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Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 6th April 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State (Criminal Justice System and Law Reform), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 5:30 pm, 6th April 2005

To this extent, my Lords. We still passionately believe in the freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate. We are proud, too, of the right, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, to assemble before Parliament to demonstrate before the elected Members.

I should also like to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that we similarly believe that great credit should be given to our democracy for that ability to protest. We do not believe that the controls that we put in place are capricious, as she fears; they have to be judiciously and reasonably exercised. It is incumbent on any commissioner who has this duty and capacity to exercise that power reasonably. As she knows, there are perfectly robust ways of ensuring that the proper exercise of that power is maintained and is not capriciously used. It will therefore be incumbent on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to act reasonably. Therefore, it is putting the case far too high to suggest that it would be impossible for reasonable protest to continue.

I remind the House that although it is reasonably understood, the concern that has been expressed is not justified. These clauses would require protesters to give prior notice of their protest to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. However, he or she is obliged—I emphasise that word—to authorise the demonstration. It will, however, be open to him or her to attach conditions to the authorisation where necessary; for example, to safeguard the operation of Parliament or to prevent a security risk in the area. "Necessary" is an important word. If you can combine necessity with reasonableness, then it is quite clear that the power would have to be judiciously and properly exercised.

The Government believe that no point in the designated area may be more than one kilometre in a straight line from the point nearest to it in Parliament Square. I say straightaway to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that I understand his preference to use the old ways of defining distance rather than metres. I have that prejudice myself. However, in this we have to move with the times, and it would be more appropriate to remain in kilometres.

I can assure the House that the Government intend to lay an order on the precise area to be covered. We intend to consult with the Metropolitan Police on this area so that it covers the area where the demonstrations that disrupt the work of Parliament and hinder access to the House take place. In this Bill we do not want to restrict unnecessarily the area that will be covered.

As I indicated yesterday, we are aware of concerns about the designated area taking in Trafalgar Square, a matter which has been raised in this House on a number of occasions. The House can be assured that in exercising the order-making power we shall ensure that Trafalgar Square is excluded. As a result, demonstrations could continue there without the need for prior notification from the commissioner.

The nature of a demonstration may well change during the course of the demonstration, and as such it is entirely appropriate that the senior officer on the ground should be able to vary the conditions to reflect the changing conditions. That is already the case. Under the Public Order Act, in the case of processions, the senior officer on the scene could attach additional conditions in certain circumstances; for example, if there is a serious threat of disorder. So that is not a new change; it merely confirms the position that has existed for some time.

I turn to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on timing. The Government have responded to the concerns expressed about the requirement to give at least six days' notice of any demonstration. In Committee yesterday, the House agreed an amendment that recognises that there should be provision for a shorter period of notice—24 hours—in exceptional circumstances. For example, a demonstration may be organised as a response to an event that could not be foreseen, precisely as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said. An important issue could spring up at very short notice and it would be important to demonstrate about it. This provision allows that to take place in a way that is proper.

The Government believe that the notice period is an essential part of these provisions, so that the commissioner is able to consider the circumstances of the demonstration and its likely effect on the work of Parliament and the security of the area around it. He can then set conditions that are appropriate and proportionate. The Government have recognised that there may be occasions when demonstrations are organised as a response to events that, as I said, could not have been foreseen. We have therefore shortened the notice in response.

So what we have done both on the ambit of the designated area and the notice period is to respond in what we hope is a positive and sensible way to the concerns that have been properly expressed. I make it clear that it is no part of the Government's intent to restrict the proper demonstrations that should continue to occur on those matters about which the public feel strongly. That is a fundamental part of our democracy, of which we are justly proud.