Following his year-long campaign to persuade the Government to remove the unsightly hoardings in Parliament Square and the high-volume protests, Sir George backed the promise of new legislation. His speech is below.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): My third point concerns Parliament square, which is an issue that I have pursued in business questions and in Westminster Hall. I was pleased to hear what the Leader of the House said when he introduced the debate. However, we have waited two days short of a year for the Government to come up with that response, and we still do not know when the legislation that he mentioned will be introduced or enacted.
In the meantime, the problem will continue. I was slightly dispirited by the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who appeared to advocate a slow process. I have no objection to draft legislation and consulting the House, but I hope that there will be no further delay. The problem has existed for three years. The Procedure Committee has made inquiries and reported and the Government have consulted extensively within government for a year. I hope that there will be no undue delay in making progress.
I have always advocated a balanced solution that respects the rights of the individual to protest, those of visitors to the centre of our great capital to appreciate and enjoy one of the most historic sites in the world and those of people who work nearby, not least the policemen on duty at the gates, to work without constant high volume noise. The solution should also respect the rights of those who work in or visit the Palace not to have our security compromised by providing cover at the entrance to New Palace Yard. My strong view is that we have not got the balance right.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I agree with my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that, if workers in any other place in the country were subjected to the same noise and interference as those whose job it is to protect us suffer from the cacophony on the other side of road, all the health and safety legislation in the land would be brought to bear on them? The police officers have to put up with an intolerable burden.
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which leads to my next comment. We are not considering deprivation of a long established right or a threat to freedom of expression. We are trying to close a loophole in the law to get back to where we believed we were three or four years ago. Brian Haw has discovered the loophole and, well advised by Messrs Bindmans, exploited it. If we were starting from scratch, would we introduce a law to ban such activity from every pavement in London but specifically allow it outside the entrance to the House of Commons? We would not, but the law currently provides for that and the House would be well advised to move to a more defensible position that removed the loophole.
John McDonnell: Health and safety has been mentioned. Has the Health and Safety Executive made
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a health and safety assessment? It has not been reported to any Committee. No offence has been alleged under health and safety legislation.
Sir George Young: I am sure that the Health and Safety Executive will note the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but if he talks informally to the policemen he will find that it is doing no good to the health of those who are confronted by that noise some 20 ft away at high volume, hour after hour. I hope that he does not try to defend what the policemen at the gates have to tolerate.
"If this legislation is passed, it could potentially endanger the rights of every single person in this country".
That is absurd. I hope that hon. Members will put the matter in some sort of perspective. We have well preserved, well used rights of protest in this country, but the activity in Parliament square goes beyond what is appropriate or reasonable in a mature democracy. One of the rights of a mature democracy is setting some acceptable parameters for freedom of expression. In my judgment, they are being exceeded.
Lembit Öpik: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have debated the matter exhaustively in the media for most of the past 24 hours.
Lembit Öpik: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Does he recall that we did one of those interviews in exactly the spot that he describes, across the road from Mr. Haw's demonstration? We could do that and be heard. He says that he is looking for a balance, but the status quo is the balance because we are considering non-violent, legal direct action that does not obstruct us in our activities. To go further would take away rights.
Sir George Young: I do not accept that the volume of noise is reasonable. I do not accept that we were interviewed in good conditions. The reporter was happy to conduct the interview there because the loudhailer noise made the point and gave the listener to the programme some idea of what was happening, but the conditions were not ideal.
We can all distinguish between a one-off, well-targeted demonstration for a day 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, but as I understand it there is nothing to stop others doing exactly what Mr. Haw is doing all the way round Parliament square. That is not something that I would welcome.
Finally, I should like to make an environmental point. We are discussing one of the most important historic sites in the world. We have here the Houses of Parliament, Westminster abbey, Whitehall, the Churchill statue and the Guildhall, but the eye and ear are drawn towards the unsightly cacophony in the middle. We simply have not got the balance right. No other democracy in the world would tolerate what is happening in Parliament square, with a shanty town right opposite Parliament. There is no history of protest at this location; it is not like Hyde Park corner. There is a loophole in the law, and an abuse that has been going on for far too long. I support the Government in their attempts to put that right.