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Access to Parliament

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2009

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the police did not ensure free passage for peers and MPs to Parliament on Monday 11 May 2009.

My Lords, the Metropolitan Police have a duty to secure access to Parliament. Police tactics and decisions on managing demonstrations are an operational matter for the independent judgment of chief officers of police. On some occasions, entry to Parliament has been limited to one of several access points. This may have led to some inconvenience. However, the police have kept the House authorities closely informed when access points have been restricted and when advance warning has been possible.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, so far as it goes. This is the second time—the previous time being 20 April—that the police have been totally hoodwinked and outwitted by the demonstrators and freedom of access through the front door has therefore been denied to both Peers and Members of Parliament. This is not only a total denial of freedom of access, but a major security risk, with people sitting in front of Carriage Gates. What action will be taken to ensure that this never happens again?

My Lords, I am sure that we have all witnessed the ebb and flow of smaller and very large numbers over the past few days. On some days the numbers have been very few; on some days they have been very large indeed. On the whole, however, these protests have been peaceful and well managed by police and the organisers.

There is an important point of principle here. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights says, while protests may be disruptive or inconvenient, the presumption should be in favour of protests taking place without state interference. These are very difficult things to handle. In controlling demonstrations, the police have to facilitate that lawful process, preserve the peace, uphold the law and prevent the commission of offences.

Clearly, it is not right that access here should be limited—it is absolutely wrong. However, the police have a difficult balancing act to perform and, so far, they have been doing that well. As I have said, it is a matter for the chief officers of police.

My Lords, am I not right in thinking that sessional orders are in operation when Parliament is sitting? If that is the case, why are they being flouted in this way?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that sessional orders are in operation, but they are not being flouted. The police are handling this as well as they are able. There has always been at least one access point available, if not more. I agree that it is difficult and unfortunate, but the police are handling a sensitive and difficult situation. There are 250,000 in the Tamil community, most of whom are in London. At least 30,000 could be available for a demonstration at very short notice.

We have actually had a fairly well natured demonstration. They have made their point and been able to demonstrate. When they have broken the law, the police have acted; something like 45 or 46 were arrested yesterday when they blocked the roadway and some other accesses, and some went on to Westminster Abbey. The police are handling it well. It is a matter for the Metropolitan Police Service and the chief police officers.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend. Will he pass on my congratulations to the police for the way in which they controlled this demonstration without using masks and batons, or covering up their numbers and other things which they did at the G20 protests?

I certainly got here without any problem at all, by cycling down the road, walking along the pavement and showing my pass. Maybe other noble Lords would like to try the bicycle.

My Lords, my noble friend highlights some of the problems that our police force has. A number of things are being investigated as a result of the G20 demonstrations. The police always have this difficult balance. As I say, at the moment they have been handling this well. It is extremely unfortunate and wrong that access to this place should have been blocked, but the police are dealing with it as best they can under the circumstances. I am sure that there may well be other arrests, but that is an issue for the chief police officers involved within the Metropolitan Police Service.

My Lords, we all know the difficult time that the police have, and I admire what they have done, but how long do we have to have Parliament Square blocked by people who are of a foreign nationality and who are complaining about problems in their country? They go on and on, and in so doing disrupt the democratic effects of our country.

My Lords, as I said, it is important that we facilitate lawful process—and this is a lawful process—and I have no doubt that we all need to work to bring the conflict in Sri Lanka to an end in a way that minimises further civilian casualties there. The quicker it is finished, the better it will be for everyone.

My Lords, while not allowing the protesters to take over to the extent that they did yesterday, will the Minister make clear that this particular failure by the police will not be used to renege on the promise to repeal unreasonable restrictions on Parliament Square protesters?

My Lords, I do not accept that there has been a failure by the police at all. It was wrong and inappropriate that we did not have access to the Palace of Westminster but, bearing in mind the circumstances, I think that they have handled that particular demonstration extremely well.

In answer to the question about SOCPA, it makes no change whatever, and the intended changes will probably happen within a matter of weeks. As a matter of interest, a group of Tamils did ask permission for a demonstration of about 50 people within the area. Clearly, those numbers and everything else have been rather overtaken by events, and that shows that SOCPA did not achieve its aim anyway.

My Lords, while acknowledging the very proper concern about access to this place made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, with which I wholly agree, my experience yesterday was different.

I proceeded from Westminster Tube station along my usual route towards the Peers’ Entrance. Across the pavement there were a number of tapes or ribbons. Most of them were raised for me by very helpful police officers so that I could duck underneath them. Far from my access being impeded, it was actually easier than usual because there were fewer people on the pavement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that comment. What it shows is that the incident had a different impact on many of us. However, I am sure all of us would agree that we should have free and unimpeded access to the House but, under very difficult circumstances, the Metropolitan Police Service has been handling the demonstration extremely well.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in terms of world standards of dealing with demonstrations, on this occasion the police have shown great tact?

There has been a traumatic period during which the Ceylon Tamils have seen their families back home in great difficulty. I think that the goodwill in the Tamil community has been increased by the way the situation has been dealt with—and that in no way removes the validity of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby.

My Lords, my noble friend has gone into a little more of what is causing the demonstration. It seems to me that, while they have a lawful right to demonstrate, we have made huge efforts in this country to try to bring an end to fighting in Sri Lanka. I think we should be proud of that and I hope that the Tamils can see and understand that as well, because we have bent over backwards and done very well in trying to end the fighting there. However, they have a right to demonstrate and it is being handled well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not just access to Westminster itself but to Parliament Square that is one of the main problems? It is not caused by the police but by the ridiculous roadworks at the end of Victoria Street and into Parliament Square. That, together with the Tamils, has made the problem a million times worse than it would otherwise have been.

My Lords, if I got into the problems of roadworks and moving around London, the debate could go on for another 10 minutes, so I do not think I will open that one up.

My Lords, is not the real problem that Parliament is the embodiment of freedom of speech in this country and that if access to Parliament is limited, however worthy the demonstrators’ cause, that undermines the fact that they, too, have freedom of speech? The fact is that, if we cannot get to Parliament, freedom of speech is fundamentally undermined.

My Lords, as I said earlier, we have always had access to, and been able to get into, Parliament. I accept that that access has not been untrammelled and that that is not good enough, but we have been able to get in. I go back to what I said: this is a very sensitive and difficult situation, and pragmatically I think that it has been handled extremely well. No doubt people who have broken the law will be charged and so on because, as I said, that is part of the police’s job. They have to control demonstrations, facilitate lawful process, preserve the peace, uphold the law and prevent the commission of offences. If people do commit offences, the police take them to court.