"My Lords, I absolutely believe in everyone’s right to protest within the law. That is exactly what we are aiming to do. We are intent on repealing this provision, which clearly was not a clever thing to have done in the first place."
- Lord West of Spithead
Monday, 16 March 2009.
Parliament Square: Right to Protest
Asked By Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in restoring the right to protest in Parliament Square without police permission.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, we announced our intention to repeal the current provisions covering demonstrations around Parliament in March 2008 as part of the programme of constitutional renewal. As I informed the noble Baroness in my Written Answer of 15 January, we remain strongly committed to constitutional renewal and our aim is to bring a Bill forward as soon as parliamentary time allows. We expect that to be later this Session.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but we are still waiting for anything to happen that makes protest take the place that it should have in our democracy. Does the Minister realise that in the mean time it has become an incredible ordeal to protest? Not only is your name taken and your number plate recognised but if you refuse to give your name your credit card will be asked for, and if you obstruct the police you will of course then be up on a charge. This is criminalising protest. Will the Minister ensure that the guidance from the Home Office and the actions of the police move in the opposite direction so that we never see another Kingsnorth policed as it was, with climate protesters being treated as they were?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I understand the frustration about this issue and there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the responses we had when we asked for them were for this measure to be totally repealed. However, the Joint Committee raised a number of other things to be looked at, which we are doing. We want to ensure that we have a sensible package in the Bill when it is introduced. With regard to Kingsnorth, I would need to look at that and consider exactly what was said there before I made any response about it.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, will the Bill that the Minister has just announced is coming have retrospective effect?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, so far as I understand, there will be nothing retrospective in it.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the police will do everything they can to facilitate peaceful protest during the coming G20 summit rather than obstructing it and praying in aid terrorism laws that were not introduced for that purpose?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am sure that that is exactly how the police will behave. This whole issue is interesting. I was struck by Lord Justice Laws’s judgment in the case regarding Aldermaston. This quotation is not overlong, and it is worth repeating:
“Rights worth having are unruly things. Demonstrations and protests are liable to be a nuisance. They are liable to be inconvenient and tiresome, or at least perceived as such by others who are out of sympathy with them. Sometimes they are wrong-headed and misconceived”.
To paraphrase him, he said that demonstrations are, however, important for our democracy and that they should go ahead.
Lord Pannick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State for Justice told your Lordships’ Constitution Committee on 28 January that he recognised that the restrictions on free speech in and around Parliament—let us not forget that restrictions apply to a distance of one kilometre from Parliament—are widely regarded as “rather oppressive”, and were “inappropriately” included in the 2005 Act? Does the Minister agree that the Government should learn a lesson from this episode and listen more carefully in the future when noble Lords tell them that their legislative proposals are an unnecessary or disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as I said before, the Government are quite unequivocal about the fact that they intend to repeal these provisions, and we see that they were wrong. Certainly, speaking for myself, I constantly listen very carefully to what is said in this House, and I make sure that statements in the House are taken account of when we look at legislation.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, despite the Government’s complacency—it is a year now since it was announced that the provisions would be repealed—how many people have been denied the right to protest in and around Parliament in the one-kilometre radius since the law came into effect? Can the Minister give us those figures?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we are not complacent about this at all. As I say, we are moving forward with this. We have listened to what was said. I think that the way it was brought in was wrong. It was brought in for very good reasons; people thought it would help because there are issues of access to the House, security and noise, but it was clearly a very blunt, heavy-handed instrument. It was not right and we have recognised that. We will repeal it and we are working very hard to do that. I am afraid that I do not have the actual numbers at my fingertips, but I shall get back to the noble Baroness in writing on those.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, bearing in mind that there is virtual political unity on the necessity to repeal the 2005 Act, and that the Prime Minister announced as soon as he was appointed that this Act would be repealed, why has it taken so long to get down to it? Finally, will people who assemble outside Parliament be able to take photographs of policemen?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I had hoped that I had covered that through a sequencing, but, basically, the Joint Committee was established in April 2008. It published its report in July 2008. It supported the repeal of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. I think all of us agree that it should go, and that is what we are moving towards. However, it identified a number of other things such as access to Parliament, noise and security, which need to be addressed. We are looking at all these issues in terms of tying them together in the constitutional renewal Bill. It is our absolute intention to go with that. As someone who comes from the military, I agree that sometimes the speed of things within government seems slightly slow, but, of course, we have to look at all aspects and it is rather tricky sometimes, but we are pushing that very hard indeed.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, when the new Bill to allow protest around Parliament is introduced, will it extend the area where people can protest to the grass in Parliament Square? However, as a precursor to that, you would have to get rid of that ghastly encampment. That would benefit us, the general population and, indeed, the image of Parliament.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the knotty problem of who owns which bit of Parliament Square and how to get rid of Mr Haw’s permanent site there, so to speak, is a very tricky one. The gardens belong to the GLA, which through a by-law has now stopped people using them. However, Westminster City Council has been unable to stop them being on the pavement. I fear that it will be something as prosaic as an American lawyer breaking his ankle while trying to go along that pavement—rather than legislation—which will cause such a furore in terms of cost that they will have to move.
Lord Brookman: My Lords, it is now 25 years since the famous, or infamous miners’, strike. I am sure that those on these Benches have more confidence than those on the other Benches that the Government will get a fair deal for working people who wish to protest.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I absolutely believe in everyone’s right to protest within the law. That is exactly what we are aiming to do. We are intent on repealing this provision, which clearly was not a clever thing to have done in the first place.