Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 520-528)

Mr Tony McNulty MP

17 JUNE 2008

  Q520  Chairman: Is that not rather suggesting that one could repeal SOCPA and put nothing in its place because it is all there already?

  Mr McNulty: The only narrow difference, as I think I said right at the start, is what the House authorities feel they need above and beyond a situation without SOCPA for uninterrupted access, noise and other elements. I am saying that we have come to the view with the assorted security paraphernalia, the security police and everything else that now prevails on the estate where SOCPA is no longer necessary. We can work from a presumption of freedom to protest and demonstrate in the Square within the wider legal framework. I am saying that but only save for those two narrow dimensions that it is right and proper that the House authorities are brought in to discuss further.

  Q521  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: Would you like to see a compulsory prior notification scheme to allow protests to be managed in an effective way?

  Mr McNulty: Broadly it will be in the interests of both the police and the other party, if there were prior notification, but I do not think we start from the premise of it having to be, as with SOCPA, compulsory.

  Q522  Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: Would you apply that only to groups over a certain size or would you make that a general requirement?

  Mr McNulty: I think general and one would hope that the larger a demonstration the more rather than less goodwill would prevail and things will be done by prior arrangement and notification, which notwithstanding demonstrations around Parliament is, as I understand it, what does prevail more or less in non SOCPA areas, if I can use it that way.

  Q523  Chairman: It was put by some of the protester witnesses that we had that it was a good idea to give notice but a principal objection to doing so as a matter of law. Would you see room for legislation which gave different rights to those that gave notice as opposed to those that refused to do so?

  Mr McNulty: No, I do not think so. I think the distinction should be between those who would duly act and behave within the confines of the law and those who do not. I think that is the important distinction and that the framework within which people have the right to protest or demonstrate outside this very building should, as much as possible, notwithstanding what I said about discussing noise and access with the House authorities, be as much the same as people's rights to demonstrate or protest outside any other building. Those are the two things that govern us, I think.

  Q524  Chairman: Are you aware of any problems before SOCPA by the non-giving of notice? I appreciate that in most cases notice is given as a matter of common-sense, but where it did not happen are you aware of any examples where there were problems when notice was not given?

  Mr McNulty: Not off the top of my head. I am trying to think now whether when someone gave Winston Churchill a grass Mohican I am sure that pre-dated SOCPA but was at a weekend so it was not as troublesome or problematic as it may have been had the House been sitting with all the incumbent traffic and everything else, but that sort of demo as far as I know, both if I may say from an MP observing and further back in the midst of time as a participant, I have not noticed any major difficulties of that order pre SOCPA that go to the point about notification because, in the main, certainly when I was doing it we were all terribly well behaved and there was due notice given and everything else as part of the process because that is clearly in the demonstration organisers' interests as much as otherwise. I do not think the notion of spontaneous guerrilla "we're never going to tell you when we're going to come but we're coming" type demos around the Square have been that much of a problem in the past, although notwithstanding what I said about Winston Churchill with the Mohican.

  Q525  Sir George Young: Can we go back to the answer which you gave to Emily Thornberry when she asked you about noise. I wrote down what you said about the powers and I think you said these are not terribly strong anyway. This confirms what we heard from the police, that if somebody repeatedly makes a lot of noise that does not score under the conditions under PACE for actually taking any powers. Do I take it from what you said earlier that you would support more powers for the police; for example, to confiscate a loudspeaker if they repeatedly went on making an excessively loud noise?

  Mr McNulty: Where it is absolutely repetitive and a positive nuisance, then I think there is something worth looking at. We are fairly close to the end of our PACE review but that is certainly something I shall take back. My broader point about planning, bylaws and the noise reduction side of things is that I think there might be potentially more mileage in that side of the law rather than through PACE, but I do take the point and will take that away and look at it.

  Q526  Sir George Young: This will apply everywhere, not just outside the House of Commons.

  Mr McNulty: Surely, yes.

  Q527  Lord Norton of Louth: Surely a follow up to that on the base of your own memorandum because part of the problem on the base of the memorandum appears to be the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act because it actually exempts, as I understand it from the memorandum, political demonstrations. One way might simply be to remove that from that Act.

  Mr McNulty: Yes, or indeed I would certainly look at the notion of maybe utilising PACE, but in the broader sense of everywhere, not specific to the gentility of Members of these Houses and the noise outside it.

  Q528  Chairman: Thank you very much for helping us this afternoon. I have one final question. Whilst this area has been covered by the Constitutional Renewal Bill, do you have a view as to whether it should be contained within the other areas that Constitutional Renewal deals with, or should it be part of a Criminal Justice Bill when the next one comes along?

  Mr McNulty: We are trying not to make the next one come along with the same rapidity as perhaps in the past. Given the importance of protest, given the symbolism and I would say potentially at least mythology of the impact of SOCPA and demonstrations outside this House, for now at least it properly belongs in the Constitutional Renewal Bill. I think any future look may well appropriately belong somewhere else in the context maybe a Criminal Justice Bill in the context of how we police protests and demonstrations in the broadest sense in the country rather than specific to Parliament. It is almost because it is looking at the context of Parliament Square I think it is more than proper that it belongs in the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

  Chairman: Thank you for dealing with our questions so efficiently.

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