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Parliament Square

Volume 722: debated on Monday 8 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether any agency is responsible for the removal of those occupying the pavement in Parliament Square.

My Lords, Westminster City Council is responsible for the pavements under its control and the Metropolitan Police are responsible for policing crime and managing protests in the designated area around Parliament. The Government share the public’s concern about the current state of Parliament Square and are working with all the relevant agencies to protect this place of national importance. The Government intend to introduce legislation shortly.

My Lords, I am terribly sorry, but I hardly heard one single word that the Minister said. This is therefore guesswork, and I apologise. Does she not agree that it is not a demonstration but a squat? Furthermore, does she not agree that this beautiful square is now a mess? Why cannot this Government get together with whatever authority is liable and, after all this time, do better than the previous Government to put this matter right?

The Government share my noble friend’s sentiments and those of the House. Let me say what the Government have been trying to do. My honourable friend in the other House, the Minister for crime prevention, has been working with the GLA, Westminster Council and the police—there are, of course, several authorities involved in Parliament Square—to bring about the situation we have now. As we know, the squatters have been evicted, the grass has been reseeded and the pavements have been repaired, so we are dealing with the mess. The problem is that the continuing demonstration is based on the existing law, which allows one person to attach 20 others to the application for a demonstration. That law, which was passed in 2005, has been abused in a way that Parliament most certainly did not intend. That is why we believe that it is necessary to bring forward legislative proposals, which we intend to do in a first Session Bill, to clarify this situation and to restore the balance between the right to protest and public enjoyment of an amenity such as Parliament Square.

My Lords, the Minister referred to working with several authorities. Will she explain who owns the middle of Parliament Square?

My Lords, as many noble Lords may know, the problem is that no single authority owns Parliament Square. Westminster Council has responsibility for the pavements on the southern and western sides of the square and the GLA has responsibility for the pavements on the northern and eastern sides and for the grass. This means that we have to have partnership between these various agencies, and the Government have been involved in fostering that in order to bring about improvement in the square.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the most effective agency to remove these people in Parliament Square would be the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington?

My Lords, it is surely not necessary to spread litter around the place in order to exercise the right to protest. It would surely be perfectly lawful for any citizen to go along and remove all the unsightly litter and the tents without offending against any law whatever. I simply cannot understand why some of us are not enlisted to do precisely that.

My Lords, there are many public services that we could all perform in this area. My noble friend and this House are right to be concerned about the encampment, which is at the root of our problems. In the legislation that will be coming forward, it will be very important for Parliament clearly to express its will as regards what it sees as being the rightful use of Parliament Square. We are trying, while safeguarding the legitimate right to protest, to make it clear that encampment and other abuses of an amenity are not permissible.

Will the Minister consider in the future legislation reducing the number of local authorities which run Parliament Square?

The noble and learned Baroness puts her finger on a real issue. In the short term, that will not be very easy to do. But, certainly, over the longer term it is something that might be looked at.

My Lords, I speak as a member of the Joint Committee on Security, which has been looking at this for years and has got nowhere. At our last meeting, we were told something quite extraordinary; namely, that although what surrounds the square may look like a pavement and, if you fell on it, would feel like a pavement, the High Court has announced that, as it does not go anywhere, is not a pavement—which shows the idiocy of judges. That is one of the things that prevents anyone, including the Met, from doing anything about these squatters.

This is getting into territory on which I tread with some trepidation. I think that the noble Lord is referring to the judgment which stated that, given the circumstances of the pavement in front of Carriage Gates which, I think it was judged, “did not lead anywhere”, it was permissible for the two protestors and those who were attached to them to continue their protest there.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept that, while there are many—and I share this view—who see the value of Parliament Square as an open space which supports a site of world heritage importance, it is entirely natural and proper to allow protests in the vicinity of Parliament?

The Government accept my noble friend’s contention that it is right and proper for people to be able to protest peacefully within Parliament Square or its environs. The legislation will seek to restore the right also of the general public to enjoy the amenity of the square.