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Protests: Tent Pitching

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 3 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will introduce emergency legislation to make pitching a tent in a non-designated public space, or on a public thoroughfare, a criminal offence.

My Lords, the Government brought forward provisions in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 which allow local authorities to attach the power of seizure to their by-laws for encampments on local authority land. These provisions will be commenced shortly. It is therefore not necessary to introduce emergency legislation. Protests on private land are the landowner’s responsibility but the Government are looking at existing laws to consider whether any additional measures are needed to deal with such encampments.

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for replying, I welcome her to the Dispatch Box and wish her many happy and successful years there. But perhaps I may also ask her if she will rethink part of that Answer. Will she impress upon the Government that we are facing a potentially disastrous situation? Next year, extra millions of people will come to this country for the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad. They will come to admire our great public buildings and open spaces, not to see squalid encampments. It is essential that the Government take effective action to prevent what happened at St Paul’s three weeks ago happening in other places, thereby defacing the very image of this country next year.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks; he has for many years been a leading figure in debates on matters such as this, both in the other place and in this House. The point that has to be made—my noble friend the Minister made it last week when answering a similar Question—is that protests on private land are the responsibility of the landowner. However, as my noble friend the Minister also said last week, and as I said in my original Answer to the noble Lord, the Government are looking at existing laws and considering whether any additional measures are needed.

My Lords, is it not somewhat perverse that Parliament spends its time criticising people for putting up tents in protest when those who are responsible for the crisis in the City and in the banking institutions are walking away into the sunset with their millions? Should we not get our priorities right?

My Lords, I am responding to a Question about whether there should be emergency legislation to prevent people pitching tents in non-designated public spaces, but I understand the noble Lord’s point. The Government are very clear that people in all parts of the country are having to deal with wage freezes and wage cuts and that some are having to look for a new job. Those people are dealing with these difficulties and shouldering their share of responsibility and they are right to expect big banks and the big bosses in companies to take their fair share of responsibility as well.

My Lords, in congratulating my noble friend perhaps I may ask her to reiterate the Government’s decision to avoid a knee-jerk, piecemeal and authoritarian response on this issue. Given that the wisdom of our mutual friend Lord Cormack clearly trumps that of the Archbishop, the Bishop of London and the clergy of St Paul’s, perhaps I may also ask her to look particularly at the issue of Parliament Square. She will see some very sensible proposals which have come forward this very month from the Hansard Society—in a report entitled A Place for People: Proposals for Enhancing Visitor Engagement with Parliament’s Environs—that would enable us to take a sensible, long-range view and to deal comprehensively with the problems referred to.

Of course we will look carefully at the report to which my noble friend refers. However, I stress that we passed an Act in July of this year that introduced new measures that will put an end to the encampments in Parliament Square. These measures will be commenced shortly and at that time we will, thankfully, bring an end to the disruption that so many people have criticised and rightly complained about over many years.

My Lords, from these Benches I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. The Church of England maintains a presence in every community in the land. It is a broad church—it is perhaps the original big tent. Is the Minister aware that St Paul was a tent-maker and that St John records that Jesus pitched his tent among us, in a non-designated public space, to rescue us?

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Minister to her position at the Dispatch Box today. Could the Minister comment on the original suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack? I would ask that the review is undertaken very carefully indeed and that there is the widest possible consultation. In terms of what overseas visitors will see next year, would it not be better that they saw an example of a vibrant democracy in action?

I agree with the noble Lord. We are expecting many people here next year and want to present a thriving London to everybody who visits. I will certainly take on board the points that he made, but I can only repeat that the department is considering this matter at this time and taking it very seriously.