I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 2002–03, on Sessional Orders and Resolutions, HC 855, and the Government's Response thereto (published as the Committee's Third Special Report of the current Session, HC 613);
approves the proposals set out in paragraphs 9, 10 and 25 of the Report for changes in the practice of the House at the beginning of each Session;
and, as recommended in paragraph 9(b), makes the following provision:
That all Members of this House who are returned for two or more places in any part of the United Kingdom should choose for which of the places they will serve, within one week after it appears that there is no question about their election for that place.
I had looked forward to seeing headlines in tomorrow's newspapers stating that we had agreed to cut our mileage rates, but somehow I think that that might not happen.
The motion takes note of the Procedure Committee's report on Sessional Orders and resolutions, published last November, and the Government's reply to it. It approves the proposals set out in paragraphs 9, 10 and 25 of the report for changes in the practice of the House at the beginning of the Session. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee, and to its Chairman, for the advice we have been given.
As the Committee's report explains, for nearly 200 years—and longer in some cases—the House has agreed to three orders and three resolutions at the beginning of each Session. They relate to elections, witnesses, the Metropolitan police, and votes and proceedings. The text appears on page 3 of the Committee's report.
Since 1852, these matters have been taken just before the debate on the reply to the Queen's Speech. They are proposed from the Chair without notice, and have occasionally given rise to debate.
At the suggestion of Mr. Speaker, the Procedure Committee conducted a thorough inquiry to consider whether the Sessional Orders and resolutions should be abolished and updated, and came to the very clear conclusion that our traditional practice should change.
"Bill for the more effectual preventing of clandestine outlawries"— that traditionally is taken before the debate on the Queen's Speech as a symbolic assertion of the House's freedom to consider matters of its own choosing. The Committee notes that the practice takes only a few seconds and recommends that it should continue. The Government agree.
Secondly, the Committee considered the Sessional Orders and resolutions on elections, witnesses and the Votes and Proceedings. It found that the resolution about bribery and the provision for Members to withdraw during any debate on any dispute on their return are obsolete and misleading, as responsibility for election offences and disputes now belongs to the courts, not to the House; that the provision about double returns—two Members being returned for the same seat—relates to an event that cannot now take place; that the order for the printing of the Votes and Proceedings—the formal daily minutes of the House—is unnecessary and that the provision that the Speaker should peruse them before they are printed is not normally carried out; and that the resolutions against tampering with witnesses and giving false evidence have some value as statements of intent, but add nothing to the House's powers to deal with contempts or, in the case of tampering with witnesses or the giving of false evidence on oath, the statutory powers. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the passing of the Sessional Orders and resolutions relating to elections, witnesses and the Votes and Proceedings be discontinued. The Government agree. The motion seeks the House's agreement to that change.
I hope that at some stage the Leader of the House will tell us why he thinks that those splendid, if slightly archaic, traditions are in any way harmful. This is beginning to look like yet another of the ghastly modernisations that seem to be becoming commonplace, so rather than simply reading out the traditions as if to say that they are self-evidently a bad thing, will he tell us why he thinks it necessary to do away with them?
The right hon. Gentleman has no doubt looked carefully at the Procedure Committee's report, so he will know that the Committee recommended the changes—and I agree.
The Committee found that the provision, in the elections order, about Members returned for more than one place is unlikely ever to be needed. It last happened in 1910, but the Committee recommended that the possibility be dealt with once and for all by the House deciding, when agreeing to its report, that all Members who are returned for two or more places in any part of the United Kingdom should choose for which of the places they will serve, within one week after it appears that there is no question about their election for that place. The motion contains that provision.
I can assure the House that the provision applies to Members returned to this House for two or more places and would not prevent a Member of this House from belonging to another elected body in the United Kingdom.
The urgency with which the hon. Gentleman leapt to his feet made me wonder what his future intentions are and where he sees himself sitting in future.
May I—uniquely—come to the aid of the Leader of the House to respond, through him, to my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth? Mr. Speaker encouraged the Procedure Committee to consider whether the Sessional Orders and resolutions should be retained or abolished. In our informal discussions we came to the view set out in our report that they should be abolished as they are no longer relevant to the modern age in which we live.
It was a radical-traditionalist coalition, following the Procedure Committee's expert advice.
The Committee felt that although those Sessional Orders and resolutions should go, we should still begin the Session with a reminder of matters that the House considers to be of importance. The Committee recommended that there should be a statement by the Speaker of the duties and responsibilities of Members—possibly, the Committee suggested, the seven principles of public life as set out in the code of conduct—together with historic claims to privilege, including those of freedom of speech and freedom from legal challenge embodied in the Bill of Rights 1689. The motion endorses that proposal.
Given that the Government have had more than a year to consider these matters, does the Leader of the House have a preferred form of words to present to the House? It might be difficult to make a judgment without knowing what is imagined.
As will be evident from the terms in which the debate is being put to the House, we are asking the Committee to look into the matter for us.
That question needs to be answered, and I hope to return to it later if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I listened carefully to the remarks of the Leader of the House about the use of these words at the beginning of a Session, in which he referred to Members. However, the Sessional Orders relate not to Members but to witnesses and people from outside Parliament who should come here to say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth instead of hiding behind the Osmotherly rules and being economical with the truth. That is the real problem, and he has not addressed it.
With all due respect to my hon. Friend, who is a diligent and fine parliamentarian, I think that he has raised a separate issue.
I am sure that the Leader of the House understands that this is an important issue, because we could be signing up to a document that is a statement of the way in which we should conduct ourselves. Will he assure us that it will be proceeded with on the basis of a proposal to the House and a full opportunity to debate and consult on it? In effect, it will be our constitution and it should not come to us other than after careful consideration so that the Bill of Rights, the freedoms of the House and all the other things are guaranteed.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which was well made.
The larger, and more controversial, part of the Procedure Committee's report relates to the Sessional Order on the Metropolitan police and the linked issues of access to Parliament and demonstrations in Parliament square. The Committee finds that the Sessional Order is misleading, since it does not confer any additional legal powers on the police. The Committee recommends that the Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations and to ensure that the laws about access are adequate and enforceable.
The Government are well aware of how strongly Members of the House, including Mr. Speaker, feel about this matter. We therefore agree that there needs to be specific legislation that recognises the unique position of Parliament and its surroundings. We will introduce such legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Will the Leader of the House explain exactly what his proposal means today? Is it a welcome for the suggestion of legislation at an indeterminate point in the future, or does it fundamentally encourage the police to behave and act differently from the way in which they have acted hitherto?
I think that my hon. Friend will find the answer to his question in what I am about to say. What is envisaged is a sensible proposal that particularly protects access and the orderly operations of the House.
The Leader of the House said that legislation would be introduced as soon as he could find parliamentary time. Will he assure us that it will be introduced within, say, the next six months?
The right hon. Gentleman knows from the previous positions that he occupied that I cannot anticipate what will be in the Queen's Speech. He knows that there are protocols and restrictions on me, but I have been pretty clear that we will introduce such legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. We will do that, and it will be sooner rather than later.
There is legislation to deal with disruptive demonstrations in Parliament square. Under section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, the police can put conditions on assemblies that they believe may cause serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious damage to the life of the community. We amended the definition of "assembly" in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to cover two or more persons.
The Government recognise that existing legislation has not provided the police with all the powers they need to control all protests and demonstrations around Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has carefully considered what more can be done and we propose a new power for the police to give direction to and impose conditions on any protest, demonstration or assembly within the vicinity of Parliament. It will be an offence to fail to comply with a direction. The precise area will be defined in secondary legislation.
There is a difficult balance to be struck. It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate provided that that they do so within the law. I have exercised those rights to protest, and would defend to the last the rights of others to do so, including in Parliament square. Equally, however, access to Parliament must be maintained and those who work in Parliament should be able to do so free from harassment. We are working on the detail of the new power and will of course ensure that it is compatible with the European convention on human rights.
That will depend on the exact nature of the legislation that we introduce, but we intend to ensure that it will protect the House in the way that I described.
May I say, perhaps in anticipation of the question that my hon. Friend John McDonnell wishes to ask, that when I organised demonstrations it was impossible to bring them alongside the House of Commons because Sessional Orders and the state of the law did not allow that? That has subsequently become possible and hon. Members have not easily been able to get into the House for votes or to make their way through crowds. Additionally, the problem outside on the square itself is continuously with us, so we need an updated response.
It is best not to anticipate questions. Will the Leader of the House clarify the motion before us? It says that the House
"approves the proposals set out in paragraphs 9, 10 and 25 of the Report for changes in the practice of the House at the beginning of each Session".
Paragraph 25 of the Procedure Committee report proposes a new Sessional Order including the wording:
"that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of Members . . . or to hinder Members by any means in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties".
When the House reaches a decision on the motion, will we be approving the wording in paragraph 25 as a Sessional Order, or will we still be awaiting the legislation that he proposes to impact on the demonstration?
We will be doing both, in a way. We will have to wait for legislation because the Sessional Order does not cover the circumstances that currently affect the House.
On the same important issue, can I assume that if we agree to the motion we are not approving paragraph 22 of the Procedure Committee report, which proposes that legislation should be introduced to prohibit long-term demonstrations? Is it the case that nothing that we agree today would prevent the man in the middle of Parliament square from remaining there until legislation that we can properly consider is introduced to determine whether one person, or some or many people, should be allowed to stay in Parliament square?
I can confirm that. If the hon. Gentleman reads paragraph 25 on page 11 of the Procedure Committee report, he will note that the situation is clearly explained.
It might better assist the House if I make a bit of progress.
The Leader of the House is most kind. I think that I speak for most hon. Members on both sides of the House by saying that the thing that we are most worried about is the defacing of Parliament square that has occurred over the past three years. Will he assure me that any legislation that the Government introduce will apply to what is going on in Parliament square so that the gentleman concerned—after proper notice and following the due process of law—can be removed?
The answer to that question is yes, as I shall explain when I manage to reach that point of my speech.
I was interested to hear the Leader of the House's response to Simon Hughes about the current peace protest in Parliament square. Paragraph 25 sets out the suggested Sessional Order under the wording:
"the Order should take the following form".
Would that be an invitation to the Metropolitan police to clear the central area of Parliament square at all times, or would the status quo be maintained so that demonstrations in that area would be agreeable with the co-operation of the police? The system of co-operation with the police on demonstrations on the grass part of the square works well.
There are all sorts of anomalies. For example, the square is, I believe, owned and controlled by the Greater London authority. My hon. Friend should accept that if those powers existed, then, following pressure from Members of Parliament and requests from the Speaker, the noise would have been dealt with. A change in the law is needed, particularly to deal with the noise.
The Government fully accept that maintaining access to Parliament is essential to its working and to our democracy. We must maintain access; otherwise we cannot do our job as representatives in the cockpit of democracy. The police already use their existing powers, including powers under the Public Order Act 1986, to ensure that access to the House is maintained, and our new power will provide them with an additional tool to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman said, almost regretfully, that when he was organising demonstrations he could not get into Parliament square. Many of us are reluctant to back the proposal, because we have attended business questions and listened to a number of Members who think it hugely important to moan about people demonstrating. There should be powers to prevent Members of Parliament from being obstructed when voting and carrying out their parliamentary duties, but some people, including many members of the Procedure Committee, if we read the evidence, conflate that with a dislike of people exercising their right to free speech and to demonstrate. I hope that hon. Members, whatever their party, believe that sacrificing that right is too a high a price to pay, even though some people think that it is a nuisance.
There is a balance to be struck. People must be able to exercise the right to demonstrate and protest, which, as I have stated, is an absolute, traditional and fundamental right in our democratic society. However, as an experienced Member of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must have access to the House. We simply cannot operate on any other basis.
The Committee's report addresses the use of loudhailers by demonstrators in Parliament square. The Government recognise that the use of loudhailers is of particular concern to Members, who have raised it regularly with me, as has Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will therefore consider using the order-making power in section 62 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which governs the use of loudhailers in the streets, to ban the use of loudhailers in the area around Parliament square, subject to exemptions in the case, for example, of emergencies. It is intended to lay the necessary secondary legislation before the House as soon as possible in the new Session. Currently, the use of loudhailers in the streets is prohibited only between 9 pm and 8 am.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving way again—he has been very generous with his time. Would the order prevent the use of loudhailers in a permanent demonstration such as the one that is currently taking place, or would it apply to approved rallies, such as those that took place during the Iraq war, in the central part of Parliament square, which is controlled by Westminster council with the co-operation of the police?
Speaking from experience, loudhailers and means of making announcements, as my hon. Friend will know, are necessary during demonstrations to marshal people and shepherd them.
Indeed, they can be used for the orderly progress of a protest. Of course, that will continue to be permitted. However, we are dealing with a persistent "bang, bang, bang", which is deafening for Members in the House who, quite understandably, have complained about it, as have members of press and others who work in the Palace.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving way yet again. I welcome his announcement while endorsing the comments of Jeremy Corbyn that properly policed demonstrations should not suffer as a result. Is the Leader of the House aware that existing legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which can usually be used to stop incessant noise, includes an exemption for the purposes of political protest? Would he look at that legislation to see whether we could address the issue by ending the exemption?
I am certainly happy to do so, and I am sure that the Home Secretary will do so as we proceed. However, we are trying to address the situation sensitively and ensure that we do not deal with the problem in a heavy-handed way. I believe that the House would expect us to achieve that balance.
May I seek two clarifications? In relation to loudspeakers, is the Leader of the House saying that the primary legislation exists, but no secondary legislation has so far been introduced? If legislation is passed, will it be a civil or criminal matter if somebody acts in breach of it?
All these matters will be debated in the House when the measure is introduced. As I said, the existing regulations apply between 9 pm and 8 am, and it is the problem that arises outside those times that we need to make progress on.
Obviously, there are questions about the area in which the regulations will apply. Many approved demonstrations begin outside Barclays bank and wend their way around Parliament square and up Whitehall. I imagine that that would be perfectly acceptable, but it might help all Members if a draft of the proposed regulations were made available to allow a quick element of consultation before the matter is taken forward.
That is an interesting point, and I shall certainly bear it in mind, as will the Home Secretary. We are trying to move by consensus. This is a House matter, and we have been criticised, understandably, for being a bit slow on it. We do not want to rush into things. A lot of care has been taken. [Interruption.] We have not been dragging our heels, as I hear impudently suggested, but taking some care, for precisely the reasons that have been raised in voicing concern that we should strike a balance between the rights of our citizens and voters to express their view to us and maintaining the proper access that we require and our ability to go about our business without the kind of harassment that we have had.
Once new legislation to control demonstrations in Parliament square comes into force, the Procedure Committee considers that the Sessional Order relating to the Metropolitan police will be unnecessary. Meanwhile, the Committee recommends that we continue with the Sessional Order, albeit in an amended form, so as to clarify that it covers the whole parliamentary estate. The motion endorses that proposal. If the House agrees to the motion, at the beginning of the next Session, only that one Sessional Order will be moved—the amended motion on the Metropolitan police.
In conclusion, I believe that the House as a whole will, as I said at the beginning of my speech, be very grateful to the Procedure Committee for its report and its clear exposition of the issues involved. I believe that the changes proposed to our procedures at the beginning of each Session are a sensible reform, and I commend the motion to the House.
Yes, I do, and I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton on his work and that of his Committee. I also pay tribute to the Committee for its output, which has been impressive over the past year.
The motion approves paragraphs 9, 10 and 25 of the report, the effect of which is to change the Sessional Orders by discontinuing some of the old and much-loved usages, such as the passing of orders about elections, witnesses and Votes and Proceedings, although the Outlawries Bill will be kept. The report also suggests that a statement of our rights, duties and responsibilities be recorded, and goes on to suggest a new form of the Sessional Order. Although those may seem modest ideas, I ask why some of these charming old traditions need to be abolished. Only last week, we were abolishing the use of the term "strangers", which never did anyone any harm. I imagine that the new Labour battalions are lurking somewhere in the building and that, although they are not debating this matter, they are ready to vote solidly with the Leader of the House if that is required.
I am genuinely bewildered about why the hon. Gentleman utters the mantra of the Leader of the House when he refers to the Sessional Orders relating to witnesses as outdated. How is that measure outdated? It is essential. I would love to hear from the hon. Gentleman about that.
There is legislation that deals with the issue of witnesses, so I would have thought that the measure was not necessary. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on his earlier comments about the Osmotherly rules. The fact that Lord Hutton can come into an inquiry and have all the witnesses and documents that he wants—[Interruption.] A point about witnesses has been raised, and as the Osmotherly rules are about the conditions under which the Government allow witnesses to attend Select Committees, there is an overlap.
It is wrong that all the documents and witnesses in the world were available and put on the internet when we brought in a judge or a retired civil servant, whereas when the Foreign Affairs Committee asked for the same witnesses and documents, it was told that the matter was top secret and that it could not have the information. I remember the Foreign Affairs Committee report, which was stingingly critical of the Government, on that matter. One criticism of the Leader of the House that I make from time to time is why: on earth has he done nothing about it?
I gave evidence to the Liaison Committee on the Osmotherly rules and made proposals, which were widely welcomed, on how we can move forward. I was surprised when the hon. Gentleman referred to the new Labour battalions, because I have never thought that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Sir Nicholas Winterton, fits that description.
That was a cunning wheeze. The Leader of the House appeared before the Liaison Committee—I am sure that it was grateful—but he has yet to find a mechanism by which a Select Committee that asks for a witness or document can speak to the Leader of the House and the Government to explain the importance of the matter and obtain satisfaction.
At business questions the week before last, I suggested that one way in which to tackle the matter would be to form a sub-committee of the Liaison Committee, which could call in the Leader of the House if a dispute occurred. The Leader of the House dismissed the idea out of hand, but I do not know why, because it seems modest enough. If he will not accept my idea, surely as Leader of the House, who is supposed to uphold the rights of Select Committees, strengthen our procedures and support scrutiny, he must introduce a proposal that will work.
I am a member of the Procedure Committee, but as the Leader of the House well knows, I am not a member of the new Labour battalions. Many Sessional Orders were useless because they referred to proceedings in the St. Stephen's area and stopping people impeding MPs as they struggle through Westminster Hall. People were under the illusion that our contributions were protected, when actually they were not, which is why such matters needed adjustment. The adjustment had nothing to do with modernisation.
The access provisions were not underpinned by legislation to enable a police officer to enforce the Sessional Orders, and I am glad that the Leader of the House is introducing proposals on that matter. The main focus of today's debate is the effect of demonstrations in or near Parliament square on the work of the House, particularly the long-standing, visually unattractive demonstration that is accompanied by the extensive use of loudhailers, which disrupt the environment for not only hon. Members, but everyone who works here.
The Procedure Committee put it this way:
"The Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations and to ensure that the laws about access are adequate and enforceable. We also expect the appropriate authorities to explore fully the possibility of using existing legislation to control the use of loud-hailers and other amplification equipment; failing that, the Government should consider legislation on this subject".
The Committee suggested that the mechanism of Sessional Orders is fundamentally insufficient to deal with the current problem, although it recommended that we introduce an interim Sessional Order in the terms set out in paragraph 25, which I support.
I seek assurances on exactly what the Leader of the House intends to do. The Government response stated that a consultation on developing the right police powers for effective and proportionate action would take place, and he has told us today that an offence of not following Sessional Orders will be created. It is important that the police have enough power to change the situation.
Is the right hon. Gentleman able to state whether the offence will be arrestable and whether it will be summary only or either way?
Should there not be some distinction between an immediate problem of someone preventing an MP from entering the House, which clearly should be an arrestable offence in which the police would be expected to be involved, and a long-term nuisance, which is a civil matter and should be subject to civil remedy, not criminal remedy?
What did the hon. Gentleman think of Mr. Justice Gray's judgment on
As one who served as a barrister for many years, I never criticise the judiciary and I shall not do so on this occasion. The point is that we have a say in article 10 and the operation of the convention, whereas we have not had a say in respect of Parliament square, and I believe that we should. I believe in freedom of expression and of speech—for some years, I spoke at Speakers' Corner as a Hyde Park Tory and I have been on demonstrations. It is important that we are able to conduct our politics, but there are parameters within which one should do so.
May I remind the House that the court case mentioned by Mr. Salmond had nothing to do with the noise nuisance? Noise did not feature in the judgment and was an entirely separate matter. The judgment was based entirely on whether the protester was obstructing members of the public or Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend is correct.
The long-term protester in question is about to embark on a fourth winter as a permanent resident of Parliament green. Although we can admire its durability, his form of protest causes real problems for Parliament and for others. The problem is not aesthetic—it is not just that the posters do not look nice or anything like that. The fact is that he has created something akin to a fence-like structure. That mars the appearance of the square, but the main problem is one of security: to allow a barrier of that sort directly opposite the gates of Parliament is unwise. The Speaker has raised that as a point of concern. Police are forced to check around the barrier on the square several times a day to see what is happening behind the posters and placards, and the fence obscures security sightlines. Today's reality is that we cannot ignore such security concerns, and I think that Mr. Speaker is right to have raised the issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that those who are concerned about the barrier in Parliament square could also be concerned about someone sneaking around the statue of Churchill and jumping an unsuspecting Member of Parliament on the way home? The police are present in part to defend our right of free expression under duress, and to say that the gentleman in question presents a security risk is a preposterous argument against his right of expression.
Nobody minds someone attending to make a protest carrying a banner—that is part of our democratic process. The point is that that man has set up something like a fence with placards all the way around and the police have to go over there many times a day to check round, because we live in world in which security is tight.
Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that there are enough police in and around the Chamber to match the protesters one for one, and if they have to go out and check behind the fence every now and again, they are probably more usefully employed than they are in here?
My hon. Friend has his fun, as he is entitled to. Nevertheless, security around here is important, and it is not right for there to be a permanent barrier that creates cover directly opposite the gates of the Palace and takes up a huge amount of police time and effort. We should not be too amusing about the police presence here, because they do a good job. We need their help, and it is right that we should have it.
I do not know Mr. Justice Gray, but having read his judgment I would strongly advise the hon. Gentleman not to appear before him citing the arguments that he has used in the past few minutes. In effect, the judge said to Westminster city council, "Don't come before me with such rubbish."
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not looked into this, because the arguments that were deployed were not based on security considerations.
This is the predominant institution of our democracy and an important symbol of democracy world wide, and it is a terrorist target. Hon. Members may want to have a bit of fun, but these are important matters and we must not ignore them.
I am talking about those on the street. If necessary, they would have to deal with a potentially lethal terrorist attack. How are they expected to make split-second decisions, and to do so wisely, when there is a constant barrage of yammering noise distracting them and putting their safety at risk at a time when it is sufficiently at risk already?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of noise. Blaring away into a megaphone is a completely pointless exercise, because nobody can understand a word that is being said, yet it disturbs people all over the Palace and the parliamentary estate. I do not mind somebody wanting to protest in a reasonable way—as I say, I have often spoken at speaker's corner in Hyde park—but the level of noise here is unacceptable, and I welcome the fact that something is going to be done about it.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the matter of security entirely, will he clarify whether he opposes, on security grounds, long-term demonstrations by an individual, but is prepared to accept short-term demonstrations involving thousands of people in Parliament square, which, as we know from recent experience, are far more dangerous?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The point about a major, policed demonstration is that it is exactly that—a large demonstration that the police know about in advance and for which they are able to prepare. In the past year, I have been on two such demonstrations—one against the Stansted proposals, and the other in favour of people who have been disadvantaged through the Government's policy on pensions. Proper notice was given, we marched up Whitehall, and the policing was more than adequate.
The permanent demonstration is different because it is there all the time, it is a fence-like barrier directly opposite the gates of the Palace, it is taking up a lot of police time and effort, and it is a security risk.
I wish to be clear about the judgment that the hon. Gentleman is making. If the placards were small enough to ensure that a terrorist could not hide behind them and sufficiently aesthetically pleasing to him, would they be acceptable?
I have no objection to someone—or a greater number of people— standing outside the House of Commons with a banner and making a point. I simply stress that such activities should be carried out in a proportionate way that does not create a security hazard, and that the noise should not be unreasonable. I fully accept that a loudhailer is needed on a demo but constant, loud wailing is not reasonable.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, despite all the discussion about the loudhailer, the sole individual and so on, we are also considering some of the problems that we have experienced recently when access to the House has been blocked. The individual whom we have discussed does not pose such a threat but all sorts of demonstrations, including those on hunting and Iraq, have, for the first time in my experience, blocked access to the House. That is the problem and the measures are primarily designed to deal with that.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making that point; I was sidetracked when I was about to make it. It has always been established that hon. Members should have access to the House to do their job, especially when we are voting, so that democracy can do its work. The measures will underpin that well established principle with the sort of powers that are needed to make it work.
I remain unclear about the process that we are going through today. I would welcome any intervention from the Chairman of the Committee to clarify exactly what we are doing. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told us that consultation will take place to seek a remedy in law to some of the problems that the Committee identified. He said that consultation would take place about the development of a new measure and that an order would be introduced under existing environmental legislation to tackle the supposed nuisance or problem.
Yet we are also being asked to support a motion with a form of words for a new Sessional Order, which tries to provide a remedy for several problems that the Committee identified. The Sessional Order is incredibly wide-ranging. It states:
"That the Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis do take care that the passages through the streets leading to this House be kept free and open".
We all agree that enabling Members of Parliament to get into the House of Commons to do their duty in voting and participating in debate is critical—no one wants to underestimate the problems that have occurred—but the order goes far beyond that.
The Sessional Order suggests that it is needed to oppose any activities
"to hinder Members by any means in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties in the Parliamentary Estate".
The breadth of that is remarkable. It covers any activity that we undertake to hinder hon. Members. I want to hinder some of my hon. Friends in reaching some decisions on specific Bills. I want to do that through argument, lobbying and debate. [Interruption.] The breadth of the order means that an individual—whether or not the placard is small or a terrorist threat exists—cannot stand outside the House.
The hon. Gentleman may have missed the sedentary intervention from the Front Bench that I heard, implying that what he described did not constitute hindering. However, in the absence of a definition of hindering, what else are we to think? Some hon. Members appear to believe that noise pollution hinders; I do not. I should like to know exactly what hindering means.
That is the very point that I am making. If hindering is about noise that causes some obstruction to clear thought or work in an office—there are other obstructions to clear thought in the building, but we do not need to go into them now—perhaps we could have a definition of an acceptable decibel level or the problems that some hon. Members experience.
It is my understanding that the question of noise is being dealt with separately from the Sessional Order in paragraph 25. Paragraph 25 is about access to the building.
I have to say that that is not what the Sessional Order says. This order will have to be interpreted by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I think that we are putting him in an impossible position because of the breadth and loose wording of the order, which states that
"no obstruction be permitted . . . to hinder Members by any means in pursuit of their Parliamentary duties in the Parliamentary Estate".
That is a breathtaking range of provision to insist that the commissioner should interpret. Individual constituents, Members or members of staff could insist that the commissioner take action, but against what? Perhaps against a megaphone being used in Parliament square, but at what level? On what frequency? On what days? At what time of day? According to the Sessional Order, the provision would apply when Parliament was in session, but that could be late at night when there was not much going on in the building. This measure would require a subjective judgment on the part of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, which I think would be inoperable.
The particular wording that the hon. Gentleman is criticising has been in the Sessional Orders since time immemorial. The provision used to be enforced by the police, but a change in the law means that that no longer happens. However, this is nothing new; it is very old.
But now we are trying to use the order against a practice that has been acceptable for a long time. It has certainly been acceptable for the past few years, because Brian Haw has been out there for that long. It has been acceptable behaviour to a large number of us.
I am trying to clarify this question. If the Minister is arguing that we need to consult on new legislation, and that, in regard to some of this supposed nuisance behaviour, we have to introduce a new order that we shall eventually debate, why is that taking place when we are introducing a Sessional Order? Are we pre-empting that consultation? Are we pre-empting the debate on the new order? Why is this necessary? I am completely unclear on this, and I would welcome any intervention that will clarify the matter.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. As my hon. Friend Mr. Heald has explained, the provision has been there all along. It has also been ineffective—I see the Minister nodding—which is why the Government have, rightly, to introduce new legislation. The hon. Gentleman is arguing that we should weaken the Sessional Order more than it has been weakened in the past. This proposal is carrying forward something which, though ineffective, has been there all along, with a promise that something effective will be brought in further down the line—and about time, too.
So we are being asked to approve something that we all agree is totally ineffective, totally useless and therefore unnecessary. What are we doing here? What is the point? Well, we know what the point is. It is that one person out there is exercising his democratic right to free speech. When Ministers introduce legislation, they have to assure us in writing, as part of the process, that it complies with the European convention on human rights. What is remarkable about this order is that we have had no such assurance today in relation to it.
The hon. Gentleman is lamenting the need to interpret the legislation, while at the same time effectively conceding how easy it will be to do so in this particular, rather extreme case. I know the vantage point from which he is perfectly legitimately approaching the subject. We all believe in the right to free speech—I am periodically inclined to exercise it myself—but there is a difference between free speech and a licensed, permanent cacophony of a destructive character.
That is interesting. In none of the submissions to the Committee that I have seen has there been any mention of "permanent cacophony". It is true that there has been intermittent use of a loudhailer, and I am sure that that has caused some offence to some people, but I think that that is one of the tolerances that we should have in a democracy. With the greatest respect, I find some of the statements that are made in this Chamber offensive, but I accept the democratic right of hon. Members to make them. I also accept the right of Brian Haw to make his statement out there. As soon as we start to undermine that process of free speech, it becomes a slippery slope to intolerance.
Is it not perhaps in order for us to remember as well that we are in a position of relative power in this Chamber? We have the capacity to express our views and occasionally get them reported in the media. A man such as Brian Haw does not have that luxury. It is to his credit that he has caused a debate to take place on account of the fact that he has found an effective means of demonstrating.
It is a means of demonstration that also shadows what has happened across the world. The Aborigines in Australia and the campaigners in America have all used this tactic to bring something that they feel strongly about to the attention of democratic Parliaments. I welcome Brian Haw. I think he has been a hero for the past few years, suffering throughout those winters to bring to our attention a fundamental issue, which is about peace and opposing war.
On some objections that have been made to Brian Haw, I accept the integrity of a large number of Members who have intervened today to raise their concerns about nuisance and so on, but some interventions and some opposition to what he is doing out there have arisen because some Members do not like to be reminded of what they have done in this Chamber in terms of voting for war and the deaths.
I will not contradict your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the point of Brian Haw's protest is to ensure that we listen to him. If we silence him, we will be unable to listen to that message, which is one of peace that opposes some decisions of the House. One of the roles of an MP is to defend the democratic rights of the citizens of this country. That is what we are threatening. This is not to do with noise or nuisance; it is to do with removing the little man's voice from outside the Chamber.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would not defend this example—in fact, I know he would criticise it. My hon. Friend Anne Picking tried to enter the House during the hunting demonstration and was virtually beaten up. We have to move forward in dealing with such problems. The issue of the loudhailer is one small part of a much wider picture and we really must deal with it. I am sure he agrees with that. I think he should be more proportionate about the points that he is understandably making.
Is that an allegation that Brian Haw has at any time tried to prevent Members from coming to the House, because he has not, and no one has ever alleged it? We are introducing a Sessional Order and then legislation to obviate one evil—preventing Members from having access to the House—while at the same time wiping out the democratic rights of an individual. The breadth of potential interpretation is what is abhorrent about the Sessional Order. We are also going through a lengthy process of introducing new legislation—a new order to quell the voice of one man who speaks for the majority of the population of this country, against war and for peace.
I am always rather uncomfortable when we have a discussion that appears to be ad hominem, so I shall not follow precisely the line pursued by John McDonnell, but I want to remind the House that, long before the particular individual whom we have been discussing was permanently installed, a pig named Winston was present. I do not recall any Opposition Member objecting to the presence of that pig, although it was just as untidy as the gentleman to whom we are referring.
It did not, but those who were with it had very loud voices, and rightly so, because they were making an important point on behalf of my constituents, as it happens—those involved in agriculture.
I want to return to the report and the motion. Recommendations 1, 2 and 3, which the Government accept, are very sensible. They should be endorsed by the House. Recommendation 4 relates to the new statement that is to be made giving details of the
"historic claims to privilege including those of freedom of speech and freedom from legal challenge".
That obviously is important, but as my hon. Friend Simon Hughes said, there surely must be a proposal as to what will be said in that statement. I do not know why we have waited so long, because the report was made to the House in November last year, and we could by now have seen a draft. I hope that we will see one before the general election.
Clearly, however, the main matter for consideration this evening is recommendation 5. I want to read that again to the House:
"The Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations".
That gives rise to all sorts of problems of definition. What is a long-term demonstration? If an individual comes and goes regularly but intermittently, is that a long-term demonstration? If we have a very large demonstration that raises the security issues referred to earlier, and it takes more than 24 hours, is that a long-term demonstration? What is the difference? I am suspicious of that recommendation, and to be fair, so are the Government, whose response states:
Furthermore, they do not ask us to endorse paragraph 22 and recommendation 5. There were concerns in the Committee about the recommendation, as was obvious from the evidence given to it, and as I know from Members present this evening. I therefore hope that we will make progress very slowly on that recommendation. It could be, as hon. Members have said, a slippery slope.
There is something to be welcomed and celebrated about the fact that the main focus of demonstration has in recent months moved from opposite Downing street into Parliament square. I hope that that is recognition that Parliament still has a role in our political society, and that the body politic is not exclusively in Whitehall. It is extremely helpful that people now recognise that speaking to Members of Parliament, albeit occasionally through loudhailers, might have some practical impact. It is much better than simply shouting at No. 10 and assuming that that is the only place in which power lies.
I understand the concerns of members of the public about trying to ensure that their voice is heard. These days, it is difficult. Mr. Heald referred to himself as a member of the Hyde Park Tories—I am not quite sure what that described—but there is a case for a designated area in an appropriate part of London where people can speak their mind and have an audience that is attentive and perhaps even influential. Perhaps he would join me in suggesting that we move speakers' corner from Hyde park to St. James's park—[Hon. Members: "Connaught square."] Hon. Members are suggesting other parts of London, but I am not quite sure why. Perhaps it is opposite the residence of a particular individual.
I see. I thought it was the hon. Gentleman's house. I thought that he had moved up in the world, too.
There is an extremely important issue at stake. To some extent, the Government are attempting to push it sideways, with references to the Mayor of London's "World Squares for All" proposals for Parliament square. I cannot quite see the Mayor of London addressing the issue in the way that I would prefer, but he may have a different view from the Government's. What is extremely important is that the Government go on to say that there will be a "consultation exercise", but they seek to limit the remit of that consultation exercise to "developing police powers". That must be in the context of the rights of the individual in this country to represent his or her views. The Leader of the House has already said that there is existing legislation to deal with disruptive, dangerous or threatening activities that may concern us in our duties in the House.
I very much admire the hon. Gentleman, but may I put it to him that although the House should have self-respect it should not practise self-delusion? I put it to him that the reason why Mr. Haw continues to indulge in his rancid rants opposite the House of Commons is not that he wishes to pay tribute to Parliament but that he knows that he is able to get off scot-free. That is partly because of the rank naivety of the hon. Gentleman and others.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I will defend the right of people who disagree with me to express their views. The hon. Gentleman may well disagree with members of my farming community in Cornwall who express their views in a similar way on a similar site in Parliament square, but I do not recall his objecting.
The House must consider this carefully. If, in the interests of tidiness, we are in any way to undermine the legitimate concerns of our constituents and the public at large—if we are to extinguish long-standing rights—let us do it with our eyes open, and not because we have suddenly joined the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. There is existing legislation to deal with the threats that we all understand are there. I found the flight of fantasy from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire extraordinary. There are security issues, but they are not there now, and they are not involved in the proposed change to our Sessional Orders.
It is certainly important for us to look carefully at the issue of access, for a number of reasons—access for Members, staff and constituents wishing to come here on legitimate business. The order, however, does not deal with that. I accept that the existing order has been there for some time, but as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, if it has not proved satisfactory in the past why should we repeat it now? The current wording of the revised order is surely redundant. It says:
"to hinder Members by any means in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties in the Parliamentary Estate".
That section does not deal with those who are trying to get into the parliamentary estate. The revised order seems to ignore the whole question of access.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with some impatience. It seems to me that he has not read the report in full, and has not taken note of the fact that we received representations and evidence from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner himself, the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk of the House and others associated with the security and administration of the parliamentary estate. Does he give no weight to the evidence and views of those who have looked after this place for hundreds of years?
I am a great fan of the hon. Gentleman and of the traditions of the House, but I have read the evidence in the report, and it is far from clear that there is unanimity. I wish there were, because that would make it much easier for us. I also have great respect for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but let us face it: the police made some absurd mistakes on the day of the hunting demonstration. It was their fault that people came into this place disguised as building workers; it was no fault of officers of the House. I take with a pinch of salt the suggestion in the evidence that the commissioner is seeking new powers. Whenever the police seek new powers, I think it the right and responsibility of Members to establish why the existing powers are not sufficient.
Much has been made of the permanent demonstration. The commissioner spoke of what happened four years ago when there was a demonstration, Parliament square was cut up and statues were damaged. He said that there should be stronger powers to tackle such dangerous incidents. I do not think we should spend the entire debate speaking about Mr. Haw.
I entirely agree, which is why I want to return to recommendation 7. It is clear from the recommendation—I understand that the Government accept this—that the legislation they are now considering, in a wider sense, will require extensive consultation, for reasons that I think all hon. Members would appreciate. The new Sessional Order is essentially an interim measure, and a very insubstantial and probably rather ineffective one.
What happens next? I am always slightly suspicious of secondary legislation, and the suggestion that everything will be straightforward—that it is just a matter of detail, and that the wish of the House is being implemented. It is easy for us to agree to that. The Leader of the House said earlier that this would be a matter for secondary legislation. I hope that there will be the fullest possible consultation, and that we will have a full opportunity to examine the implications of that secondary legislation. All too often, such legislation goes through with insufficient scrutiny. That is a major criticism of our parliamentary procedure, and this particular issue surely requires very careful scrutiny indeed.
Yes, we need to strike a balance. In considering access to this place, we have to ensure that Members, their staff and constituents, and the staff of the House are protected. That is critical, and we cannot afford to allow undue pressure to be applied that prevents us from doing our duty, but equally, in terms of freedom speech, one of our duties is to ensure that members of the public are not impeded if they want to exercise their right and duty to express their views in a democratic society. The balance between those two conflicting pressures is a very difficult one to strike, and it requires that all Members of the House—not just somebody Upstairs in Committee—consider them very carefully.
I hope that in responding to this debate the Minister will make it clear that this matter will be given careful consideration, so that we do not end up with a very unbalanced situation.
I will not detain the House for long, but there are just a couple of observations that I would like to make. First, we should dissociate the question of access to the House from what is currently going on in Parliament square, inasmuch as we can. Unlike Mr. Tyler, I consider the Procedure Committee's proposal—I am a member of that Committee—to be effective. It orders that
"no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of Members to and from this House", and subsequently refers to the duties that we carry on in the House. Such duties are the very reason why we are trying to ensure that Members are not so obstructed, so the proposal makes eminent sense.
In my view, the police need this reminder. On both of the two occasions on which I was prevented from entering the House, the police were responsible. When George W. Bush was in the area—I understand that he has been re-elected President of the United States—I and other MPs were prevented from getting anywhere near the House of Commons for some considerable time. [Interruption.] I note that other Members did indeed experience such a problem. Whatever the commissioner understood about his responsibility to ensure that Members of Parliament could actually get here to perform their duties, that message somehow failed to percolate down to officers controlling the area. They treated Members of Parliament as if they were members of the public, who could be directed as and when they wished.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting point. If the Government proceed with criminal legislation, who might be prosecuted if such circumstances are repeated? Would he like to venture an answer?
I am tempted to say that if members of the police force do not carry out their duties, they would be subject to the normal process of police discipline for failing to understand and act on their responsibilities. I rather doubt whether the laws that we get will push things any further than that, but Members will also know that historically, this Chamber has been ringed with policemen to prevent Members from entering. I know that we are talking about the 17th century, but that is how Cromwell succeeded in getting complete control of the parliamentary process.
So there is an historical precedent to show that, if one wants to turn democracy into tyranny, the first thing to do is to ensure that Members of Parliament cannot sit on these Benches and discuss matters in the way that we are currently doing. The House needs to be very mindful of that pivotal right. It is a pivotal right not only for Members of Parliament, but for the 56 million people whom we represent when we come here. We are the custodians of their freedoms, and our freedom is a condition of that. So this is not a trivial matter, and we need to ensure that that right is properly protected.
The second issue that I wish to raise relates to the suggestion that all MPs should wear an identity card for security purposes. I would like to make a couple of points about that. On the other occasion when I was stopped from entering the House, the officer on the door did not just ask whether I was an MP—I said yes—but also whether I had my identity card. I scrambled around in my pockets but was unable to find it. I was detained nearly beyond the end of a vote, but just about managed to get in at the very last minute.
If it became a condition for entry to the Palace that one had to have a pass, it would pose many interesting issues. First, Members could forget their pass; it could be lost or stolen. In many ways, the requirement to use a pass could prove a significant obstacle to Members carrying out their duties. I heard one Member say last week, "MPs want to be privileged, being the only people who do not have to wear a pass", but the answer to that is that as few obstacles as possible should be put in the way of MPs who come here to participate in debates. Any requirement to wear a pass could certainly compromise that freedom.
Demonstrations in Parliament square are a separate issue. I have already provided my own example to show that Members are sometimes prevented from entering the Palace. Not having a clear understanding of the rights of people in Parliament square is another important component of the problem. We need to sort out whether people can have a permanent encampment and whether hundreds of thousands of people can be allowed there. We need to make clear exactly what rights people have. I insist that that be factored in, of course, with the rights of Members of Parliament to unhindered passage to this place in order to perform their duties in the House. That is the most important matter. It is vital to have facilities for demonstrations and perhaps we should look into their longevity, intermittence and similar issues. Crucially, the right of MPs to get into the House is a fundamental part of our democracy, so I hope that Members will accept the recommendations of the Procedure Committee.
I am very pleased to follow Mr. McWalter, who is a hardworking member of the Procedure Committee, bringing independence and objectivity to the views that he expresses in considering the matters on which we take evidence and produce reports.
I am grateful for the opportunity to support the Government motion and to speak about the Procedure Committee's report. Perhaps you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to say that the structure of these debates puts the Committee's Chairman in some difficulty. Many Front Benchers and a number of Back Benchers have spoken, and it is wrong that the Chairman is not allowed to express the views of the Procedure Committee to the House before others get up to criticise it.
Let me respond immediately to John McDonnell. In no way are we seeking to end demonstrations in Parliament square. In no way are we seeking to deny people the right of free speech or the right to make their views clear and well known to Members of Parliament. What we are seeking to do is to use Parliament square in a far better fashion. I believe that Mr. Haw has been there for some considerable time—at least three years. We believe that that is rather long for one demonstrator to do what he is doing there. In being there, he may well be deterring other groups or other individuals from exercising their right of free speech, and they might do it in a rather better way than Mr. Haw.
We received evidence from Members of Parliament, including Jeremy Corbyn—he is sitting next to the hon. Gentleman this afternoon—because we wanted to take evidence from everyone who had a view on this matter. That included people who were strongly opposed to the demonstrations in Parliament square, people who were rather equivocal about demonstrations, and people like the hon. Member for Islington, North, who were positively in favour of people being able to demonstrate.
My question is, did anyone suggest in evidence that Mr. Haw was preventing others from demonstrating in the square? That is not recorded in any of the minutes.
That view was expressed, although it may not have been minuted in the report. The view was put forward that Mr. Haw could be preventing other individuals or groups from demonstrating who wished to do so. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would not be unsympathetic to other groups using the square for that purpose, or to Mr. Haw returning at some stage in the future.
No, as I want to be logical and constructive about this matter. I say to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington that, if a man cannot make his point and get his view across in three years, he will not do it in 30 years. Parliament square should be the place where other people can register their views. The Procedure Committee heeded the advice of those from whom we took evidence. They included the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Clerk of the House and the Serjeant at Arms. We also received the encouragement of Mr. Speaker, who is deeply concerned about the situation in Parliament square. Our aim is not to deny free speech or people's right to demonstrate, but to ensure that those activities are conducted in a more regulated and appropriate way.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for allowing me to present evidence to his Committee when it investigated this matter. Numerous other demonstrations have taken place while Brian Haw has been in the square. On one slightly bizarre occasion, I was talking to him when he decided he wanted a photograph of him in conversation with some peace protesters visiting from Canada. He went off and got one of the hunt supporters to take the photograph. The two sides seemed to have worked out a modus operandi, even though I suspect that they probably did not agree on anything.
I do not know about that. On most occasions, I very strongly disagree with the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman. However, I have the highest regard for him, as he is brave in his advocacy of free speech and of the issues that he feels are of paramount importance to this country and deserving of being raised in Parliament. In no way am I hostile to the hon. Gentleman: I want the situation in Parliament square to be regulated.
That will not help. I yield to no one in my admiration of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, as he knows. That is why so many of us are so disappointed that he should suggest Mr. Haw's failure to put across his point in three years as the reason for introducing measures that, at least at first sight, appear somewhat draconian. It is our disappointment that the hon. Gentleman's usual strong defence of free speech is not represented in the report that is causing us to make these interventions.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the report. In no way are we trying to deny free speech: quite the opposite. In many ways, we are trying to give more people the opportunity of free speech in Parliament square.
I shall give way later on, but I should like to develop my argument as Chairman of the Committee.
I am grateful that the motion implements nearly all the Committee's recommendations, although I shall have something briefly to say about Parliament square a little later on. Let us go back into the history of these matters. As hon. Members will be aware, at the beginning of each Session we hear the Queen's Speech in the morning and we return in the afternoon to debate it, but before the debate begins the House is asked to agree six questions. Because it is the first day of the Session no notice can be given of the questions, so Mr. Speaker reads them in full to the House. They are the Sessional Orders and resolutions; the current ones are set out on page 3 of the Procedure Committee's report. They relate to elections, witnesses, the Metropolitan police and the Votes and Proceedings.
As we note in our report, it was Mr. Speaker—I highlight that point—who encouraged us to look at those orders and resolutions to consider whether they should be abolished or updated. As Members will see, we recommended, with only one exception, that they should be abolished. That was not an easy decision for me to take—I say that especially to my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth—because I am a great traditionalist and I like some of the older features of the way the House operates, but we cannot stand against change when change is inevitable.
The one exception was the order instructing the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to prevent access to the House from being impeded. That order took up most of the Committee's time and I shall return to it after dealing with the other five—
I am grateful to my modernising Friend. To help the House, will he elaborate on the phrase he has just used, "when change is inevitable"? I would have thought that the whole point of our deliberations was to decide whether change was desirable and not for us to proceed on the basis of some odd inevitability.
I have great regard and respect for Mr. Speaker, so perhaps when I said that change was inevitable I should have added that it should also be justified.
I repeat that Mr. Speaker was concerned, and if, on behalf of the House, Mr. Speaker requests us to investigate a matter, we are obliged to do so. We took wide evidence, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will see, and came to the conclusion that most of the orders were no longer relevant.
Andrew Mackinlay made a point about tampering with witnesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the House has the power to deal with that, but it was rather inappropriate to put that matter alongside one that we had no power to deal with? Does he agree that the powers to deal with witnesses still exist and that there is no question of their going?
On the Conservative Benches, following the dictum of Edmund Burke, we have always accepted that the state which lacks the means of change lacks the means of its own conservation. May I further encourage my senior hon. Friend not to be subjected to parliamentary bullying by our right hon. Friend Mr. Forth? In the earlier debate, when I chided my right hon. Friend for being opposed to all change since the 11th century, he corrected me by saying that he had in fact been opposed to all change since the fourth.
I am a very good friend of the hon. Member for Buckingham, so I am delighted that he has, on this occasion, come so robustly to my defence.
All the current Sessional Orders and resolutions date back to at least 1713, and many of them are even older than that. However, I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that they have not been considered unalterable. Several were converted into Standing Orders in 1852 and others, such as those about peers not voting in parliamentary elections and the printing of the Journal, were discontinued quite recently, in 2000. Various other minor changes have been made to them over the years.
The Procedure Committee—again, I highlight this—took detailed evidence from the Clerk of the House, a learned gentleman who serves the House well, and from the Serjeant at Arms. We discovered that the orders about elections, witnesses and the votes and proceedings could all be dispensed with. That was their advice to the Committee. Some were unnecessary, some were obsolete and at least one was misleading. I refer to the order that says that
"this House will proceed with the utmost severity" against those engaging in corrupt practices at elections. I am not for a moment suggesting that corrupt practices do not matter, but simply that the House has not been able to proceed against them since 1868, when jurisdiction on such matters was transferred to the courts.
Why do we proceed with reading out long Sessional Orders that are obsolete? The provisions for double returns are no longer necessary. They applied when there was a tie and the returning officer returned two names for a constituency instead of one. Now, in the event of a tie, the choice is made by lot. Why is that Sessional Order required? It is no longer needed; it is obsolete.
One other provision is probably obsolete, but it could theoretically still be needed. This is the one about a Member being returned for more than constituency. I am not sure whether the House knows when this last occurred, but it last happened in 1910. In case it happens again, the relevant part of the Sessional Order about elections is reproduced at the end of the day's motion to make it permanent.
Among the unnecessary motions are those about witnesses. In recommending the abolition of those motions, we are not ascribing any less importance to the principles that witnesses should not give false evidence or be tampered with. I see the Committee's chairman, my right hon. Friend Sir George Young, behind me, and hon. Members will surely recall that a case was referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee this Session
Likewise, but the hon. Gentleman's admiration may be against his better judgment. However, does he realise that the Sessional Orders are the only thing that we have to caution witnesses and those people who would lean on witnesses? The orders afford some protection to those who might be leant on. The fact that they have not been drawn to anyone's attention is the real problem.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point to the House and I am sure that it will be noted by the Deputy Leader of the House and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Caroline Flint. As we say at paragraph 10 of our report, the survival of the Sessional Orders for so long may reflect a desire by the House to begin the Session with a reminder of matters that it considers important. Certainly the issue to which the hon. Gentleman has just drawn attention is important.
As I hope I have made clear, we believe that the Sessional Orders are no longer appropriate for that purpose, but we have suggested that, instead, Mr. Speaker might make a statement about the duties and responsibilities of Members. I believe that that will be very useful to the House, and the House, my Committee and Mr. Speaker will clearly turn their attention to it.
We also recommend the continuation of the First Reading of the Outlawries Bill. That takes only a few seconds and serves to remind the House of an important principle. Once Parliament has been opened, it does not have to begin a Session by considering the Queen's Speech. It can, if it wishes, consider other business.
I return to the Sessional Order that has dominated the debate: that on access to the House. I tell the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Islington, North that the order, like the others, is nearly 300 years old, so it is much older than the Metropolitan police to whom it is now addressed. As hon. Members will note, it includes a provision to prevent disorder in Westminster Hall, but we think that that has become unnecessary because Westminster Hall is now within the parliamentary estate and the precincts of the House.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the order also provided that there should be no annoyance by chairmen. Quite by chance, I have an interesting extract from the Journal of the House from the year of 1801, and I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I read it out. It says:
"Ordered, That the Constables in Waiting do take Care that there be no Gaming, or other Disorders, in Westminster Hall, or the Passages leading to the House, during the Sitting of Parliament; and that there be no Annoyance by Chairmen, Footmen, or otherwise, therein or thereabouts."
Of course, those chairmen were not Chairmen of Committees, but those who would be at either end of a sedan chair. I thus do not take the matter, which was drawn to my attention by the Clerk of the Procedure Committee, too personally, although having recently injured my Achilles' tendon, I could do with the use of a number of chairmen and a sedan chair to get around the Palace of Westminster.
This is all rollicking good stuff, as we expect from the hon. Gentleman. Will he tell us where the specific phrase in paragraph 25 of the report that says
"or to hinder Members by any means in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties" is currently contained in the existing Sessional Order, printed on page 3 of the report?
May I come back to that, even if I perhaps do so after I have finished my speech, because I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer off the cuff? I know that he would not want me to give him false information, because he and I have an understanding that we are always direct with each other.
Although the existing Order has a quaint aspect, it has a serious side, too. I am sure that most hon. Members agree that access to the House should be preserved at all times so that its work may go on uninterrupted. I suspect that hon. Members believe that the Order gives the Metropolitan police extra powers to ensure that that occurs, but unfortunately that is not the case. No Order of the House—neither the current one nor any revised one—can give the police extra powers, which to an extent addresses a concern raised earlier by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. Powers relating to London exist in the Metropolitan Police Act 1839, but they are largely unenforceable.
Measures to prevent large numbers of people from approaching the House for specific purposes were repealed in 1986. I know that because on at least two occasions I took part in demonstrations in support of textile workers and those in this country's textile and clothing industries—they still have my support. We were allowed to march from Hyde park, but the closest we could come to the Palace of Westminster was the Tate gallery, because we were governed by the legislation that existed prior to 1986. The law on demonstrations that block access to Parliament is in practice exactly the same as the one applying to demonstrations elsewhere in the country.
I repeat and emphasise the point that we are not calling for a ban on demonstrations. As we say in paragraph 11 of the report:
"the right to demonstrate peacefully is highly prized and is a fundamental right, and we have no desire to prevent the public expressing their concerns to Members of Parliament in this way."
Further to the intervention by Mr. Salmond, the words to be inserted in the new Sessional Order do not exist in the old one, and greatly expand the advice that we are giving the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Sir Nicholas Winterton is arguing that he simply wants to regulate demonstrations, but he has not given us any information about how that is to be done. Will they be licensed, and will the licence have to be paid for? Is he going to set up a regulator called Ofdemo?
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that with the best will in the world his proposals will almost certainly have the unintended consequence of restricting demonstrations? For example, he thought that Mr. Haw could be prevented from demonstrating in Parliament square, but there could be a continuous demonstration on a rotating basis. He cannot have it both ways—he must accept either that there is a continuous demonstration by different people or that demonstration is limited.
Personally, I believe that there could be many demonstrations, but longstanding demonstrations by individuals should be regulated and come to an end. If other people want to come and demonstrate in their place, they can do so. However, more stringent regulations are needed because of the environmental and heritage importance of Parliament square.
No, it applies to a much a wider area and covers all the environs of Parliament. The new wording is as follows:
"to hinder Members by any means in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties".
If anything, that is a narrower definition.
Following the quote that I read out a moment ago, I should highlight the fact that that is not the same as preventing access to Parliament. Demonstrations should not prevent hon. Members from reaching the House, as Mr. McWalter, a member of the Procedure Committee, said. The police tell us that they need powers to ensure uninterrupted access. Although the order deals with access, we also considered the related matter of the nuisance caused by demonstrations in Parliament square—both the unsightly nature of long-term demonstrations in a world heritage site and, perhaps more importantly, the noise from megaphones and amplifiers, which prevent people in nearby offices from doing their work properly. I have seen evidence that members of the public are grossly inconvenienced by the raucous noise emanating from those megaphones.
My hon. Friend neatly anticipates my concern about noise. Can he confirm that, whatever demonstrations are allowed, whether they are individual, long-term, short-term or, indeed, rotating, it is important that they should not cause annoyance by bombarding people doing legitimate work with incessant sound? Does he also accept that while loudhailers are, as Jeremy Corbyn rightly pointed out, essential to communicate with people participating in a set-piece demonstration, it is an abuse to use them continually to interfere with people who are not part of the demonstration?
My hon. Friend anticipates what I am about to say. The Committee simply could not understand why the noise is allowed to go on, day after day, given all the recent legislation on noisy neighbours. Attempting to prevent long-term demonstrations may be controversial—and hon. Members have expressed such a concern—but we think that that should be done while allowing short-term demonstrations, provided that they do not impede access or produce unreasonable amounts of noise.
We are now coming to the nub of the issue. What I would like to know is where the phrase
"or hinder Members by any means" comes from. Did it come from the Committee Clerk, or was it a joint production of the Committee? Was the Committee influenced by Dr. Lewis, who is so worried and concerned about noise pollution? Where did the phrase come from and what does it mean?
I can only say that it was the wording chosen by the Committee as a whole, with the advice of our Clerk, and as Chairman, I therefore take full responsibility for it. I say those words with Ministers present on the Treasury Bench.
The Government undertook at paragraph 7 of their reply to the report to consult on ensuring that the police have power to act—again, I address my remarks to the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Islington, North—"effectively and proportionately" in relation to activities near Parliament. That consultation took place as part of a wider Home Office consultation on modernising police powers. We know that, and I accept that process, which closed recently, on
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is about to emphasise that many of the orders relate to Parliament proceeding with severity, although he is now making the completely accurate point that these duties have to be reposited in the police. In the 1840s, Parliament imprisoned an Irish Member for failing to sign up to a Committee on the basis that his not doing so destroyed the work of the Committee. He was imprisoned here for a week by Members of Parliament, but those days are gone, and we have to have a new agency dealing with these matters.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Parliament should once again assume those powers and authorities. I fear that, on both sides of the House, there would be a number of people whom we would like to see locked away.
Would not imposing in the 21st century the punishment of being confined to the Chamber with some speakers whom we could name be categorised in Europe and elsewhere as a cruel and unnatural punishment?
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to the person who currently has Mr. Deputy Speaker's permission to speak. I know the hon. Gentleman well and I know that he is not doing that, but I would be inclined to agree with him.
I am grateful to the Government for what they have said today in respect of taking action both about demonstrations, and perhaps the unsightly nature of some of them, and about the raucous noise, which disturbs not only tourists and other members of the public in and around Parliament square, but Members of the House, staff of the House and those who work in the proximity of the square.
I make my next point just as the Leader of the House is leaving—he has returned; I did not know I had that influence. To follow up the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, I ask the Government to look at this matter urgently, seek to introduce orders or legislation taking account of the views that have been expressed by those who are concerned that we are not trying to limit demonstrations, and to ensure that action is taken as urgently as possible, not only to enhance Parliament square and to ensure that demonstrations are more regulated in future, but also to act in a modest way in respect of security. This House is spending very large sums on security, and we should not ignore that.
In the meantime, although I accept that what has been said so far could perhaps be implemented sooner—some people might say that it is second best—the Committee recommended that the Sessional Order on access should continue in a modified and updated form until new legislation comes into force, which is a point the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and others have raised in the course of this debate. The Committee left out references to Westminster Hall, but we included not only the Palace itself, but the whole parliamentary estate.
I hope that I have answered most of the concerns. If the point raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has not been fully dealt with, on hearing from him, I will seek to provide him with further information. I commend the report to the House and hope that the legislation, which we called for and which the Government have promised, will be introduced at an early date for Parliament's consideration.
On a point of order—I apologise to hon. Members who want to continue the debate, which is on an important subject—earlier today, an important exchange occurred between my hon. Friend David Taylor and the Leader of the House on resources for Members of Parliament in connection with IT provision for remote users. That problem is being made worse by the amount of spam that we receive. I seek your assistance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because one particular company, Argos, is bombarding us with commercial material in a perfectly legitimate attempt to sell things, but it has not responded to requests to remove Parliament from its database, which causes the problem raised by my hon. Friend. Will you bring that matter to the attention of the relevant authorities and see what can be done not only to stop that nonsense, but to release resources that would help us to serve our constituents?
I cannot make a ruling on that matter from the Chair, but the hon. Gentleman's points are on the record and will be noted by the appropriate department of the House.
I regret the fact that the Order Paper invites us to deal with all the changes to the Sessional Orders in one vote rather than deal with them separately. I have listened to the important points about Parliament square with considerable interest, and my view has moved backwards and forwards as the debate has gone on.
I urge hon. Members to join me in the Lobby tonight to resist the changes, because the overriding point is the removal of the Sessional Orders relating to witnesses, which have been around since the 1700s and have their genesis in the Bill of Rights. What fools we would be if, late one Wednesday evening, we swept away something that is essential to our parliamentary democracy. We are being invited to do that tonight, and it is foolhardy in the extreme.
I respect the strength with which my hon. Friend speaks, but I refer him to evidence 4 in the Procedure Committee report, which gives the reason why those Sessional Orders are obsolete—namely, the definition of parliamentary contempt in "Erskine May". I suggest to my hon. Friend that the protection that he seeks exists elsewhere.
Even if I am wrong—I do not think so—it is incumbent on those seeking a change to advance an alternative, which they have failed to do, to ensure that evidence given to Parliament is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and that people do not interfere with witnesses. We should not support any change until we know the alternative.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and admire his stance. The Deputy Leader of the House's response that the protection exists elsewhere is not sufficient, and surely that protection should be strengthened rather than weakened. There would be no harm in reasserting that protection at the beginning of every Session, because a civil servant coming before this House needs reassurance that their career will not be wrecked if they speak the truth.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The great problem is not that the Sessional Orders are irrelevant and out of date, but that there has been a lack of vigour and will on the part of Parliament to ensure that people coming before a Committee are clearly cautioned beforehand that they are expected to be candid with Parliament.
My hon. Friend's integrity, determination and courage are on the record, but surely he understands that to pretend that the House has the capacity to proceed with severity against those who infringe our Sessional Orders is a major mistake. We need to do what he wants us to do properly, not to pretend that some 1839 law has sorted everything out for us.
I disagree. The fact is that we have the power; what is needed is enforcement. Most legislatures have such powers and enforce them. On this occasion, I commend the Congress of the United States, which requires those giving evidence to take the oath. Parliament would be sensible to follow suit. We all know that taking the oath before entering the witness box cautions us about the gravity of the evidence that we are about to give. It would help if we did the same in Parliament—it is provided for in Standing Orders.
My point is that we do not caution anyone and it has become the custom or culture for someone appearing before a Select Committee to regard it as legitimate sport to give as little away as possible. Doing so is not seen as being irregular, nor does it attract any criticism of any substance when one is found out. Severe penalties ought to be enforced if a person perjures himself before a parliamentary Committee.
I understand my hon. Friend's comments about the gravity of giving evidence to Select Committees, but I was a member of a Select Committee that attempted to interview the Maxwell brothers about missing pension funds: they said that they were not prepared to answer any questions and prayed in aid the right of silence, which is inherent in law in this country. What would he do about such a case?
In my view, there should have been sanctions for declining to respond to Parliament. About a year ago, I was criticised for saying,
"This is the high court of Parliament", but that is precisely what it is, and we should not forget that.
It has been suggested that the Sessional Orders that the Speaker reads out at every state opening of Parliament are long. They are not. I am particularly interested in the one that states:
"if it shall appear that any person has been tampering with any witness, in respect of his evidence to be given to this House, or any Committee thereof, or directly or indirectly has endeavoured to deter or hinder any person from appearing or giving evidence, the same is declared to be a high crime and misdemeanour; and this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offender."
We have to do that if we are to be taken seriously as a Parliament.
Let me draw on personal experience of what I regard as attempts to interfere with Select Committees. When I was a member of a Select Committee in a past Parliament, the permanent secretary of a Government Department intimated to the Committee that the witness we wanted—a junior civil servant, or junior to him at least—was sick. I found it somewhat surprising to hear that on the Monday because I had seen the man in question on Saturday partying. After I had let that be known, that civil servant, to his eternal credit, stormed up to the permanent secretary and said, "What is this you're saying about me? I insist that I appear." He did so and acquitted himself well, and two weeks later got substantial promotion.
That is an example of deliberate interference by a senior civil servant to frustrate the attempts of a Select Committee to get a witness to appear. To complete the picture, let me tell the House that a senior Minister phoned me at midnight one Sunday to ask, "What the hell were you doing?"—he used those words, or perhaps stronger ones. He concluded by saying, "This conversation never took place." Well, it did, and the whole affair is recorded in my diary. The fact is that attempts have been made to interfere with Select Committees and we need to stamp on them to ensure that they are never repeated.
These Sessional Orders are very important because they protect those people in the public or the private sector who recognise their public responsibilities and want to be candid to Parliament but are being leaned on by employers, managers or some other vested group. I should have liked the Committee to say that before a witness appears before a Select Committee, its Chairman should draw his or her attention, probably when they receive the invitation to appear, to the fact that they are obliged to be completely candid and to give full disclosure, and help him or her by saying that if anybody should interfere with that it will be taken very seriously by Parliament. We do not do that—why not?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to delay the House for much longer because I should like to hear from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, whom I hold in the highest regard. However, if what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, why are we making this change? It is foolish and should be rejected. The Leader of the House mentioned his submission on the Osmotherly rules. We know that no Government—not only Labour Governments, but Tory Governments hitherto—like civil servants to appear before Select Committees, so they pray in aid the Osmotherly rules, which, to his credit, the Clerk of the House of Commons, in his memorandum to the Hutton inquiry, said are not agreed or subscribed to by Parliament. That is on the public record, and rightly so.
The Osmotherly rules are conjured up by the Executive of the day to protect and promote their selfish interests. It is time that we asserted ourselves to say that we will have nothing to do with that, and that we will introduce a discipline whereby people who appear before Select Committees are protected, but expected to give full disclosure and candour. That is why right hon. and hon. Members, including those who are in the Tea Room, should join me in the Lobby later this evening to sink this stupid proposal.
I am grateful for the trailer given by Andrew Mackinlay. Whether he spoke loudly enough for his voice to carry to the Tea Room remains to be seen. I want to make three points, the first of which is a direct response to the hon. Member for Thurrock.
The hon. Gentleman may know that relatively recently the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs reported to the Committee on Standards and Privileges a potential case of breach of privilege in which a witness who had given evidence felt that she had been disadvantaged by having been threatened with removal. When we investigated the matter, we found that there had indeed been contempt. The Government are reviewing the rules following our discovery that the civil service is not well informed about Select Committees, privilege and the risk of contempt. My hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton and I, together with other members of the Liaison Committee, are providing input to clarify the rights and privileges of Select Committees and the risks that are run if there is any contempt or tampering with witnesses.
My second point relates to the Sessional Orders. The Procedure Committee recommended the replacement of obsolete Sessional Orders and resolutions with a statement of the duties and responsibilities of Members, with the details being left to the discretion of the Speaker. In their response, the Government accepted that recommendation and suggested that the Committee on Standards and Privileges might wish to express a view on a form of words. My Committee was sympathetic to the idea of making a contribution, so with Mr. Speaker's approval we offered him some thoughts reflecting the substance of the Procedure Committee's vision, which, when he draws up the statement that he will make to the House at the start of the Session—if the motion is agreed—he may wish to bear in mind.
My third point concerns Parliament square, which is an issue that I have pursued in business questions and in Westminster Hall. I was pleased to hear what the Leader of the House said when he introduced the debate. However, we have waited two days short of a year for the Government to come up with that response, and we still do not know when the legislation that he mentioned will be introduced or enacted.
In the meantime, the problem will continue. I was slightly dispirited by the remarks of Mr. Tyler, who appeared to advocate a slow process. I have no objection to draft legislation and consulting the House, but I hope that there will be no further delay. The problem has existed for three years. The Procedure Committee has made inquiries and reported and the Government have consulted extensively within government for a year. I hope that there will be no undue delay in making progress.
I have always advocated a balanced solution that respects the rights of the individual to protest, those of visitors to the centre of our great capital to appreciate and enjoy one of the most historic sites in the world and those of people who work nearby, not least the policemen on duty at the gates, to work without constant high volume noise. The solution should also respect the rights of those who work in or visit the Palace not to have our security compromised by providing cover at the entrance to New Palace Yard. My strong view is that we have not got the balance right.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that, if workers in any other place in the country were subjected to the same noise and interference as those whose job it is to protect us suffer from the cacophony on the other side of road, all the health and safety legislation in the land would be brought to bear on them? The police officers have to put up with an intolerable burden.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which leads to my next comment. We are not considering deprivation of a long established right or a threat to freedom of expression. We are trying to close a loophole in the law to get back to where we believed we were three or four years ago. Brian Haw has discovered the loophole and, well advised by Messrs Bindmans, exploited it. If we were starting from scratch, would we introduce a law to ban such activity from every pavement in London but specifically allow it outside the entrance to the House of Commons? We would not, but the law currently provides for that and the House would be well advised to move to a more defensible position that removed the loophole.
Health and safety has been mentioned. Has the Health and Safety Executive made a health and safety assessment? It has not been reported to any Committee. No offence has been alleged under health and safety legislation.
I am sure that the Health and Safety Executive will note the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but if he talks informally to the policemen he will find that it is doing no good to the health of those who are confronted by that noise some 20 ft away at high volume, hour after hour. I hope that he does not try to defend what the policemen at the gates have to tolerate.
"If this legislation is passed, it could potentially endanger the rights of every single person in this country".
That is absurd. I hope that hon. Members will put the matter in some sort of perspective. We have well preserved, well used rights of protest in this country, but the activity in Parliament square goes beyond what is appropriate or reasonable in a mature democracy. One of the rights of a mature democracy is setting some acceptable parameters for freedom of expression. In my judgment, they are being exceeded.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have debated the matter exhaustively in the media for most of the past 24 hours.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Does he recall that we did one of those interviews in exactly the spot that he describes, across the road from Mr. Haw's demonstration? We could do that and be heard. He says that he is looking for a balance, but the status quo is the balance because we are considering non-violent, legal direct action that does not obstruct us in our activities. To go further would take away rights.
I do not accept that the volume of noise is reasonable. I do not accept that we were interviewed in good conditions. The reporter was happy to conduct the interview there because the loudhailer noise made the point and gave the listener to the programme some idea of what was happening, but the conditions were not ideal.
We can all distinguish between a one-off, well-targeted demonstration for a day and a permanent encampment with constant high volume slogans and abuse.
Mr. Haw is entitled to protest in the same way as anyone else, and in a free country there are many opportunities to do so, but as I understand it there is nothing to stop others doing exactly what Mr. Haw is doing all the way round Parliament square. That is not something that I would welcome.
Finally, I should like to make an environmental point. We are discussing one of the most important historic sites in the world. We have here the Houses of Parliament, Westminster abbey, Whitehall, the Churchill statue and the Guildhall, but the eye and ear are drawn towards the unsightly cacophony in the middle. We simply have not got the balance right. No other democracy in the world would tolerate what is happening in Parliament square, with a shanty town right opposite Parliament. There is no history of protest at this location; it is not like Hyde Park corner. There is a loophole in the law, and an abuse that has been going on for far too long. I support the Government in their attempts to put that right.
Sir George Young wants to create an antiseptic tourist attraction round here that has nothing to do with democracy or participation, and the suggestion that Brian Haw's presence outside is somehow damaging to the buildings is pushing it a bit. Brian Haw is there because he believes in something. Surely, in a democracy, we should welcome people who believe in something and who are prepared to make that statement.
This debate on Sessional Orders is very interesting and important. I gave evidence to the Committee on this matter, and I hope that the Ministers will think very carefully about what they are proposing here. We seem to be inviting the police to take certain actions concerning the presence of people in Parliament square, without being specific about the powers under which they would do so, on the basis that legislation on the issue will be proposed at some point in the future. That sets a dangerous precedent. If we accept it, the police will act in a certain way, having been given a kind of nod from Parliament as to how we now believe that Sessional Orders should operate, and, at some point in the indeterminate future, legislation that we shall have a chance to debate will appear. Unless something dramatic happens during the Minister's wind-up speech—which would surprise me—I shall vote against these proposals because I think that that is the right thing to do.
We have a duty to protect the right of free speech around Parliament just as much as have a duty to protect the right of Members to get to Parliament—that was the basis of some of the Sessional Orders—and we must ensure that that remains the case. During the Select Committee hearing, there seemed to be quite a lot of confusion about the rights of access to Parliament. It is perfectly clear that MPs must have the right to get to Parliament, otherwise a tyrannical situation could arise in which they were prevented from getting here and would therefore be unable to vote, resulting in legislation being carried or not, as the case may be. It is essential that they have that democratic right, because they are here to represent the people. However, the suggestion that a demonstration in the centre of Parliament square somehow impedes Members getting to the House is unbelievably absurd. Nobody would walk down Whitehall, cross two roads to get to the centre of the square, then cross two more to get into the building. That is absurd; they simply would not do it.
That is so. That demonstration was organised with the co-operation and consent of the Metropolitan police, and had nothing whatever to do with Brian Haw and his demonstration in the middle of Parliament square. Indeed, I received a copy of a letter sent to Brian Haw by the Metropolitan police suggesting that he might like to be somewhere else that day, because they thought that his presence might not be compatible with the aims of the hunting lobby. I do not know what Brian did, but I suspect that he probably stayed there.
There is, of course, a distinction between liberty and licence. The hon. Gentleman champions Mr. Haw's right to articulate his views, but does he not accept that the right to free speech has to be exercised within a context? There must be some limitation and control because it is not a self-regarding act. This is an act that has an effect—many of us would argue that it is an unacceptable and damaging effect—on the rights of others. If the hon. Gentleman accepts that there has to be some limit, in terms of time and/or intensity of expression, where would he place that limit?
I am deeply disappointed with that intervention. I was hoping that the statements in the weekend press about the hon. Gentleman's rapid move to the left—passing new Labour on the way—had real substance. Indeed, I was in his constituency on Sunday evening discussing just that matter with some of his constituents, and they were very interested.
If I had not given way so soon, I could have explained to the hon. Gentleman that the conclusion of our lengthy conversation was that he was a Tory, is a Tory and will remain a Tory. In those circumstances, grateful as they are for his work as their Member, they will never be able to vote for him. I am sure he understands the democratic context in which those remarks were made.
To return to the issue of the right of free speech outside the House, Brian Haw's presence has never prevented anybody else from demonstrating or expressing a point of view. He has resided there because he believes passionately that this country's policy towards Iraq is wrong and that we should not be associated with the war. He has established a presence there and become a focal point. I think that what upsets Members who supported the war, who walk, drive or cycle to Westminster, is being reminded of that by his presence. They do not like it and feel slightly irritated by it.
I was irritated at times by the presence of the hunting lobby in the centre of Parliament square, but, as those Members who have read the Select Committee report will know, evidence was given to that Committee by the hon. Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and by me. It was a rare afternoon out when the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Lady and I all agreed on the need to protect the right to demonstrate. We made that point very clearly.
I want to make two quick points. First, there is no universal right of assembly, march or demonstration, although perhaps there should be. That was removed by the Public Order Act 1986, which was passed by Parliament and which requires police permission to have a demonstration, unless the police allow an unusual demonstration to take place. The fact that someone says that Brian Haw has outlived his usefulness proves just how useful and important he is. He should be congratulated on that.
I was thinking about long-term demonstrations that I have visited at different times and at various places in this country and around the world. The presence of one person making a point, taking sanctuary or making a public protest is very powerful. Sun Yat-sen occupied a place in London and became a figure of Chinese nationalism at the start of the 20th century, while the presence of Aboriginal land rights demonstrators outside the Australian Parliament has continued for years. There is a peace camp outside the White House, which has gone on for years. There was a demonstration for a long time—1,000 days, indeed—outside the United States embassy to bring US troops out of Vietnam. Those who organised it said, "We will stay here until the troops go."
I took part in a vigil that lasted many years outside South Africa house. I was there at the beginning. Indeed, along with my hon. Friend Mr. Banks, I was arrested and told that I was obstructing the pavement. Then the charge was changed to acting in a way that was deliberately offensive to a foreign embassy based in London. As it was the apartheid regime's foreign embassy, I could do nothing but plead guilty with honour to that charge. The charge was thrown out, and the demonstration therefore won the right to be outside South Africa house and it stayed there until the apartheid regime was ended. So, there are plenty of examples.
Did not the women who stayed on Greenham Common for all those years play a major part in promoting the cause of nuclear disarmament, in exactly the same way as those demonstrating currently at Menwith Hill? We owe our rights to those who have been prepared to stand up and express them.
On exactly that point, is it not interesting that those who are in defence of Brian Haw consider his motivations for the demonstration, while those who oppose the likes of him simply consider the inconvenience caused to themselves by the demonstration? Does not that prove that the essence of such a demonstration is to try to get people who consider it an inconvenience to listen to the fundamental reason why such a person has inconvenienced himself by virtually living outside the Palace of Westminster?
Or, for that matter, the demonstration for five years outside the Scottish Office, which Conservative Secretaries of State for Scotland wished to have removed, as we now know, but could find nothing in the law of Scotland to support the removal. That makes it all the more disappointing that Labour Members apparently want to go ahead with this mumbo-jumbo.
I did not get involved in the demonstration outside the Scottish Office, but it had an important effect, as demonstrations do. Members who are prepared to pass this motion should think for a moment about where our democratic rights came from. Were they handed down, or were they gained because people were prepared to demonstrate and demand a freely elected Parliament? Did not the Chartists make a great contribution to the history of this country from which we draw many of our rights? We should be very careful about taking away the rights of others on fairly spurious grounds, as we are doing at present. It becomes the start of a slippery slope.
Demonstrations are inconvenient and a nuisance, and different points of view are sometimes not believed to be acceptable. But if we want to live in a free and democratic society, we must protect the right of those who are prepared to stand up and speak for a cause, outside this place, and remind us day in, day out that the decisions that we take have effects elsewhere, all the way over in Iraq or wherever. I ask Members tonight to think of our democratic values and not to support the proposals.
Andrew Mackinlay made an extremely powerful case for the protection of witnesses. Witnesses are not well enough protected, and it would send the wrong signal to strike that out of the opening remarks of the Session. Instead the Government should consider ways of strengthening the position of witnesses, especially vulnerable witnesses such as civil servants, whose testimony is often crucial. Until that strengthening has occurred, I hope that we will keep in place the stern warning from Mr. Speaker at the beginning of the Session that witnesses will get, and deserve, the protection of the House. We then need to think about how we can do that.
Mr. McWalter was right to say that there are occasions when right hon. and hon. Members have their passage to the House delayed. It would be good if the whole House, through the Speaker, said to the police at the beginning of each Session that we expect them—our friends on our side—to make sure that all Members in possession of their passes are given quick and free passage, whatever may be going on outside. There have been occasions of state visits that have led to delays and impediments to Members getting through, and policed demonstrations when Members have been delayed or detained and not able to get through. I am sure that the police would want to help us, and it would be good if the whole House united to say that Members in possession of their passes, or well-known Members whom the police can identify, should be let through as a matter of urgency and courtesy. Members have sometimes been delayed in getting into the House to debate and vote on the very issues about which the demonstrators are complaining. Surely all demonstrators in a free and democratic society would wish to see elected Members having the opportunity to be in the House when such important matters are being discussed
My third point relates to the proposed change of words with the suggestion that a form of words connected with the duties and responsibilities of Members should be used instead at the beginning of the Session. It is difficult for us to make a judgment tonight, as we are not in possession of whatever that form of words might be. I suspect that if we asked all Members to jot down on a piece of paper how they would define "duties and responsibilities" we would see variations and nuances on a large scale, although we trust that there would be some family resemblance. It would, I think, prove contentious and difficult. It would be odd of us to sweep away existing words before knowing that we had a much better form of words in the spirit of modernisation that the Government and the Committee suggest. The devil could well be in the detail, and I am reluctant to sign up until I have seen a difficult task carried out successfully.
Having observed the passions and disagreements that have arisen today over demonstrations, let me suggest that it is a question of balance. Some of us are on the side of free demonstrations, while others are more interested in having a beautiful square with law and order. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum. I think that the issue will be resolved by Government proposals on legislation, and I do not think Members should be swayed by proposals on Sessional Orders tonight. There should be plenty of time for debate when legislation is before us. As the Government have made clear, this issue cannot be resolved without primary legislation. That, surely, is the time for a strong and passionate debate—again, about wording, so that we can decide whether the balance has been struck in the right way.
I hope that Members will bear that in mind when deciding whether to accept this rather rushed change, in the absence of all the improvements and modernisations that we have been promised.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions on which I have agreed with Mr. Redwood, but this just might be one of them. How on earth are Members to judge whether this new form of words, this mission statement from the code of conduct, this splendid encapsulation of the duties and responsibilities of a Member of Parliament, is better than the Sessional Orders, without seeing the form of words with which we are being invited to replace them? Given the complaint from various Committee Chairmen that this has taken too long, we might have expected to see the alternative formulation by now.
I have no doubt that others involved in this will come up with some splendid formulae, but I must say I have always thought that the Good News Bible does not quite capture the majesty of the King James version.
I join the Conservative ranks, in a constitutional sense, just in the context of this particular aspect, and to sound some warnings.
With due deference to the distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee, let me say that the fact that something has not been used for a while does not always mean that it is not necessary. We have not seen a motion for impeachment in the House since 1848, but in the current circumstances—against the current Prime Minister—it is very important that it remains available to Members of Parliament. The fact that some of the protections conferred by the Sessional Orders have not been used for a while does not mean that they are not important.
I am not concerned about whether the Chairman of the Procedure Committee took seriously the recommendations of the Clerk of the House; I am concerned about the fact that—not showing his usual robust independence—he did not perceive the flaws and difficulties with which such advice presents us this evening. Under the guise of convenience, modernisation and "wrapping things up", we see the mishmash of nonsense that we are being invited to support when no one can even explain the reasons for the change in the wording of the sessional order.
I believe, and I think other Members agree, that the new phrase
"to hinder Members by any means" might refer to noise pollution. We are assured that that preoccupied the Committee and preoccupies certain Members, but I do not think it is worth the candle if it means restricting the right and freedom to demonstrate that some Members have mentioned. They are not thinking of themselves, of course; they are thinking of the poor policemen and members of staff.
The reality, as anybody who has attended business questions knows, is that those Members do not like the message coming through the loudhailers. It is not the loudhailers that they object to, but the occasional pricks to their bloated consciences. We should see through this cant and humbug and question why on earth we are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, to support formulations that nobody can explain, and to reject the Sessional Orders when we do not even have their replacement before us this evening.
I became concerned when I read the Procedure Committee's report. Despite my enormous admiration for the Committee Chairman, I was aghast to read the exchange between him and the Serjeant at Arms concerning the difficulties that the police experienced during a children's demonstration in forcibly removing them when they lay down in front of the House of Commons. Rather than understanding that there might be some difficulties and sensitivities in terms of how the police carry out such duties—just as might occur in dealing with a disabled demonstration—the Chairman said in response the Serjeant at Arms that there was "Almost anarchy!" I suppose that we should be surprised that he thought it "almost" anarchy. Usually, in his ebullience, he would have thought it true anarchy. Many of us, regardless of the proclivity of these children to take an unauthorised day off school, were actually rather glad to discover that so many members of the younger generation were thinking about something more than what was going to happen in that evening's soap, and that they wanted to come to this place to demonstrate about an issue that they thought particularly important.
Some people address these issues as if there is something absolutely special about Members of Parliament. Well, there are two things that are special, the first of which is the right of privilege: the fundamental right of Members to say what they like without the encumbrance of any threat of action against them. Secondly, there is a fundamental right of access, as all who have spoken in this debate agree. Over and above that, there is no need for special rights, or for protection for Members against noise pollution entering their place of work. On the contrary, there should be additional rights to demonstrate around Parliament, not less. We should want people to demonstrate around here; the time to worry is when nobody can be bothered to do so.
Mr. Haw, who has spent three years outside this place, seems to preoccupy many Members. Indeed, the preoccupation is such that the Committee said:
"The Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations".
Unusually, a Member with the sanity and perception of the Committee Chairman is telling us that it is only "long-term demonstrations" that the Committee objects to, and that the occasional short-term demonstration will be okay. He is worried about the crowding out by Mr. Haw of other demonstrations. He is worried about the intimidation of thousands of huntsmen and women by this one man's demonstration, which apparently occupies too much space in Parliament square. That such a distinguished and insightful Member can come before us with such nonsense suggests that he has been over-influenced by some of our more sensitive souls. They cannot see beyond their own minor inconvenience to detecting something in the Sessional Orders—about the right to demonstrate—that might be important in terms of protecting our rights and the people's rights.
So I shall join the rebellious Labour Back Benchers and others who are concerned about the suborning of witnesses, although I suspect that Andrew Mackinlay could have given us more recent examples of Committees being influenced. We look forward to his memoirs and to accounts of more recent Committees in which he has participated, to see whether such things do in fact happen. I shall join that rebellion and share the concern of those who want to maintain freedom of speech, and I shall insist—if I can—that we see what we are meant to be voting for before we fling out the Sessional Orders. They may be archaic and arcane. They may not be noticed by many hon. Members at the start of each Session, but I suspect that they contain some things of greater importance than the grumblings of a few Conservative MPs and the inability of Government Front Benchers to detect anything of historic significance in them.
In particular, I note that the Leader of the House is a man who specialised in demonstrations in the early stages of his career and I think that he was absolutely right to campaign on those issues. Yet he now comes before us to support proposals whose purpose is, inter alia, to obstruct and restrict a gentleman who has done nobody any harm and is demonstrating for a cause that is fundamentally good.
I rise to support the views expressed by Jeremy Corbyn and others because I believe that we really have a personal responsibility to defend the rights of those who have a quieter voice than ourselves.
As I have said before, we are greatly privileged to be able to express our views directly in the House to decision makers and those who run the country, and at the same time to have them expressed occasionally through the media, whether it be on television, radio or in newspapers. By comparison, our man outside, Brian Haw, has proved that people have to work pretty damn hard to get heard and have a voice by proxy in this place. To his great credit, we have had what amounts to a three-hour debate prompted in large part by his three-and-a-half year sacrifice and his willingness to inconvenience himself by virtually living outside the Palace of Westminster in the daytime.
Other hon. Members have spoken about balancing the right to demonstrate with other concerns. I would suggest that we have the balance about right in this country. I do not need to repeat what others have said—that Brian Haw presents no danger to us; that he has not restricted our ability to come in and out of the premises. He is clearly a non-violent demonstrator, and as we know, he does not even break the law. As far as I am concerned, introducing legislation to outlaw such behaviour is in itself a crime.
I also cannot help wondering whether, if the message were different, we would be having this debate. If Brian Haw stood with his megaphone on Wednesdays as the Prime Minister left Downing street and shouted, "Up with the Prime Minister; we want four more years!" or shouted out to the Ministers before us today, "Long live the hon. Member for Don Valley!" or "Good luck to the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth. We love you!", would we be debating this gentleman as a dangerous scourge on society?
The hon. Gentleman merely expresses his own vain envy because I mentioned Ministers rather than himself, but I am sure that with a couple of words across the road, Brian Haw would give the thumbs up to him as well. I suggest that it is, at least in part, the message that causes us to have the current debate.
Prohibiting long-term demonstrations itself brings about all sorts of difficulties. How might such legislation be implemented? Sir Nicholas Winterton suggested that the problem with having Brian Haw there all the time is that there could be a long list of other people who would like to demonstrate there, too. I assume therefore that he would have no problem if Brian Haw decided to do a hot megaphone—in other words, operated a rota with two or three other people. There would always be demonstration going on, but not on the same matter.
Perhaps we could have a demonstration against the war in Iraq on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; we could have another gentleman opposing the war in Afghanistan on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; and on Sundays we could have someone who generally objected to the Government's foreign policies such as the sale of arms to the very people we are now having to attack. There would be three demonstrations in a week rather than one long-term demonstration. That is the sort of preposterous position we get into once we accept that people are allowed to demonstrate without restriction, but not in one continuous blast.
I accept that people are uncomfortable or inconvenienced by what Mr. Haw and other people like him do, but that is not a good enough reason to prevent them from having the opportunity to demonstrate if they want to. It strikes me as very telling that people who support such demonstrations tend to consider the motivations of those who demonstrate, while those who would curtail the demonstrations tend to consider the inconvenience to themselves. The irony is that demonstrations become effective only when some inconvenience is caused.
That is the heart of the matter, and I support those who have argued so eloquently about the importance of giving a voice to people who are willing to inconvenience themselves to raise a concern. In this case, we are talking about Brian Haw, but the principle applies to the nation.
Mr. Mega—[Interruption.] I was going to say Mr. Megaphone, because it seems that I am fixated with that word. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was going to conclude by saying that megaphone diplomacy is alive and well in Parliament square. Its guardian is a man called Brian Haw. We are guardians of democracy and have the right and responsibility to look after his interests. It is an old truism to say, for reasons that we have heard many times before, that although some of us may abhor what Brian Haw says, if we are serious about democracy we are duty bound to defend to the end his right to say it.
I want to mention a couple of things that have not been talked about much so far. First, I draw the House's attention to paragraph 6 of the report, which gives the lie to a lot of what has been said about what this is about. It states that
"in the absence of an Order of Business for the first day of a Session, the Orders and Resolutions are proposed to the House without notice and have to be read out in full: they have on occasion given rise to debate and even (in 1984) a division."
That shows that the report is about cleaning up, controlling and disciplining what happens in this House, in case it should inconvenience the Government or hon. Members at large. It seems that we must never have surprises in this House any more, or anything that is unpredictable or that might upset the Government. I am afraid that we are seeing that sort of thing repeatedly these days.
I should have thought that hon. Members would welcome the spontaneity that could arise from some of our rather quaint traditions. We should not want everything to be so ordered, arranged and controlled that we know exactly what is going to happen, but we are moving in that direction. I am sad to say that the report takes that process a step further.
Paragraph 10 of the report contains what I consider to be the following impertinence. It states that
"the Sessional Orders and Resolutions . . . should be replaced by a statement of the duties and responsibilities of Members, possibly the seven principles of public life as set out in the Code of Conduct".
That is nonsense: Members of Parliament define their responsibilities and account to their voters for them. We do not want to start getting involved in job descriptions and procedure manuals that tell us how to do our job, but it appears that that is what underlies that supposedly innocent proposal involving a
"statement of the duties and responsibilities of Members".
I know that a lot of hon. Members regard themselves effectively as social workers, and not even very glorified ones, but a few of us still cling to the view that it is the variation in the attitude that they take to their responsibilities—and their definition of those responsibilities—that is the essence of what it means to be a Member of Parliament. If we start to move away from that, we shall diminish even further the already diminished role that we have created for ourselves.
We are making rather heavy weather of this very important issue involving demonstrations and the balance between freedom and discipline. Some time ago, I suggested to the Leader of the House that we institute a very simple rule stipulating that Parliament square be cleared between sunset and sunrise every day. That would be one way of dealing with the problem of whether a demonstration is continuous, for example.
My other suggestion would be to ban voice amplification. People would be perfectly free to forgather and use their voices in an acceptable way, but they would not be allowed to set up the permanent encampments that have arisen. That would be a reasonable balance between maintaining people's freedom to be in Parliament square opposite the House of Commons and express a point of view, either individually or collectively, and the need to maintain some sort of discipline.
I have no desire to stop people demonstrating. They could gather freely in Parliament square, as long as they did not permanently camp there, because if a large enough number of them did so, it might prevent others from demonstrating. There should be some equity. The noise thing is relevant, too. There are probably some fairly simple and elegant solutions to the problem, and I hope that we can find them, rather than being too heavy-handed.
I have waited seven long years to find something in common with Jeremy Corbyn. My wait has been fulfilled today, because like him, I have been arrested for demonstrating in public. I have even been locked up in a cell for demonstrating in public, and one of the reasons for that was that I made too much amplified noise in public.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether he informed the selection committee of the New Forest, East Conservative association of that important fact before he was selected?
I am sure that had I done so, the good burghers of New Forest, East would have made a far wiser selection than, in the event, they did.
In May 1982, there was a huge demonstration going up Whitehall, led by Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn, against the taskforce that was deploying to fight in the Falklands war, so I and a number of friends and colleagues ambushed—as it were—the demonstration from the rooftops, playing at excessively loud volume Her Majesty's national anthem. That led the police to arrest me and others on the ground that by playing the national anthem we might so upset the serried ranks of Trotskyites, communists and other agitators marching in the main demonstration as to cause a breach of the peace.
I have to inform the hon. Gentleman that he did not upset us at all. We quite enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of fun. Not one person on the demonstration requested that he or anybody else be arrested for mounting any form of counter-demonstration. There was a spirit of democracy about the event.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, as I should now like to tell him what happened next.
People felt that the police had been a tad heavy-handed, so on future demonstrations, in October 1983 and June 1984, we mounted similar counter-demonstrations, by arrangement with the police. The council—I think it was Westminster—sent along an officer with a decibel meter, and whatever may or may not have happened in 1982, there were plenty of protests from the demonstrators to that environmental officer. He kept telling us, "If you don't turn it down, we'll confiscate your equipment." In those days, it was possible to hold a major demonstration with a minor counter-demonstration and to have a certain balance of forces so that both sides could put their point across.
To boil it down to its essence, the hon. Gentleman is saying that 20 years ago he was arrested for noise disturbance and now he wants to arrest everybody else who—
Would that life were as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests. What I am actually saying is that somewhere between then and now there has been a change in the law. There has been a change in the rules and it looks as though it must have been brought in under the last Conservative Government in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, because according to a letter sent to me by Westminster council,
"section 79(1)(ga) defines noise that is prejudicial to health or a nuisance and is emitted or caused by a vehicle, machinery or equipment in a street, as a statutory nuisance. However, section 79(6A) provides that section 79(1)(ga) does not apply to noise made by a political demonstration or a demonstration supporting or opposing a cause or a campaign."
The fact is, we have heard a lot of humbug talked about freedom of speech. We have freedom of speech in this Chamber; we each put forward our differing views. When we have had our say, we let the other person have his. We sit down, we shut up and we listen. We do not go on shouting in the face of the other person whether he wants to listen or not. We obey the rules. That is not happening in Parliament square.
I have taken the trouble to go across and have extensive conversations with Brian Haw and I take much very much to heart the comments of Mr. Salmond, who tried to suggest that those of us who oppose the racket that Brian is making do so because we hate his message. I ask the hon. Gentleman and others to accept my sincerity when I say that I would take the same approach to anyone who demonstrated in the same way for a cause in which I passionately believed and who went on making a racket that was designed not to address the people who had come to hear the message but to penetrate the building of people who were trying to get on with their work, looking after the interests of their constituents.
Perhaps some of those who speak so glibly about the noise have offices that are somewhat better insulated than mine, but I assure them that it is very difficult to do one's work when there is a constant racket and a barrage of noise the words of which cannot even be heard clearly. It is a row, and it is made not to get a message across or in the interests of free speech but to harass and annoy parliamentarians. That is the beginning and end of it. Nothing other than a change in the law will prevent this abuse from continuing.
I am relatively agnostic on whether or Brian or anybody else ought to be able to demonstrate in Parliament square. I have spoken to him and I admire his commitment to his cause. I will make a point that no one else has made. I know that one of his motivations results from the fact that his father went into and liberated one of the Nazi concentration camps. With my family background, I have every reason to hold anyone motivated in that way in the highest regard.
I do not think that Brian used to make all this noise in the earlier part of his campaign, and when he did not make the noise and just put his message across, I had very little, if anything, to say about what he was doing. However, I now think that he has taken freedom of speech into areas that become an abuse of free speech. There is no freedom to impinge on the freedom of other people. That is what he is doing.
We have had a very interesting debate, with 13 speeches from the Back Benches in addition to those from the Front-Bench Opposition spokespersons.
As a Home Office Minister, I will concentrate on the demonstrations in Parliament square, and while there has been a great deal of discussion about one individual, the legislation that we will introduce is not just about that individual: it is about dealing with a number of issues relating to both long-term and short-term demonstrations in the area around Parliament. It is important to address such issues.
The Mayor of London took part in the consultation and a summary of his response shows that he believes
"in an individual's right to protest but must be balanced with the security of protection from harassment and that protests outside Parliament are addressed. Londoners' safety could be seriously jeopardised by violent demonstrations around Parliament and Parliament Square. Current legislation provides a degree of safety for the Houses of Parliament, however recent demonstrations suggests they are insufficient."
I too have demonstrated, and perhaps like other Members, I remember the time when I could not cross Westminster bridge to demonstrate. There has been much discussion about the right to free speech and to demonstrate, but some of the contributions to the debate suggested that that right does not exist in this country. The right does exist in this country, and it does so to a much greater extent than in many other countries throughout the world, including Iraq under Saddam Hussein, whom Mr. Haw advocated that we should do nothing about. The matter is important, and as Mr. Redwood said, we must examine the detail of the legislation when we introduce it.
Let me touch on several points raised by hon. Members.
We have heard a lot of contributions and I will not have time to deal with the points made by hon. Members if I give way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked about consultation. Consultation has occurred on new police powers and we have seen the publication of the consultation paper, "Modernising Police Powers to Meet Community Needs". The public consultation process lasted for 12 weeks and closed only recently.
Like several hon. Members, Mr. Tyler suggested that the powers were being designed to deal with only one individual. I do not know whether this will reassure him, but I re-emphasise the fact that the plans that we intend to introduce will allow the police to place conditions on all short and long-term demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. McWalter on his work on the Procedure Committee and thank him for his support. He raised a point about the important question of passes. Police officers and staff of the House who ask to see people's passes do so because they are trying to protect us and our security. I am sometimes guilty of not wearing my pass, but I am glad to do so today. We must appreciate the situation and act responsibly.
The Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Sir Nicholas Winterton, made an excellent speech. He has been accused of many things during the debate, such as preventing Parliament from scrutinising the Executive and doing away with traditions that should be part and parcel of Parliament in the future. He is the last person who could be accused of doing such things. He and his colleagues on the Procedure Committee have tried to make sensible suggestions about the way forward and have rightly taken heed of hon. Members' concerns. In preparation for our debate, I read the report of the Westminster Hall debate—I did not attend it—in which many hon. Members participated, including Sir George Young, to express people's worries about the way in which free speech can sometimes be abused. There must be a sense of order behind the way in which free speech may be expressed.
My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay raised several points about witnesses. I am assured by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House that his worries about witnesses are covered by other statutes. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said, a debate is currently being held within the Liaison Committee on whether there is a clear way in which witnesses who are brought before Committees could be advised of their rights and responsibilities when giving evidence, which is a good idea.
I have only a few minutes in which to speak, so I shall not give way to my hon. Friend on this occasion.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire made a balanced contribution. The Government do not intend to ban demonstrations, so we are in accord with him on that point. We are saying that, given the times in which we live, we must consider hon. Members' access to Parliament and the protection of not only Members of Parliament and those who work here but other people who meet and gather in the square. When we introduce the legislation, we will have a full chance to debate how we may achieve that and deal with the obvious problems that exist while maintaining people's right to protest. It is absurd to suggest that the actions that we intend to take will deny people the right to express their views.
I am sorry, but I will not give way.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn asked about police permission. Police permission must be given for marches under section 2 of the Public Order Act 1986. However, it is not necessary to obtain advance police permission for assemblies.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham made a point about witness protection, but as I said, I am advised that that matter is covered elsewhere. He mentioned the important question of MPs' access to the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned the fact that one of our colleagues in the House was assaulted during a recent demonstration. She was simply making her way from her office in No. 1 Parliament Street to the House.
Sir John Butterfill raised the statement of principles, which I am advised will be looked at by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who chairs the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. Mr. Speaker will make a statement to the House, and it will be for the House to endorse it. I agree that we need to strike a balance when dealing with the many problems in Parliament square raised by hon. Members.
Mr. Salmond repeated a number of points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Islington, North. He said that the message would be stopped, but as was rightly pointed out, one cannot hear or understand a message blared out by a loudhailer. People have the right to protest, and we could have a long debate about whether the protest outside has been particularly effective in changing policy—I suggest that it has not. Mr. Forth, I am afraid, accused the hon. Member for Macclesfield of helping the Executive to storm their way through the House without due process or scrutiny. I have already said that that is not the case. He also raised the issue of the statement, and I believe that I have already explained how the process will operate. He agreed with other hon. Members that we must do something about certain types of demonstration that have come to the fore in recent times.
Dr. Lewis suggested that there was a split in the New forest.
Surely not the last. The hon. Gentleman shared his interesting experiences of demonstrating—
It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question, pursuant to Order [
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 2002–03, on Sessional Orders and Resolutions, HC 855, and the Government's Response thereto (published as the Committee's Third Special Report of the current Session, HC 613); approves the proposals set out in paragraphs 9, 10 and 25 of the Report for changes in the practice of the House at the beginning of each Session; and, as recommended in paragraph 9(b), makes the following provision:
That all Members of this House who are returned for two or more places in any part of the United Kingdom should choose for which of the places they will serve, within one week after it appears that there is no question about their election for that place.