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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we have already heard some impressive speeches this afternoon. I immediately express my apology for not having been able to be present in Committee yesterday, but I was present at Second Reading. I feel extremely strongly about the issue, and I shall be brief.
The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, and my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond have drawn attention to the fact that, in the Bill, there are a number of unrealised and insufficiently appreciated elements that will have a major effect in our society in years to come. One of them concerns demonstrations and whether they can be held within the ambit of Parliament Square and the areas that traditionally in this country have been the centres of demonstrations for many decades.
Either on grounds of securitynot necessarily justifiedor even on arguments of tidiness, we are gradually seeing the colour and the vivacity of our democracy leeched out. Many of us are conscious that we live in a society that feels much less free than it did 10 or 15 years ago. We always have to ask whether it is necessary to take such steps. In these clauses, it is not necessary to do so. Let me say one or two quick words about that.
Demonstrations are a crucial safety valvea way in which our fellow citizens can express their indignation, anger or disgust at government policy. I say that about all governments at all times. It is crucial to allow our fellow citizens to demonstrate peacefully because, if we make that extremely difficult, sooner or later they will demonstrate non-peacefully. That is the lesson from many other societies.
Let us look at the examples of two recent great demonstrations. Both were great credits to our democracy, and both saw Parliament as their target and the hub of their protest. The first was the great Iraq march, in which many of us took part. It brought home to the Government the extent to which many of our fellow citizens felt deeply concerned about that war and the arguments leading up to it. The second, from a very different part of the political spectrum, was the Countryside Alliance demonstration. It was
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widely rumoured in the press to be likely to get out of hand, but was actually conducted with extraordinary courtesy and restraint.
It has been a credit to our democracy that, on both sides of the political spectrum, such demonstrations have been held, to the great admiration of many other parts of the world. It might be said by the Government, "There is no reason for you to object. After all, we are still going to permit demonstrations". However, they will be demonstrations so controlled and capricious that it would be very difficult for them to take place within the "designated area" with any degree of true freedom. I shall give three examples.
First, the designated area is much wider than it need be to protect the Houses of Parliament. It is simply ludicrous that the designated area as it standsI am not clear exactly where it will runincludes almost all the areas of traditional demonstration in London, such as Whitehall, the Embankment and Parliament Square itself. Then there is a question about whether Trafalgar Square is in or out; it is certainly within a kilometre of the Houses of Parliament.
Secondly, there is some uncertainty about the degree of notice required. Will it be six days except in exceptional circumstances, and how does one define those? Will the exceptional circumstances be widely recognised so that anyone dealing with a demonstration about a recent eventsomething new that has happened or an announcement by the Governmentwould be permitted to go ahead?
Thirdlythis was hardly debated at all in Committee, and not debated much in the other placehuge uncertainty is constituted by Clauses 134 and 135, which are rather innocently described as supplementary provisions. If I understand them properly, they allow, amazingly, any "senior police officer"defined as the most senior person in any group who happens to be present at the time, which often may be a constable or someone only a little more seniorto change, vary or add to the conditions. Those are the very conditions laid down by the commissioner of police that have required notice to be given.
That is intolerable. It means that a decent organiser of a demonstration will not know until he is actually involved in it precisely what conditions have to be met by those whom he has organised to take part in it. That would not be so serious were it not for the scale of the punishment that would be visited on him or her if he or she got it wrong or was unable to change what the demonstration did at what may be the very last moment. Those sentences include 51 weeks of custody or a level 4 finethe kinds of punishment that we normally reserve for people who have committed some substantial crime in the ordinary world.
Do we really want to put police officers in a position in which they vary and change conditions at such a high price to the genuine citizen taking part in a demonstration? That will gradually drive people away from the designated site altogether, which is far from desirable becausebluntlyit is important that Parliament feels in itself the anger and indignation of its fellow citizens and does not try to encapsulate itself from
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any such inconveniences. We worry about the gap between Parliament and the people; the Bill will widen that gap yet further, completely unnecessarily.
In conclusion, all of us in the past few weeks have hugely admired the amazing demonstrations in the Ukraine against rigged elections, which went right up to the doors of the parliament and which brought about, totally non-violently, the change in the Ukrainian regime and the ushering in of genuine democracy. We have admired the demonstration of tens of thousands of people in the Lebanon, calling for the Syrians to leave. That was described, from the White House to 10 Downing Street, as a remarkable example of the great attempt to extend democracy to new parts of the world.
How bizarre and how ironic it should be that those very things that we praised in the Lebanon, in the Ukraine, in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere, we are now beginning to make almost impossible in our own country. I would ask the Minister to think seriously about the implications if the Government's proposals, not only here, but also far beyond where British influence and British example have long been regarded as important. I beg to move.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I rise briefly, not to add to the passionate and sensible speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, but simply to point out that, as a Front-Bencher, my remarks on this were put on record at Second Reading and yesterday. For the record, I remind my colleagues, who may not be present at this moment but may read the record, that if a Division were to occur it would be on a free vote.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I shall speak briefly in support of my noble friend Lady Williams. I fear that this part of the Bill in particular gives such wide and discretionary powers to the police, and those to whom they are expressly given, as to create a dangerous regime. I should add to my noble friend's remarks that, for example, under Clause 136, a constable can arrest a single demonstrator in the belief that the demonstrator has not obtained the necessary authorisations.
A demonstration could constitute a single person, because the Bill makes it clear that the demonstration can be by someone who is merely shouting in the streetfor example, when seeing someone leaving these Houses who that demonstrator feels passionately about in relation to the issue concerned. That individual will, if the provision is passed, be subject to immediate arrest by any policeman in the vicinity. That is not remotely right or sensible.
If the Minister says that the police will of course exercise their discretion, it would underline my concern about the discretionary nature of these vast powers. Parliament is increasingly dealing with that
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type of legislation and it is bad legislation. I merely wished to say that and to support strongly the comments that have been made.
Lord Monson: My Lords, I have an open mind about Amendment No. 17. Regarding Amendment No. 18, I acknowledge the stirring speech given by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and I take on board the many interesting points that she made, with which I agree to a considerable extent.
Is not one of the problems with Amendment No. 18, as drafted, that a 100-metre exclusion zone that started even at the south-eastern corner of Parliament Square would not, I suspect, protect the Black Rod's Garden entrance, for example, noralthough I have not had time to pace it outwould it protect the southernmost part of our car park?
Would the noble Baroness consider returning at Third Reading with an amendment that compromises at somewhere between one kilometre and 100 metres? I would suggest a quarter of a mileand I declare an interest as patron of the British Weights and Measures Association, to which the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, also belongs. Survey after survey has demonstrated that the great majority of people in this country, of all age groups, continue to think in Imperial terms, despite years of metric indoctrination. Setting down the limits in terms of yards or fractions of a mile would help the public to understandquite literallyhow far they could go.
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