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St Paul’s Cathedral

Volume 731: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to offer St Paul’s Cathedral any assistance in maintaining the right of access and passage to the cathedral.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, of which St Paul’s is a member.

My Lords, everybody has a right to peaceful protest, but that right comes with responsibilities, including respecting the rights of others. I understand that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has asked protestors to leave and so enable the cathedral to reopen. The Government believe that the protestors should comply with this request. The police are working closely with the cathedral as they monitor the situation, and the Government are being kept informed of developments.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply, but there is a clear difference between a normal protest and a permanent encampment. For some years we have had the national embarrassment, which still continues, of the permanent encampment in Parliament Square. Now we have a situation where one of our major cathedrals, an icon, is closed and the surrounding traders are suffering severely. Is it not time that the Government actually came out on this and took new powers to deal with these permanent encampments? If they are not dealt with at this stage, I fear that they will spread.

My Lords, the two issues are slightly different because the ownership of the land involved in Parliament Square and at St Paul’s is different: at Parliament Square the land belongs to the local authority whereas at St Paul’s it belongs to the church and the City of London. We have taken measures to deal with the Parliament Square problem, which were covered in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, and I hope that we will be able to deal with that problem shortly. As regards dealing with demonstrations of this sort on private land, I note what my noble friend says about the need to look at changes in the law. Certainly, if problems like this persist, and if we have problems like this that are likely to disrupt the Olympics or whatever, it is certainly something the Government will have to look at in due course.

My Lords, should not the protestors be told clearly that they have made their point and that the longer they stay the more they will possibly alienate public opinion, losing potential supporters in the process? They would be far better to leave in a dignified manner, having made their point clearly.

I agree totally with the noble Lord. The right reverend Prelate has made that point; the Government have made that point; others will make that point. I think it is time for them to pack up their tents and go, but we have no power to get them to go while they are on private land.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that what is needed is not action “in due course” but action now?

My Lords, I note what my noble friend has to say, but this is on private land and therefore it is a matter for the owners of that land to deal with it. We do not have the powers to deal with it at the moment, but as I said in response to the original Question from my noble friend, obviously if we continue to have problems of this sort, this is something we will have to consider.

My Lords, the noble Lord in an earlier answer referred to Parliament Square, on which he said that action would be taken shortly. We all know what “shortly” means: it can mean either “some time in the future, perhaps, when we get round to it”, or “we are on the verge of taking action now, and it will happen fairly soon”. Is it the first or the second?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, when a Minister, has used the word “shortly” before now. We all do use it from time to time. The noble Lord will also be aware that we have given ourselves powers in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. Those powers need to be brought into effect. I cannot confirm precisely when, and that is why I used the word “shortly”, which the noble Lord will be familiar with.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I have an office in Paternoster Square. Is my noble friend aware that the police thermal imaging cameras in the helicopters flying over this camp have revealed that during the night there are very few people in these tents and that they go off home or go off to live in hotels? Is this not making the stage laugh at the audience? Do we not need to recognise this for what it is, which is a disruption and not a legitimate protest, and to take the powers necessary rather than getting involved in arguments about who owns the property? This is a clear disruption of the life of the city and the life of the cathedral, and the Government must act.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and I am very grateful to him for pointing out that the protesters seem to be very much what might be described as part-time protesters. The sad thing is that this is on private land. Therefore, it is not a matter for the Government to intervene. It is a matter for the owners of that land, which, in this case, is the dean and chapter, to take the appropriate action. As I have said, obviously we have to look at the future and I was very grateful for the comments made by my noble friend in his supplementary question in terms of whether we need to change the law to deal with further problems later.

My Lords, the noble Lord spoke of the right to peaceful protest. Is there not also a right to worship in a church when one wants to do so?

My Lords, of course there is a right to worship but it is a matter for the church authorities to decide whether they can open that church or not. I do not answer at this Dispatch Box for the church. It was the dean and chapter who decided on grounds of health and safety—whether that was right or not is a matter for them to argue—that they could not continue to open the church. That is not a matter for the Government.

My Lords, is not an empty tent litter, whether it is on public property or private property, that can be removed without further legislation?

My noble friend makes an interesting point. Whether an empty tent is litter is a matter that I am not going to argue now. I go back to the principle that this is something on private property and, therefore, is not something on which the Government currently have powers to intervene.

My Lords, we have had a very good Question Time and the clock is now at 30 minutes. Perhaps we should go on to the next business.