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Houses of Parliament: Access during Demonstrations

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government further to the answer by Lord Wallace of Saltaire on 9 December (HL Deb cols. 298-300), whether they will clarify the position relating to access to Parliament by Members during demonstrations.

My Lords, the position relating to access to Parliament by Members during demonstrations does need clarifying. With the agreement of the other party leaders, the Convenor and the Lord Speaker, I have asked the Clerk of the Parliaments and acting Black Rod to report back as soon as possible on, first, what the current effect is of the sessional order passed in the Lords and, secondly, how the House authorities input into the police operations around Parliament specifically to seek to ensure access for Members and staff.

I very much welcome that Answer, because there was considerable concern in all parts of the House about the Answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, to the Question asked last Thursday. The main problem was that he seriously understated the constitutional importance of preserving access for Members of both Houses in order to discuss, vote and decide on the affairs of the nation. It would not be the first time in the history of this country—or, indeed, many other countries—that mobs have prevented people from accessing Parliament when it needs to carry out its fundamental duty to protect our constitutional democracy. I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for answering today, but will he make sure that that point is given high status when we discuss this issue? I would be happy to give my views. This is not in any way a criticism of the police, whom we all go out of our way to help in these profoundly difficult situations. Frankly, however, this is not just about the right to demonstrate; it is about the right of a free Parliament to meet, decide and vote on the affairs of the nation.

My Lords, I warmly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has just said. It is extremely important that at all times Members of this House and another place have unhindered access to go about their business in Parliament. However, the police have a very difficult job. While they do everything that they can to make sure that the entrances are not overwhelmed, very occasionally that happens. As Members of this House, we need to be aware of alternative routes so that we can still get here to do our duty.

Does my noble friend agree that part of the business of Parliament is to respond to the lobbying of Members of Parliament and that maximum practical access to the Palace for lobbyists is desirable, first, so that they can make their points and, secondly, so that parliamentarians can respond? Last week, those of us who saw it would have realised that there were far fewer lobbyists here than the House could comfortably accommodate, which was a pity. Part of that was a product of the problems in Parliament Square. Does my noble friend agree with the point made by my noble friend Lady Trumpington yesterday that one of the real problems is the permanent encampment in Parliament Square, which occupies a lot of space and is therefore an obstacle to democracy?

My Lords, I certainly agree that part of the role of Parliament is to accept those who wish to lobby Parliament and parliamentarians in this building, which is why we support the peaceful right to protest. I also agree with what my noble friend Lady Trumpington said. It is a view shared by many people in both Houses that what seems to be a permanent encampment in Parliament Square is no longer necessary, if it ever was. That is why the Government have published proposals to try to tackle the problem.

My Lords, I welcome the report called for by the noble Lord from the Clerk of the Parliaments and acting Black Rod. On the theme of Parliament Square, in his response to the Statement yesterday the noble Lord referred to what he described as the,

“disjointed ownership of different parts of the square”.—[Official Report, 13/12/10; col. 423.]

Will the overall work of the Government in this area produce a solution to that disjointed ownership?

My Lords, we are trying to find a solution that will suit both the owners of Parliament Square. The problem is not so much one of ownership as the way in which the law is applied to the areas under different ownership. We believe that, under the proposals that we are about to publish, we will have an opportunity to solve the problem.

My Lords, concentration is inevitably on access to Parliament when it is physically difficult to get here, but access is important at all times, a view that I know the House is very enthusiastic about. Will the Leader of the House look again at the notices at the entrances to Parliament? They state:

“Trespass on this Site is a Criminal Offence. This is a protected site under Section 128 of the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005”.

Will he consider whether it is necessary to have such aggressive notices around a democratic place of work?

My Lords, there is a view that some of the violent acts that we have seen perpetrated in recent weeks need to be dealt with strongly and that the police, who do a difficult job, need to have a clear role in catching the perpetrators, arresting them and charging them. As for the signs around the buildings, I think that it is also fair enough for the public to be well aware of when they are about to commit an act of criminal trespass so that there is no excuse and no defence if they are caught doing so.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is quite impossible to get into the road that surrounds the Liberal Democrat headquarters? It is now almost like a fortress. Could he use his efforts, along with those of his colleagues, to try to get the road open to the public?

My Lords, the road is closed completely on occasion, although I am well aware from my own experience that residents are able to gain access to the street where the Liberal Democrats have their headquarters. I hope that we can move on from this episode of violent demonstrations by a student group. Perhaps what happened last week has had a salutary effect not only on those who organise these marches and the National Union of Students, but also on the colleges and institutions of higher education that these students attend.