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26 Jan 2007 : Column 1377

The day that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act became law, 200 members of the Stop the War Coalition simply stood silently in Parliament Square with their mouths bandaged so that they could not speak. They were arrested; which was an astonishing thing to have happened. My colleagues have mentioned cases such as those who read out the names of the Iraqi dead, and we should mention in that context the case of the man who read out the names of the Iraqi civilians killed, who received a double fine of £350. There is case after case of this kind. It is absurd that Mr Haw’s collection of notices, pamphlets and all the rest of it is being shown at Tate Britain. There is a line across the floor, one side of which what Mr Haw did is legal, the other side of which what Mr Haw did is illegal. We have been driven to such absurdities in trying to defend this legislation.

I do not want to keep Parliament and this House long, so I conclude by saying, first, that we have a deep and profound responsibility to uphold the right of our fellow citizens to demonstrate, provided that the demonstration is peaceful. Indeed, there are no reasons to believe that it will not be peaceful because almost all our demonstrations have been. Secondly, Members of Parliament and Peers have an obligation to listen to what is being said to them and to make themselves available rather than hiding away. Thirdly, and finally, demonstrations are something that we should be proud of. Yes, Mr Haw was messy and could have been compelled by civil action to clean up his act, but when I brought American visitors to this House, one of the things that I always pointed to was Mr Haw’s demonstration. I said, “Look, freedom of speech is alive and thriving in this country”, and they were duly impressed.

2.51 pm

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller on presenting the Bill, the principle of which I support strongly. I am one of many who have been inspired over the years by listening to speeches by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, and today is no exception; I agree with her every word. She did, however, set me to thinking of the demonstrations I marched on in the 1960s, while a student in London, against a Government of which she and possibly the noble Lord, Lord Judd, were members at the time.

I was just thinking of the themes that we marched against. We used to do a lot of marching. The LSE held an almost permanent demonstration; one occupation lasted many, many months. We used to march up and down Whitehall with students from the LSE to the strains of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Nuclear weapons were a common theme. I recall, too, marching against the decision of my noble friend’s then Government that Rudi Dutschke should not be allowed to address us at student meetings in London, and that Danny Cohn-Bendit should not be allowed to make similar speeches in London. Of course I also recall marching up and down Whitehall many times for greater student grants. I can tell your Lordships that we failed on every occasion.

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Many of the demonstrations were disorganised. We were certainly more aesthetic than Mr Haw; I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about the aesthetics of Mr Haw’s demonstration. We wore flared trousers and, I suspect, pink or pale green shirts. Much of what we did was entirely spontaneous, and I do not think that it harmed the country a great deal. I regard it as serious formative political experience. I was a member of the Labour Party then, which certainly had an effect on me as I was demonstrating against a Government whom I supported. I had the satisfaction of exercising a right of protest in a place where protest sometimes must be heard.

If protests cannot be heard here, where else will it be worth having them? Political protest is not a creature that should be shunted on to car parks. It should not be forced into places where demonstrators are talking merely to each other or to the odd passing journalist who has nothing better to do at the time. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we do not want protests that are distasteful in appearance and that damage the aesthetics of a very attractive and important London, if we can avoid them, although that is another civil liberties matter. My view is that Mr Haw’s protest was the “Mousetrap” of demonstrations but far less interesting—a footnote in the Guinness Book of Records. It will eventually be forgotten, except by lawyers; we always manage to make something of such incidents and there is some seminal law arising from Mr Haw’s approach.

This is not about Mr Haw. It is about other people—the young people today who want to do the sort of, maybe fairly trivial, marches that I was involved in when I was a student at King’s College, London. This is about people who want to feel that they are involved in the political process. It may be at a very mundane level, but people want to feel that they can do something. To place this artificial barrier one kilometre around Parliament seems to contradict the standards that, when I was protesting, I regarded as givens in this country.

Of course it is important to deal with public safety and national security. I do not know how many cameras, observation points and surveillance posts there are on Whitehall, but I can guarantee that there are as many as on any street in the world, including Pennsylvania Avenue. If demonstrators go down Whitehall, you can be sure that, as with the demonstrations that we went on all those years ago, there will be plenty of police. Today, there will also be a mass of surveillance. Whitehall is probably the safest place to hold a protest in the United Kingdom. I do not believe that special powers are needed for that one-kilometre radius.

There are extensive specific powers to deal with issues arising from terrorism. As I understand it, my noble friend is not arguing in this Bill for the repeal of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which allows for searching for terrorist material without suspicion that the person who is searched has such material. That is a controversial provision, but it is certainly justified in certain parts of London. There are other powers, such as the power to search with reasonable suspicion for drugs and the public order powers of the police.

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The real question is: have we made a mistake in legislating in the way that we did, which is now under criticism in my noble friend’s Bill? Have we been too cautious? For reasons that have already given, which I will not repeat, I believe that we have. If we have, we need to go one stage further and say that we are prepared, even the Government are prepared, from time to time to admit that we have legislated a step too far. All my noble friend is doing in this Bill is saying that we have gone one step too far. Now let us step back and restore those standards that we regard as essential in our precious democracy.

2.57 pm

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I am aware of the time and will try to be as brief as possible. I want to make three points. First, I am certainly in favour of the police having the effective, clearly drawn and appropriate powers that they need in the defence of the community, including this place. Secondly, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer on introducing this Bill. I place on record my agreement with much of what was said by the noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Williams of Crosby. I would just add that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, does not appear to understand that it is the genius of the London School of Economics to be able to mount a full teaching programme while their student body is mounting the best demonstrations in London.

Thirdly, the reason I opposed this legislation has something to do with its character. Legislation tends to be badly drawn when it is hasty and, although its apparent target is everyone, its actual target is very narrow—one or more individuals. I remember debating this point as a student. Criminal law tends to be very bad when, behind its apparent face, it targets one man, one woman or a very small group.

England has a habit of producing rather difficult heroes on the face of such provisions. On 15 September 1381, not far from this place, a simple roof worker from Colchester led thousands of peasant in demonstrations—there had been many previous demonstrations—and spoke to the young King, who, it is recorded on a previous occasion, he had addressed as “comrade”; they were not so far behind the times as we think. Although the King appeared to have some sympathy with the demands, which included the end of serfdom in England, when he turned away, his retinue and supporters arrested Wat Tyler, for that was the man; and one of them ran him through with his sword.

On 22 January 2007, in the City of Westminster court, Judge Purdey passed judgment on a simple carpenter who had been born in Barking, and whose protests against the war in Iraq for six years, day and night, have surpassed the demonstrations against the war by many of those who choose to make speeches about it. I do not say anything about the style to which my noble friend Lord Judd alluded—but it is remarkable that that man has been there, placing himself on the line for such a long time. I spoke of heroes in England—I note that the noble and learned Lord who is to reply for the Government is making a note, and I cannot speak to the record in Scotland,

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but he will, of course, add Scottish names to the heroes who have resisted—and Brian Haw is one of them. He has suffered a large number of police obstructions—78 policemen visited him at one time. We cannot complain about the police in trying to carry out the terms of this hasty and curious law. All of us who were here in 2005 know that, in terms of the vicinity of Parliament, the law was primarily an expression of outrage by those who could no longer bear his megaphone.

It would be silly not to notice that Judge Purdey said last week that the conditions imposed on Mr Haw were insufficiently precise and that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had, on inspection, no power to delegate his role, as he had purported to have done in that case. It is silly to have terrorism legislation passed in a rush and in such a rush that it cannot meet simple legal points of that sort.

The case proved that the old principle is correct—it suggested that public legislation should be aimed at the public, not an individual. The police are hardly to be blamed for what they have done in trying to put the law into effect. We need a pause; we need clear, well drafted and proportionate legislation—I underline proportionate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said. Her Bill comes in the nick of time, and now is the moment to sweep away provisions that are easy meat for simple lawyers’ points and to discuss new legislation in the full knowledge that the ability to demonstrate before, and in the vicinity of, Parliament should be preserved at all costs.

3.04 pm

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, as a former LSE student, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller on the Bill. The right to peaceful protest goes to the heart of the British tradition of liberty established over past centuries, but it has had to be fought for.

The Law Lords’ judgment in the case of Laporte last November found that anti-Iraq war protesters had been unlawfully turned away from reaching a protest at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in March 2003. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, recalled:

He quotes Dicey as saying:

and that,

Therefore, he continued:

He notes that the Strasbourg court has recognised that,

After the conviction of Maya Evans, the then Leader of the other place, Geoff Hoon MP, claimed

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that the legislation was widely supported by MPs and had worked “remarkably well”. One press report said that his remarks were met by cries of “disgraceful”. Maya Evans lost her appeal in the High Court, as it was said that the requirement of authorisation in itself did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights. I understand that there is a possibility that this case will go to Strasbourg. However, if the case had reached the House of Lords—in fact, leave was refused—I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, would have agreed with the reasonableness of her conviction against the test of the Human Rights Act.

Mr Brian Haw is the awkward squad, and long may he continue being so. Like most Liberal Democrats, what brought me into this party was our constitution’s assertion that,

I should like that as my epitaph. I have joined Mr Haw in Parliament Square, along with campaigning comedian Mark Thomas, whose activism I salute, on a “mass lone protest”. We decided not to get arrested; instead, each individual among the couple of hundred of us taking part sought their own personal authorisation from Charing Cross police station. I have mine here—I should have it framed—from poor, overworked Superintendent Hanson Coles, who I am sure has better things to do catching criminals.

One thing that intrigues me—so far as I understand it; no doubt I shall be corrected by noble Lords if I am wrong—is that Section 11 of the Public Order Act 1986 allows for the waiver of the requirement for notice to be given of a procession where,


That sounds like an interesting loophole. Mr Haw or Maya Evans—or, indeed, I or Mark Thomas—just need to march round and round and then we would be a procession, not a demonstration. The only saving grace of all these bans and restrictions is the humour that they supply.

Conservative Party activist Julia Gobert was threatened with arrest outside Earl’s Court tube station last April when handing out local election leaflets. It is said that a Labour member—I confess that this has not been verified—complained to the station manager. This was because she was wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words—I have to report this factually, otherwise the point is lost, and I therefore apologise for the expression—“Bollocks to Blair”. She was told that she was in contravention of an apparent ban under the Public Order Act 1986 on “words causing offence”. It really has come to a pretty pass when language which most of us would think rude, even risqué but hardly criminal, could land you in court. What on Earth is going on in this country?

Then—I hope that I am not straying too much from the topic of the Bill—we have the absurd abuse

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of stop-and-search powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the latter not even requiring reasonable suspicion for stop and search. This was the provision deployed quite illegally to bar 82 year-old Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party conference after he had had the temerity to heckle Jack Straw. I am surprised that they have not made that a capital offence. Section 44 was also used against 80 year-old peace campaigner and RAF Second World War veteran, John Catt, for wearing a T-shirt with anti-Bush and anti-Blair slogans near the Labour Party conference in September 2005. The form that he had to sign said that the purpose of the stop and search was “terrorism” and the grounds for intervention were, “carrying plackard”—spelt with a “k”,

Section 44 has been used to criminalise potentially a whole city. For the past few years, the whole of London—my constituency in my role as MEP for London—has been designated a stop-and-search zone on a continuous rolling basis. As that was authorised by the Home Secretary, the Government are squarely responsible. People who wanted to protest at the London Arms Fair in Docklands were turned back by police. I stress that the police had to give no reasons for suspicion of intended violence, as the Act exempts such a requirement. No wonder that in 2004-05, 36,000 people were stopped and searched. It is far too easy.

As a Member of the European Parliament, I am familiar with Euro-phobes castigating the European Union—as it happens, wrongly—for seeking to suppress traditional British liberties. Brussels is not the culprit here. I am afraid it is Blair. The Prime Minister's own sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, said, when five anti-war protesters were arrested in August 2005, as the SOCPA ban came into force:

If one heard on television that someone in another country was banned from gathering near a government building to stage a legitimate protest, one would probably think, “Thank goodness that does not happen in this country”.

At a time when the European Union is expanding to include countries that have had a long and difficult struggle to establish democracy, the rule of law and fair justice, leadership from member states such as Britain to entrench freedom and liberty as defining EU values and practices is urgently needed. The example that we set to the rest of the world is also vital. How ironic that the Prime Minister, who is so vocal regarding the respect agenda—he wants to set up 40 respect zones around the country—has so little respect for his fellow citizens’ rights to enjoy freedom of expression and peaceful assembly that he imposes a protest-free exclusion zone around Parliament and Downing Street. That will be one part of his legacy for which he deserves no respect at all. It is time to say: “This is our country, these are our public spaces and no arrogant and authoritarian Government should take away our basic freedoms”.

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3.12 pm

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller on introducing this Bill. I also endorse the remarks made about her by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. In September 2003, I was one of the Members of Parliament called to give evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure in the other place. The chairman was Sir Nicholas Winterton and the three witnesses were Mr Nicholas Soames, Mr Jeremy Corbyn and myself. With that cast, it somewhat resembled an undiscovered opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. The main topics of that session were, first, whether a pavement protest obstructed the general public and therefore caused a danger—regardless of the fact that no one uses that pavement, one cannot get on to it very easily, and one almost has to commit suicide to reach it—and, secondly, whether the demonstration was noisy, unaesthetic and scruffy. That point was made very strongly by Mr Soames who, not long before, had camped out with dogs in Parliament Square when the Countryside Alliance came to town and made one hell of a racket with hunting horns, but the banners were professionally made and aesthetic. Incidentally, the noise could have been dealt with easily by the environmental health officers of the City of Westminster. I do not understand why they did not do that.

The real reason for the clauses in this Bill, dubbed by some people as the “Seriously Scruffy Police Bill”, is that the Government were and are seriously discomforted and embarrassed on a daily basis as they go in and out of Parliament. They are discomforted by that brave and patient man, Brian Haw, who happens to think—as many people in this country think—that our Government’s foreign policy is wrong and has caused untold damage and suffering to people in the Middle East. I say to noble Lords and especially to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that war is unaesthetic, scruffy, untidy, dirty, noisy and dangerous, but we must be allowed to protest against it.

Our Government have broken international law by going to war with Iraq. Despite the Government’s legislation prohibiting such action, we are still selling arms to countries that will use them for internal repression or external aggression. The Government have stopped an investigation into allegations that a British company has bribed the Government of Saudi Arabia. On a domestic note, we had the unedifying spectacle of a convicted paedophile on our TV screens last night telling us to blame not the judge but the Government for not sending him to prison. Yet we can go to court, and perhaps be sent to prison for making a peaceful protest within a one-mile radius of Parliament Square without police permission. What a mad, mad country we inhabit.

I conclude—because I know noble Lords want me to be brief—by reflecting on something my noble friend Lady Scott said to me this morning. She asked, “What are these Britishness classes we shall subject our children to?”. What on earth is Britishness if we cannot have the freedom to speak out and protest peacefully in public?

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3.16 pm

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller on introducing the Bill. She has my full support.

In the debate on designated areas in July 2005, I spoke about the order dealing with demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament. The arguments I advanced about public demonstrations are just as valid today. Demonstrations are an essential part of our highly valued democratic institutions, and a healthy democracy tolerates opinions with which we disagree.

This year I complete 50 years in Britain. I remember, in 1956, writing to my parents in Africa about my first visit to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. They could not believe that people had the freedom to get up on a platform and vent their feelings on any and all issues that concerned them. A little while ago, I was in Chile after the fall of the Pinochet regime. I saw a trade union demonstration in Santiago. Everyone I spoke to said that this was the difference between democracy and dictatorship. What a wonderful example of tolerance through democratic institutions.

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