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House of Lords

Monday, 16 March 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Parliament Square: Right to Protest


2.36 pm

Asked By Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, we announced our intention to repeal the current provisions covering demonstrations around Parliament in March 2008 as part of the programme of constitutional renewal. As I informed the noble Baroness in my Written Answer of 15 January, we remain strongly committed to constitutional renewal and our aim is to bring a Bill forward as soon as parliamentary time allows. We expect that to be later this Session.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but we are still waiting for anything to happen that makes protest take the place that it should have in our democracy. Does the Minister realise that in the mean time it has become an incredible ordeal to protest? Not only is your name taken and your number plate recognised but if you refuse to give your name your credit card will be asked for, and if you obstruct the police you will of course then be up on a charge. This is criminalising protest. Will the Minister ensure that the guidance from the Home Office and the actions of the police move in the opposite direction so that we never see another Kingsnorth policed as it was, with climate protesters being treated as they were?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I understand the frustration about this issue and there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the responses we had when we asked for them were for this measure to be totally repealed. However, the Joint Committee raised a number of other things to be looked at, which we are doing. We want to ensure that we have a sensible package in the Bill when it is introduced. With regard to Kingsnorth, I would need to look at that and consider exactly what was said there before I made any response about it.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, will the Bill that the Minister has just announced is coming have retrospective effect?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, so far as I understand, there will be nothing retrospective in it.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the police will do everything they can to facilitate peaceful protest during the coming G20 summit rather than obstructing it and praying in aid terrorism laws that were not introduced for that purpose?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am sure that that is exactly how the police will behave. This whole issue is interesting. I was struck by Lord Justice Laws’s judgment in the case regarding Aldermaston. This quotation is not overlong, and it is worth repeating:

“Rights worth having are unruly things. Demonstrations and protests are liable to be a nuisance. They are liable to be inconvenient and tiresome, or at least perceived as such by others who are out of sympathy with them. Sometimes they are wrong-headed and misconceived”.

To paraphrase him, he said that demonstrations are, however, important for our democracy and that they should go ahead.

Lord Pannick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State for Justice told your Lordships’ Constitution Committee on 28 January that he recognised that the restrictions on free speech in and around Parliament—let us not forget that restrictions apply to a distance of one kilometre from Parliament—are

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widely regarded as “rather oppressive”, and were “inappropriately” included in the 2005 Act? Does the Minister agree that the Government should learn a lesson from this episode and listen more carefully in the future when noble Lords tell them that their legislative proposals are an unnecessary or disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as I said before, the Government are quite unequivocal about the fact that they intend to repeal these provisions, and we see that they were wrong. Certainly, speaking for myself, I constantly listen very carefully to what is said in this House, and I make sure that statements in the House are taken account of when we look at legislation.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, despite the Government’s complacency—it is a year now since it was announced that the provisions would be repealed—how many people have been denied the right to protest in and around Parliament in the one-kilometre radius since the law came into effect? Can the Minister give us those figures?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we are not complacent about this at all. As I say, we are moving forward with this. We have listened to what was said. I think that the way it was brought in was wrong. It was brought in for very good reasons; people thought it would help because there are issues of access to the House, security and noise, but it was clearly a very blunt, heavy-handed instrument. It was not right and we have recognised that. We will repeal it and we are working very hard to do that. I am afraid that I do not have the actual numbers at my fingertips, but I shall get back to the noble Baroness in writing on those.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, bearing in mind that there is virtual political unity on the necessity to repeal the 2005 Act, and that the Prime Minister announced as soon as he was appointed that this Act would be repealed, why has it taken so long to get down to it? Finally, will people who assemble outside Parliament be able to take photographs of policemen?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I had hoped that I had covered that through a sequencing, but, basically, the Joint Committee was established in April 2008. It published its report in July 2008. It supported the repeal of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. I think all of us agree that it should go, and that is what we are moving towards. However, it identified a number of other things such as access to Parliament, noise and security, which need to be addressed. We are looking at all these issues in terms of tying them together in the constitutional renewal Bill. It is our absolute intention to go with that. As someone who comes from the military, I agree that sometimes the speed of things within government seems slightly slow, but, of course, we have to look at all aspects and it is rather tricky sometimes, but we are pushing that very hard indeed.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, when the new Bill to allow protest around Parliament is introduced, will it extend the area where people can protest to the grass

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in Parliament Square? However, as a precursor to that, you would have to get rid of that ghastly encampment. That would benefit us, the general population and, indeed, the image of Parliament.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the knotty problem of who owns which bit of Parliament Square and how to get rid of Mr Haw’s permanent site there, so to speak, is a very tricky one. The gardens belong to the GLA, which through a by-law has now stopped people using them. However, Westminster City Council has been unable to stop them being on the pavement. I fear that it will be something as prosaic as an American lawyer breaking his ankle while trying to go along that pavement—rather than legislation—which will cause such a furore in terms of cost that they will have to move.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, it is now 25 years since the famous, or infamous miners’, strike. I am sure that those on these Benches have more confidence than those on the other Benches that the Government will get a fair deal for working people who wish to protest.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I absolutely believe in everyone’s right to protest within the law. That is exactly what we are aiming to do. We are intent on repealing this provision, which clearly was not a clever thing to have done in the first place.



2.45 pm

Asked By Lord Blaker

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are ready, with other donors, to support the new Government when we see demonstrable commitment to reform. Tendai Biti’s appointment as Minister of Finance is a positive development, and an IMF mission this month provides an opportunity for constructive dialogue. However, major concerns remain about commitment to democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Of course, our thoughts are with Morgan Tsvangirai after the tragic loss of his wife.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will agree with what the noble Lord has just said about Tsvangirai’s wife. Were not specific commitments made in the Memorandum of Understanding between political parties in Zimbabwe? Does not Mugabe’s party continue flagrantly to breach those commitments? Does not the memorandum also say that implementation of the global political agreement,

Is not the facilitator Thabo Mbeki?

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Is the Minister aware of any censure by the guarantors over those continuing breaches or, given the expectation by SADC members that the UK will provide funding for Zimbabwe, have we been given any indication by SADC and the African Union of measures that they intend to adopt to make good their guarantee?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I indicated in my original Answer, there are one or two developments that give some cause for optimism, but progress is very slow, as the noble Lord indicated. That is why the British Government are extremely guarded in our response to developments in Zimbabwe. The noble Lord is right that there is a role that Thabo Mbeki is to play in monitoring the development of and encouraging the restoration of those features which I have indicated in terms of the rule of law and the return to democracy. We wait and see. At this stage, it would be premature to reach judgments, but the noble Lord is right to raise the issue. We must be watchful of what are very limited developments in Zimbabwe at present.

Lord Acton: My Lords, are the Government satisfied that the money they give Zimbabwe via United Nations agencies is allocated as it should be? Is there monitoring that is independent of the United Nations of the distribution of such international funds?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House is pleased to see my noble friend back, and I am encouraged by this question. The position of the British Government with regard to aid in Zimbabwe is that aid is concentrated on food aid under the United Nations programme and on concern about the health and welfare of the people of Zimbabwe, particularly given the background of the recent cholera epidemic. Those are both priorities to which international support is being given. Although there is always a difficulty about monitoring certain flows of funds, the international community and the British Government have a great interest in ensuring that the two main issues in Zimbabwe—food and the restoration of some degree of public health—are priorities that can be monitored.

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords—

Lord Avebury: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, can we hear from the Cross Benches first and then the noble Lord?

Baroness D'Souza: Thank you, my Lords. More specifically, the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee was set up by SADC to oversee the power-sharing agreement between ZANU-PF and the MDC. Never has its work been more desperately needed than now. I heard last week a first-hand account stating that this committee does not have the resources to do its work. Can pressure be brought to bear on SADC countries, or are the Government themselves prepared, to supply the committee with the resources it needs to do this job?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the SADC commitment was entered into voluntarily and the Prime Minister, of course, is responsible for seeing it through. We are concerned about this monitoring position. The question of whether there are sufficient resources also relates to the extent of the will to monitor effectively. It is still early days to reach judgments on that matter, but the noble Baroness is quite right to identify it as a key element, because this was the assurance given as regards underpinning the development of the new arrangements in Zimbabwe.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I should like to be associated with the condolences expressed by the Minister on the tragic loss of Mr Tsvangirai’s wife. While I note the Zimbabwean Government’s declaration of the principles that have to be satisfied, does the Minister agree that the best way of restoring confidence in the international financial institutions would be for them to comply with the specific requirements of the constitution as amended, including full consultation before the appointment of senior government officials, such as the governor of the bank, Gideon Gono, and the Attorney-General, Mr Tomana? Can the noble Lord assure the House that he has specific proposals on these matters, particularly on the release of the 40 political detainees, to place before the G20 when it meets in the near future?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Zimbabwe remains an important issue for the international community. Therefore, I have no doubt that these issues will be discussed. Tardy progress has been made towards the development of the principles upon which the Government should be founded that the noble Lord identified. He is right to express anxiety about appointments, as I have indicated, but one or two developments and appointments, including the swearing into office of Mr Bennett who has been freed from prison, offer some limited encouragement. We have to be patient in circumstances where quite a significant transition of this Government needs to occur.



2.53 pm

Asked By Baroness Gardner of Parkes

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, since January 2007 all new large goods vehicles have been required to have improved mirrors. New legislation requires existing large goods vehicles, first used from 1 January 2000, to be fitted with improved mirrors. However, it is important that cyclists are fully aware of the dangers of large vehicles on the near side. The Highway Code gives cyclists specific advice on awareness of long vehicles which may be manoeuvring.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Kensington and Chelsea, many other London councils and the Greater London

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Authority hand out Fresnel lenses or supplementary mirrors, but there is a particular problem with heavy vehicles from the construction industry, such as concrete mixers and skip and trailer transporters, which are exempted from the requirement to have side protection bars that prevent cyclists being pulled under the wheels, which is how many of the worst accidents occur. As we can expect many more heavy construction vehicles to be in London in preparation for the coming Olympics, what does he think can be done to change this exemption so that heavy goods vehicles of all types have protection bars?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am told that for practical reasons some special types of vehicle, such as those that the noble Baroness mentioned, are exempted from the legislation. These include vehicles equipped with a tipping body, such as those used on construction sites. However, the effectiveness of the legislation is being reviewed in the context of a wider study that is currently being undertaken. The report of this study will be published soon. I will make it available to the noble Baroness and will be happy to discuss it with her then.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, while agreeing that all people who equip and drive all kinds of vehicles should take the greatest care not to cause injury to cyclists, can I ask my noble friend whether he would also agree that there would be many fewer accidents to both cyclists and pedestrians if that significant proportion of cyclists who routinely flout the Highway Code and the law were instead to observe the rules? When will the Government and the police take effective action to end this cycling anarchy?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the Highway Code could not be clearer. Rules 72 and 73 advise cyclists not to ride on the inside of vehicles signalling or slowing down to turn left, to pay particular attention to long vehicles which need a lot of room to manoeuvre at corners, and not to be tempted to ride in the space between them and the kerb. So the advice we give to cyclists is very clear.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, will the Minister undertake to speak to the Mayor of London and to tell him that the sooner he redeems his promise to get Ken Livingstone’s bendy buses off the streets of the capital, the sooner the majority will be pleased?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am seeing the Mayor of London in precisely one hour to discuss with him the £16 billion investment that we are putting into the construction of the Crossrail line in London. I will personally see that the noble Lord’s concerns are conveyed to him at that meeting.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords—

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords—

Lord Colwyn: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, can we hear from the noble Lord first, please?

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