Asked by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that roads in central London, including those leading to the Houses of Parliament, are clear and free from obstruction and what is their assessment of the performance of the Metropolitan Police in this regard.
My Lords, the right to protest peacefully is a long-standing tradition in this country. However, this does not extend to unlawful behaviour and the police have powers to deal with such acts. The use of these powers, and the management of demonstrations, are operational matters for the police. The Government have been clear that they expect a firm stance to be taken against protestors who significantly disrupt the lives of others.
My Lords, what then is the meaning of the sessional order passed by this House at the beginning of this Session? It reads:
“It was ordered that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis do take care that the passages through the streets leading to this House be kept free and open and that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of Lords to and from this House during the sitting of Parliament; or to hinder Lords in the pursuit of their Parliamentary duties on the Parliamentary Estate”.
The failure of the commissioner to comply with that Motion resulted in a number of disabled colleagues being unable to leave the House yesterday because taxis and other vehicles were not able to come here and they were not able to walk considerable distances in the rain. It resulted in a huge disruption to business. I ate in a restaurant last night where there was only one occupied table; all the others had been cancelled. It resulted in congestion throughout the city, adding to pollution. Surely my noble friend needs to intervene, or is this just another example of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, doing her best and it not being good enough?
I empathise with most of what my noble friend has just said. He is absolutely right about pollution: central London is now gridlocked, with nobody able to get in or out. The effect on businesses is quite disgraceful, particularly small businesses such as restaurants. This morning, I had to step over people to get into the Home Office, so I absolutely take his point about disabled Members of this House and the other place. It has been difficult enough to get in here when you are able-bodied, never mind if you are disabled.
I observed something else this morning. I took the bus in and it was apparent that the bus could get me only to Piccadilly Circus. It was fine for me, because I could walk, but people who cannot afford to take the Tube were forced to do so this morning or they would not have got in. That particularly stands for disabled people, so I completely accept my noble friend’s point. I know that the police are in discussion and that half the sites have now been cleared, but we are endeavouring to clear the other half.
My Lords, as Speaker of the House of Commons over many years I read out the sessional orders that were accepted by the House at the beginning of every Session. Later that day it was always confirmed to me that they had been received by the police, were understood and were being carried out. I am not an anti-demonstrator. I confess to your Lordships with pride that, as a young person, I carried the banner at many demonstrations in central London, but in those days the police were in control of me as a demonstrator. Now it seems to me that the demonstrators are in control of the police. When is that going to change? When will we have some sensible methods of getting into our work and carrying out the democratic process in this building?
I completely agree with the noble Baroness: for an ordinary member of the public, the balance feels to have been skewed. I understand that the Met was last in contact this morning and, as I said, half the sites have now been cleared, but nobody should be in the position where they simply cannot access their place of work, not least the people making laws in this country.
My Lords, it is not often that I am driven to protect the reputation of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, but on this occasion I think that some balance has been achieved. I deeply regret that any Members were not able to get in but, if we are going to talk about gridlock, is the Minister aware that the gridlock on Lambeth Bridge this morning was from cars, and almost every car had a single occupant? They were also, of course, polluting. On air pollution, is the Minister aware that air pollution levels in central London have probably dropped—I monitor this quite closely—simply because our roads are full of brave Extinction Rebellion planet protectors, rather than filthy, dirty cars?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness about balance, and that is what the Met police are trying to achieve, but I cannot agree with her about the Extinction Rebellion protesters. I have had a little campaign of my own over the past 24 hours, which has been to go around photographing single-use plastics, which are strewn all over Westminster. The amount of pollution caused by the gridlocked cars is unbelievable, and the pictures of very old diesel 4x4s going along country roads on Sunday, as if somehow making a difference to the planet, were just ridiculous.
My Lords, we are all very glad that this is a peaceful demonstration, but it makes life very difficult for those of us who are disabled, particularly Members of this House who find walking very hard. At least we have wheels under us. What advice does the Minister have for us for next week, particularly starting on Monday? How will we get to the House to take part in debates on the Queen’s Speech? The weather may turn bad, and if there are no cars to bring us here, it will make life very difficult.
I understand that the protesters will not disrupt the Queen’s Speech. It would be quite ironic if they did, given that she will arrive in a horse and cart and they are driving trucks to London.
Or a carriage. We can be sure that she will get here by a very green method indeed. The noble Baroness might say that it is peaceful; it feels peaceful but with sinister undertones.
My Lords, how do Ministers respond to the legitimate argument made by many of the demonstrators, that only demonstrations that irritate or annoy the establishment ever have any effect?
I do not think that is true. We talked about balance earlier; we are a country that absolutely allows for peaceful protest. We are talking about people not being able to get into work, businesses being disrupted and the disabled of your Lordships’ House and the other place not being able to get to their place of work. That is slightly different. It is absolutely vital that the people of this country are able to protest peacefully, but not to disrupt the entire infrastructure of the city of London.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that much more serious than any of the factors mentioned so far is the fact that patients who are ill have been prevented getting into St Thomas’ Hospital? That is a scandal. Doctors cannot get in there either to treat them. What will be done about it? It is a monstrous situation.
I agree with my noble friend that it is monstrous. People may be unable to seek medical treatment or, indeed, emergency treatment in St Thomas’. Exactly the same thing happened in Bristol, where somebody could not get to see their dying parent, who died before they could get to see them. It is monstrous. As I said, half the sites are now cleared, and I hope that the area around St Thomas’ Hospital will be accessible to all those who need to go there.
My Lords, dealing with the nature and volume of demonstrations we are currently seeing is very resource-intensive. Does the Minister agree that the dramatic reductions in police numbers under this Government not only impact on day-to-day policing but reduce the resilience of the police and their ability to respond to such demonstrations?
Certainly, this current set of protests has been very resource-intensive. Obviously, the noble Lord will join me in being very pleased about the plans for 20,000 more police officers over the next three years.