Sir George initiated a debate in the House of Commons, asking the Government to take action to deal with the unsightly collection of placards, hoardings and flags which disfigure Parliament Square.
Parliament Square and Mr Haw's Shanty Town
The text of Sir George's speech appears below:
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me begin by thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting for debate this morning the subject of the Government's response to the Procedure Committee's report on Sessional Orders and resolutions. As of now, there is no response, despite the fact that it is six months to the day since the Procedure Committee published its report, on November 19. The Government have agreed to reply to Select Committee reports within two months of publication, and a longer delay of up to six months may be permitted with the acquiescence of the Committee concerned. There has been no such acquiescence in this case—on the contrary, the Chairman of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), whom I am delighted to see here today, myself and others have insistently and courteously prodded the Government for action during those six months, so far without result. I hope to flush the Government out during the course of this debate, and I am delighted to see the Deputy Leader of the House in his place. I understand that a reply may be published imminently. If it is, I propose to take some credit for that—
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I intend to give him some.
Sir George Young : I am delighted to hear that some credit is on its way, and I am sure that adequate time will be allowed for the ministerial response to this debate so that no short cuts can be taken with that tribute.
When my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the shadow Leader of the House, asked about a response on 6 May, no hint of any forthcoming response was given. The announcement on 12 May that this debate was to take place might have acted as something as a catalyst.
Although it is six months since the Procedure Committee reported, it is nearly three years since the problem in Parliament square, which the Committee investigated, manifested itself. That problem is, in the words of the Select Committee:
"the appearance of long-standing and visually unattractive demonstrations and the disruption of work in Members' and staff offices by noise from loudhailers used by demonstrators."
What I am after this morning is a balanced solution; a solution that respects an individual's right to protest—we are basically talking about one individual protesting—but also respects the rights of everyone else to appreciate and enjoy one of the most historic sites in the world, the rights of those who work in the vicinity to do so without constant disruption and harassment, and the rights of all who work in or visit the Palace not to have our security compromised. I will return to those three issues in a moment. One of my constituents has summarised the issue in two sentences:
"Parliament requires me to apply for planning permission for a satellite dish, which no one else can see. Yet Parliament ignores this desecration of a World Heritage site on its doorstep."
Nearly three years ago, in June 2001, Mr. Brian Haw, now 55, erected the familiar structures opposite the gates in New Palace Yard. He began by camping on the grass in Parliament square, but was moved on by the Greater London authority, which manages it. He has camped outside ever since, sleeping on the pavement under a plastic sheet, accompanied by an unsightly accumulation of placards, flags and hoardings, and assaulting the eardrums of anyone within range—audible graffiti on the walls of Parliament publicising his mini-shantytown. This is not a conventional demonstration of the type that we know, accept and sometimes enjoy, but an unacceptable visual and audible intrusion that risks becoming permanent. We can all make the distinction between a one-off demonstration that is here for a day and is targeted and disciplined—like those of the Countryside Alliance—and a permanent encampment with constant high-volume slogans and abuse. Mr. Haw is entitled to protest in the same way as anyone else, and in a free country there are many opportunities to do so. What is taking place is the exploitation of a legal loophole that a Select Committee has recommended should be closed, and on which the Government have so far failed to act.
The legal position is complex, but is well set out in the report. The pavement immediately opposite Carriage Gates is the responsibility of Westminster city council. The grass in the middle belongs to the Queen and is looked after by the GLA, whose policy it is not to allow demonstrations there. Mr. Haw is, as I have said, primarily on the pavement, not the grass. The Highways Act 1980 provides that the wilful obstruction of the highway without lawful authority or excuse constitutes a criminal offence and empowers the council to seek an injunction to prevent highway obstruction. When Westminster city council sought an injunction in October 2002 in the High Court to restrain Mr. Haw from obstructing the pavement, the Court found that a wilful obstruction of the highway was established; however, Mr. Justice Gray refused the injunction, referring to the European convention on human rights and freedom of expression and the fact that the pavement was lightly used. The Court concluded that the obstruction caused is not unreasonable—a decision with which I disagree.
The patience of many of us began to fray and in June 2003, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), a mild and tolerant man if there ever was one, tabled an early-day motion saying that the protest constituted harassment, with MPs and Commons staff having to put up with
"an unacceptable degree of loud hailer noise and sloganising."
Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): My staff and I and many other Members occupy offices in No. 1 Parliament street. On many occasions, the noise that is generated makes it impossible for us to continue our work. On a number of occasions when I have been studying complex papers, I have been forced to abandon my office and come over to the Library in order to get the peace and quiet necessary to do the work that is essential to my job as a Member of Parliament. Members of my staff, and other Members and their staff, have been equally compromised.
Sir George Young : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who occupies No. 1 Parliament street and is much closer to the noise than I am in Portcullis House. I take very seriously the difficulties that he and his staff have encountered.
In July last year, the Procedure Committee carried out its inquiry. It addressed sensitively the issue of Parliament square and produced a balanced and unanimous report. Its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, is in his place, but may have to attend a sitting the Modernisation Committee shortly. The Procedure Committee heard not only from those who supported the protest, but from the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk of the House, and the Metropolitan police. I quote the key sentence of the report, in paragraph 22:
"We therefore recommend that the Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations and to ensure that the laws about access are adequate and enforceable."
On the related issue of noise, the Committee recommended that the Government should consider legislation if existing legislation was inadequate. I believe that the past six months have shown that it is. It is those recommendations that I seek to promote in this morning's debate.
Of course the Committee gave weight to the right to protest. It heard evidence from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). It knew of the judgment in the Westminster city council case, which referred to the European convention on human rights, but the Committee's view, with which I strongly concur, was that such factors did not and could not justify what is happening in Parliament square. One Labour Member sitting on the Committee referred in the oral evidence to
"an incredibly unsightly display of what can only be described as rags and flags along the pavement outside Parliament Square."
The Archdeacon of Westminster protested about what is happening, referring to a "refined form of squalor" that
"defaces the symbolic heart of our capital".
Even the Mayor of London—no stranger to demonstrations—stated that his
"vision for the Square states that Parliament should be a symbolic and dignified place at the heart of government. Rallies and demonstrations on the square are not therefore considered appropriate due to the disruption that they will cause to both Parliament and to surrounding traffic systems."
What a paradox that a demonstration that even Ken Livingstone finds inappropriate should be tolerated by Parliament.
We know that Mr. Speaker shares the concern. The Procedure Committee report states:
"Mr Speaker has for some time been concerned about the use of Parliament Square for unsightly and occasionally disruptive demonstrations."
Giving evidence, the Serjeant at Arms said that the demonstration:
"causes me great concern on security grounds".
He added that it
"could provide cover for someone more malicious than Mr Haw."
In her evidence to the Committee, the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety said:
"I can see that perhaps there is a gap in the law that needs to be filled".
She went on to say:
"Our view is that if we need to legislate then that is what we will do . . . So if there is a case for clarifying our law and perhaps some new powers as well, then certainly we would not be reluctant to take that forward".
Finally, she said:
"I think the particular issue raised by the Commissioner around noise is something which is increasingly becoming a difficulty for us because it can veer from something which is a legitimate noise and protest—a chant of some kind—into something which is absolutely intolerable and does interfere with the running of the House."
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My right hon. Friend does the House a great service in securing this debate. I refer to recommendation No. 6 in the Procedure Committee's report, in which we say:
"We believe that legislation on demonstrations is the only way to ensure that the police have adequate powers to achieve the result intended by the Sessional Order. Without such legislation, the Sessional Order is misleading; with such legislation, it would be unnecessary."
Having briefly studied the Government's response, which I picked up from the board only today, I found that they agree with the Committee's recommendation; unfortunately, the Government do not indicate that they will take any action to put the matter right. Does my right hon. Friend not accept that with the Speaker, the Clerk of the House, the Serjeant at Arms and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner all agreeing that action needs to be taken, the Government's decision is unfortunate?
Sir George Young : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has had sight of a document that I have not seen. If he is right, I see a whole new series of business questions looming until we get some final action from the Government. If that is the Government's response, I find it deeply disappointing.
I have briefly summarised the key findings of the report and I wish to return to the three issues that I mentioned at the beginning: noise, security and visual intrusion. On noise, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) for his intervention. The Birmingham Post, which has on the whole been moderately sympathetic to Mr. Haw, put it well on 22 November last year:
"To understand, one needs to imagine a man with a very loud megaphone standing outside an office, shouting the same slogan at those inside repeatedly. For hours at a time. Every day. Week after week, month, after month."
My office is located on the other side of Portcullis House, so I do not hear Mr. Haw, but those with offices facing on to New Palace Yard and within Parliament do. Members and staff find the noise distracting: it makes meetings difficult and it interferes with the work of the House. I agree with those who say that it constitutes harassment. The Press Gallery is particularly affected by the noise.
If one's neighbour behaved in that way at home, I am sure that there would be grounds for legal action, but as the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety appeared to concede, a loophole apparently permits it in the centre of London. The police told the Committee:
"There is not specific legislation which refers to loudhailers."
Since the report was published, the Serjeant at Arms has followed up the noise issue diligently with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He has referred to the problem,
"which on a nightly basis provides a nuisance which distracts Members, disturbs meetings and affects, by its volume and frequency, the processes of Parliament."
The police, however, appear powerless to stop the nuisance. I hope that the Minister will agree when he replies that the noise is an unacceptable intrusion, and that steps will be taken to stop it.
On security, I referred to the concerns of the Serjeant at Arms and the evidence that he gave. The flags and the placards are right opposite the gates into New Palace Yard. Anyone could hide behind that cover and pick us off as we arrive at or leave the House. Those on a bicycle are especially vulnerable—particularly perhaps after giving this speech. The security services have to search the site three times a day, but arguably that is not enough. Given the security precautions being taken inside and outside the House, it seems absurd to leave that potential cover intact.
There is also visual intrusion. We are talking about one of the most historic sites in the world. We have the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, Parliament square, the Churchill statue and the Guildhall, but the eye and the ear of the visitor is drawn away from those attractions towards the unsightly cacophony in the middle. We simply do not have the balance right. No other democracy would tolerate this shantytown in the middle of the capital for three years. There is no history of protest at that location—unlike at Hyde Park Corner. There is a loophole in the law. An abuse that has gone on too long risks becoming established and durable.
Mr. Haw is well advised by Messrs. Bindmans, and the police had to return all his props after they removed them. I see from a press cutting from 15 May that by the end of Monday last week,
"Brian was back, and so were his placards and loud hailer (which he had by now turned up to maximum)."
If we need legislation to sort the matter out, so be it. The organisation Liberty asserts:
"If this legislation is passed, it could potentially endanger the rights of every single person in this country."
That is an absurd exaggeration. A Liberal Democrat MP has proposed "constant watering" to make demonstration impossible, but I do not think that that is the best solution.
In the period that has elapsed since publication of the report, I and other hon. Members have asked the Government courteously about progress. I have to say, however, that I feel that we have been strung along by the Leader of the House. It is worth spending a few minutes explaining the steps that have been taken, which show why my patience eventually ran out and I applied for this debate when, to be frank, I would rather be debating other matters.
The report was published on 19 November. On 26 November, the first of many requests for progress on it was made. In his statement at the beginning of the Session, Mr. Speaker said of the report:
"I hope that it will receive the attention that it deserves, and that the House will be given the opportunity to take a decision on the Committee's recommendations."—[Official Report, 26 November 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1.]
On 27 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and I raised the matter at business questions. I was told that the matter
"needs to be resolved sooner rather than later."—[Official Report, 27 November 2003; Vol. 415, c. 134.]
I tried again on 18 December, asking the Leader of the House
"How late can 'soon' be, before 'sooner' becomes 'later'?"
"I shall seek to address the matter as soon as I can."—[Official Report, 18 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1738.]
On 8 January, I had another go. I was told:
"The matter needs to be addressed and we are considering it. We will seek to address it as soon as possible in the way that he describes."—[Official Report, 8 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 409.]
On 29 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield had another go at business questions. He was told:
"We will try to have a debate and bring a resolution of the matter to the House as soon as we can."—[Official Report, 29 January 2004; Vol. 417, c. 396.]
On 11 March, my hon. Friend tried again, saying that there was little point in producing such reports unless they were reported. He was told:
"I hope to be able to give the hon. Gentleman some welcome news in the not-too-distant future."—[Official Report, 11 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1664.]
Our hopes rose briefly when we received that response, so on 25 March, I tried again, referring to the unsightly cacophony in Parliament square and asking what was going on. The Leader of the House referred to Mr. Speaker's interest in the matter and said:
"The position remains that we will have a debate and a decision as soon as I am able to arrange it."—[Official Report, 25 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 1065.]
On 29 April, I had another go. I was told that the Leader of the House was "on the case" and
"We will see how it goes and I hope to report back to the right hon. Gentleman when I can."—[Official Report, 29 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1009.]
Finally, on 6 May, the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, asked for action and a timetable. He received the rather brusque response:
"I have already made it clear that we will respond when we are ready to respond, and in a sensible fashion."—[Official Report, 6 May 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1494.]
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House understands that, given the prevarication and lack of any progress, I have sought to escalate the matter by having this debate. There has been an inexcusable paralysis, which I hope he will say is shortly to be resolved.