I have brought Amendments 133A and 133B before the House because Clause 59 has been too tightly drawn. It will prohibit large, peaceful and well-organised demonstrations taking place in Parliament Square at any time, even at the weekend, if there was any danger that the weight of numbers would obstruct a vehicle going into Parliament or even, in the words of the clause, make
“the passage of a vehicle more difficult”.
Parliament Square is the temple of protest. It is where the people of this country have gathered for centuries to voice their opposition to government policies, hoping their concerns will penetrate the walls of Parliament. In 2002, more than 400,000 people attended the countryside march. In 2018 and 2019, millions came to the People’s Vote and Brexit day celebration marches, and the women’s march drew thousands to support women’s rights. All ended with massed but organised protests in Parliament Square, all of which, by dint of huge numbers, will have obstructed the vehicle entrances to Parliament. I ask your Lordships to imagine the fury on all sides of the country if these were banned in future.
This is the mother of parliaments, outside which voters should gather to speak truth to power and where we, the parliamentarians who make the law, should hear them loud and clear. At this time, when politicians are seen to be out of touch with the feelings of the people, it is unconscionable that the House should pass a law shielding us from hearing what they have to say. A new poll shows that 79% of people disapprove of a ban, and 75% of them are Conservative voters.
The problem is that Clause 59, as with so much of Part 3 on public order, has been drafted to deal with the headlines about Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain deliberately blocking roads and bridges across the country and deliberately obstructing access to Parliament. The drafters have not considered the effect of the clause on large, peaceful protests outside Parliament.
I feel sure that many noble Lords have held protests outside Parliament and understand that permission first needs to be obtained from the GLA and the police. As it stands, the clause will make it impossible for the GLA, which controls the garden at the centre of Parliament Square, to give permission for any protest to take place if there is a danger of obstruction to Parliament by large numbers of protesters. The clause expands the controlled area beyond the garden to the roads and pavements of Parliament Square and half way up Whitehall, to the entrance of Downing Street. When granting permission, the GLA will now have to consider whether numbers of protesters will spill off the garden on to the road. The GLA considers 5,000 people to be the capacity of the garden. Any more will block the roads around Parliament Square.
These amendments are aimed purely at the permissions process between the GLA, other responsible bodies and the organisers of a protest. They are based on the existing wording granting the use of amplifying equipment in the square. They will ensure that large, peaceful protests continue to take place outside Parliament. I know that noble Lords will be worried that the wording of my amendments appears to give permission to protesters to obstruct vehicles; this is not the case. The police will still be involved in the consent process, requiring protesters to move on if they are deliberately blocking entrances to Parliament. Proposed new subsection (6) in Amendment 133B reinforces this by allowing the responsible person to withdraw an authorisation for a protest if the conditions are not being observed.
The Government and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are concerned that the police do not have powers to move on demonstrators who deliberately block access to Parliament. Even if these amendments are accepted, the powers granted in Clause 59 will still be available for the police to exercise. I urge the Minister to accept my amendments to ensure that Clause 59 does not cause an unintended ban on protests in Parliament Square. I know from talking to her that she does not want to become the Minister who bans protests outside Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, we support all the non-government amendments in this group. In particular, we agree that, just as protesters can be given permission to use amplification equipment in the vicinity of Parliament under existing legislation, large demonstrations should be able to block roads temporarily, given the necessary permission. We will vote for Amendments 133A and 133B should the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, divide the House.
My Lords, I have added my name to these amendments. I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, on his excellent introduction. This is the first time I have spoken this evening but my remarks apply to many other aspects of this Bill and many of the other areas that we are voting on.
There are some excellent and important measures in this Bill. I agree that banning dangerous or violent protestors is important; I am pleased that my noble friend the Minister said in an earlier debate that the law must protect the public and prevent extremist protests such as those by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. However, I respectfully suggest that the measures in Clause 59 are like using not a hammer but dynamite to crack a nut.
The Conservative Party has always championed law and order but also freedom of speech and expression, most importantly around Parliament Square—the very heart of our democracy. Amendments 133A and 133B would protect the public’s right to demonstrate and express views in Parliament Square, which is so important. I hope that colleagues on these Benches will consider supporting these important changes to the Bill.
I do not believe that the Government really intend to ban peaceful protest. My noble friend the Minister will assure the House that such protests can still proceed, and I have no doubt that she is sincere in that assurance. But I respectfully point out that, without these amendments, this legislation could prove a Trojan horse, allowing future Governments to introduce the shadow of repression into our country, and could represent a potential attack on the most fundamental freedoms of our democracy. We could allow this and any future Government to ban large demonstrations around Parliament Square on the basis of a ministerial diktat and police connivance. Indeed, the grounds on which such protests can be criminalised are quite flimsy. One example, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, mentioned, is proposed new subsection (4A)—to be inserted by Clause 59(3)(c)—which states that
“obstructing the passage of a vehicle includes making the passage of a vehicle more difficult.”
What does that mean? Is it a 30-second delay? Every large protest would be banned, which would effectively change the way our democracy has worked for centuries.
This country has a proud record of standing up to despots, authoritarian rulers and corrupt dictatorships. We have offered sanctuary to those fleeing repression, for which I will be eternally grateful. The most recent example is of Hong Kong residents fleeing Chinese repression, who witnessed their Government recently tearing down the statue memorialising the Tiananmen Square massacre. When those Hong Kong exiles arrive here and learn that this mother of all parliaments no longer allows large protests outside its door, at any time, what will they think?
Democratic Governments must not surround themselves only with yea-sayers, hearing only what they want or choose to hear and squashing dissent. I believe it is important for noble Lords to stand up for our cherished freedoms, prevent any descent into authoritarian rule and support these wholly reasonable amendments to this Bill.
My Lords, my name is also added to the amendment in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, which he moved so eloquently and comprehensively. I really do not want to take up any more of the House’s time, but simply say that we support this amendment and what was said by him, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. If the noble Viscount is not happy with the response he gets and decides to test the opinion of the House, we will support him in the vote.
My Lords, these amendments relate to Clauses 59 and 60, which ensure—as was originally proposed by the right honourable Harriet Harman, as chair of the JCHR, to whom we send our deepest sympathies—that vehicular access to the Parliamentary Estate is not prevented by protests or other activity; and Clause 61, which restates the common-law offence of public nuisance in statute.
I begin with Amendments 133A and 133B in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, which I was able to discuss with him and Dominic Grieve last week. They seek to avoid a perceived outcome of Clause 59 that the Greater London Authority will no longer authorise large-scale assemblies on Parliament Square, due to the risk that such assemblies could obstruct vehicles entering or exiting the controlled area around Parliament.
I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for meeting me last week to raise his concerns about Clause 59. I understand that he is concerned that this clause may have the unintended consequences that the Greater London Authority, which is responsible for Parliament Square Garden, would no longer be able to authorise assemblies in the garden if they risk blocking vehicular access to the Parliamentary Estate. I reassure him tonight, as I did the other day, that this is not the case.
The GLA’s by-laws for Parliament Square Garden require that written permission is granted for certain acts to be conducted in the garden; organising or taking part in an assembly is one of those acts. It is important to note that this by-law applies to the garden itself and does not extend to Carriage Gates, nor the road around the garden. The by-laws state that permission will not be given in respect of any matter defined as a “prohibited activity” under Section 143 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. Clause 59 amends this section to include obstructing the passage of a vehicle into or out of an entrance or exit to the Parliamentary Estate as a prohibited activity.
In practice, this means that the GLA could not permit an assembly in Parliament Square Garden if its stated and primary aim is to obstruct vehicular passage in and out of Parliament. However, nothing in Clause 59 means that permission could not still be granted for any other assembly, even if that risks some individuals in attendance obstructing vehicles entering and exiting Parliament. This is the point I was trying to impress the other day.
Amendments 134 and 135 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, would strike out Clauses 59 and 60. I know why he wants to remove them. The JCHR has made it clear that protecting access to Parliament is crucial in ensuring that our democracy can function effectively, and these measures give effect to this recommendation, as I set out earlier. I am sure that all noble Lords across the House will agree that unimpeded access to our legislature is fundamental to the effective functioning of Parliament.
Amendment 140, also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, would remove Clause 61. As I made clear in Committee, this clause enacts a recommendation of the Law Commission regarding the common-law offence of public nuisance. This new statutory offence both simplifies and clarifies the existing common-law offence, with two significant changes to narrow its scope; namely, raising the fault element of the offence and introducing a defence of reasonableness. If we strike out Clause 61, the effect would be to leave in place the common-law offence with its wider reach and higher maximum penalty. The aim of the Law Commission is to ensure that the law is fair, modern and simple. Clause 61 delivers on that objective.
Amendment 137A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, would remove “disease” from the definition of serious harm in relation to the new public nuisance offence. As I made clear in my response to a similar amendment in Committee, it is right that someone who either deliberately or recklessly places the public at harm by spreading a disease should face the consequences of their actions. The Law Commission recommended the inclusion of disease within the list of serious harms covered by the offence and I see no reason for excluding it now.
That said, having reflected on the debate in Committee, we agree that there are some improvements that can and should be made to the drafting of Clause 61, and the government amendments in this group are directed to this end. Amendments 136 and 137 concern the meaning of serious harm to the public. In its report on the Bill, the JCHR raised concerns that the new offence could be read as
“where serious harm is caused to one person rather than the public or a section of the public”.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for highlighting this point in Committee. As a result, Amendment 137 removes the references to “the person” when defining serious harm, making it clear that, in the context of public nuisance, serious harm must be caused to the public or to a section of the public.
To further improve the clarity of the new offence, Amendment 136 places the element of the offence where a person’s act or omission creates a risk of serious harm into subsection (1). This will make placing the public or a section of the public at risk of serious harm an element of the offence rather than part of the definition of serious harm itself.
Finally, Amendments 138 and 139 clarify that the existing tort of public nuisance will continue to exist and will not be affected by the new statutory offence of public nuisance. I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for raising the issue in Committee, and I hope that these amendments will reassure him on this point.
This House plays a vital role as a revising Chamber, but Amendments 134, 135 and 140 adopt rather a blunderbuss approach to these clauses, simply seeking to strike them wholesale from the Bill. Were these amendments to be agreed by noble Lords, the effect would be to send a signal that it was acceptable to prevent noble Lords accessing this place and that your Lordships’ House did not support well-argued recommendations from the Law Commission to simplify and clarify the law. I invite noble Lords to reject Amendments 134, 135 and 140 and support the government amendments. On Amendments 133A and 133B, I hope that I have been able to persuade the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, that it will still very much be possible for protests to take place in the vicinity of Parliament—as it should be—and that he will withdraw his amendment.
I thank those from all over the House who have supported this amendment. I hope the Minister will listen very carefully to the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, about the sort of example we are setting to the refugees from Hong Kong, for instance.
I have listened very carefully to the words of the Minister who claims that this clause will not cause any problems for giving permission for large protests on Parliament Square. The lawyers I have talked to have said that the GLA will, under the by-law, particularly since it is now having to look at this extended area around the garden, have to take into account the sheer numbers and the effect of those numbers on obstructing vehicles. If there are half a million people taking part in a protest, inevitably they are going to obstruct vehicles, whether they mean to or not—of course they are. The GLA, I suppose, could cordon off the whole garden so that protesters could not go on to it, but it would make a bit of a nonsense and I do not think that is what the people of this country would want. Therefore, I would still like this amendment to be part of the Bill and I therefore want to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 236, Noes 158.