Perhaps I should reassure noble Lords who took part in the previous debate that I have no intention of promoting the location of a wind farm in Parliament Square.
I am especially delighted that, in addition to a number of Members of your Lordships' House who will speak in the debate, I can see one or two others who I know have a long-standing commitment to our democratic and architectural heritage. I am particularly delighted that my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire is to respond from the Front Bench, because, as will become apparent later, he, too, has a track record in these matters.
There is widespread agreement that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 was not the most appropriate legal mechanism to regulate and manage democratic demonstrations in and around Parliament Square. Some thought that it was simply ineffective; others that it was excessively heavy-handed; but I think that all now agree that it has not really worked. Worst of all, it has put our police force in an unnecessarily compromised position, seeking to administer a very defective law. All of us, as lawmakers, have an important responsibility to take that into account.
My Bill would repeal the part of the Act which manages to be both inadequate and overbearing. The words in my Bill are directly lifted from the previous Administration’s draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. However, I should also say that my Bill takes account of the pioneering demolition job done by Mr Mark Thomas, whom I heard on BBC Radio 4—but I think there are other occasions on which he was able to demonstrate its inadequacy—and of the persistent campaigning of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. As noble colleagues will know, since I introduced my Bill, a very useful Bill has been brought forward by my noble friend Lord Marlesford. I do not want in any way to suggest that my Bill is an alternative to his; indeed, it could lead on to his; but as his Bill has been more recently introduced, we cannot as yet give it the attention that it deserves.
However, I think that we all agree that the present messy hiatus is intolerable. It may take an initiative from Parliament, advised by our security experts. I noted the reaction of colleagues in your Lordships' House when there was a clap of thunder—at least, I hope it was a clap of thunder—a few minutes ago at midday. We are all very conscious of security concerns. It may take the advice of our security experts to both Houses of Parliament to break the bureaucratic logjam and knock together the heads of the London Mayor and Westminster City Council who, to my mind, have been trying to find interminable ways to pass the buck.
As I said, pre-legislative scrutiny on various Bills that have come before your Lordships' House has considered the issue. I was involved in the Joint Committee that considered the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill in 2008, where we had a lot of fact-based evidence before us. That put in their place some of the more fanciful prejudices that had been apparent. For example, we looked with some scepticism at the idea that Parliament should exercise remarkable special privileges for itself in relation to noise nuisance—another theme from the previous debate. Was the idea that we should pass a special law saying, “You are disturbing us in this building”, in a way that we would not allow anyone else to pass special laws? No other offices could do that.
However, we had some extremely good evidence from the Westminster City Council's environmental health officer who is responsible for us. I apologise to your Lordships' House for quoting at length, but I think this is important. He said:
“The first thing is that if you have to look at noise from the local government perspective, noise actually creates a nuisance. That is the way legislation frames it. That nuisance is really aimed around protecting residential areas but the courts have been tolerant with us in terms of applying it to work premises as well … If we were to look at demonstrations that we have experienced, what we have found is that when we have tried to measure the sound as each phase of traffic passes through Parliament Square the sound of the loudspeakers disappears; it is drowned out by the noise of the traffic”.
So it is important that all these issues should be considered in the light of factual evidence. In other words, the noise of protesters is seldom, if ever, a statutory nuisance that Parliament has to find a way of circumventing.
Then, from the Constitutional Renewal Bill in the latter part of the last Parliament, we had provisions that went into the so-called CRAG Bill—the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, as it became—and they were lost in the 2010 wash-up. Finally, as noble Lords will know, we have in Part 3 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, currently before the House in Committee, a very welcome restriction of the area to be the subject of a unique control regime. We have not reached that point in the Committee proceedings yet so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it in detail. However, my Bill precedes these later developments. My job today is simply to suggest that the repeal of SOCPA is an opportunity for really constructive, positive, imaginative thinking about the relationship between Parliament and the public spaces around this building.
I have some experience in architecture and planning; I have never qualified but when I had a real job I worked for the RIBA in these matters so I can tell colleagues that some of the discussions about the future of Parliament Square go way back to the 1960s when I worked in that role. Personally, I think public spaces are the key to this issue. I welcome the fact that the public see democratic demonstrations and marches focused on this building, on Parliament, and not just on Downing Street. Parliament is the proper site for democratic dialogue, not the Executive's offices in Whitehall. Surely, that is entirely appropriate in a parliamentary democracy. We do not yet have an elective dictatorship run from the bunker in No. 10.
Equally, the current physical characteristics of the immediate environs of Parliament are hardly conducive to an effective dialogue between electors and the elected representatives, let alone with those of us who are appointed at this end of the Palace. Parliament Square is an extraordinarily important, iconic, architectural construct. It is surrounded by significant buildings such as the abbey, the Supreme Court, Parliament and the Treasury. You have the church, the judiciary, the legislature and the Executive. What could be of wider significance in our democracy?
It was in that context that, many years ago, there was the very important analysis of what should happen in Parliament Square, which was given the title of World Squares for All and it dealt with Parliament Square regeneration. We do not have to buy into all its recommendations but it included the principles that pedestrian access to the central area should be approached more sensitively, that traffic should be more carefully and sensibly addressed and that, of course, as I have already said, security should be looked at in the context of potential threats today.
As long ago as June 2008, the Chairman of Committees of your Lordships' House wrote to the Mayor of London calling for the closure of Abingdon Street and St Margaret Street. In his letter, he said that that closure should take place,
“to all traffic except vehicles requiring access on behalf of parliamentarians and the emergency services”.
His letter urged that this would create a “coherent open space”, allowing both Londoners and tourists,
“fully to enjoy the historic buildings contained within it”.
No doubt my noble friend the Chairman of Committees will be able to tell us whether he received a coherent reply from Mr Johnson. The ideas submitted by the Chairman of Committees on behalf of your Lordships were naturally very modest, but even they seem to have been brushed aside in the interminable discussions that have taken place since.
In the 2008 debate, my noble friend Lady Hamwee described her feelings every time she came here. She said that she was,
“ashamed, embarrassed and uncomfortable about what London presents to our visitors when they visit the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey”.—[Official Report, 14/7/08; col. 1053.]
As a non-Londoner but someone who has had an almost lifetime interest both in our built environment and also democratic politics, I could not have put it better myself.
Since then, there has been a deafening silence. We should revisit the options urgently and not let the passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill impose an entirely negative context. We should look at positive opportunities as well. Most importantly, those practical proposals could ensure general public access to the central area and so secure what I would describe as popular self-policing, rather than simply permit the present exclusive, permanent encampment by a small minority to persist for ever.
It is a disaster that the Mayor of London and Westminster City Council seem completely to have blocked progress. I will make one suggestion; I do not pretend that it is the answer to everything. Why should we not relocate or replicate Speakers’ Corner in the centre of Parliament Square? I am very grateful for my noble friend Lady Trumpington's agreement. My erstwhile colleague in the other place, the former MP Mr Peter Bradley, founded the excellent Speakers’ Corner Trust, in which I have no pecuniary interest but which I and a number of distinguished parliamentarians of both Houses wholeheartedly support. He could find this an important opportunity. It is ironic that the trust has created a number of speakers’ corners in the United Kingdom and abroad—in Lichfield, in Leicester and in Prague—and yet we are discounting the idea of finding the right place for one in our own city of London, as near as possible to our Parliament.
I understand also that some very useful and comprehensive research is being undertaken at the moment by the Hansard Society—again, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as an officer of the society—on behalf of the parliamentary officers of both this House and the other place who sit in the Group on Information for the Public. I will not test noble Lords, but I wonder how many have any knowledge of what the GIP is or does, because it does not have any responsibility or accountability to Members of either House. Anyway, it is a useful exercise. The society is looking at the whole question of what should be said and done to tell Parliament's story, which will include the way in which Parliament Square is to be planned in future. I would be very interested to know what the GIP hopes the long-term aim, outcome and timescale of this research should be.
I come back to the issue of security. Naturally, we should all aim to ensure the safety of all who visit this building, as well as those who work here, and there is a strong argument for the removal of traffic from the east and south sides of the square for that reason alone. I am sure that the necessary access and parking issues could be successfully addressed. I also recognise, as has been mentioned before in your Lordships' House, that the sessional orders of both Houses may require some review. However, surely we cannot allow that review to hold up the wider improvements that have become so urgent. As the very successful depopulation of Trafalgar Square has demonstrated, it is perfectly possible to achieve greater priority for people over vehicles without major disruption. We are always told by the motoring lobby that this is impossible, but we have proved it possible in Trafalgar Square, and we need to look at it again in the immediate environs of this building.
Our overall objective must surely be that the heart of our parliamentary democracy should be seen as such, with clear guidelines on what should be permitted and even encouraged to enhance this role, without recourse to unwieldy, excessive and unworkable regulation. Your Lordships' House will no doubt remember the disgraceful case of Maya Evans and Milan Rai, who were arrested in 2005 under existing legislation simply for reading out the names of war dead at the Cenotaph. That was wholly disproportionate. It reflected a piece of legislation—the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act—that vastly overestimates the risks attached to legitimate, well managed demonstrations and protests. The Act is very obviously a blunt instrument that by its nature gags free speech in the very place where it should be allowed. Indeed, for every demonstration that grabs the attention of the media—perhaps one a year, on average—there are so many which are well managed by stewards and the police. I do not know whether there are any figures that my noble friend can give us, but I think there must be many demonstrations of that type every year. We will recall the Ghurkhas, the countryside march, which was on a much bigger scale, and, indeed, the biggest one of all, the demonstration and lobby of Parliament in favour of Make Poverty History. They were well managed, well organised and extremely important ways in which our fellow citizens were able to communicate their views to parliamentarians. Far from discouraging them, we should make better provision for them, instead of allowing permanent encampments of a small minority to persist while attempting to enforce the totally unworkable overregulation of everybody else.
I end with a quote from a 2008 letter published in the Guardian on 1 May—May Day. It is perhaps significant for those who share my view that May Day should not be allowed to be for just a minority. Those of us who are parliamentary democrats can take significant dates, such as May Day, as being ours too for all radicals. The letter runs as follows:
“The current proposal is to close off the south side, with traffic continuing to flow between parliament and Westminster Abbey. If, however, the east side were closed as well, a grand new open space would be created from the end of Whitehall through Old Palace Yard. That would provide a far more welcoming context for parliament itself, allowing the removal of most of the barriers, and creating a space where visitors can gather/demonstrate. The wealthy inhabitants of Smith Square object to this as they will have to drive round the other side of Westminster Abbey. Given the national importance of this democratic space, I hope that broader considerations will prevail”.
Amen to that, say I. The author of that letter was, of course, the Minister, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Tyler. He has performed a real service to the House in introducing his Bill and in what he said in his wide-ranging and excellent speech. I thought that his idea of a speakers’ corner should commend itself to serious consideration. There are, perhaps, problems, but nevertheless it should not be dismissed. I was fascinated to hear about the GIP. I did not know it existed, I do not know what the letters stand for even now—something to do with information and Parliament, I believe—but I am grateful to him for drawing it to our attention. When it comes to closing the sides of Parliament Square, I am not entirely sure that he took sufficiently into account the traffic problems within London, which are a serious issue.
What I want to concentrate on in supporting my noble friend in his admirable endeavour is the need to clear up the squalor in Parliament Square. We are dealing with one of the greatest and most historic squares in the world. We are dealing with a world heritage site, as my noble friend said, a site which has the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the new Supreme Court and the Treasury. It is symbolic, valuable and architecturally of enormous importance and worth. To have in the centre a beautiful green defaced by squalor is a disgrace to our nation, and I have lost count, as I am sure many other noble Lords have, of the number of taxi drivers who have said as they have gone around Parliament Square, “When can you do something about this? Every time I have a foreign tourist or visitor in the cab, they say, ‘This would never be allowed to happen in any other great capital city of the world’”.
There have been attempts to do something. My noble friend has referred to what happened in 2008 and made a passing reference to 2005. For some five years until 2005, I sat on the House of Commons Commission, and it was an issue then. I kept raising it at commission meetings and was told that it was incredibly difficult because of the divided responsibilities for Parliament Square, something to which my noble friend also alluded in his speech. I raised it on the Floor of another place. The then Government attempted in the 2005 Act which my noble friend is seeking to amend to tackle the problem, but they signally failed. They had produced a Bill that was draconian in its apparent dealing with the freedom to demonstrate but which was completely ineffective in removing the squalor.
It is vitally important that in this wonderful country of ours, people should have the freedom to demonstrate. I was proud to take part in the countryside march, and I addressed the countryside rally in Parliament Square, which was vast but on the whole very well organised, and certainly should have been allowed to take place, as indeed it was. I would deplore any legislation that prevented a similar peaceful demonstration taking place in the future. But it is one thing to demonstrate for a particular time on a specific day, and another thing to camp indefinitely—and in so doing, in fact to prevent others from demonstrating, which is something that we should bear in mind.
I hope very much that the measures now before us in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill will deal effectively with this matter, but I have my doubts. Earlier today I was talking informally to my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who I know has tabled amendments for discussion in your Lordships’ House in a couple of weeks’ time. They seek to ensure that the measures that the Government are introducing are indeed wide-ranging and foolproof. It is, for instance, tremendously important that in clearing up Parliament Square, we do not move the squalor to Abingdon Green or to the green around the statue of King George V. All the spaces around Parliament should be available for appropriate free and peaceful demonstrations, but none should be available for encampments. It is therefore necessary, in whatever legislation is finally adopted—be it that before us from my noble friend, be it from the Government, or be it an amalgamation with the admirable Bill drafted by my noble friend Lord Marlesford, who has left the Chamber—to have a foolproof solution. It must be a solution that imposes a sensible curfew so that people cannot demonstrate indefinitely.
Of course we have to be sensitive. When talking about this with colleagues earlier, I suggested that we should place a time limit on demonstrations, but I was asked what would happen with a silent candlelit vigil by nuns. Would we want to stop that? Of course we would not, so it is very important that whatever we do allows for the legitimate but does not give freedom to those who would exploit the very freedoms that we are here to safeguard and protect. I hope very much that, following the initiative of my noble friend and the welcome attempts by the Government in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, we will arrive at a solution which enables people properly to enjoy this glorious world heritage site and properly to wander between the buildings around it.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that the traffic issues cannot be lightly dismissed. Perhaps the answer is a couple of underpasses so that people can go into Parliament Square. One of the problems at the moment is that that massive traffic island is difficult to access. Those who have got there, camped there and stayed there fall into one category, but those who want to go and look at the statues of great statesmen, to wander around and see the buildings of Westminster Abbey and Parliament from the square, have to take their lives into their hands to cross. We need underpasses and a proper public access to this greatest of all public spaces.
I very much hope that when my noble friend comes to reply to this debate he will be able to give us both reassurance and encouragement. I hope that he will be able to tell us that the Government are utterly and absolutely determined to restore Parliament Square as a place in which every citizen of this country and the world can take pride, a place to which people can come and say, “Yes, this is the heart of the oldest, greatest democracy”. I hope that he will be able to give us an assurance that there will never again be an opportunity for that space, once cleaned up, to be defaced. I hope that he will be able to tell us that the Government’s measures will make it absolutely impossible for people to camp indefinitely and to create squalor where there is beauty and where that should always remain. It is a question of adequate public access and proper freedom for proper demonstrations, but an absolute recognition of the beauty and historical importance of this great world heritage site.
I am delighted to support the Bill that my noble friend has introduced and to welcome the Government’s indication that they recognise the importance of these issues. I very much hope that, in a few months’ time, taxi drivers taking me and other noble Lords round the square will not continue to say, “Why can’t you do something about it?”, because I hope by then that it will have been done.
My Lords, I rise to speak on this Bill, but having heard the noble Lord who moved it and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I am not quite sure that I will go along with it all the way. I spoke at Second Reading of the Police and Social Responsibility Bill, but only on Part 3, which has to do with Parliament Square. I took the view that it is part of a free society that if people want to demonstrate they should be able to do so. If it is squalid, that is a price of freedom. The people who are camped there are not causing anybody any harm. They are registering protest about something with which you may or may not agree, but you cannot deny that there is something to protest about. I supported the war in Iraq and continue to do so—I make no bones about that—but the fact that Mr Brian Haws has been able to demonstrate for 10 years this month is a great tribute to British democracy. Parliament Square is a heritage site already because our society allows, across from Parliament, people to demonstrate and say, “We reject what this Parliament has done; we protest in the name of people who are not here, who are not citizens, who are never involved and we want to protest”. I do not think that it is a matter of the level of noise that those people make. As I said in my speech on another occasion, is certainly less than if Parliament were to be broadcast, when you would find that it drowned out even the traffic noise. I do not think that it is a matter of squalor, because the protesters have been very tidy lately. They are on a little area of pavement and hanging on by the skin of their teeth. They are silently demonstrating with placards. What is the problem? I have heard tourists walking by express admiration for the fact that this happen; it can happen only in British democracy. The noble Lord is quite right: foreign tourists will come and say that this could not happen in their country. Of course it could not happen in their country. This is the cradle of freedom and it is everyone’s right to be able to demonstrate provided they do not cause hindrance to anyone else.
I go along with Clause 1(1) which seeks to remove Sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. That would take us back to the Public Order Act 1986, which was perfectly adequate for a number of years until everyone panicked. We were not an unruly country—there was no anarchy—when the Public Order Act 1986 was in force. Why we needed the 2005 Act is beyond me. It was introduced because everyone was panicking about 9/11 and 7/7, or whatever it was. Terrorism is being used as an excuse for all kinds of restrictions on our freedoms.
I quite agree with the first proposal in the noble Lord’s Bill and that we should remove Sections 132 to 138; I also go along with him that we should celebrate Parliament Square and make it accessible to everyone. Let us make it a speakers’ corner—that would be quite right. Let us have a variety of demonstrations and different ideas being floated about our politics and other people’s politics—I do not see what the problem is.
We ought to examine ourselves and ask whether we as a Parliament really want to be part of suppressing people’s right to demonstrate even if that means occupation. I would argue that that occupation is very orderly, as anyone who was there during the recent Royal Wedding and saw encampments all over that area will know. People were camping and no one said, “This is squalor”. There was a lot of squalor, I can tell you—I walked through it—but, of course, it is remembered as a joyous occasion. So it is a joyous occasion when people agree with what the establishment wants—there is joy and everyone is fine—but if you do not agree, it is squalor. I reject that.
I say let the people who are there be there. Yes, let us open up Parliament Square—I do not have a car so I do not worry too much about traffic; whatever you want to do about traffic, do it—but do not remove the people who are there because the fact that they are there is one of the greatest tributes to our democracy. The excuses are always related to issues other than politics—noise, squalor, inconvenience—but they have a political subtext. It may seem harmless but there is a political subtext to it. You do not like looking at those posters; they are terrible. They remind you of things which you probably think are all lies. Refute them—but do not deny the right of people to demonstrate.
I urge the Government to accept what the noble Lord asks for in his Bill which is already in the political and social forums through the Act, but to desist from doing anything which would remove the right of people to demonstrate as and when they think necessary.
My Lords, a very long time ago I asked a question on this matter in this House. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on introducing the debate and the Bill; I hope that the three councils involved in this matter will read every word that is said in this Chamber today. The mistake that has been made is not telling the people who are in their little tents where they can legitimately go. I hope the Minister can tell us of sites or a site—speakers’ corner or where have you—where they can legitimately do what they want to do without making such a terrible mess of a place of great beauty and state importance.
I was not going to say anything, but the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, reminded me of the many gruelling months that I spent in the last Government as the Minister responsible for these issues, so I felt that I should speak in support of his Bill. I am also in support of the careful way in which he has tried to strike a balance.
I very much associate myself with the words of my noble friend Lord Desai in stressing the importance of the right to protest. It is precious; we often may not like it, and many of us may be offended, as he rightly points out, but it is one of the most precious supports of our democracy. But at the same time, I think that my noble friend would accept that that right is not without constraints. The problem lies in where exactly those constraints should be drawn. Trying to strike that balance is what has made this issue so brain-achingly and heart-achingly difficult to reach any kind of achievable solution.
It is a great criticism of this place that we have failed consistently, over many years—and I take my own share of responsibility for this—to find a solution to this problem. But as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, so rightly says—and I agree with every word that he says and pay tribute to all his efforts to find a solution to this problem—Parliament Square is a very important symbol of the way in which our democracy works. I do not think that anyone looking at it at the moment thinks that it is a good advertisement for that, which is not to gainsay anything that my noble friend Lord Desai has said in support of that precious right of peaceful protest.
I welcome this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on bringing it forward and his effort to give Parliament once again an opportunity to reach a solution. I hope that it is successful. He has all my support and this House, Parliament and the whole of our democracy owes him a debt of gratitude for giving us this opportunity.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has explained the purpose of his Bill, which addresses an issue that is addressed in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill going through Committee in your Lordships’ House.
With the conflicts of interest that need to be balanced, policing protests often generates controversy, not least in respect of protests around Parliament where, unsurprisingly, people wish to come to make known their views if they feel strongly about a policy that the Government of the day are or are not pursuing or a decision they have made. The European Convention on Human Rights gives people rights under both Article 10 on freedom of expression and Article 11 on peaceful assembly, but such rights are not absolute. The rights of protestors have to be considered, as well as those of the general public. In recent years, the issue has arisen as to whether Parliament requires different arrangements from elsewhere to control demonstrations in its vicinity.
Before the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 was introduced, a number of byelaws and the Public Order Act 1986 applied to Parliament. In addition, there were sessional orders for the House of Commons and stoppages orders for the House of Lords, which related to access and gave the Metropolitan Police Commissioner the power to direct police officers to keep Parliament free from obstruction. In 2003, the Commons Procedure Committee carried out an inquiry into those powers as a result of demonstrations that had taken place outside and near Parliament, and concluded that the law was inadequate. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 followed, which created a new offence of demonstrating without authorisation in a designated area, which was defined by order, but had to be within one kilometre of Parliament Square. The Act also banned the use of loudspeakers in the designated areas.
However, concerns soon emerged about whether that Act had, in its effects, struck the right balance. For example, two people were arrested and prosecuted for reading out the names of British soldiers and Iraqi citizens who had been killed in Iraq. Yet the concerns the Act was intended to address remained largely unaddressed as people sought to find loopholes in the law and ways to get around it. As a result it became generally accepted that the provisions of the 2005 Act should be repealed. Such a proposal was included, as has been said, in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. However, that measure fell in the wash-up before the general election last year.
The Government have now introduced their own proposals to deal with this issue in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which is currently going through your Lordships’ House. Their proposals are in many ways similar to the provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, but would apply to the much narrower and more restricted geographical area of Parliament Square. I assume that when the Minister responds, he will say something about the thinking behind the Government’s proposals in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill in pursuing what I am absolutely sure is the objective the Government want to achieve: maintaining the balance between the right to protest in the area around Parliament, the right of people to go about their everyday business and the right of people to enjoy Parliament Square.
This is certainly not an easy issue to resolve but there is a need for change and for further proposals. There will obviously be further discussion on this issue. While the best way forward now will be through consideration of the proposed clauses in the Government’s police reform Bill, rather than through the Bill before us today, we still await the Minister’s response with interest.
My Lords, this debate has ranged a little more widely than the Bill under consideration and has raised some large questions about the future of Parliament Square. I start by declaring two personal interests. First, I live in a world heritage site in Saltaire and have therefore spent considerable time dealing with the legislation on world heritage sites. Secondly, I was, many years ago, a chorister across the road at the abbey and still have links to it. Indeed, I give occasional singing tours of the abbey for charity. I am conscious that the two halves of this world heritage site are, alone among world heritage sites in this country—and on the absolute outer edge of UNESCO regulations—divided by a main road.
I start by addressing the issues raised by this Bill and Part 3 of the Police and Social Responsibility Bill, which I hope will reach the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in one week’s time rather than two if we are able to make progress in Committee next Thursday. The Government have set out their commitment to restoring the rights to non-violent protest, and have therefore brought forward the repeal of Sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. We agree that Sections 132 to 138 impose unnecessary restrictions on the right to peaceful protest around Parliament, and that they have had a chilling effect on that right, which has contributed in some quarters to a breakdown in trust between the Government, the police and those who wish to protest. We recognise that we are talking about striking the right balance. However, I am very happy to hear the consensus across the Chamber—and, I am sure, in the other place—that it is important to maintain the right to peaceful protest.
I shall just throw in a small amount of history, since I was heavily criticised over answering a question about sessional orders and have done a little research. In the 17th century this Chamber assumed that noble Lords had the right, under all circumstances, to come to this Chamber and that spaces should be cleared for them. Having looked at the book just published on the Lords in the 17th and 18th centuries, the degree of arrogance with which the Lords then assumed that the right of access could be enforced is not one that would be appropriate to our modern Chamber. In the 1780s, after the Gordon riots, a battalion was encamped in St James’s Park for some months in order to maintain the right of access to Parliament. That is not the sort of thing, I suggest, that we now wish to repeat.
The Government are therefore making it clear that Sections 132 to 138 have not prevented the abuse of our public spaces by a determined few to the detriment of the enjoyment of those spaces by the wider public. I think we are talking about a maximum of 150 in the democracy encampment and fewer than double figures in the Brian Haw encampment. However, in striking a balance we are also bringing forward a package of measures in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill to ensure that everyone else is able to access the square equally and to enjoy its amenities. There are, after all, others who come to Parliament Square for a number of reasons: as tourists, to see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben; as a cultural experience in visiting this world heritage site; and as an educational experience for those interested in the democracy process, by seeing where Parliament is situated.
I am happy to say that discussions have been under way between the Dean and Chapter across the road and the authorities here about joint visits by school parties and others to the abbey and to the Palace of Westminster—and, incidentally, extending to the Supreme Court, while there will be discussions in the summer of whether that could also include Buckingham Palace—to bring people to this central area of English history. That also raises questions about how easy they find it to get from one part to another.
We all witnessed the occupation of Parliament Square Gardens by the democracy village encampment during the summer, which prevented members of public and visitors using and enjoying the garden. The courts have said that Parliament Square Gardens is not a suitable area to be used for any sort of encampment. The High Court has also said:
“Parliament Square Gardens is not a suitable location for prolonged camping; such camping is incompatible with the function, lawful use and character of”,
Parliament Square Gardens and,
“is also inconsistent with proper management of the area as a whole. Members of the public have been and would be precluded from using the area occupied; the area in question is the area nearest to an important entrance to the Houses of Parliament”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, asked whether we could tell campers of sites to which they might legitimately go. One has to say that they can legitimately go to authorised campsites. It is no more legitimate under general law to move to encamp in Green Park, St James’s Park, Westminster Abbey churchyard or elsewhere than it is to camp on Parliament Square itself.
They were not only there but on The Mall, as I attempted to walk at speed from the Cabinet Office to Tothill Street the day before the royal wedding and it took me nearly 20 minutes. I am well aware that policing is by consent and discretion in this country. On special occasions, as in the run-up to a royal wedding, we accept obstruction of the footpath for a limited period. That is what happened then. On whether obstruction of the footpath for extended periods is also acceptable, we are absolutely talking about the balance between the very small number of people who have occupied Parliament Square Gardens and the footpath adjoining it and the very large number of people who come through.
We all welcome that very large number of people. I have had an office on the West Front for some years and I am used to hearing people singing hymns, or hundreds of schoolchildren producing a substantial number of decibels as they cheerily march past, and a whole range of other demonstrations. I do not mind that noise as it comes through; I much prefer it to the more regular noise of the heavy traffic. That is part of what Parliament should be about. We shall return to the exact question of the measures which are now proposed to replace SOCPA next Thursday. I say simply that those measures are to have a small controlled area in which certain activities—erecting tents and the unauthorised use of loudhailers—are prohibited.
No, we are talking about timescale. This democracy encampment has gone on for a very extended period, and the Brian Haw situation for even longer. Of course one has to use discretion on certain occasions, but people who put up their picnic tables and chairs for one overnight, cheery encampment is not at all the same thing as people who erect permanent tents over months and years at a time, which then extend to the sort of huts which we now see opposite us that are almost permanent erections. That is of a different scale, and the timescale is fundamentally different.
We argue that what is proposed in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is a proportionate and targeted response which is the minimum necessary to deal with the particular misuse of tents and structures on Parliament Square Gardens and the footways. For the rest, protest in this area will henceforth be governed by the same laws as govern protest elsewhere. We think that returning to that is the appropriate course. By removing the SOCPA rules against protest as such, we are saying that if people want to protest for days, weeks and months, including candlelit vigils by nuns or others, they can. What they cannot do is erect tents and/or other long-term structures to do so. So while the Government cannot and will not support this Bill in the other place as it stands, we welcome and urge continued debate.
I shall now deal with some of the wider issues which are of clear interest to Members of the House about the future of Parliament Square and the way in which it fits in to the central democratic space which is the Palace of Westminster and its environs. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, talked about the need to break the bureaucratic logjam of the division of responsibility between Westminster Council, the Greater London Authority and various other authorities, which has made it very difficult to deal with these issues. A number of noble Lords talked about noise as a nuisance, and I reinforce everything that has been said about traffic noise being one of the largest problems we have to face. I look out of my windows on to Old Palace Yard, and the heavy trucks that pass by extremely close are also a potential security risk. The reason those heavy steel Corus structures are in place is because there is a real security risk.
Parliament Square is, as some noble Lords have remarked, a traffic island, surrounded by a traffic roundabout. The questions raised in the project for World Squares for All of one or more sides of Parliament Square being closed to traffic would answer the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about pedestrian access to the centre, give us a much larger space and give us something which we all, as pedestrians, enjoy in Trafalgar Square. When, as a Liberal Democrat opposition spokesman I raised this question on one occasion, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, objected that closing off two sides of Parliament Square would inhibit her ability to arrive for weddings at St Margaret’s in a car. I regret to remind her that that would indeed be the case, but there would be compensating advantages to a larger number of others. We cannot restore Parliament Square to the glory which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others evoke without restricting traffic.
On the question of sessional orders, which other speakers have also raised, I point out that the Commons no longer has a sessional order. The order, in its very grand-sounding statements, does not actually enforce any action outside the Palace of Westminster. It might indeed be time, therefore, to consider whether it is desirable to continue the grand language of the sessional order, given that it gives rise, as I have discovered when answering questions on this, to a number of misunderstandings about its potential use.
We welcome the frequency of well managed demonstrations, and in all that we do here we want the maximum number of people to come into the Palace and to appreciate how the Palace, Westminster Hall, Westminster Abbey and the surrounding area are a central part of English history. We welcome the opportunity that visits—particularly of the younger generation—to this area give to educate a new generation about English history and the growth of democracy in it. Although I am not saying that the Government support this Bill in another place, I very much hope that those who have spoken in this debate and others will continue the debate about how this world heritage site—this place that we love so much—should best be redesigned and rearranged so that we can welcome the largest number of visitors and the largest number of people who want to express their views in a free society.
My Lords, I certainly do not seek to delay and to detain the House for more than a few minutes. This has been a very positive debate, and I think there has been wide agreement on all sides.
I take up just one small point. My noble friend Lord Cormack is usually spot-on accurate, but I think I am right in saying that the statue to which he referred was not of George V but of George VI. However, that is significant in this respect: I recall one particular demonstration by the Gurkhas, and somehow the Gurkhas immediately around the monarch who led us during the Second World War, when they served this country so well, was symbolic of precisely the sort of important demonstrations that might not get the attention that they deserve. I therefore very much welcome the fact that no one on any side of the House is seeking to use the opportunity of the new legislation before the Government simply to impose yet more draconian—I think that was the word used by my noble friend—controls over demonstrations. We seek to enable demonstrations to be more effectively managed for the sake of all—indeed, for the safety of demonstrators, apart from anyone else.
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who expressed some misgivings, summed it up very well when he said—I paraphrase, and I hope that I have got this about right—that he supported everyone’s right to demonstrate so long as they do not prevent others from doing so. That is the crucial issue at present. We want to enable people to use their democratic rights as our fellow citizens outside their Parliament, and not to be tucked away somewhere quite different.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, was very generous in his compliments, and I in turn compliment him. He worked very hard to get the balance right, but I have to admit that I think that we on all sides would now accept that the present regime failed, that it is therefore right to look at another one, and that we have to strike a new balance.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, rightly identified the fact that the area for limitation, control and management is more restricted under the Bill, but I think that is welcome. I think it is a kilometre, not a mile—oh, dangerous, European stuff—but the previous legislation was excessive, and this Bill is much improved. However, again, as other noble Lords have said, the strict definition, which goes back to some previous legislation on Parliament Square, might not be sufficient and we might need to look at Abingdon Green and the area immediately around the statue to which I have referred.
I end now with what my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire said. His final words were extraordinarily encouraging, because he is saying to us that, in parallel with any new restrictions on demonstrations when the SOCPA provisions are removed, we must urgently have positive reassessment of the role of this iconic square. It is so important, not just to our architectural heritage but to the way in which we relate to our fellow citizens. If this is the centre of a parliamentary democracy we cannot continue, as we are, discouraging people from seeing it as such, and seeing its relationship to the other pillars of our state—which are still, curiously enough, the church, the Supreme Court and the Executive up Whitehall.
My noble friend’s final words were very encouraging, and I am sure that there will be others in your Lordships’ House who will hold him and the Government to account if we do not see some progress in the next few months on the positive as well as the negative concerns that we all have.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.