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House of Lords

Tuesday, 5 February 2008.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Death of a Member

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Thomas of Gwydir on 4 February. On behalf of the whole House, I extend our condolences to his family and friends.

Parliament Square: Demonstrations

2.36 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domerasked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the Government published a consultation paper in October seeking views on the framework for managing protests around Parliament. That consultation ended on 17 January and we are considering the way forward, taking into account the 500 or so responses we have received. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her full and considered response to the consultation.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I am glad that he has had a large number of responses to the consultation. Does he accept that it is an affront to democracy if you cannot stand outside your own Parliament with as little as an iced cake saying “Peace” or a T-shirt saying “Free Tibet” without risking arrest? For taking an action such as standing there in a T-shirt you must seek police permission. Will he do his very best to make sure that when the Government review this issue, the law is not harmonised upwards—they are threatening to make all the conditions that apply to marches apply to peaceful protests—but is returned to the position where citizens can protest in front of Parliament peacefully and within the law?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, it is worth recollecting the history of this. The House of Commons Procedure Committee on sessional orders and resolutions recommended in 2003 that we should introduce appropriate legislation for a number of reasons. That was done, but it became clear that there were complications with it, and the law is not working in the way it should.

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That is why we have gone out to this consultation. As I say, we have had 500 responses and I really believe that we can move forward and achieve something.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, I have been around this building for 45 years or so. Does not the Minister agree that the reality of this is that every time there is a major demonstration, it moves across on to that tiny patch of earth and is followed by the police with their horses? It is not a delicate place that everybody can enjoy, but one where the police have a serious problem.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord is right; there are real issues and problems, as well as those of ensuring access to the House. It is a difficult area in the sense that several authorities have responsibility for it, such as the GLA for the grass and other bodies for the pavement and so on. However, what came out clearly in our Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, was that the basis of all our consultation has been to ensure that people’s right to protest is not subject to unnecessary restrictions and with a presumption in favour of freedom of expression. That is absolutely right within the bounds of security and safety.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that no measures will be taken to extend the restrictive and undemocratic powers relating to protests around Parliament to other parts of the country?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I can confirm that we do not intend to do that. I do not know the exact timelines but when we consider the matter we will have to review the 500 responses—some of which were very robust, I am glad to say, because I understand people’s feelings and emotions about this. We have no intention whatever to change and increase the rules in regard to the rest of England and Wales.

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, if someone owns the grass and someone else owns the pavement, why does not the Houses of Parliament buy the lot and then we can do what we want with it?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting point. Changes are coming to Parliament Square which the Mayor of London is considering. I have some experience of the demonstration there. Before I joined the House, I was in full uniform in my car and the demonstrator came up and accused me of being a fascist warmonger. I think I proved that I was a peacemaker because my Royal Marine colour sergeant who was driving me said, “Shall I put him straight, sir?”, and I said, “No, just remain sitting where you are”.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, the Minister deserves every credit for his tolerance on that occasion. In a Statement in July 2007, the Prime Minister announced, among other things, changes along the lines of trying to permit public demonstrations outside

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Parliament again. This made many of us feel exceedingly encouraged. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act under which this restriction happened was passed very quickly through the House—there was not a full discussion because the Recess was coming—and many of us felt embarrassed about preventing peaceful demonstrations around Parliament. I am delighted by what the Minister has said. Will he take the view that this matter should be handled as urgently as possible?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness rings a chime with me. We must make this happen as soon as possible. I cannot give timelines at the moment, I am afraid, but we intend to take the matter forward very quickly—certainly within the first part of this year. The measure has not worked properly or well for a number of reasons and some people have strong views about how wrong it is. But there are also practical problems and, therefore, it is right that we should do something to change it. We should all be very grateful for the work done by people in the House to try to make this change.

Lord Soley: My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that this needs to be changed. I am very glad he is doing so. There is a very long history to these kinds of things. The issue is not that you are not allowed to demonstrate but that you have to get permission first. That is not new; it was introduced originally by a Liberal Government just after the First Word War when they prevented people selling newspapers. Then, with the support of a later Conservative Government, the police tried to charge me with selling copies of the miners’ newspaper under that Act. Fortunately they never proceeded with it, I am pleased to say, for similar reasons—it was unreasonable. We have to get right the balance between getting permission and carrying it forward. Will my noble friend try to do that?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank my noble friend. There are complexities in terms of numbers and so on. As a sailor, it was quite easy for me because, of course, when two or more people are doing something it becomes a mutiny. This relates to fewer than two people, so it was quite understandable.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, as it is apparently impossible to park a car on the green across from the Parliament gates, why is it possible for a permanent collection of tatty-looking tents, washing and people to remain there for months and years? Does that dignify Parliament?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on points that all of us agree with. It looks pretty awful there. The tents have had to move off the grass. As I mentioned, a number of authorities are involved and Westminster City Council is responsible for the pavement. We will be looking at other measures and other ways of dealing with this. It does not look good, it is unsightly, and one wonders whether there is some kind of blockage there. The way to solve this is not as it has been done in the past, and that is why we shall be looking at the issue after consultation.

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Viscount Tenby: My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on another aspect of this: the permanent occupancy of the south side of Parliament Square by one protester, thereby preventing other perfectly legitimate people making their rightful democratic protests?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a good point. We will have to look at that. I do not think any of us would like to have people camped on the pavement outside our houses and demonstrating, wherever we happen to live. It is an issue, but the way that it has been addressed is not the way to address it, which is why we need to make changes.

Finance: World Economic Forum

2.45 pm

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Davos is a useful platform for key decision-makers to discuss a range of policy interests, but it is not traditionally a forum for international agreement and action. The EU, the G7 and the international financial institutions remain the most appropriate forums. The Prime Minister met heads of state and government from France, Germany and Italy as well as the head of the European Commission, President Barroso, in London on 29 January to discuss the appropriate international response to the financial markets’ turbulence. The G7 Finance Ministers, meeting in Tokyo on 9 February, will take these issues forward.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I assume that means no. Does my noble friend accept that, while a consensus is clearly needed to deal with the global problems of the world at the moment, in practice a new crisis may not wait for action to be taken whether by consensus, by legislation or by any other means? The Treasury apparently issued a consultation document the other day, as my noble friend will be aware. In it, powers are proposed for the FSA to take action without necessarily involving legislation. However, does my noble friend accept that the FSA was the only body that did not know what Northern Rock was doing? Can we now be assured that the FSA will have the staff at the right levels to deal with the kind of problems covered by the consultation document?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the FSA is some distance away from Davos. I answered on Davos because, as my noble friend knows only too well, it is a more general forum for discussions on economic and financial issues along with other issues that affect the whole world.

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The FSA has lessons to learn from last summer and autumn. It has indicated that it is currently doing a great deal of work to produce a document in March on how it intends to go further. There is no doubt that we need to look at these issues in fundamental terms, which is why we need to engage on the international level. The problems that occurred in Britain are reflective of the problems that have affected the major economies of the whole world.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 1998 the then Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown, called for the international,

He trotted out exactly the same line at last weekend’s EU mini-summit. Does the Prime Minister have any capacity for new ideas?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as the House will recognise, the Prime Minister is a key figure in international discussions at this level. That is why he met the four key leaders of the leading economies of the European Union and President Barroso last week, and why they are taking those discussions forward. There is no doubt that there has been massive turbulence in the international markets over the past eight months or so, which has shaken them. The noble Baroness seems to indicate that somehow that could be laid at Britain’s door. Where does she think one of the great French banks is at present? What sort of difficulties does she think some of the great American institutions are having? Directing the question solely at the British initiative underestimates the importance the Prime Minister must attach to his work alongside other world leaders.

Lord Newby: My Lords, the Minister mentioned the upcoming G7 Finance Ministers’ meeting. What proposals will the Chancellor take to that meeting to enhance global financial stability? Would he accept that his position is significantly weakened by the fiscal balance in this country, which runs the risk of the Government breaking their own fiscal rules?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my right honourable friend will also be going to the meeting as a custodian of one of the strongest economies in the western world. The noble Lord has only to think of the unemployment levels in some of our major competitor countries to realise the robustness of the British position in coping with what we all recognise is a major challenge to our economy. That is why the Chancellor will go to the meetings with the confidence of presenting to them constructive proposals on how we deal with what we all recognise are fundamental problems. None of us thinks that the solutions to these problems will emerge over the next two to three months. It is clear that the world has to think its way through the shocks to the financial system that have occurred over the past six to eight months, and that some fundamental restructuring is necessary.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, does the Minister not feel that there is a certain lack of symmetry here? When the world economic climate was benign and the British economy was doing very nicely in those

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circumstances, all of it was the doing of the present Prime Minister, according to him; but when the water gets choppy and we get into difficulties, it is all the world’s fault.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord has not presented these issues with his usual intellectual sophistication. I am sure he will appreciate that a great deal of the structural change in the British economy over the past decade has reaped important rewards in performance which marks our economy out as successful when compared with other economies. That does not alter the fact that the shocks to the financial system sustained over the past few months have been on a scale that we have not witnessed for several decades. It is right, therefore, that all international leaders recognise that they need to come together to present fresh solutions to these issues.

Iran: People's Mujaheddin Organisation

2.51 pm

Lord Eden of Winton asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the House will be aware that the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran is currently on the domestic list of proscribed organisations. The House might also be aware that the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission recently determined that it should be removed from this list. Proscription at the EU level is based in part on the UK’s domestic proscription. Her Majesty’s Government are appealing the decision of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission and the domestic proscription will remain in force until that appeals process is complete.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, that Answer is disappointing, to put it mildly. Does the Minister accept that the findings of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission were absolutely clear: that the PMOI is not concerned with terrorism? In those circumstances, why do the British Government persist in the policy of appeasement of the mullah regime, which has yielded no benefit whatever and is doing a grave injustice to the peace-loving people of Iran?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is, I think, aware that the POAC judgment turned around particular aspects of the decision. We continue to believe that the PMOI was responsible for a number of serious military attacks over a very long period of time and that its disarming was entirely pragmatic—in the event of the coalition forces forcing it to disarm after the intervention in Iraq. We have seen no evidence that the organisation has publicly renounced violence and terrorism. We have to be consistent in our views of terrorists. When we like the people whom terrorists attack, we call them “terrorists”; when it is the civilians

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of Iran who are attacked, we have a bad habit of thinking of them as liberation fighters. Terrorism and its tactics are objectionable irrespective of the target.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that in addition to the ruling of the European Court of First Instance and the judgment of POAC, after careful consideration of all the evidence, some years ago the American authorities in Iraq conducted a careful investigation into the allegation and concluded that it was totally without substance? Why do the Government cling so obstinately to a discredited allegation by a discredited Iranian Government?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I cannot confirm to my noble and learned friend the circumstances of the US investigation that he refers to, but I certainly can confirm that we will respect the outcome of the appeals process.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, can the noble Lord give us some further indication of what the grounds of appeal are?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the judgment arrived at was that the behaviours of the organisation really amounted to a separation from the use of terrorist tactics. We just believe that there has not been a clear enough renunciation of those tactics. Instead, we see the decision as a pragmatic one in the face of American and British force. Until we are convinced that the organisation has really foresworn those tactics, we continue to believe it to be a threat to civilians.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the Government are consistent in their definition of terrorists? We have a great variety of exiled groups in London—Tamils, Kurds, people from the north and south Caucasus and so on. We host those groups, although a number of them support opposition groups in their own countries that are not always non-violent. Are the Government confident that that they are consistent in their approach?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important point. In the case of the Tamils, the LTTE is a proscribed organisation. It is quite difficult determining which groups in this country fall on which side of the line—and which support peaceful change in their countries and which support violent change and finance it. We look very carefully at that issue on a continuing basis.

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