Clause 123 - Directions as to behaviour in vicinity of parliament

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:00 pm on 20th January 2005.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:00 pm, 20th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 191, in clause 123, page 87, line 14, at end insert 'or'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 190, in clause 123, page 87, line 15, leave out from 'Parliament' to end of line 17.

No. 192, in clause 123, page 87, line 36, after 'officers', insert

', being of or above the rank of inspector,'.

No. 193, in clause 123, page 88, line 9, leave out 'one kilometre' and insert '100 metres'.

No. 307, in clause 123, page 88, line 9, leave out 'one kilometre' and insert '250 metres'.

No. 194, in clause 123, page 88, line 11, leave out subsection (11).

No. 308, in clause 123, page 88, line 12, leave out paragraph (a).

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We have just come out of two extremely serious debates. One on the appropriate response to animal extremism and one on the proper way of dealing with incitement to religious hatred. The Government had serious things to say about both of those subjects and we can engage in a proper debate.

Clause 123 is similar to the earlier debate on the proposal to extend the power of arrest to absolutely anybody for absolutely anything. It is an example where the Government have gone completely bonkers. I really do not understand how they can bring forward such disproportionate proposals. This clause deals with the behaviour in the vicinity of Parliament. There is at the core one serious issue, which is the fact that Sessional Orders have been debated and it has been determined that they have no effect. I believe that it is important to the liberty of this country that there is free access to this Parliament. I do not want anything I say to be interpreted as meaning that it is all right for people to prevent Members of this House from coming here and exercising their democratic duty on behalf of their constituents. There are parts of clause 123 that it is sensible to have in statute if there is any doubt whatsoever as to what the duties of the Metropolitan Police are in respect of providing free access to this House.

There is in this clause a totally different proposition, which is based on the long-standing demonstration that has taken place in Parliament square ever since the advent of the Iraq War. I set aside any sympathies I may have for the cause professed by those who are demonstrating. It does not matter whether I happen to agree with them or they happen to agree with me in terms of the war. What I cannot believe is that the Government, in response to a demonstration that they happen not to like, in a place where they happen not to want it to be, are prepared to bring forward not a civil remedy to provide for an injunction, but a new   criminal offence and the power for a police officer, in the rank of constable, to give a direction to someone who is

''spoiling the visual aspect, or otherwise spoiling the enjoyment by members of the public, of any part of the designated area.''

In other words, a constable can decide that somebody looks untidy in Parliament square. Furthermore, on that basis they can apply an order with the force of law that excludes that person not just from Parliament square but from a radius of 1 km around Parliament square. I have taken care to map that area out so that I know exactly where these people might be excluded from. The area extends to Waterloo station and then goes right the way up to beyond Trafalgar square and across to Buckingham palace. It means that they would not be able to catch their train home if they happened to want to use Waterloo, Victoria, or Charing Cross, because they will be excluded from those areas by the fiat of a constable who thinks that they look untidy.

This is a reduction to the absurd of the powers that the Government apparently wish to exert here. And for what? In order to deal with somebody exercising their democratic right to protest in a free society. I cannot see the argument for it. If—it is a big if—the permanent demonstration is a nuisance, there are grounds for applying an injunction against a nuisance. The proper remedy is in the civil courts, and if the Government do not believe that they can get satisfaction from the civil courts, they must try harder, or examine the arrangements for applying for an injunction in the civil courts.

I do not believe that this way of dealing with the problem—if it is a problem, which I do not accept—is the right way to do it. My amendments therefore question almost every part of the clause.

First, I question whether it is proper to include subsection 2(c), which refers to behaviour that is

''spoiling the visual aspect, or otherwise'' because I do not believe that that matter is germane to the operation of Parliament.

Secondly, I question whether it is appropriate for a police officer below the rank of inspector to take the decisions necessary under the clause. The clause provides that the powers should be exercised by the senior officer present, but the senior officer present could be a constable, and I do not believe that that is acceptable.

Thirdly, I question why a radius of 1 km is specified. That is clearly excessive. Even if one accepts all the other premises behind the proposal, a radius of 1 km is excessive and, to test the Minister, I have included the proposal to substitute a radius of 100 m.

I make my final point to seek clarification of the clause. Subsections (2)(a) and (b) contain serious considerations; if someone is preventing a Member of Parliament from going about their duties, that is a serious matter. Why, then, do the provisions not apply to someone who is engaged in conduct that is lawful under section 220 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992? Why should they be able to impede a Member of Parliament? Moreover, why do the provisions not apply to someone who is   taking part in a public procession of the kind mentioned in section 11(1) of the Public Order Act 1986? Why can they hinder any person from entering or leaving the Palace of Westminster or hinder the proper operation of Parliament? The clause is an absurdity. Unless the Minister can satisfy me on the points that I have raised—she will not be able to because the provisions are patently absurd—I shall have no option but to vote against the clause at the appropriate time.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I have considerable sympathy with the points that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome makes, as he will be aware from the fact that we have joined our names to his amendment. However, I also have some sympathy with those who consider that the current permanent encampment on the middle of Parliament square outside Parliament is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. I am a great believer in the right of the public to demonstrate, but it seems to me that a permanent demonstration, which rather than just being sited day after day in the same place, has become what amounts to an encampment, is excessive.

Having said that, I am concerned about legislation that has been put together to deal with that problem. It is clear that although the intention of subsection (2)(c), which refers to behaviour that is

''spoiling the visual aspect, or otherwise spoiling the enjoyment by members of the public, of any part of the designated area'' is clearly targeted at the particular activity that has been taking place day after day, week after week and month after month outside Parliament, it could also operate to prevent any demonstration taking place there, even one of a limited kind, on the grounds that it spoils the visual aspect.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

A person does not even have to demonstrate; they just have to look unpleasant.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

As the hon. Gentleman says, one just has to stand there. It seems to me that the provisions of the clause are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They are conferring powers that make me uncomfortable. The Minister will have to provide detailed justification for why the provisions are necessary.

I also share the puzzlement of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome as to why existing law cannot deal with the problem on Parliament square. I can see that other provisions in the section could have a general application that is worthy. Again, I share entirely the view of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the exception for the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 is bizarre, although I do not share his view about a public procession because, in such a case, one has to get prior permission. I can, therefore, see that that is a justifiable exception.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do not entirely understand why the hon. Gentleman accepts that. It does not matter whether prior permission has been given; if a   procession, although it is legal in terms of having gained prior permission, impedes a Member of Parliament attending a vote, it is equally culpable.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The hon. Gentleman may be wrong, because Standing Orders of the House apply even in the event of a public procession, so the rights of Members of Parliament not to be impeded in entering the House of Commons would persist even if there were a demonstration. The Minister can doubtless clarify that.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My understanding was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had indicated that he did not believe that he had the powers to execute the Sessional Orders given by Parliament to require that very thing. That is one of the reasons, I believe, why we have subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b).

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I appreciate that, and this would, doubtless, potentially replace that part of the Sessional Orders. On the other hand, it is worth bearing in mind when looking at subsection (11)(b), that as written notice has to be given for a demonstration under the Public Order Act 1986, if a demonstration were being properly conducted, one could expect provision to be made to ensure that Members of Parliament could continue to have access to Parliament while it was taking place. Let us face it, I can think of a number of demonstrations outside Parliament during the past eight years that have made access very difficult. Indeed, I can think of even more in the dim and distant past when people expressed their opinions even more vociferously than they do today. I am not over-troubled by that, but I share the view that there is something slightly wacky about putting in an exemption for the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and not for anything else.

The other amendment, which the Minister will have seen, suggests a designated area of 250 m. I share the view that 1 km is a very wide area. It covers, rather conveniently, the whole central Government area in London. That has nothing to do with demonstrations outside Parliament. I cannot possibly support a 1 km total exclusion zone round the Palace of Westminster. It must be drawn far more narrowly and I suggest that it would be sensible to draw it with reference to a map, rather than just putting a circle round the edges of Parliament square. That would be a better way of achieving the desired effect. It is possible to come quite a long way into Parliament square without causing a problem. I wait to hear what the Minister has to say, but I feel that aspects of the clause are excessive.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

We had an extensive debate on the Floor of the House on this issue, and members of all parties made their views known, including the Shadow Leader of the House, who welcomed clarification on the matter. Let me deal with the questions of processions, marches and trade unions. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has highlighted, legislation exists to deal with disruptive demonstrations in Parliament square; marches have to be agreed with the   Metropolitan police service, which can place conditions on them that include not impeding the workings of Parliament.

Secondly, there are strict rules under trade union legislation with regard to the way in which pickets can be organised, and those cover the obstruction of people accessing workplaces. Therefore, we oppose the amendments because they will take away the protection of trade unionists, some of whom work in this building, to exercise their rights. The current legislation covers how a picket line can be organised and how industrial protests can take place, and that includes tackling obstruction. It does not contradict the clauses before us.

Amendment No. 190 removes the police's option of giving a direction to anyone spoiling the visual aspect or otherwise spoiling enjoyment by members of the public of any part of the designated area. That was debated on the Floor of the House. A number of people are concerned about the proliferation of banners, posters, placards, chairs and camp beds outside the Houses of Parliament. That is not just the Mayor of London: the Conservative-run Westminster council tried, through civil proceedings, to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, it failed; the judgment went against it. It is not for want of trying other ways to deal with the issue.

We are not against people protesting in Parliament square. The measures before us today will not prevent that. They will still ensure that people have a right to protest, but there is an issue about the conditions in which that protest should take place. There is clear guidance under present legislation on what directions and conditions can be laid down for procession or assemblies of more than two people, but we have found a gap. The fact that Parliament square is an important world heritage site should be taken into consideration. As a constituency MP, I would not be happy about some of the heritage sites in my constituency being surrounded by those sorts of display. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome may surprise me here, but would he be prepared to tell his constituents that he would be happy to have what we currently have in Parliament square at any of the heritage sites in his constituency?

The provision is about proportion and saying that people can carry placards. Perhaps one direction can be that people can have as many placards as they individually can carry. That might be a way of people demonstrating their point of view with a visual display. It is about what is proportionate. We live in a country where anyone can come into the House of Commons and seek their MP in Central Lobby. There are countless ways in which they can make their views known. It is unfair to suggest that we are somehow denying people their democratic right to protest.

Amendment No. 192 asks that the officer who gives the direction must be at least of the rank of inspector. That would cause operational difficulties for the police   if there were not an inspector at the scene and they had to wait for an inspector to impose the direction. I am sure that hon. Members whose passage to the House was being blocked would be unhappy if a sergeant or constable at the scene explained that they could not impose a direction until an inspector had arrived. We have the added safeguard that the officer who gives the direction should be the most senior in rank at the scene. That is in line with current powers to impose conditions on public assemblies in section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986.

Amendments Nos. 307 and 193 seek to limit the area to which this applies. I understand where the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Beaconsfield are coming from on this issue. We intend to lay an order with a precise area to be covered, and we intend to consult the Metropolitan police. It will cover the area where the demonstrations will disrupt the work of Parliament and hinder access to the House. Parliament could mean Millbank, 1 Parliament street or Norman Shaw. We have to map out the buildings of Parliament that would be affected. Unfortunately 1 km may be excessive, but 100 m or 250 m might not incorporate some of those other buildings.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 6:15 pm, 20th January 2005

That makes much more sense. I suggest that we have a definitive map showing the area in which it would operate, so that everyone can understand exactly what the consequences would be.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

That is a fair point. As I say, it will ensure that parliamentary buildings are covered.

Amendments Nos. 194 and 308 would remove the exemptions for legitimate trade union disputes and marches that are notified in advance. I hope that I have explained why it is not appropriate to remove those provisions. We want to make it clear to the police that they cannot use those powers for those who are peacefully picketing but for those whose offices are in a designated area. It is therefore appropriate that the police can use those powers against those who are frustrating the workings of Parliament.

I have no more to say. We have tried to resolve matters in a number of ways, but we have not been successful. We want to make sure that people can protest, but there are limits on how they should be able to do it, and we have to take account of how it affects Parliament.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am most grateful to the Minister for her response. It is a difficult issue. I am concerned about the encampment that exists for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, but I am equally nervous about the approach taken in clause 123. On Second Reading, I said that I thought that it would be appropriate for the matter to be decided on Report, as it clearly will be, because there is still a range of views across the House on the right   way to deal with the problem. There are other ways of dealing with it apart from the way enshrined in the clause, but I am in two minds over the matter.

It may help if I say that the advice that we will be giving through the usual channels is not to Whip the vote on Report on this question. I do not know whether that advice will be taken, but on that basis we would seek to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I hear what the Minister says, but as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield says, the words sledgehammer and nut are not far from my mind. What was said does not hold water. I was asked whether I had any heritage buildings in my constituency outside which I would not want to see demonstrations. I have heritage buildings in my constituency, but none of them has been the country's Parliament for about 1,100 years. I feel that Parliament is different. It is where the nation's democratic decisions are made, and it is a proper place for people to demonstrate and to express their views, whether in support of or against what we decide here. It is rather different from the normal run of historic buildings.

I am glad that the Minister is reconsidering her 1km zone, but I bet that when we get the definitive map, it will not cover only parliamentary buildings. I bet that it goes up Whitehall. I shall be amazed if the Government do not wish also to protect the surroundings of 10 Downing street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but we shall see. I give her the benefit of the doubt—for the moment.

When it comes to the rank of inspector, I find it quite mind-boggling, and it should not be. We are asked to believe that the power is not necessary to deal with people in a lawful procession who hinder access to the House. I presume that there are powers for a sergeant to take immediate action. So, in the time that it takes to assess that someone is

''spoiling the visual aspect, or otherwise spoiling the enjoyment by members of the public of any part of the designated area'' it seems that there will not be time to find a police officer of the rank of inspector to decide whether to apply an exclusion. It must be such an instant assessment that someone looks so untidy that a constable or a sergeant has to deal with it at that moment. That is nonsense, and I hope the Minister will reflect on just what nonsense she is perpetrating.

I am still utterly unconvinced by this clause. If Mr. Brian Haw reads the report of these proceedings, I hope he will realise that his best course of action is to join the allied and federated union of anti-war protesters and allied trades, because then he will be able to continue exactly what he is doing at the moment, without lawful impediment. I will withdraw my amendments today, but will seek to vote against clause stand part. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put: That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes  9, Noes 2.

Division number 12 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 123 - Directions as to behaviour in vicinity of parliament

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 2 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 123 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 124 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 129 and 130 ordered to stand part of the Bill.