely right. What we do get to in terms of the broader regulatory architecture rather than legislative between the House authorities and the police is important and that is why we need to consult them, but it partly goes back to what I was saying about mythology: the notion that we can rely upon Sessional Orders to clear up all the difficulties around unrestricted access is precisely that—mythology.

  Q501  Chairman: Should we drop Sessional Orders altogether then?

  Mr McNulty: No. I think the relationship between the House authorities and the metropolis does set out a reasonable framework but, as Lord Tyler has said, I think it quite instructive that they have not been utilised by the Commons for some time. What I was trying to say was if there is either a different form of Sessional Order, or some other regulatory architecture that can prevail between the House authorities and the Metropolitan Police to achieve the same goal, then I am quite relaxed about that. Whether that involves dropping them or not, I do not know until that discussion has been had.

  Q502  Emily Thornberry: If the provisions of the 2005 Act are abolished there has been some concern raised that the police and other authorities would not have sufficient powers to prevent noise disturbance, particularly the use of loudspeakers. Do you think that they would be left with sufficient powers, or do you think it does not matter?

  Mr McNulty: This is not meant to be facetious but I was going to say their powers would be sufficient as they are now, notwithstanding SOCPA; i.e. not terribly strong anyway, but there are regulatory frameworks and legislation and some bylaws that could indeed prevail around the issue of noise disturbance. Equally that is a reason why I highlight noise as well as access as the two areas that we do need to talk to the House authorities about in some more detail. I do not think it is any better or worse with the removal of SOCPA and I do not think even if it was that noise disturbance should be the reason why we do not start from the presumption that there should be as free and unfettered right to protest and demonstrate in the Square as possible.

  Q503  Emily Thornberry: Section 134 gives the police a general power to impose conditions on the maximum permissible noise levels to prevent hindrance to the proper operation of Parliament, although I think it has been confirmed that the police do not tend to use it.

  Mr McNulty: No. Equally I would underline the question in part is not simply noise disturbance level the larger the crowd; there can be noise disturbances when the crowd is very small, as we have seen.

  Q504  Emily Thornberry: One of the things that we have been particularly exercised about is the lone protestors with loudspeakers for long amounts of time. What is your view about whether or not there should be some powers in place to allow there to be some control over that?

  Mr McNulty: That is why I have set aside noise as well as access to discuss further with the House authorities in the first instance. On a purely personal view, which is deeply courageous of any Government minister, I would say it is an irritant but no more than that, and certainly has not impeded in any way shape or form my ability to do what I do in my little way inside the estate, but it is a pain.

  Q505  Chairman: Did the Government have discussions with House authorities before bringing in the 2005 Act?

  Mr McNulty: I notified the Speaker's Office that this was the route that we were seeking to go and would value at some stage wider discussion around areas, particularly like noise and access, with the Speaker and, through him, the House authorities before we came to any long term conclusion around some of the issues we have been discussing, but that the principle of repealing these particular sections of SOCPA relating to Parliament Square was something that the Speaker's Office, and I think the wider House authorities, welcomed.

  Q506  Chairman: I was wondering if there were those discussions before we legislated for SOCPA?

  Mr McNulty: No, because I think we were very clear that the House authorities' views were not going to impact on whether we should repeal SOCPA or otherwise, but clearly, as I have said, there was a role for the House authorities, particularly around noise and access, when looking at what will prevail if SOCPA does not.

  Q507  Lord Campbell of Alloway: What are your views? Could you give us any information about whether you are going to remove all the placards, the erection of tents and one thing and another in Parliament Square on environmental grounds? People come to this country and see this muck lying around all over the place. Is anyone thinking about it, is anyone doing anything about it and is there any prospect that anything shall ever be done about it?

  Mr McNulty: Plenty of people are thinking about it or have thought about it. I would say given where we have got to, and where particularly Westminster City Council has got to, it is their little strip of highway, as you will know, then the prospects of doing much about it are very limited and I would not want to give anyone the impression that repealing SOCPA and those proposals that are before us is going to do anything about that particular display because I do not think it will.

  Q508  Lord Campbell of Alloway: How do we do something about it? How do we get onto this? Whose responsibility is it?

  Mr McNulty: As I understand it, that strip of highway is Westminster City Council's. Westminster City Council have tried variously through planning laws, unauthorised advertising hoardings and other such attempts to get much of the display taken down but without success. The difficulty in the broader sense under the law is that whilst it might be public highway, given the current configuration of Parliament Square you could not honestly say that it is an imposition on people's right to walk the public highway unfettered, given that nobody walks on that particular strip. I suspect—it is again only a personal view—that if the Mayor and the Greater London Authority move forward with their plans for a World Square and pedestrianise much of what is immediately in front of Parliament between where the display is and block off that bit of the road, and the equivalent bit on the other side in front of what I think we now have to call the Supreme Court, then the traffic configuration there and the broadening up of that particular stretch of highway may mean that things can be done to that display that cannot be done at the moment whilst the Square is configured in the particular way that it is. I am sorry not to offer much hope in that regard but I do stress that nothing that we are proposing here in terms of SOCPA and discussions with the House authorities will do anything at all to that particular display.

  Q509  Mark Lazarowicz: On the issue of noise, like yourself I tend to regard the noise as an irritant and that is all, but on the other hand I have an office which has a window over an internal courtyard, whereas colleagues who have offices at the front clearly take a different view as to the effect of the disturbance. Is it not right to think of having some coherent framework of regulation to cover the control of noise in this location because otherwise we are going to keep coming back to this every couple of years with people just not being able to cope with the level of noise? Is it not better to have a clear framework which tries to control the level of noise while at the same time trying to minimise the impact and the right to protest?

  Mr McNulty: It may well be but I think that is more properly done between us, the Metropolitan Police and the House authorities to see, quite rightly, what that coherent framework should be. It might depend more readily on local bylaws. It might well be—who knows—something for a broader and perhaps more efficacious set of Sessional Orders or it might be something in between. What I do not think it is is something that is absolutely germane to a national legislative framework that treats this place, however sensitive, as much like any other place as possible in the context of protests and demonstration. I do not disagree but that is what the discussion with the House authorities in the first instance will be about along with the point about access.

  Q510  Lord Morgan: We have dealt with more permanent protests and we have heard calls from the Clerk of the House and the Serjeant at Arms for a ban on permanent protests. On the one hand what would you think about the human rights aspect of that? On the other hand, what do you feel about the point that long term protest, which make protest a way of life, prevents other people from protesting?

  Mr McNulty: It is a novel manifestation, that is very clear, and I think we would start from the presumption of not trying to impede protest in the Square at all and whether the authorities at large, like it or not, there is almost, to use the planning lexicon, an established use there; ie the particular individual has been there for some time. Until we do get some sort of reconfiguration of the public highway and the traffic around the Square, we are stuck with that particular instance. I would not like to go down the notion of other suggestions too where perhaps a little bit of the Square can be put aside for static and more long term demonstrations or that they can be controlled in other fashions. I do not say it lightly but we do start from the premise that free and unfettered access for demonstration and protest should be the norm.

  Q511  Lord Morgan: Would residence and the fact that people would be sleeping overnight there and so on in the long term, would that give—

  Mr McNulty: I think that is problematic and as and when things in the Square move in terms of its current configuration, I think that should be looked at. Part of the difficulties as I understand it is that because it is such a narrow strip there, because it is public highway and Westminster City Council's rather than the rest of the Square which is the Greater London Authority's, that is part of the difficulty. I would not support an outright ban and I do not think much is going to change unless the configuration of the whole Square is going to change, but we do need to seriously reflect not just there, but elsewhere, on the conflict between a static and permanent demonstration and this weekend's demo of whatever description. I think you will have heard that the individual concerned got on terribly well apparently with the Countryside Alliance and that all went tickety-boo, but that is not always going to necessarily be the case. Whatever form the static is may well conflict with whatever the wider demonstration is and we do have to balance all these competing rights and responsibilities that go with them.

  Q512  Chairman: I was a little concerned about your reference to reliance on bylaws. What if bylaws did impose complete bans that may even be non-compliant with human rights? How would the Government respond to that?

  Mr McNulty: As I understand it, I do not think they would be lawful if they were going for outright bans that contradicted the broader national legal framework. My point about bylaws was simply they can and have been used more generally in the planning world for things like noise abatement and the reduction of noise where noise is a nuisance; so just in that narrow element in terms of how to deal with noise around a loudspeaker, for example, rather than the noise of considerable thousands in the Square. It was just in that very narrow focus. I am not saying that we are going to rely on the wonder of City of Westminster bylaws for the policing of protests in Parliament Square.

  Q513  Chairman: You are aware that Westminster Council, the Mayor's Office and indeed the police are in close co-operation; in fact they appeared here together. Does that extend to consultation with government and indeed House authorities so far as you are aware? Do you have a relationship with them that allows these things to be looked at in the round?

  Mr McNulty: I think we do have that broad relationship. Had we had those discussions specifically on Parliament Square, no, I do not think so, or I certainly have not, but I am sure officials did.

  Q514  Lord Tyler: I think many of us share your basic premise and welcome it but I wonder whether you therefore would be sympathetic to the view that has been put to us in evidence that when the Square is re-planned to make it more accessible for pedestrians, that might be a moment to make it even more evident that this is the right place for people to demonstrate their democratic right to support as well as to oppose what may be happening in their Parliament and therefore we should be looking towards something that would in a sense give self-discipline to the Square by relocating Speaker's Corner in the Square. Do you think that would be a good way to be looking at this situation?

  Mr McNulty: I think it may well be. The starting premise that if there is to be the development of the Square into pedestrianised zones and part of this World Square type concept that the last Mayor had, and which I do not think the new one has resiled from and hopefully endorses, that should be an opportunity to do both what you have suggested, which I would broadly endorse, and try with all the assorted authorities to deal with issues around noise, access and all the other elements all at once and maybe even static demonstrations I think would be a splendid idea.

  Q515  Lord Tyler: Is it your view that if everybody had a right to express a view in Parliament Square on an equal basis this would put in context the one and only lone permanent protest which would then be rather diluted?

  Mr McNulty: I am not sure that that is my view. I am not sure I would want 15 static long term demonstrations in the Square newly transformed as a World Square with pedestrianised areas or otherwise, but I do think the essential premise that this is quite appropriately a place that people come to air views to MPs and peers of the realm is absolutely right. Most people would accept that starting premise and accept that that should happen within the context of the law, quite properly, and your point that all these matters should be explored if we are transforming it into a World Square, including I would say noise access and other elements, is absolutely right.

  Q516  Lord Norton of Louth: I am merely coming back to an issue I think you may feel that you have already answered. Certainly when we had the Serjeant at Arms and Black Rod before us they took the view that, from the point of view of a security risk, the existing legislation was not sufficient, but the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, takes the view that now with the anti-terrorism legislation in place it is sufficient. I take it from what you were saying in opening that you would side with Lord Carlile that the legislation is adequate?

  Mr McNulty: I would absolutely, alongside the other significant change since 2005 which is the assorted security paraphernalia around the estate, I think that is right. That, of course, in terms of the paraphernalia and how secure the site is is always kept under review, but I think I would absolutely side with Lord Carlile on that and think things are appropriate. As I have said, in terms of broader security issues as and when there are demonstrations and protest, I think ultimately in terms of impact and effects on security then much of that security and counter-terrorism legislation can, if need be, be brought to bear.

  Q517  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Can we look at the public safety risk because, if SOCPA is repealed, the police will lose their powers to impose conditions on a protest on the grounds of the public safety risk. What do you think the implications would be and do you think there are other powers that we can rely upon to address public safety at the moment?

  Mr McNulty: I think the police can, when a demonstration or protest is happening, have due right under the law to constantly review that public safety risk. But if we start from the premise, as many of the consultees said, that the very notion that, under SOCPA, you have to ask in advance for the right to demonstrate that is probably anti-democratic and runs against the vein of spontaneous protest. Even in that context I think there is still sufficient provision for protecting the broader public safety realm under public order and various other elements of legislation. Even on the day of an event, it is still incumbent on the police to bear in mind broader public safety concerns and risks in terms of too many people in too small an area and various other aspects. The broader public safety and welfare of the wider public on an ongoing basis as they are policing a demonstration or protest are core powers which do not diminish or go because of the repeal of sections 132 to 138 of SOCPA. It is still a very strong duty.

  Q518  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: You would agree with Liberty and Baroness Mallalieu, who actually maintain just what you have said, that in fact even if SOCPA is repealed there are already in existence the laws for the police to be able to act.

  Mr McNulty: Yes, I would broadly.

  Q519  Chairman: What core powers are you talking about when you say there are sufficient in place? You mentioned obstruction simply for access and so on, but what other powers do you think?

  Mr McNulty: I think broadly many of those outlined in the memorandum. Even under the public order legislation there is broad provision to maintain the wider public safety and risk to the public and that is germane to the very core of policing a protest and demonstration wherever it happens and that public safety and public risk that I mention is as important to arresting or picking someone up on public order offences as the fact that they may well be able to commit some subsequent offence. That is absolutely central to policing in the broadest sense.


 
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