My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill’s purpose is to delete those clauses in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which condition demonstration. Freedom to demonstrate outside Parliament is one of the most important freedoms of expression that Britain has. This Government changed that fundamental freedom to a conditional one. My Bill would simply return the law to the 2005 position when there were many adequate safeguards against violent or disruptive protests but people were not frightened to demonstrate. People are now afraid that they will get a criminal record for simply holding a placard or even wearing a T-shirt with a slogan on it anywhere near Parliament.
I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, is not in her place. I fully understand the reason and I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson of Glen Clova, for taking this on. But if the noble Baroness were in her place, she might say that she was puzzled why I, who usually speak on environmental matters and did not take part during the passage of the SOCPA, should introduce this Bill. It is because many young people at the start of their careers through to ageing pacifists have said, “Well, I feel like coming up to Parliament and demonstrating, but you just cannot demonstrate there any more like you used to be able to, can you?”. They either think that the right has been lost entirely or they are unsure of how they can be legally able to take part. If an organiser gets it wrong, those taking part are implicated, so people are frightened off. Just being arrested will affect your life for ever. For instance, you lose immediately the right to a visa waiver to the USA, even though you may be innocent of any offence.
The effect of these SOCPA clauses has been to cast a great chill across demonstrating peacefully in the designated zone. As my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby said,
“Parliament is properly described as ‘the people's house’”.—[Official Report, 14/7/05; col. GC 154.]
Now, the people have to watch what they wear, hold or shout outside their House or they may be arrested, charged and face a jail sentence of 51 weeks or a fine of £2,500. The situation was foreseen by my noble friend Lord Dholakia when he said:
“What initially started as a debate about demonstrations in Parliament Square has now resulted in legislation which will create ‘fortress Whitehall’, where no one can protest without permission”.—[Official Report, 14/7/05; col. GC 149.]
The purpose of my Bill is to restate the presumption in favour of the citizen and to ensure that the right to peacefully demonstrate outside their Parliament is not conditional.
I am sure that the Minister will tell us that conditions are not usually imposed. But when the applicant fills in the form to apply for permission, he or she states who they are, how many people will be there and what time the demonstration will take place. They become the conditions unless the police impose additional conditions. In addition, spontaneous protest is illegal because at least 24 hours’ notice must be given. Additional conditions can be imposed on the hoof under Section 135; for example, a vigil could be moved from Parliament to a side street or a 24-hour protest could be suddenly curtailed.
I want to look at why this was introduced. The Government claimed that the powers were needed around Parliament for three reasons: first, increased security because of terrorism; secondly, aesthetics; and, thirdly, undisturbed parliamentary business. I accept totally that the terrorist threat is very real. When the House authorities talked to us about it, they maintained that the highest threat came from the traffic and the road outside remaining open. Yet that road remains open. Of course, there was a remote possibility that a terrorist could hide a device in Mr Haw’s sleeping bag or under his placards, but they also could hide one in the bushes by Victoria Tower or in the vans that deliver vegetables to the kitchens.
The question is whether this legislation was a proportionate response to the terrorist threat posed by Mr Haw’s demonstration. As the order went through, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said from the Conservative Benches:
“Interferences with rights to expression and assembly must … be proportionate”.—[Official Report; 14/7/05; col. GC 153.]
Noble Lords will rightly have concerns about the security of people in the area around Parliament and I want to emphasise that both for security on demonstrations and security on designated sites around the UK, there are already powerful laws in place to stop violence or obstruction and to address the terrorism issue. Indeed, in the evidence that came out in the Brian Haw court case under the Terrorism Act, the police have powers to stop and search in the designated area, and Superintendent Terry stated in the evidence that between January and July 2006, 714 searches took place within the government security zone around Westminster and Whitehall and a further 4,465 people were spoken to about their activities. I certainly pay tribute to the efforts of the police in protecting the area, but I do not feel this legislation is helping them; rather, I will show later how it is hindering their work. Since 1997, the Minister will be aware of many Acts that have been added to the statute book which lengthen the list of powers available to the police to control situations that pose a threat to the public interest. Those powers could have been used to address the situation in Parliament Square, in addition to civil action.
I shall now address the aesthetics. It was one demonstration that provoked the Government. In fact, many parliamentarians find Mr Haw’s demonstration messy and annoying. Now of course it is the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain. One man’s protest is another man’s mess is another man’s art. But as my honourable friend David Heath MP said in Committee on the Bill in another place:
“What I cannot believe is that the Government, in response to a demonstration that they happen not to like, in a place where they happen not to want it to be, are prepared to bring forward not a civil remedy to provide for an injunction but a new criminal offence”.—”.[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee D, 20/1/05; cols. 434-35.]
Did the Government realise the mess they were getting themselves into with their route for addressing what they saw as a problem? Last week Mr Haw won his court case. He also featured in “The Trial of Tony Blair” a fictional TV drama, and he certainly made his point in a much wider way than he probably thought when he started his protest. His principles and perseverance are admirable. I had only one reservation about his original demonstration, which was that it took up the whole south side of Parliament Square, a prime position which was then denied to other causes. But my Bill is not about Mr Haw because he will demonstrate no matter what. My proposal is about Sue Smith from Salisbury, Mr Jones from Cardiff or Jeff Brown from Yorkshire who have been put off from joining demonstrations by the chilling effect of the SOCPA clauses.
The last of the Government’s reasons for bringing forward the legislation was the wish for undisturbed parliamentary business. The fact is that Parliament needs disturbing—not disrupting or obstructing, but there is already enough legislation to prevent that.
I turn now to the mechanics of the system imposed by the Government. How does it work? The demonstrator who wants to demonstrate has to fill in a form. I shall tell the House what happened to me last week when I wanted to get a form to do just that. I looked through the Metropolitan Police website for a form. I could not find the form, so I rang Charing Cross police station where a very helpful policeman agreed that there might not be one on the site, but that I could download it from the Mark Thomas website. It is lucky for the police that Mark Thomas has it because it saves a lot of trouble. So some demonstrations take place with the form filled in but other events take place which may look and sound like demonstrations, but are not. My Parliamentary Questions have revealed that there is no statutory definition of “demonstration”, so it is left entirely to the police to decide.
Last week at the Mark Wallinger exhibition, a young woman told me that she had stood outside Downing Street wearing a T-shirt saying, “Rogue state Britain”. The policeman on duty told her, “You can’t wear that here, it is a demonstration”. She replied, “I am advertising an art show at the Tate”. He said, “Oh, that’s fine then”.
My noble friends will give several other examples of people who have been arbitrarily arrested for matters which I am sure the Government never imagined would be arrestable offences—for example, reading out a list of names of the people who have died in Iraq. The police have chosen not to apply the law to others such as the carol singers or the owners of the boats demonstrating on 10 January. They received only a warning letter.
As my Parliamentary Question 109 revealed, as I have said, there is no statutory definition of “demonstration”, so the police must make it up as they go along. Is a picnic a demonstration? Perhaps not if it contains only sandwiches, but if it contains a cake iced with the words “Blair out” then, of course, it could be. I do not believe that the time the police have to spend on T-shirted individuals or cake decorators is time well spent. I am not blaming the police. I feel it undermines their credibility and the law in general to give them such ill-considered legislation to enforce.
Many noble Lords will be much better equipped than I to address the issue of whether the arbitrary nature of the enforcement is likely to have any implications under the Human Rights Act. It is a matter which may be debated again.
Why was the legislations so ill considered? It was rushed through Parliament just as it was about to rise for the 2005 election. The remainder of the Bill dealt with very weighty issues and so voting down the Bill as a whole because of these clauses was not an option. But now the Government can have a cool, considered look at the whole matter.
As well as the principle of free expression, the other major reason for the Government to have this cool, reasoned look is that vast amounts of police time and public money are being wasted. We know that the cost of policing only one unauthorised demonstration on 9 October last year was £298,000. As of last week, we also know—because Judge Purdy, in his judgment on the Brian Haw case, said so—that it is the police commissioner himself who must impose the conditions on the demonstration. Judge Purdy said:
“I conclude that the Commissioner cannot delegate his powers as he purported to do”.
So now the commissioner's time is to be spent looking at condition forms instead of conducting the fight against terrorism and crime.
This may not be so simple, as Brian Haw’s defence lawyer, Mr MacDonald, showed As he cross-examined police witnesses the absurdity of some of the conditions imposed in that case became very clear. The Minister may say that conditions are applied in only a very few cases—indeed, only about 10 demonstrations have received added conditions—but the experience of how the Act works has revealed something else. For every demonstration, under Section 133(4), an applicant must state the date, time, place, length and size of the proposed demonstration, and these become the binding rules for the demonstration. Section 134(7) states:
“Each person who takes part in or organises a demonstration in the designated area is guilty of an offence”,
if it is,
“carried on otherwise than in accordance with the particulars set out in the authorisation”.
That means that every protest is effectively subject to conditions.
The requirement for 24 hours’ notice is completely unacceptable anywhere but all the more so outside Parliament where people may want to respond to events as they happen. What will happen if a ministerial statement causes unexpected uproar? Are people to wait a day before they express their feelings?
I have concentrated on the situation affecting Parliament Square but the sections of the Act which my Bill seeks to delete also give the Secretary of State the power to designate any site in the UK in the interests of national security, and so far he has designated 13. In practice, these sites will carry similar problems and penalties for demonstrators.
I have set out the moral, legal, economic and practical reasons for repealing Sections 128 to 138 of SOCPA, which represent the very worst of hurried legislation in an especially serious way. I was struck by the speech of the Leader of the Conservative Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on the gracious Speech on 15 November last year. He said,
“I was born in the Cold War era, in which we faced a society where the surveillance of every individual was a commonplace, where the state was master and not servant, and where freedom was conditional and every citizen a suspect. That is not a society in which I wish to die, and I suspect that that goes for many noble Lords on all sides of this House. Freedom does not die in one blow; it dies by inches in public legislation”.—[Official Report, 15/11/06; col. 120]
I thoroughly agree with that sentiment, and I therefore suggest to the House that the time is right to remove these completely disproportionate restrictions on people’s liberties, both here outside Parliament and around the country. What we had before may not have been perfect—carefully circumscribed rules limiting the disruption of protests—but they were adequate. If it had been really necessary, they could have been strengthened by more moderate amendments that were laid down during the passage of the Act, but which the Government chose to defeat in order to introduce their much more extreme solution. What we have ended up with, however, is totally unworkable and unacceptable.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer.)
My Lords, I urge my noble friends on the Front Bench to co-operate in giving time for the proper consideration of this Bill. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on having introduced the Bill, and on the powerful way in which she has just spoken. I always see her as the epitome of the decent civilised society in which I want to live. She is caring and creative, and has a great sense of history and of social responsibility. No one better could be moving a Bill of this kind.
In that context, I am glad that in her concluding remarks she referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in the debate on the humble Address. I, too, was very struck by those words, and I am sure that at that moment he drew a good deal of good will and support from all parts of the House. The point is to make that sentiment a reality.
I emphasise two points in supporting the need to debate the Bill. I choose those words carefully, as the Bill needs to be debated. I am sure the noble Baroness will understand that there are security issues that have to be treated extremely seriously in our deliberations. The circumstances in which we live require from time to time restrictions on what ideally we would like to be the situation. I therefore cannot, as it were, write a blank cheque in my support for the Bill, but I hope we will be able to treat it constructively and positively.
My first point is that if we believe ours is a democratic, free society committed to human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, described it, and if restrictive legislation is introduced, that restrictive legislation has to be defended and constantly kept under scrutiny. That legislation undermines and damages the very society we say we are trying to protect. The difficulty is that while we may on occasion feel that such restrictions are necessary, they must be watched with great care and scrutiny and constantly be put in the position where they have to be justified. I am fearful that we in this House and in the other place and, indeed, society as a whole, could drift into a kind of complacency whereby the erosion of rights to which the noble Baroness referred becomes a grim reality. So it is absolutely right that Parliament should scrutinise whether the Bill is necessary and remains necessary or whether modifications, at least, are appropriate.
Secondly, there are aesthetic considerations. I was affronted by the activity of Mr Haw; I found it unpleasant. I did not find his displays of literature attractive, and I found his constant megaphone an irritant. Indeed, if I were advising people how to pursue a campaign about which they felt strongly, I would suggest that he was an example of the way not to do it. I think he probably made more enemies than friends, whatever his subsequent successes through the legal system.
As I said, there are aesthetic considerations—this is a fine square, before a great building, in our history. But that square has a greater significance than just its aesthetic considerations. It is the place in the heart of our freedom and our democracy, where people have traditionally been able to come with spontaneity, concern and, yes, decent emotion, to express their outrage on occasion at what may be happening in either of our two Houses. In effect, to have removed that tradition from our society is a very grave step indeed. We have to be certain that it was not overplaying what may have been necessary in security terms.
I conclude by referring to part of a very significant speech given recently by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, to the Criminal Bar Association. Sir Ken Macdonald is a very important public figure, for whom I have great respect. He said that it is critical that we understand that,
“this new form of terrorism carries another more subtle, perhaps equally pernicious, risk because it might encourage a fear-driven and inappropriate response … By that I mean it can tempt us to abandon our values. I think it is important to understand that this is one of its primary purposes”.
What always troubles me in this area is that we give the extremists a victory and do exactly what their private scripts want. We destroy our own society under provocation. When the threats are greatest, that is the time we have to be most resolute in standing by the values and principles that we believe are central to a free, open, democratic society.
My Lords, I add my voice to that as yet small group of people who remain unhappy about certain clauses in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. It seems worth while underlining the point that silence until now has not necessarily implied assent. The Bill went through in a rush in 2005 and compromises had to be made. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on her courage and persistence in enabling us to express our discontent.
There are three main points of contention. First, there is the power of the Secretary of State, if he so wishes and it is appropriate, to designate a site,
“in the interests of national security”.
Once designated, that site becomes subject to the controls set out in the Act. The second issue concerns the controls and the rules that govern them. Thirdly, and most crucially, any deviation from such rules can result in criminal sanctions.
I have worked for many a long year on censorship issues and I can fairly say that the most common justification throughout the world for curtailing free expression, which of course includes freedom to demonstrate, is that a restriction is “in the interests of national security”. It is a blanket term that can cover anything and everything from prohibiting ridicule and/or the supposed insult of a president to the concealment of large-scale corruption. It is a wide term and in the SOCPA, where it is combined with the powers of government to designate sites and the criminal sanctions, it appears to be entirely disproportionate. That fact immediately puts these measures up against fundamental freedoms, because they go beyond what is necessary in a democratic society. For the Government to assert that a single peaceful demonstrator near the Cenotaph reciting the names of those killed in recent wars is a threat to national security is ludicrous and shameful.
It cannot be denied that putting the onus on any single would-be demonstrator or group of demonstrators to inform the authorities as much as six days in advance as to the time, date, place and anticipated number of participants has a chilling effect on political expression. It will deter the few people who, for example, want to show their indignation and anger about the demise of a village post office—people who are not seasoned demonstrators, but who nevertheless wish to use the democratic means available.
This chilling effect as we know all too well from non-democratic countries gives rise to self-censorship—the most insidious form. Censorship in whatever form has a habit of increasing. You designate sites around the country where people are forbidden to express concern unless strictly controlled by the police and then you start imposing criminal sanctions for those who flout the rules; then you widen the exclusion zones and add extra rules, perhaps limiting the numbers in any one demonstration. At each stage, we become more accustomed to the restrictions and less disposed to undertake the huge task of taking on the state. It is a slippery slope and it is dangerous. We all know that one has to be ever vigilant about fragile democratic freedoms, because it is in the nature of the governmental system to accrue power often by acting too protectively.
The importance of the right to peaceful assembly is recognised time and again in national, regional and international jurisprudence. Let us consider India 20 years or so ago, where a serial television broadcast portrayed the communal tension and violence in Lahore between Muslims and Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs just before partition. The Central Board of Film Certification thought the series suitable for general showing. However, the petitioner applied to the Supreme Court in India for an order to prevent its broadcast on the grounds, among others, that it was likely to incite people to violence and as such was against public order.
The Supreme Court rejected the petition and in so doing affirmed that the standards by which the likelihood of violence should be assessed are those of,
“reasonable, strong minded, firm and courageous men and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor those who smell danger in every hostile point of view”.
The Supreme Court of Israel ruled in 1984 that the right of the Committee Against the War in Lebanon to demonstrate outweighed other conflicting human rights and interests. In 1973, the House of Lords ruled on the conviction of a protester who disrupted a sports match, threw leaflets around and used highly insulting language. The Law Lords set aside the conviction and in so doing said:
“It would have been going much too far to prohibit all speech or conduct likely to occasion a breach of the peace because determined opponents may not shrink from organising or at least threatening a breach of the peace in order to silence a speaker whose views they detest”.
Recently, several more judgments have come from the European Court of Human Rights which strongly uphold the unfettered right to demonstrate peacefully and I would argue that, taken together, the clauses in the Act that we now wish to see amended already have and will have a profoundly chilling effect on this democratic freedom. A truly democratic society recognises that there has to be positive and unequivocal support for freedom of expression, because while people can express their will at general and local elections, in the intervening period between elections, individuals cannot have a direct influence on political decisions. Furthermore, the state has a positive duty to enable such freedoms to be enjoyed. Clauses 128 to 138 of SOCPA do not reflect this positive duty.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer on introducing this Bill, which is appropriate and timely. I also thank her for organising many of us to be here to give it the best possible start. Two things emerge very clearly from the fact that we need the Bill so badly. The first demonstrates the role of Parliament, and particularly of this House, in scrutinising legislation. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act is a very good example of unscrutinised, ill-considered and under-discussed legislation, and we have to live with it in a very rough and ready and unsatisfactory form. Parliament should never forget its obligation to ensure that good legislation reaches the statute book, not poor and ill-thought-out legislation such as that law, which we have to live with until we change it.
Secondly, I stress that one of the crucial elements of that law has created a crisis that all of us have read about this morning; the effect of lightly creating criminal offences when civil action, as my noble friend said, would be completely adequate to deal with the problem. Then we wring our hands because prisons are becoming increasingly full of human beings and civilians with no criminal intent, who have suffered receiving a criminal offence simply because they have expressed their views—for heaven’s sake—within 1 kilometre of the Houses of Parliament. That is ludicrous; and we really have to stop this business of drifting towards creating more and more criminality among fellow citizens of impeccable standing, decent integrity and high ideals.
I have two quotations, and noble Lords will see why I use them. The first comes from our Prime Minister. He said it in the United States on 7 April 2002, at the opening of the presidential library for the first George Bush:
“When I pass protestors every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom”.
Now, they cannot, and where does the Prime Minister’s ringing quotation stand in the light of that?
The second, more recent, quotation, comes from the Senate confirmation hearings of Condoleezza Rice, the American Secretary of State, in January 2005. She said:
“The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the ‘town square test’: if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society”.
My goodness; we do not allow anyone simply to walk into the square of this town, which is called Parliament Square, and express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm. Frankly, we should be ashamed of ourselves that we have not protected this particular crucial, historic purpose of Parliament Square.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, in expressing the values that ran so deep in his party for so long, was expressing what many of us feel; a sense of shame that that square is no longer the place from which men and women can declare themselves. Incidentally, this is not just a statement about freedom of speech; it is also a critical statement about using Parliament Square as a barometer of how people feel. Mrs Thatcher learnt about the anger about the poll tax because there were demonstrations up and down the country. We should warn ourselves about the dangers of closing off those kinds of steam valves and expressions of feeling from our fellow citizens, because it means that we become more and more distanced from knowing what they really feel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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:
“The approach of the English common law to freedom of expression and assembly was hesitant and negative, permitting that which was not prohibited”.
He quotes Dicey as saying:
“At no time has there in England been any proclamation of the right to liberty of thought or to freedom of speech”,
“it can hardly be said that our constitution knows of such a thing as any specific right of public meeting”.
Therefore, he continued:
“The Human Rights Act 1998, giving domestic effect to articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention, represented … a constitutional shift”.
He notes that the Strasbourg court has recognised that,
“the right to freedom of assembly is a fundamental right in a democratic society and, like the right to freedom of expression, is one of the foundations of such a society”.
After the conviction of Maya Evans, the then Leader of the other place, Geoff Hoon MP, claimed 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,
“none shall be enslaved by … conformity”.
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,
“it is not reasonably practicable”,
“where the procession is one commonly or customarily held in the … area”.
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 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”,
“and T-shirt with anti-Blair info”.
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:
“This is all about silencing critics of the war in Iraq and ID cards and denying people the right to free speech”.
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”.
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?
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.
Like my noble friend Lord Carlile, I have participated in many demonstrations; against apartheid in South Africa, the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq to name a few. I see that many Labour activists with whom I demonstrated now occupy high places in Government. Some are in ministerial positions. They are the very people who have now supported the legislation banning public demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament. They should hang their heads in shame, for they deny to others the very rights which they enjoyed in their youth.
In July 2005, answering questions on the Statement about terrorist attacks in London, on a day when there were demonstrations outside this Parliament, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, Leader of the House of Lords, said:
“I cannot think of any other country in the world where the demonstration that is going on right outside Parliament this afternoon—right outside my window—would be going on. We should take immense pride in that”.—[Official Report, 11/7/05; col. 905.]
The noble Baroness rightly reflects the views which have sustained our democracy, values which are the envy of the world.
I have serious concerns about the restrictions being placed on peaceful protests in the vicinity of Parliament—Section 138—and other designated sites as specified for the purposes of Sections 128 and 129 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. We now have a situation where demonstrating in designated areas without authorisation is an offence under Section 132(1). The Minister may argue that demonstrations are not banned but now require the authorisation of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. That authorisation must be obtained not less than six days or at least 24 hours before the demonstration starts. Requirements of that nature do not allow for spontaneous protests in the vicinity of Parliament. One of the grounds for refusal of authorisation is disruption to the life of the community. I am afraid everything we do is a disruption of some sort. Such blanket powers are more akin to a dictatorial regime than to our democracy.
The argument advanced was that previous legislation did not provide the police with all the powers they need to control all protests and demonstrations around Parliament. I reject that argument. I do not dispute that, at times, placards and slogans in Parliament Square cause annoyance to some parliamentarians; we all agree that they do. However, Parliament, the seat of our democracy, is big enough to take such protests in its stride. In any case, so fundamental are the geographical changes proposed by the Government that they strike at the very heart of the citizen’s right to protest well outside the ambit of Parliament Square. The changes will have a major effect for generations to come. Let me start with the geography of the designated area. What initially started as a debate about demonstrations in Parliament Square resulted in legislation that created “Fortress Whitehall” where no one can protest without permission.
However, business in Parliament can change quickly. There are many days when we are unaware that a Statement will be made in Parliament by the Government. The reality is that one cannot protest freely in that case because 24 hours may not be available in which it is “reasonably practicable” for someone to notify the commissioner.
The massive area covered by this draconian law includes almost all government offices, Scotland Yard, Smith Square and many places of interest in this part of London. Civil servants working in government departments in an area including almost all the major government offices are not able to protest without permission. We have created a situation in which Ministers and members of the Labour Party can walk with their heads held high because there will be no picket lines to cross. I hope the unions and others will note how fundamentally their rights to picket peacefully are hampered by such legislation.
The designated area order made in 2005 is the outcome of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. I need to ask an important question: has protesting outside Parliament ever been regarded as serious organised crime? Did Mr Wolfgang commit a serious organised crime at the Labour Party conference where he was manhandled and thrown out? Is it is a serious organised crime to shout out at the gate of Downing Street the names of our soldiers who died in Iraq? Can the Minister cite a single example where those who are at present protesting with their placards have hampered the business of Parliament in any way, let alone have committed a serious organised crime that has affected Parliament’s work? It is embarrassing to politicians when their policies are exposed, and it is embarrassing when the Government’s human rights record is questioned, but they are no reasons to silence a minority that will always find a way to get its message through.
I have no doubt that freedom of expression and assembly, which are protected under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, are seriously restricted in the designated area. Do we want to violate European human rights law? According to the European Commission:
“The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has repeatedly emphasised that freedom of expression constitutes an essential foundation of democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and for each individual's self-fulfilment”.
The Commission also said that freedom of assembly is a,
“fundamental right in a democracy and ... is one of the foundations of such a society”.
We do not believe that the measures the Government seek are proportionate, nor do we believe that there is a legitimate aim, such as the prevention of disorder or crime.
We see no evidence of adequate and effective safeguards to protect against arbitrary interferences with convention rights. If there are no such safeguards, then police power could become fairly oppressive. We have gone though such a sad period in the past, and I do not need to spell out the dangers of such actions by those in power and authority.
I do not underestimate the need for security, but democracy is well served when there is a balance between what is required and what is appropriate. There is a danger if we do not support the Bill that it will make policing work of control and discipline more difficult.
Policing in our country is the envy of the world. It is the independence of the police, accompanied by the consent of the public that makes it possible to maintain law and order. I suspect that, to an extent, we are eroding this independence. The police will soon be forced to take actions that will often smack of political interference. Demonstration and protest are a healthy aspect of our democracy, and by creating obstacles we are treading on values that we have treasured for so long.
If we fail to protect these rights, it will be the Robert Mugabes of this world who will have the last laugh, for their actions will seem all the more justified. If we as a democracy give such comfort and strength to the actions of dictators, it will bring shame upon all of us. We have set a bad example to emerging democracies in various parts of the world. This Bill will need the support of all people in this House.
My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on introducing this short two-clause Bill to enable this debate to take place. I am particularly gratified by her remarks on the speech of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, also made reference. I am very conscious that this is not the last business of the House today, so I shall keep my comments short.
As other noble Lords have highlighted, this is a timely debate, particularly in light of the news earlier this week that Brian Haw has won his latest legal battle to maintain his demonstration in Parliament Square. Indeed, some may say it is ironic when we consider that the Government put forward their proposals with him in mind and yet he continues to successfully evade them.
We on these Benches share the serious concerns your Lordships’ House has expressed today, as well as those raised during the progress of the Bill regarding the implications that such legislation has on democracy. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns took pains to emphasise during the progress of SOCPA that it is vital that legitimate protest at the very doors of Parliament is available to members of the public. It is an important right for an individual to feel that their voice has been heard and that we listen to those voices.
The Government listened during the passage of SOCPA. They eventually made welcome concessions surrounding the notice period for demonstrations and the exclusion of Trafalgar Square. Yet today we have a situation where, despite assurances made by Ministers during the passage of the Bills, the powers are being used to exclude peaceful protest, far beyond what was originally intended.
The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, made reference to the remarks of the district judge Quentin Purdy last Monday. He also said that the powers,
“lacked clarity and were not workable in their current form”.
It is when something like this happens that one cannot help but wonder whether other government assurances are similarly founded on quicksand. After hearing the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, it is becoming clear to me that SOCPA is indeed an appropriate weapon for the nanny state.
We need look no further for an example that those feared unintended consequences are happening than that of the much quoted Maya Anne Evans, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and others have referred. The 25 year-old, vegan cook from Hastings was found guilty of breaching Section 132 of SOCPA for her part in a peaceful protest where she read out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph down the road, while another protester read out the names of dead Iraqi civilians.
It is clear that the legislation has been misused. What assessment have Her Majesty's Government made of the Maya Evans case and what is the Minister’s reaction to Mr Haw’s recent win? I hope that the Minister can inform the House in his reply that the Government are looking again at those powers in SOCPA. We on these Benches believe that the whole of SOCPA and the Terrorism Act merit review. I hope that the Government will undertake to initiate a review as a result of the continued scrutiny and criticism advanced in this debate.
As my right honourable friend David Davis stated in another place, the current situation is contempt of Parliament and contempt of people's right to protest.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for introducing the Bill and setting out her case. It has certainly been an interesting debate with many powerful contributions. I have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by the many speakers who have supported her about restrictions on the right to protest.
First, I shall deal with the provisions on trespass on designated sites, as the Bill would amend that area. I appreciate that it was touched on very lightly by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, but none the less, I should spell out what the Bill would do. The criminal offence of trespass on a protected site in Sections 128 to 131 of the 2005 Act was created in response to a recommendation in the report by Commander Armstrong into an intrusion at Windsor Castle on 21 June 2003. He recommended that a new offence of criminal trespass at secure and specified royal and government premises should be considered. This was echoed by the Security Commission report of May 2004 following revelations of a journalist’s activities at Buckingham Palace in 2003.
After careful, not hurried consideration, it was agreed that a new criminal offence was necessary in this area. As my noble friend Lord Judd observed, security issues require substantial care. Necessity is an important justification.
The two reasons for criminalising trespass in relation to designated sites were as follows. First, it would create a deterrent to intrusions at such sites. It was noted that it had not been possible to secure prosecution with an appropriate penalty of any of the individuals who had carried out the recent high-profile intrusions. Secondly, it would give the police a specific power of arrest of a trespasser at a sensitive site where no other apparent existing offence had been committed. The police responsible for security at such sites had been lobbying for that. The specific power of arrest in Section 130(1) has now been superseded by the general power of arrest in the 1984 Act under Section 110 of the 2005 Act.
Of course, that is not a restraint on demonstration. Rather, it is a defence against unauthorised intrusion at particular sites. To date, one designation order has been made under the provisions. That is the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Designated Sites) Order 2005, laid before Parliament on 19 December 2005, which came into force on 1 April 2006. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is correct to state that it designated 13 operational Ministry of Defence sites. Following that, on 13 April 2006, all licensed nuclear sites became protected sites following the coming into force of Section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2006. In addition, the Home Office is in the final stages of preparing a further designation order which will designate a small number of royal, governmental and parliamentary sites. That is likely to be laid before Parliament within the next month.
The offence is an important deterrent to intrusions at high-profile secure sites. Such intrusions can pose a very real risk to security. There is already anecdotal evidence that there has been a reduction in the number of intrusions at the 13 designated MoD sites since the legislation came into force. The legislation is therefore having an important deterrent effect as well as providing members of our police and security forces with much-needed powers to arrest trespassers at such secure, high-profile sites. To repeal these provisions would be a retrograde step that could only increase the number of high-profile intrusions at sensitive sites, as well as depriving the police who provide the security at such sites of the powers to deal with such incidents.
I turn now to demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament, which has exercised noble Lords most substantially today. Sections 132 to 138 of the 2005 Act cover such demonstrations. I am aware that noble Lords and Members in another place have previously expressed their concerns about these provisions, particularly the terms of proportionality and the impact on a person’s right to protest.
Let me remind noble Lords why the Government introduced legislation covering demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament. Before Parliament enacted this legislation, demonstrations and marches passing the Houses of Parliament while both Houses were sitting were subject to a parliamentary sessional order, which instructed the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to make sure that passageways to and from Parliament were kept free of obstruction and that no obstruction was allowed to hinder the passage of Lords and Members to and from the House. In turn, the commissioner had the power to give directions to all constables under Section 52 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 to disperse all assemblies and demonstrations if they were likely to cause an obstruction or disorder. However, the sessional order conferred no further legal powers on the police.
Noble Lords will recall that the House of Commons Procedure Committee conducted a short inquiry into a number of existing sessional orders and resolutions, including that relating to the Metropolitan Police, and published a report in November 2003. The committee recommended that the Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations and to ensure that the laws about access were adequate and enforceable. It also recommended that the Government should explore the use of existing legislation to control the use of loud hailers and other amplification equipment or consider new legislation. The committee said that,
“legislation on demonstrations is the only way to ensure that the police have adequate powers to achieve the result intended by the Sessional Order”.
The Government agreed that further legislation was needed to provide the police with the powers they needed to control protests and demonstrations in Parliament Square. This was not a fear-driven initiative. It was thought out and considered.
I can assure noble Lords that the current provisions covering demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament are not about denying the right to protest. We are not preventing the public from freely expressing their views, but we have put some reasonable, proportionate limits on the exercise of that quite proper right. This is not a question of what the Government do not like, as was perhaps suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in respect of Mr Haw’s demonstration. The provisions do not prevent Mr Haw carrying out demonstrations, as one can see daily. The provisions require the organisers of demonstrations planned to take place in the designated area to notify them to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in advance. It is an offence to take part in a demonstration if the organisers of the demonstration have not gained permission. However, when notice of a demonstration is given, the commissioner must—I repeat, must—authorise it. He has no power to ban it.
It is open to the commissioner to attach conditions to the authorisation where it is necessary to prevent a series of entirely serious problems in the area, which are set out in Section 134. They include hindrance to any person wishing to enter or leave the Palace of Westminster; serious public disorder; serious damage to property; disruption to the life of the community; a security risk in any part of the designated area; or risk to the safety of members of the public, including those taking part in the demonstration. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, correctly identified that the consent of the public is essential if one wishes to maintain public order. I submit that the public do consent to the protection of the entirely legitimate targets addressed by these provisions.
There is no requirement on the commissioner to impose any conditions. He bases that decision on whether conditions are necessary and depending on the circumstances of each demonstration. Where conditions are imposed, it is an offence not to comply with them. The provisions cover all demonstrations within a designated area around Parliament, as noble Lords have plainly identified, and as they are aware, the order defining the precise area came into force on 1 July 2005. The legislation states that no point in the designated area may be more than 1 kilometre in a straight line from the point nearest to it in Parliament Square. In fact, the furthest distance from Parliament Square within the designated area is about 800 metres. I am aware of the detailed discussions held both here and in another place about the geographical area covered by the order. The area was drawn up following discussions with the Metropolitan Police based on their operational experience—
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I think he will understand that his reference to the conditions attached by the commissioner to demonstrations is very disappointing in the light of criticisms made by the court only on Monday of this week about the fact that the conditions are unclear and not set out in a way that can easily be understood. Perhaps he could address that before he moves on.
Certainly, my Lords. As I understand the position in relation to Mr Haw’s case, the judge’s approach was to say that the specific conditions lacked clarity. That is not an indication that the law itself lacks clarity, but that the specific conditions that were employed in relation to Mr Haw did so. The assistant commissioner has placed further conditions in relation to Mr Haw’s position. These, I respectfully suggest, do demonstrate an appropriate level of clarity, but no doubt that inevitably will be a matter for a judge somewhere else to consider.
The designated area was based on police operational experience of where demonstrations may cause a security risk when they hinder the proper operation of Parliament. The risk to safety of members of the public was also considered. I recognise that there will always be a debate about the boundaries of the designated area and that this will be kept under review. Since 1 August 2005 when the rest of the provisions on demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament came into effect, the Metropolitan Police have used their powers to facilitate peaceful protest.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, particularly because it has taken a moment for his previous words to sink in. I am so slow at these things. I wonder if he could assure us that these new conditions which, unless I am wrong, he said that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has now imposed, could be placed in the Library. I ask this since they appear to be central to his argument.
My Lords, I have never detected in his learned writings or anything he has said that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, is slow. I will of course be delighted to carry out his request.
I was going to indicate the number of convictions that have taken place between 1 August 2005 and December 2006. I am told by the commissioner that there have been 15 convictions and one caution for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration in the designated area, one conviction for using a loud hailer in the designated area and one conviction for organising an unauthorised demonstration. The commissioner indicates that during the same period—this is an interesting figure—1,379 demonstrations have taken place with an authorisation. Demonstrations by, for example, the Pensions Action Group, Unison, Peace Appeal, the Make Poverty History campaign and the Campaign Against Climate Change have all taken place. The commissioner has imposed conditions on very few of the demonstrations. Contrary to the fear expressed by many noble Lords that demonstrations would not take place or that in some way democracy was imperilled because of the authorisation requirement, one should note that the opposite appears to have happened: more demonstrations are taking place than before.
The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, was concerned that future generations may not be able to share his enthusiasm for marching in the student marches of the LSE. However, the position hitherto has been that marches and public processions are governed by the Public Order Act 1986, under which, in certain circumstances, advance notice may be required, conditions may be imposed and marches may even be banned.
We join in complimenting the police on the way in which they have facilitated the substantial number of peaceful protests in the area. They plainly do an important job in Westminster, not only in relation to demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament but in relation to ceremonial occasions and sporting events too.
There have been a number of legal challenges to the legislation. This is not unexpected and, no doubt, it is not the end of them. But the police have facilitated peaceful protest while ensuring that those who live and work in Westminster can go about their lawful business. Judgments arising from legal challenges have served to clarify the law. Recently the courts have ruled that even where a demonstration is entirely peaceful in nature, it is justifiable to impose sanctions in certain circumstances on those who fail to comply with the authorisation procedure.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, spoke of the importance of the Human Rights Act and how the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, in his judgment in Laporte, identified that there had been a shift in the way in which the right of assembly is now viewed by the law in our country. The Government are plainly encouraging and supporting the right to assembly, creating it as a legal right as opposed to in some way seeking to erode that right. I assure noble Lords that we believe strongly in freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, indicated that in the SOCPA provisions there appears to be a criminal offence of expressing a view in the vicinity of Parliament. I respectfully disagree. It applies only in relation to unauthorised demonstrations or where the conditions are breached. So plainly the notion that we in the United Kingdom have lost any right to protest is incorrect. It is a powerful right which is central to our democracy. Indeed, many noble Lords have spoken powerfully on that.
We believe that the measures we have put in place achieve the balance of allowing people to gather together to express their views and ensuring that those living and working in and around Parliament are able to access Parliament in safety and free from harassment. We keep the law under review but to repeal these provisions would be a retrograde step.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was concerned that she could not easily get hold of an application form—which appears, apparently, nowhere but on Mark Thomas’s website—but there is no requirement in the legislation for a person to use a particular form. The application has to be in writing and stipulate the time, date, place and so on of the proposed demonstration. These issues are identified in Section 133.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, discussed national security in the context of these provisions. That, of course, is not specifically identified in these provisions but arises very acutely in the context of the intrusion provisions in relation to designated sites. I respectfully suggest that with these provisions we have a proportionate way of dealing with the perceived problem. The “English hero” that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, described Mr Haw as being is still with us. His right to protest continues. It continues, however, in a proportionate and balanced way that sets the way in which one may protest against the way business is conducted in this area.
For those reasons, I regret I cannot support the Bill. Before sitting down, I shall make a simple point: the concern the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, identified in relation to Mr Haw’s position is covered also by the response I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, with regard to the new condition placed on Mr Haw, which will be made available.
I repeat that I regretfully cannot support the Bill.
My Lords, I warmly thank all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon in support of the Bill. I knew I had missed out academically by not going to the LSE, but I clearly missed out on the quality of the protests I attended as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, laid her finger on it. I say to the Minister, yes, there have been some protests, but there is the issue of self-censorship; neither the Minister nor the Government can know how many protests there have not been as a result of this, or how many individuals have felt scared to turn up. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, who said incredibly kind words about me, and who is one of the people who have inspired a whole generation of political activists, said that the legislation undermines exactly what we want to protect.
All the contributions from around the House spelled out why there needs to be a Committee stage for the Bill. I am especially grateful for the support from the Conservative Benches expressed by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and to hear that they share serious concerns about this issue.
I was surprised that the Minister felt that there was nothing the Government might be interested to look at here. The fact that there have been a lot of demonstrations recently in Parliament Square simply means there is more to protest about. When I asked the Government in a Written Question how many arrests had been made under SOCPA, the Answer came back that that information was not held centrally. So although there have been some convictions, no one knows how many arrests have been made, according to the Government.
I do not want to hold the House up, because I know time is pressing, but the case has been powerfully put, by all other noble Lords beside myself who have spoken, for a Committee stage.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.