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House Of Commons (Demonstration)

Volume 35: debated on Monday 17 January 1983

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4.14 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am seeking your guidance about a peaceful demonstration this afternoon at 3.30 by a number of supporters of the Greenham Common women's peace camp. Amongst the demonstrators were a number of my constituents. When I last saw them, they were being dragged by the police from Central Lobby down the steps to Westminster Hall, where they are now, together with about 100 other young women, surrounded by policemen. I cannot find out how long they will be detained in Westminster Hall and what charges are being levelled against them. Will you use your influence, Mr. Speaker, to persuade the Leader of the House to make a statement about the demonstration—[Interruption.]

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Like some of my colleagues, I witnessed the whole affair. I wish to ask "What next?" About 70 of those women are cordoned off in a corner of Westminster Hall. What will happen to them? I was grateful to the Serjeant at Arms. When the women were dragged along the floor of Central Lobby, there was no trouble because the surface of the floor is polished. However, when the police started dragging them down the steps into Westminster Hall, some of the police—not all of them—acted roughly. The Serjeant at Arms intervened on the women's behalf to ask some of the police to be more careful.

I understand that sometimes the names of such people are taken. They are not allowed to come into Parliament again for five years. Those women have not interfered with the conduct of the House—I regard the women who made a disturbance in the Strangers' Gallery as separate from the women to whom I am referring. Those women did not act violently. They sat down. They did not interfere with the proceedings of Members of Parliament.

What action do you think can or should be taken, Mr. Speaker, against those women? After all, it is our House of Commons. It is we and you who decide. A reprisal may come. I do not want to see any reprisals. Those women represent millions of people. I appeal to you to use your influence to see that those women do not suffer because of a brave action, even if not all Members of Parliament agree with it.

Order. I shall listen to the hon. Gentleman, but perhaps he will allow me to say something first.

I have listened with great care to what has been said about the incidents this afternoon. The House is aware that those who carry out responsibilities for us in ensuring freedom of movement within this building have a difficult task to perform, especially if anyone tries to prevent proceedings in the Chamber from taking place. That is an offence against our democracy. We cannot allow anyone to try to stop the proceedings of Parliament. If that were to happen, it would be the end of our democracy.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. While entirely endorsing what you said and while finding the unhelpful noisiness from the Gallery not really a matter that helps the argument in the House, may I ask why some of those ladies should not be allowed to make their representations in the Central Lobby, if they so wish, through the green card system? It seems to me wholly unacceptable that, if they want to make a protest to individual Members, they should not be allowed to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I agree with my hon. Friend's comments. I should like to draw to your attention the fact that the women in no way interfered with hon. Members going about their business. Their action may have been precipitated by the fact that a number of hon. Members to whom they submitted green cards did not come to speak to the women, so the women felt put off. The women took part in a peaceful protest in the Central Lobby and were then dragged across the floor. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) that, in most cases, the police tried to make sure that no injuries were sustained by the women, but one or two women were bumped downstairs. I ask you to bear in mind, Mr. Speaker, the specific points that have been raised.

I hope that all hon. Members will bear in mind that demonstrations within the Palace are entirely different from demonstrations outside the building. I have said that I shall consider the matter. I shall consider with sympathy the points that have been raised. A primary task of every Speaker through the ages has been to ensure that no one within this building tries to bring undue pressures to bear on the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I entirely share your concern about the maintenance of democracy and freedom of expression in this Chamber. However, I should like to invoke your assistance as a servant of Parliament as distinct from a servant of the Government. Time after time, Opposition Members have pressed for a debate on disarmament as opposed to defence, and time after time this has been refused by the Leader of the House. If you could use your influence to secure time for such a debate, it would be of great advantage and might relieve some of the frustration felt by many of these women and millions outside the House.

It would be a dangerous time for the House if the Speaker sought to intervene and decide what subjects ought to be debated by the House. From time to time hon. Members would be so indignant that I should prefer not to come into the Chamber.