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Parliament Square: Demonstrations

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What changes they are proposing to the law governing the holding of peaceful demonstrations in Parliament Square.

My Lords, the Government published a consultation paper in October seeking views on the framework for managing protests around Parliament. That consultation ended on 17 January and we are considering the way forward, taking into account the 500 or so responses we have received. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her full and considered response to the consultation.

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

My Lords, it is worth recollecting the history of this. The House of Commons Procedure Committee on sessional orders and resolutions recommended in 2003 that we should introduce appropriate legislation for a number of reasons. That was done, but it became clear that there were complications with it, and the law is not working in the way it should. That is why we have gone out to this consultation. As I say, we have had 500 responses and I really believe that we can move forward and achieve something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Lords, the Minister deserves every credit for his tolerance on that occasion. In a Statement in July 2007, the Prime Minister announced, among other things, changes along the lines of trying to permit public demonstrations outside Parliament again. This made many of us feel exceedingly encouraged. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act under which this restriction happened was passed very quickly through the House—there was not a full discussion because the Recess was coming—and many of us felt embarrassed about preventing peaceful demonstrations around Parliament. I am delighted by what the Minister has said. Will he take the view that this matter should be handled as urgently as possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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