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Houses of Parliament: Freedom of Passage

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the House’s sessional order relating to the freedom of passage to the Houses of Parliament, made on 3 December 2008, has been fully implemented.

My Lords, the sessional order on stoppages in the street is a statement of the House’s expectation that passage to the House will be kept free and open. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has ensured that at least partial access has been maintained at all times.

My Lords, the purpose of the Question is not to be hostile to the Metropolitan Police, for whom I have a great respect and who do wonderful work in very difficult circumstances. However, does the noble Lord think that it is right that a whole lot of people from other countries should come here and inundate Parliament Square and the roads around it, bring their cooking utensils and having fry-ups on Parliament Square, and prevent people getting access to Parliament while involving vast numbers of police? And all for what? For some objection they have about something in another country over which we have no control. Is that fair?

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his opening comments. I did not quite catch who thinks that I am not gallant over there, but I will track him down.

I have considerable sympathy with what the noble Earl has said, but this is a very difficult area. Clearly, within this country, we have a right to demonstrate. Although it goes on for a long time, there is no curtailment on its length. However, it is absolutely true to say that any sympathy there might have been is rapidly evaporating and the protest is therefore becoming counterproductive. Those who are involved ought to think of that closely.

It is absolutely right that we should allow people to demonstrate. I am glad that we had the statement about how well the police have done, because they have handled it extremely well. It is a question of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t; one looks at the G20. It is a very difficult situation. The Commissioner of the Met has kept access to the House open, but I entirely agree that it is very annoying and irksome. The protestors need to think hard about whether it is doing their cause any good or not.

My Lords, why has the Minister not mentioned the sum of money that this is costing us? Will he please mention the sum of money that this is costing through the good services of the police? Is he aware that one has not only to get here—I am not the only person who totters around this place—one has to get home, too? Where I live in Battersea there is no Tube. Therefore, I am dependent on taxis, and if the road to the Peers’ Entrance is closed, I have no means whatever of getting home.

My Lords, in terms of the costs, the Commissioner stated the other day—of course, he knows the detail of this—that so far £8 million has been spent on this. He also said that it was damaging the performance of the Metropolitan Police in other areas, and it meant that there was a reduced amount of policing on the streets of London. So, clearly, it has an impact, but it comes back to this balance again. I am afraid that—much as one would like to do so—resources cannot be cited as grounds for limiting a demonstration. That is where we stand. This is one of the strengths of this country even though it is amazingly annoying. As regards the latter part of the question, all I would say is that it would be a very gallant Tamil who stood between the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and the Tube.

My Lords, I have become so old that I cannot hear every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, says, which is most unfortunate. Are there any circumstances in which a Member of this House can be rightly impeded by the police from coming to this House?

My Lords, I think that I am steering gently into danger in answering that. It seems that it could be quite a complex legal question. First, they have to be able to identify whether you are a Member of this House and exactly what the circumstances are. I would be very wary of exactly answering that. Generally, because of the sessional order, it is a requirement that the commissioner will maintain access to the House for Members of this House, but, as regards the actual details of that, I would be very wary of giving an answer on the Floor of the House now.

My Lords, may I remind the Minister that the Government in their reply in 2004 to the report of the Procedure Committee in another place on the sessional order indicated that legislation would be introduced to strengthen police powers in relation to assemblies in Parliament Square? Five years later all we have are provisions in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which by common consent are ineffective and are in urgent need of strengthening. What steps are being taken to give effect to the Government’s good intentions of five years ago?

My Lords, the noble Viscount touches on one of the critical issues here. Sessional orders and House of Lords stoppages orders have no real effect beyond the walls of Parliament. I think that we started giving these in 1713, but primarily they affect what happens inside Parliament. They give an indication to the commissioner of what we want to happen, but they give him no extra powers. This was the problem, and this is why Sections 132 and 138 of SOCPA were arrived at, which I am afraid were unsatisfactory and did not work.

We hoped that they might resolve the situation, but they are for stationary demonstrations and they have not worked. We are now having to re-examine the situation. We are consulting on this and hope to come up with a proposal with teeth to actually achieve this. To be quite honest, in allowing demonstrations in this country, as we do, it is extremely difficult to be absolutely certain that the Metropolitan Police Service can guarantee that every single road is open and there is access on every route into the House.

We need to look at how we do that. It is not easy, as demonstrated by the fact that Sections 132 and 138 of SOCPA have proved so difficult, which is why they are being removed. The Joint Committee on the draft constitution also said that the sessional orders and the stoppage orders should stop because they have no real impact. We need to come up with a proposal that will resolve this, and we have not done that yet.

My Lords, do the Government accept that SOCPA was very deficient, because it affected lone demonstrators in Parliament Square? What people are worried about today are the blockages of the roads. There are two different issues; SOCPA has tied the police down under mounds of paperwork, because they have to give permission to individuals.

My Lords, as I have said, SOCPA does not meet the bill and that is why we are getting rid of it. There are Acts in force which enable the police to keep roads open and things like that, but it is quite difficult when there is a major demonstration. The police have done a remarkably good job in what they have achieved.