With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 8, page 33, line 18, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment 9, page 95, line 15, leave out schedule 9.
Amendment 10, in schedule 9, page 95, line 21, leave out from 'procession' to end of line 18 on page 55 and insert
'or a public assembly that is having the effect of preventing reasonable access to the Houses of Parliament.
(3) If the Speaker has decided under subsection (2) that reasonable access to the Houses of Parliament has been prevented, the senior police officer may, for the purpose of restoring reasonable access to the Houses of Parliament, give directions to any person who is organising or taking part in the public procession or public assembly.
(4) The directions referred to in subsection (3) must be necessary for the purpose of restoring access to the Houses of Parliament and proportionate to that purpose.'.
Amendment 17, page 95, leave out lines 40 and 41.
Amendment 24, page 95, line 41, at end insert
'in relation to how the specified requirements for maintaining access to and from the Palace of Westminster shall be met'.
Amendment 14, page 96, leave out lines 1 to 3 and insert-
'(6) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.'.
Amendment 26, page 96, line 5, leave out 'include' and insert 'are limited to'.
Amendment 11, page 96, leave out lines 15 to 18.
Amendment 12, page 96, leave out lines 21 to 39.
Amendment 19, page 96, line 27, leave out '300' and insert '250'.
Amendment 30, page 96, line 28, leave out 'the nearest relevant entrance' and insert
'the point nearest to it in Parliament Square'.
Amendment 31, page 96, leave out lines 29 to 36.
Amendment 15, page 96, leave out lines 37 to 39 and insert-
'(5) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.'.
Amendment 13, page 96, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 35 on page 97 and insert-
'14ZB Special provision for a House or Committee meeting outside Palace of Westminster
(1) If either House of Parliament, or a committee of either House of Parliament, intends to meet in a building outside the Palace of Westminster, the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument specify that the building shall count as part of the Houses of Parliament for the purposes of section 14ZA on the day or days that the meeting is taking place.
(2) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
For the purposes of this section, the Speaker may delegate the matter referred to in section 14ZA(2) to the person who is in the chair of the relevant meeting.'.
Amendment 20, page 97, line 1, leave out '300' and insert '250'.
Amendment 21, page 97, line 19, leave out from 'any' to 'used' in line 20 and insert
'day on which the specified building is'.
Amendment 22, page 97, leave out line 23.
Amendment 18, page 97, leave out lines 29 and 30.
Amendment 25, page 97, line 30, at end insert
'in relation to how the specified requirements for maintaining access to and from the specified building shall be met'.
Amendment 16, page 97, leave out lines 31 to 33 and insert-
'(9) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.'.
Amendment 3, page 97, leave out lines 36 to 40 and insert-
2 (9) In section 137, the following amendments are made in relation to the use of amplified noise equipment and other devices designed to produce noise in the area around Parliament.
(10) For "loudspeaker" wherever it occurs substitute "amplified noise equipment or other device designed to produce noise".
(11) In subsection (1) leave out "in a street in the designated area" and insert "in the area around Parliament, as specified by order under section 14ZB of the Public Order Act 1986".
(12) In subsection (2), leave out paragraph (i).
(13) After subsection (3) insert-
"(3A) A police officer shall, on receipt of a complaint of excessive noise caused by amplified noise equipment or other device designed to produce noise, have the power-
(a) to require the operator to desist, and
(b) in the event of non-compliance, to seize the amplified noise equipment or other device designed to produce noise and to retain it as long as it is deemed necessary.
(3B) The powers available under subsection (3A) above may be exercised by the most senior police officer in the immediate vicinity of the source of the noise.".
(14) In subsection (6) leave out "or of" and insert "save where prohibited under".'.
Amendment 23, page 98, line 4, leave out paragraph 5.
Although amendment 2 is the lead amendment, it is to amendment 3, proposed by the Conservatives, that I should like to address my remarks. It would amend the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in respect of activities in Parliament square. The amendment would empower the most senior police officer present, first, to require the operator of amplified noise equipment to desist and, secondly, to confiscate the equipment on receipt of a complaint about excessive noise.
I spent rather a large part of my life dealing with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act in Committee and on Report. One of the criticisms, which I thought Conservative Front Benchers at the time shared, was of the provision that allowed for the powers under that Act in respect of Parliament square to be exercised by an officer of no higher rank than constable. Is it not the case that what the hon. Lady is proposing today revisits that issue, with Conservatives on the other side of the argument? The nearest available police officer may well simply be a constable, yet she is proposing that that constable be given these powers.
No, the hon. Gentleman is nit-picking. The intention of amendment 3- [Interruption.] We are discussing the general principle, although I agree that we are also discussing the particulars. I do not see that there is a conflict between what was said some years ago and what is being said now. However, if there is a conflict, my answer is simply that what is on today's amendment paper is what we are proposing today and that is what I am putting before the House now.
If it is the opposite of what some colleagues of mine said some years ago, so be it-this is what we propose today. The hon. Gentleman is wasting time. We have very little time to get through the rest of this Bill. If he does not want powers to be taken to sort out the chaos in Parliament square, he is entitled to say so, but we are discussing what is in front of us now.
The Bill as it stands does not provide an alternative arrangement for dealing with an effective sanction by completely removing the illegality of the offence. We all know that people who work in the buildings surrounding Parliament square are particularly affected by the use of amplified loudspeakers, which are used almost constantly by protesters. We in this Chamber are protected. We cannot hear the noise when we are in here, but it is the people who work for us and the people who run the parliamentary offices and Government Departments who are affected. The vast majority of people who have complained are not Members of Parliament. There may be a feeling out there that Members of Parliament get what they deserve, and fair enough, but that is not the point. The point is that it is their long-suffering secretaries, assistants and researchers who bear much of the distress and disturbance.
My hon. Friend Dr. Lewis-I hope that he will be able to address the House on the matter shortly; he has campaigned effectively on the issue for some time-has received 52 complaints. I hope that he will not go into great detail on all 52, but I am sure that he will give us a flavour of them. For that reason, I will not go into those details, because he is well able to do so. However, 52 people have complained and there are many more who agree with them because their professional lives are frequently made more difficult and distressing by what can only be described as harassment from the protesters in Parliament square.
If the intention behind amplifying at such volumes is to penetrate the walls of Parliament and reach the legislators within, frankly, it does not work. It is impossible to distinguish what is being said, so although the enormously disturbing sound is loud, the message is not transmitted to its intended audience. Thus the aim of penetrating Parliament to convey a message is lost.
We also understand that there are practicalities to consider. I am being intentionally brief because we have so much more of the Bill to get through-once again, we do not have enough time to do that-and I believe that most hon. Members are well aware of the problem. The Government are also well aware of the problem and have been sympathetic to various plans over the years to try to sort it out. They have themselves tried to legislate to improve the situation in Parliament square. Frankly, they have failed but I am not blaming them-this is not a party political matter; it is a matter of principle and of getting the balance right. Allowing freedom of speech is of course essential in our free country, and freedom of speech in the vicinity of Parliament is totally right. It is the freedom and the right of every person in this country to be able to tell Parliament what they think, but that has to be balanced with the practicality of having, effectively, chaos and constant noise in Parliament square.
Is my hon. Friend aware of any other legislature in the world that would allow the chaos-the unregulated behaviour-that goes on outside our front doors?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know of no other legislature that would put up with the chaos and mess that is out there now. I am always a great defender of freedom of speech. Freedom of the individual is the most important thing that this Parliament stands for. If we do not stand for that, we stand for nothing, but because some people have set up camp in Parliament square and effectively have a monopoly on that bit of ground, from which they can be most noisy and disrupt this place, other people who may wish to come for a day or an hour to make a short protest about something about which they care and that affects their families, town or principles, do not have the freedom of speech that they should have. The people who have already set up camp and established their monopoly are in a strong position and are preventing other people from having the freedom of speech that they deserve.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point but I had hoped that this debate was not adversarial. I had the impression that the amendment has support on both sides of the House. I do not wish to be adversarial at all. Unfortunately, when a similar amendment was tabled in Committee we ran out of time and it was not debated. If at that stage the right hon. Gentleman had made such a request, I would certainly have acceded to it. Now, alas, it is too late because we are running out of time. It is a pity that this long, ever-expanding and important Bill did not have more time in Committee, which would have allowed his proposed solution to prevail. I accept that he knows a great deal about the issue and that he is one of those who, very reasonably, tried to sort it out.
My hon. Friend, who is being very indulgent in giving way, makes an extremely good point: many who might like to protest here over a particular issue are effectively debarred from doing so because of the almost permanent campsite in Parliament square. Might not one approach be to say that any demonstration in future should be an accompanied demonstration and that people should not just be allowed to set up camp and disappear, effectively leaving the site unmanned?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is one possible solution. Good ideas are now coming forward-I am sure that there will be more from other parts of the House-and it is a great pity that we did not have the opportunity in Committee to explore the matter further. That would also have given the Minister a chance to put the Government's point of view. I am sure that we could have achieved a consensus. It is still my hope that we will achieve a consensus this evening because the vast majority of people who work and live in and around Parliament square want to see the current chaos removed and order put in its place. I want to see freedom of speech and the opportunity for freedom of speech for every citizen in this country, not just those who now monopolise Parliament square.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but I do not think there is consensus on the issue, and the more she spoke, the more I realised why there is not. I do not think that there is chaos outside; far from it. I have seen chaos and that is not chaos. It is untidy and annoying for people who like everything to be neat, tidy and orderly, but it is not chaos. I oppose the amendment, first, because I do not think that there is much of a problem and, secondly, to the extent that there is a problem, the means already exist for dealing with it.
Parliament is situated in the middle of a city; it is not in the middle of the countryside. One cannot expect total silence in the middle of a city. The evidence of the noise that we hear-it was accepted by the Government in their consultation exercise-showed that it was no more annoying than traffic noise. [ Laughter . ] It might be that I have lived a more urban life than members of the Conservative party; I am almost certain that I have. The idea that one cannot work in a city that is somewhat noisy would come as a great surprise to most of the inhabitants of London and all our great cities, and certainly to the inhabitants of New York. The idea that one cannot work except in total silence is extraordinary. If I think of occasions when my own work and that of my office in the precincts of the Palace has been disrupted, it has not been by protests outside but by the helicopter that we sometimes hear-whether it is a police or MOD helicopter, I am not sure-or by noise from the river traffic, which is the kind of thing that one expects if one lives and works in a major city.
To the extent that there is a problem, I cannot see why we need special protection in this House, and why we cannot use the general law. I cannot see why we should give ourselves some kind of special position legally. There are three obvious existing legal methods for dealing with any problem that arises. First, there is statutory nuisance-environmental health legislation.
It applies in the sense that if noise gets entirely out of hand, environmental health standards come in. If it does not apply, it will be for human rights reasons, in which case there is nothing that the amendment can do about it as it would violate the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights. Either way, the hon. Gentleman cannot go down that route.
Even if the statute does not apply, there is the common law of public nuisance, which has been applied to demonstrations for centuries.
Can I tell the hon. Gentleman-not in a partisan, spiteful or exasperated way-that all these alternative remedies have been explored with Westminster council and the police, and none of them applies? None of them works. The only sanction that could ever be imposed would be to report the matter to the courts. If at the end of that there were a judgment, a fine would be paid by someone else. Nothing can be done to stop the noise other than a right of confiscation of equipment.
First, the hon. Gentleman seems unwilling to accept the rule of law; he wants to exempt himself from the ordinary courts. I do not see how that is acceptable. Secondly, there is already a right of confiscation of noise-making equipment-stereos and so on-under environmental health law. Many of us have been local councillors and have seen the police use this power in conjunction with environmental health officers. If it turns out that Westminster council is not very efficient, I suggest that Conservative Members should address themselves to their fellow party members who run that council.
There is a third way in which demonstrations can be brought to an end; it is if they cause serious disruption to the life of the community, as contained in section 14 of the Public Order Act. If the hon. Gentleman wants to tell me that that cannot be used, I can tell him that I have seen it myself being used at the G20 demonstration. It is not the case that there is no remedy.
I find the details of the amendment even more extraordinary. Confiscating all amplified noise equipment seems to me to amount to banning speeches at any demonstration in the vicinity of Parliament. Anyone who has tried to make a speech outside in a noisy city will know how difficult it is to make oneself heard. This seems to be a direct attempt to make sure that people cannot have their voice heard at organised demonstrations. Also, the Government picked up in their consultation that in a demonstration it is quite important for the stewards and organisers to be able to get their point across to keep order within their demonstration. Having to do that without the assistance of any amplification would make demonstrations more dangerous for the people taking part.
There is a further point. It is often said-I have heard it said from the Conservative Front Bench as well as my party's-that any power we grant will end up being abused. A power is being granted here to seize any device designed to make a noise. That could cover almost anything-buckets, balloons or party poppers, for instance. [Interruption.] Mrs. Laing is looking amazed, but all those things were seized by the police in the Kingsnorth demonstration in Kent, on the grounds that they were going to be used in illegal ways. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hendon has reminded me of the other things that were seized. I will not recount them all, but they included clown suits. The point here is that if one grants the police a power in respect of policing protest, experience shows that that power will be abused to interfere in the right to protest. I therefore cannot go down the route the hon. Lady proposes at all; I am sorry to have to tell her that she will not find consensus in support of her proposals from my party, or, I hope, from the Labour party.
I shall now turn to the other 18 amendments in this group that were tabled by me and my hon. Friend Mr. Heath. [Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for Hendon for forgetting about his amendments-which are very moderate, I might add. The purpose of our amendments is to go in the opposite direction from the amendments tabled by Conservative Front Benchers. Our amendments would further protect the right to protest and freedom of speech.
Amendments 8 and 9 would simply remove from the Bill the whole replacement regime for the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 regime. There is no obvious need for extra powers against demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament. However, I accept that we had a vote on that in Committee-there was no debate, but there was a vote-so instead of trying to explain why I think there is no need for this replacement legislation, I want to make a case for amendment 10, which offers a compromise between our view and the Government's.
The Government propose a system of prior restraint under which the authorities can take pre-emptive action, where they think there might be interference with access to this House. We think that it would be perfectly adequate to have no prior restraint, but instead to have powers that allow the police to ensure that access to the House is preserved-we do not think that that is absolutely necessary, but we are assuming for the purposes of this amendment that we are wrong about that. Amendment 10 removes the pre-emptive powers and replaces them with provisions for what could happen, if it turns out that access to this House is being interfered with by protest. A senior police officer would be able, but only in circumstances where the Speaker decides that reasonable access to the Palace is being prevented, to give directions to anyone organising or taking part in the demonstration to do whatever is necessary to restore order.
I recall that when we discussed policing and protest in Westminster Hall on the basis of my Committee's report, the hon. Gentleman endorsed the consensus view that there should be no surprises in respect of policing and protest. Is not what he is proposing here likely to lead to that very problem of surprise action by the police? It does not encourage what he and I would like to see-negotiations between police and protestors to deal with any problems.
I do not agree with that, because the existence of the power would be known to both sides. The point about there being no surprises is not to do with the law; it is to do with contact, negotiation and talks between protestors and police, so that both sides know where the other stands. A power of that sort would not interfere with that process. In fact, it might encourage more contact, because it would not be a pre-emptive power that protestors might think would be used against them any way. It is my view that we can move forward in this area with a proportionate power to deal with any real problems that might arise, not a power that can be used pre-emptively without any real problem having yet occurred.
Actually, under amendment 10 it is the Speaker who decides that reasonable access has been prevented, which is a rather more traditional way of doing things, and then the Speaker gives the authorisation through a senior police officer. The senior police officer simply gets to say precisely what it is the demonstrators have to do in order to restore access. I think that ought to be a senior police officer, because this is an important interference with an important right and, as we have learned from many examples of policing protest, giving that kind of discretion to junior police officers is simply asking for trouble.
I do not want to go through the 17 other amendments, but I want to ask the Government about a particular problem that is raised in our amendments 19, 20, 30 and 31. The problem has arisen because the Government amended their own Bill in Committee without any debate. They extended by a very great extent the area around Parliament that is covered by the replacement regime. Westminster bridge is now covered, as is a large section of Whitehall. Victoria Tower gardens is covered, too, in a way that it was not covered before. I am not sure why it was thought necessary to increase the area by so much.
That was undertaken after discussion with the House authorities, to ensure that we have appropriate access to the House in the event of a demonstration.
That is an interesting reply. Westminster bridge is included, as I have said. Is the idea to be able to clear that bridge in a way that was not done in the Tamil demonstration? I wonder whether the Minister's definition of access includes a very broad notion of what one needs in order to get access to the House. I have to say that during the Tamil demonstration, I did not have any difficulty getting into the House, because I came by tube, and the tube station was never blocked.
My hon. Friend may not recall this, as I do not think that he was a Member of the House at the time, but during the debates on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, the Government's original contention involved a radius of 1 mile around the Houses of Parliament, which was excessive. That was another point on which the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were at one in criticising the Government, although it seems that a different view now prevails among the Conservatives.
Yes, it will be interesting to see whether they still hold that view. The problem for me is whether the purpose is really to maintain access to the House itself, or instead to stop demonstrations that simply annoy people to some extent.
Let me explain one final query, which is raised by our amendment 21. Schedule 9 includes provision for the Bill's regulations to be extended beyond Parliament itself to any building that Parliament is using-I suppose an example would be a building in which a Regional Committee is meeting off site. The regulation of demonstrations that the schedule creates would exist for a week around such a building. Why opt for a week? Why not just opt for the day on which Parliament is proposing to use the building?
This approach raises a more general issue about proportionality, which is addressed in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon, because this is another example of a power being sought that is disproportionate to the problem at hand. Why is it necessary to control demonstrations for a week when Parliament or a parliamentary Committee is meeting in a building for only one day? This debate is about the untidiness of democracy. I know that it offends some people and that some people find it difficult to cope with, but that is democracy-democracy means an untidy populace who will have their say. I do not think that we should do any more to get in their way.
I wish to discuss amendments 24, 25 and 26, which stand in my name on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I draw the attention of hon. Members to our report that has been tagged for this debate. Not only were the amendments part of our scrutiny report on this Bill, but they give effect in large part to what we had to say in our report on policing and protest.
First, I shall deal with the good news from the Minister's point of view. My Committee very much welcomes the Government's decision to legislate to repeal sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and, in particular, their decision to amend the Public Order Act 1986 to deal with protest around Parliament. Such an approach is consistent with much of the evidence we received during our policing and protest inquiry and gives effect to the recommendations that we made in our reports on this issue. As we have stated, sections 132 to 138 have proved too heavy-handed in practice, are difficult to police and lack widespread acceptance by the public. I shall not go into the detail now, because we have dealt with the matter at great length in our Westminster Hall debate on the report on policing and protest. I know that he was not able to be there because of his duties upstairs, but I am sure that he has followed the debate.
My Committee also welcomes the decision to reduce the area around Parliament in which special requirements will apply, but I, too, have concerns in respect of the extension from 250 metres to 300 metres. What has been proposed is a more proportionate response, which is less intrusive on individual rights to freedom of association and expression than the existing arrangements. However, the overall thrust of my amendments seeks to deal with the fact that some of the proposed replacement provisions give us cause for concern as they are widely drafted and could result in legal uncertainty. One of the main thrusts of all the Committee's work on this issue over the past 18 months or so has been the importance of creating legal certainty for protestors, protestees and the police in order to create that "no surprises" environment so that everybody knows where they stand.
The new section 14ZA (2) proposed in schedule 9 empowers a police officer to impose conditions if
"in the officer's reasonable opinion" they are "necessary". That is a very broad power. We understand that the intention is to issue a circular to the Metropolitan police and others containing guidance. According to a previous ministerial reply, it will state that
"it is important that the police, Parliamentarians and those wishing to demonstrate around Parliament are clear about maintaining access to and from the Palace of Westminster means".
It was explained that the guidance will contain the considerations that the police will need to take into account before giving directions that are reasonably believed to be necessary. We know from the other work we have been doing recently that the Association of Chief Police Officers manual is being revised, so perhaps when the Minister replies he will be able to say what progress has been made on that revision, because it is urgently needed.
The Committee agrees with the Minister that it is vital that the police, parliamentarians and protestors are clear about the level of access that is envisaged, but our concern is that the "reasonable opinion" of an officer is a subjective test. That raises the risk of uncertainty as to what an individual officer will or will not deem to be "reasonable" in the circumstances, and that is a recipe for problems. It can lead to confusion for protestors, police officers and those seeking access. Again, this goes back to the point about trying to eliminate the risk of surprises, either from the demonstrators or the police, as that is what inevitably leads to some of the problems that we have seen. Our approach very much chimes with the recommendations made by the chief inspector of constabulary in "Adapting to Protest-Nurturing the British model of Policing" following the G20 meeting.
The Committee welcomes the Minister's commitment to publishing guidance, but it is important that the guidance makes clear the kind of conditions that are reasonable for an officer to impose. We desperately need there to be up-to-date and accurate guidance on policing protest in a wide variety of circumstances for police throughout the country and we urge ACPO and the Home Office to ensure that the various manuals are rapidly updated to take account of the proposed new powers in the Bill.
The second general point I wish to make concerns the order-making powers of the Secretary of State. He would be given a power to specify requirements that must be met to maintain access. One of the Committee's concerns is that proposed new section 14ZA(7) represents a non-exhaustive list. We believe that it would be far better to have a restricted list in the Bill to ensure legal certainty. Thus, my amendment 26 would remove the word "include" before
"conditions as to the route of the procession" to say that those conditions should be "limited to" that route
"or prohibiting it from entering any public place specified".
That would create the legal certainty that we think is missing from the order-making power as it stands. As I have mentioned, we are concerned about the general power being given in this Bill to the senior police officer.
The other particular point that I wish to make concerns the distinction drawn in the Bill between public procession and public assembly. On public processions, the Bill contains a non-exhaustive list of conditions that can be imposed, for example on the route of the procession or which prohibit it from entering a public place. On public assemblies, however, the list of conditions that can be imposed is exhaustive-they relate to the place, the maximum duration and the number of persons that can attend. The human rights section of the explanatory notes states that
"conditions may only pertain to the place of the demonstration, its maximum duration and the maximum number of persons" and so on, but that relates to only half the story. It relates only to public assemblies-static demonstrations-not to public protests, where no limit on the conditions that can be imposed is set out in the Bill. That is one of our main concerns and my amendment 26 aims to address it.
We agree with the Government's view that it is desirable in terms of legal certainty and clarity for the same or similar provisions to apply throughout the country in relation to protest and that as few distinctions as possible should be made, but in view of the particular significance of Parliament as a venue for protest and the historic problems that have arisen in policing protest in the area, we think it is far more appropriate for a much more precise list of conditions to be set out on processions around Parliament. That is why my amendment aims to provide for such an exhaustive list as part of the Bill. An alternative approach, which I hope the Minister will examine, is to provide legal certainty through relevant guidance, giving a comprehensive list of the sorts of conditions that could be imposed on processions under this proposed new section.
I thank the Government for making it possible by their arrangement of the business tonight for us at least to discuss amendment 3. Had we had an opportunity to discuss it in Committee, I am sure that it would have been accepted, because I understood at the time that the Secretary of State for Justice proposed to give the House a free vote. I have no doubt that if there had been a free vote, the amendment would have been overwhelmingly carried.
It is not a restriction of my freedom of speech in this place if, once I have had my say, expressed my opinion and communicated my views to other hon. Members, I proceeded to start ranting, shouting and continuing to demand to be heard even though I had had ample opportunity to convey my message-if I continued to insist on shouting my message in support of my views time and again, irrespective of the rights of others, defying any reasonable request to desist-I were then eventually forcibly removed from the Chamber. That would not mean that I had not had my freedom of speech, but that I had abused my right of freedom of speech and trampled on the rights of others.
That is what has been happening with the protest noise in Parliament square. Hon. Members and, above all, their staff are sick to death of it. The previous Speaker, on a number of occasions, expressed his concern about the nuisance of constant amplified noise. I first became aware of the problem when I had my office in No. 1 Parliament street a few years ago. It became impossible to concentrate on work because of persistent ranting through a highly amplified loudspeaker. When I investigated what was happening, I was astonished to find that there was no rally or assembly of protestors in Parliament square at all. On average, there were between half a dozen and a dozen people standing around and the person with the loudhailer certainly did not need to use it in order to exercise his right to communicate with anyone in attendance who wished to hear his message.
I crossed the road to ask the principal demonstrator why he was broadcasting at such a loud volume when so few people were present. He frankly explained that only by doing so would he be able to ensure that his message penetrated into Parliament above the noise of the traffic in the square. That clearly had nothing to do with the right freely to express his views or to communicate them to a voluntary assembly of people who wished to hear them. By contrast, it had everything to do with forcing his views on people who simply wished to go about their daily business undisturbed.
As has been pointed out already in the debate-and as I can vouch from experience-the ranting messages broadcast at such volume are loud enough to be a continual source of disturbance to people trying to work in their offices in No. 1 Parliament street, in particular, but also in various other offices and meeting rooms on the parliamentary estate. We must not forget those people who live and work in the vicinity of Parliament square and who wish to use the facility of Parliament square for their own enjoyment-they should not be disturbed unduly.
For the most part, it is not possible to distinguish what the shouting is about. The political message is not reaching its target-all it is doing is causing massive annoyance and significant distress to people who are trying to work. As was said by my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing, who speaks from the Front Bench, I did a survey of people's experiences of this persistent noise and 52 of them joined together and submitted a complaint to the council. I attached those complaints to my submission to the consultation exercise that was held.
I should like to refer to the experiences of a number of hon. Members from all parties, including the Liberal Democrat party. Norman Baker-I have to confess, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I did not warn him because I did not know that I would be referring to him in the Chamber today, but he gave me permission at the time to quote him in the submission that I publicly gave to the consultation exercise, so I am sure that he will not object to my quoting him now-wrote to me:
"We're at one. You're free to quote me objecting to the use of amplified material, provided I am also quoted as not wanting to restrict the right to protest outside parliament. (Indeed I think that the present exclusion zone should be lifted.)"
That is an example of someone who was rightly distinguishing between whether the protest should be allowed to take place and whether the people taking part in the protest should be allowed continually to use amplified noise for hours on end simply to batter the eardrums of other people who had nothing to do with the protest in the square.
An hon. Member from the Labour Benches, who is well-respected on constitutional matters, said:
"There was, and always should be, the right to lobby your MP. As a student, I would leave my placards etc on Westminster Bridge and join an orderly queue to see my MP. This whole episode shows the weakness of Parliament unable to control its surroundings let alone hold government to account."
"I complained to the Serjeant and was told that there was nothing he could do. My office in 1 Parliament Street does not overlook Parliament Square and yet we are still tormented by the volume of the loudspeakers."
The parliamentary assistant to a right hon. Labour Member said that
"it drives me round the bend especially when I am trying to concentrate. We have to put up with enough noise from the constant flow of traffic without having to put up with them shouting through the loudhailer."
Another hon. Labour Member said:
"I fully support your contention that the protestors in Parliament Square do in fact disturb those working within the Palace of Westminster. My own office overlooks Speaker's Court and the noise can clearly be heard-even with the windows closed. Which means of course in hot weather it is impossible to open the windows without further amplifying the disturbance. I pity the poor security staff who have to work directly opposite and suffer the barrage of abuse for long periods of time."
I have only given half a dozen or so examples and there were 52 of them, which were submitted to the consultation. I believe that the consultation response showed that there was real concern about the noise, quite apart from the question of what people thought about the demonstration's being allowed to remain on a virtually permanent basis in the square. So, I went back to the permission that had been sought by the main protestor in Parliament square from Westminster council. I found the minutes of the meeting, which were helpfully on the internet. The meeting was held by licensing sub-committee No. 5 on
"Mr Grosz stated that the area in question was already noisy with traffic, bells and commentary from tour buses. Mr Haw's site was a long way from the Chambers of Parliament. There was, Mr Grosz said, no evidence of noise from Mr Haw's loudspeaker reaching those working inside the Palace of Westminster, and that Mr Haw had no intention that loudspeaker noise penetrate its buildings."
It quoted Mr. Haw as saying that
"he wanted to work positively with officers from the City Council to avoid creating nuisance."
The sub-committee, it its naivety, accepted Mr. Haw's statement that he had no wish to cause a nuisance or a problem to people working in Parliament. That is, of course, exactly the opposite of what Mr. Haw told me when I went to ask him why he was broadcasting at such volume when only a tiny handful of people were present.
The problem of noise harassment is real and serious. There is not an absolute unfettered right to shout one's opinions in the face of everybody else for hours on end, long after any reasonable person would conclude that the first person had had their say. This is not freedom of speech-it is bullying. It is harassment. Indeed, in any other environment it would not be tolerated for a moment.
The Liberal Democrat spokesman, David Howarth, said, "Well, it's all right. It's remediable-you can take them to court." The problem is that it is not remediable. Under the existing law, nobody can be dealt with who is determined to go on making incessant noise at unreasonable volume. All that could happen is that they would eventually end up in a courtroom and there would eventually be some sort of conviction either for causing a nuisance or for breaking a byelaw, and then someone with a political axe to grind would pay the fine for them. At the end of the day, however, there would be absolutely nothing that anyone could do to stop them making the noise in the run-up to the court case or continuing to make it after the court case. This is not about freedom of speech; it is about intolerance. Those people are intolerant bullies who have not managed to have their own way and are therefore determined to shout, scream, rant, hector and harass other people.
There is only one way in which to deal with this matter: by applying a degree of common sense. I speak from experience because I am probably the only Conservative Member of the House actually to have been arrested for participating in a demonstration. As I have explained to the House on previous occasions, that was back in the 1980s when there was a demonstration against the Falklands war, and I was involved in a counter-demonstration. The police decided to remove us from the scene because we were the smaller demonstration of the two, but we worked with the police thereafter and were able to have our protest because we regulated the amount of noise that we made. At that time, before any of these other laws, restrictions and rights came in, we were told that if we raised the noise level excessively, our equipment would be confiscated at least until the demonstration was over.
Freedom of speech requires tolerance on all sides. The people who are ranting, raving and shouting-often in extremely crude, rude and insulting terms-in a public place cannot be dealt with by any means that does not require the removal of the equipment if, on receipt of a complaint about the noise, they refuse to tone it down and keep it to reasonable levels. This issue is being dressed up as being about freedom of speech, but it is actually about the bullying and intimidation of people going about their lawful business. I am very sorry that the Government, in the form of the Home Secretary, will not allow Labour Members to vote according to their consciences, because I know that large numbers-probably a majority-of those Members would like the amendments to go through. However, now that the Government Chief Whip has entered the Chamber, I shall simply repeat what I said at the beginning of my remarks. I am grateful to the Government for having at least provided an opportunity for this issue to be aired and discussed.
We have had, as usual, a very lively-and in part noisy-debate about these issues. I shall explain to the House why I hope that the amendments will not be pressed to a Division.
The hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) have made their case about the noise, which is, on occasion, disturbing to individual Members and members of staff. When I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Prime Minister between 2001 and 2005, I was frequently in an office facing Parliament square and on the receiving end of amplified noise about the performance of the Prime Minister and the Government throughout some very difficult debates on Iraq, student fees and a range of other issues. The purpose of the amendments is to remove such amplified noise from Parliament square, but I do not believe that they would represent a practical or workable solution.
My first point to both the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman, and in support of David Howarth, has to be about what makes Parliament so different from any other place of operation in London and from somewhere in any other city in the UK. We have a responsibility to undertake work and our other activities in a positive way, but unless that protest noise is so disruptive that it prevents us from exercising our functions on the Floor of the House, the suggested action would be excessive and we could not support it.
The noise certainly prevents us from exercising our functions in the W Rooms and the Committee Rooms, and it certainly disturbs people who are trying to conduct constituency work from their offices but are not able to concentrate because of intrusive and excessive noise. If we had more time, I could quote the Minister chapter and verse about that.
As has been outlined, there are measures in place regarding noise pollution and public order legislation, to which the hon. Member for Cambridge referred, and there are also provisions in place to deal with harassment, in addition to, when relevant, byelaws regarding this place.
I will go through the measures that are available to ensure that such actions can be dealt with if they are excessive. However, let me first return to the original point of contention. What makes Parliament different from any other establishment that can be and is subject to protest? I can be sympathetic about the situation, because I know that the noise can be difficult to deal with, but let me recognise, as we did in the policing White Paper, and as Mr. Dismore have done, that the creation of noise and disruption is, and should be, part of our democratic process and a healthy element of a democratic society.
Although we all agree about the problem of loudspeaker noise, one of my concerns is that when we have tried to legislate regarding protest in Parliament square in the past, we have made mistakes and all sorts of things have ended up going wrong. Would there be any fallout for other forms of broadcast noise in Parliament square if these amendments were made? Would anything else be unintentionally banned as a consequence?
My hon. Friend touches on an important point that I shall come to in a moment.
Let me tell the hon. Members for Epping Forest and for New Forest, East, who spoke in support of the amendments, that if noise from loudspeakers is threatening or intimidating, the behaviour can be, and has been, captured by section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. If noise from loudspeakers amounts to harassment, the civil and criminal remedies that other organisations have successfully brought are available to Parliament. If noise from loudspeakers amounts to
"serious disruption to the life of the community", the police have powers under section 14 of the 1986 Act to impose conditions on assemblies. Clearly, the police could show that there was serious disruption if those who were being disrupted complained to the police. As has been made clear by the courts, by us in our policing White Paper, and by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary in its report "Adapting to Protest", if noise from loudspeakers amounts to nuisance or inconvenience, that alone does not provide sufficient grounds to restrict peaceful protest.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East might be aware of the Greater London authority's Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square Garden Byelaws 2002, which make it an offence for a person to use amplification equipment on Parliament square garden without the prior permission of the Mayor of London, whom I recall is one Mr. Boris Johnson of this parish, who is supported by the Conservative party. Westminster city council, which I recall is run by a party other than the Labour party, has also made specific byelaws under section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972 regarding causing or permitting any loud or continuous noise to be made by use of an amplifier or similar instrument after being warned to desist by a constable. The practical effect of amendment 3 would, as the hon. Member for Cambridge indicated, be to silence not only protestors, but anyone else in an area around Parliament. It would, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon indicated, prevent the use of amplifying equipment in every way, shape or form. It would include stewards who use amplifying equipment to control crowds and people who use such equipment to speak at demonstrations. It would cover people such as the Gurkhas and groups such as the Countryside Alliance. Indeed, I sometimes oppose the content of parts of that body's demonstrations, but I respect its right to demonstrate.
The amendment is not about banning noise but about giving a power to remove amplifying equipment if, on receipt of complaints, it is judged that people are being unduly harassed. The Minister is talking about demonstrations that would have been arranged and regulated, and so would be perfectly allowable. The amendment would not impinge on them in any way whatsoever.
In February 2008, Barbara Tucker-she is well known to us because of the protests that she holds outside the House with Brian Haw-used a loudspeaker to express threatening language to Alan Duncan as he left the Commons. In August of that year, she was found guilty of committing an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which makes it an offence to use
"threatening, abusive or insulting words".
She was fined £100 and court costs. What is the difference between that and what the hon. Gentleman proposes?
The Minister has just illustrated the point that I have been arguing throughout the debate. She was fined, but she is still out there and making noise. We are not interested in whether she is fined or not, but in whether we can go about our lawful occasions and carry out our normal duties without harassment and disturbance by noise. That conviction has not remedied the problem one whit, as the Minister knows perfectly well.
I am afraid that I disagree. People have a right to protest, but laws on harassment and environmental health, as well as certain byelaws, contain powers to stop noise. The legislation also allows complaints to be made and forwarded accordingly.
Although the hon. Member for Epping Forest might not realise this, I must advise the House that accepting the amendment would mean, for example, that Westminster abbey would not be able to rings its bells. In addition, ceremonies at which bands use amplifying equipment, such as the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph, would not be allowed.
The hon. Lady might disagree with the tenor of my remarks, but the implication of her amendment would be as I set out. If Members want to support her amendment, they can do so, but that would be its impact.
The amendment is defective, and would have consequences that the hon. Members for Epping Forest and for New Forest, East have not recognised. It would cause great difficulty not just for those who protest in Parliament square, but for those who need to use amplifying equipment for legitimate reasons.
Nobody wants to stop Westminster abbey ringing its bells or any of the other things that the Minister has just set out. However, does he agree that giving this Bill proper time for scrutiny would have led to the arguments that he is making today being put forward in Committee? If that had happened, and if it is true that my amendment would stop the Westminster abbey bells ringing, we could have agreed to table another amendment to make sure that that did not happen. However, we would then have defended freedom of speech for the little people out there who want to come and protest in Parliament square but who cannot because of the bully who is already there.
I remind the hon. Lady that I waited for six and a half hours to speak to the amendments that were tabled on the relevant day of the Committee stage. I was not able to speak to them in the end because Conservative Members were filibustering on matters to do with a European referendum. I therefore do not want take lessons from her about debate, discussion and protests, given that Mr. Cash spent a lot of time filibustering to make sure that we stayed on the question of a European referendum and did not reach any other matters.
I return now to the main issues. The amendment is defective, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wishes it to be defeated. It would not achieve the aim set out by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. I support the contention made by the hon. Member for Cambridge and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, which was that protests are a valuable part of a democratic society. We might not like or appreciate the noise, but people's right to make it is one that I think we must defend. I therefore urge the hon. Member for Epping Forest to withdraw her amendment and to ensure that it is not pressed to a Division.
The general purpose of the Bill is clear. In conjunction with the House authorities, we have tried to ensure that we allow proper protests in Parliament square, but we have also tried to make sure that hon. Members have free access to the House. The police are required to ensure that people can have access to Parliament, and they are able to act accordingly.
What is distinct about Parliament that might justify provisions that are different from those that apply elsewhere? That is the central question running through our review of the legislative framework. We believe that while we must allow Parliament to exercise its democratic functions, we must also ensure that people are allowed to protest, because the right to protest is a valuable part of our democratic society.
I am conscious of the time, and I want to ensure that we reach a conclusion on this matter. I hope that the hon. Member for Epping Forest will withdraw the amendment. Her amendments are defective and should be opposed. If they are pressed to a Division, I would urge the House to reject them.