HC Deb 30 July 1976 vol 916 cc1174-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thomas Cox.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Lambeth. Central)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will not be too angry with me for truncating what I have no doubt is a well-earned weekend, but he knows as well as I do that the luck of the Ballot is a matter of blind fate that compels both his and my attendance this afternoon.

The objective referred to in the subject that I wish to raise will I fear, take a long time to achieve. It is to reduce the inconvenience and disruption to London traffic that is cause by the reception of visiting Heads of State at Victoria Station.

In the past, after many years of propaganda and argument, I have persuaded the powers-that-be to hold the Lord Mayor's Show and the Trooping the Colour on a Saturday. That was a great boon to Londoners. In former days those ceremonies took place on weekdays. That means that children were unable to see them, because they had to be at school, and roads were closed for hours at a time, thus interfering with honest citizens proceeding on their lawful occasions.

I am afraid that it will take a long time to persuade the authorities concerned to introduce any change in the present arrangements. I suggest that the formalities could just as well be carried out at Windsor as at Victoria Station. Those who want to see the arrival of a visiting Head of State could then go to Windsor and allow the people of London to pass through Westminster and Victoria without let or hindrance.

The other day, in his reply, my hon. Friend said that these State drives from Victoria to Buckingham Palace formed a traditional part of ceremonial State visits. They may bring a certain amount of pleasure to a limited number of people —those who watch these ceremonies cannot number more than 1,000 or 2.000—but scores of thousands of people are subjected to considerable inconvenience. It is, therefore, hardly accurate to say that these visits are appreciated by both visitors and the public. If my lion. Friend had perambulated through the West End on the last occasion when the President of France honoured us with a visit, he would have heard more rude remarks about disruption than about pleasure on the part of those who were anxious to see the President of France arrive.

My hon. Friend also said in his reply: It is the usual practice for the streets involved to be closed from 11.45 a.m. and to be reopened immediately the procession has passed; the rush hours are, therefore, avoided and State drives do not in fact cause excessive disruption."—[Official Report, 28th July 1976; Vol. 916, c. 295.] My information is to the contrary, be cause the restrictions, which were des- cribed as "suffocating parking restrictions", were in operation from 8 a.m., and not from 11.45 a.m., even though the person concerned was not due at Victoria until 12.30 p.m.

I cannot understand why it is necessary to divert traffic for so many hours beforehand when the arrival is to take place at 12.30. For many hours before the visiting potentate arrives, Victoria Street, Parliament Street, the Mall, Whitehall and Constitution Hill are among the important highways closed to traffic for hours on end.

I take the liberty to suggest that uninterrupted progress could be achieved if the roads were closed for about a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes before the visiting potentate arrived. Traffic could wait or be diverted for that short period. As it is, tremendous upheaval is caused by these arrivals, to say nothing of confusion, delay and frustration. A number of people are undoubtedly angry and disturbed at this hullabaloo, and the feeling when the President of France arrived were anything but conducive to the Entente Cordiale.

All the disruption was necessary because one VIP and his entourage were proceeding the short distance from Victoria Station to Buckingham Palace. I suggest that the visiting potentates should be received at Gatwick when they come by air, or at Windsor itself when they travel by train, instead of on the No. 11 bus route.

I am not very optimistic about the reply that I shall receive from my hon. Friend He is probably a little angry with me for making him stay here this afternoon. The interest shown by hon. Members in this subject is not great. My hon. Friend and I are the only two hon. Members present out of a total of 635. If I add Mr. Deputy Speaker, that makes it three—an increase of 50 per cent. None the less this is an important subject, and anything that we can do to lessen the inconvenience suffered by people going about in London —inconvenience, which, heavens knows, is bad enough—ought to be encouraged and carefully considered.

I hope that my hon. Friend, before he embarks upon what I am sure is a well-earned weekend, will hold out some hope that in the years to come there will be an alteration in the present arrangements.

4.10 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. John Tomlinson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Lipton) for raising this question. May I assure him at the outset that I am in no way inconvenienced by being here? It is always a great pleasure to be here and to have an exchange of views with him. It is a particular pleasure to have an exchange in such exclusive circumstances as this afternoon.

I want at the beginning to deal with the specific point my hon. Friend raised about the traffic arrangements during the visit of President Giscard d'Estaing. He invited me to reflect on the kind of reaction I might have perceived had I perambulated through the streets of London on the occasion of that last State visit. In fact, I was forced to do that because on that day I was receiving some Czechoslovak Ministers, and to meet them I had to go by foot because the roads were closed.

I found it a most enjoyable occasion to be able to walk along Whitehall and meet my Czechoslovak guests, and I was in no way surprised to find that they were equally delighted at having had the opportunity of seeing the drive through the streets of London, even though it made us 15 minutes late in arriving at our destination.

During that recent visit of the President of France, roads along the route were not closed for as long a period as my hon. Friend has been informed. Victoria Street was closed at 11.35 a.m. and was reopened at 1.15 p.m. Parliament Square, on the north side and the south side, was closed at 11.35 a.m. and was reopened at approximately 1.20 p.m. The east side of Parliament Square was kept open experimentally for two-way traffic the whole time. Whitehall was closed at 11.35 a.m. and was reopened at 1.25 p.m. Trafalgar Square was not closed at all except for the corner between Whitehall and the Mall. The Mall was closed at 11.35 a.m. and was reopened at approximately 1.45 p.m.

I give my hon. Friend that list of timings because it differs somewhat from the information which he has no doubt accepted in good faith. Scotland Yard has advised me that it received no written complaints about traffic disruption on the occasion of that State visit, and reports from policemen on duty at the time indicate no complaints about traffic disruption.

I should explain to the House that there are three categories of visit by Heads of State. There is a full State visit where a Head of States comes at the invitation of Her Majesty and is her guest for the period of the State visit. It is that category that we have been concerned with in this debate.

The second category is where the visitor comes as a guest of Her Majesty's Government. When a Head of State comes as a guest of the Government, Her Majesty generally entertains the visitor either at lunch or dinner, but he does not stay in one of the Royal palaces as her guest but is accommodated under arrangements made by the Government Hospitality Fund.

The third category is a Head of State coming on a private visit. Private visits fall into two types—those where a Head of State visits Britain for personal reasons, and those where a Head of State comes at the private invitation of the Queen. In the latter case there is a minimum of protocol and publicity.

Mention should be made of the frequency of State visits. It is not as if London's traffic is disrupted regularly. In any one year, not more than two or three Heads of State come to this country as guests of Her Majesty. Next year, moreover, there will be no inward State visits because of Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee and the extraordinarily heavy programme for Her Majesty both at home and abroad.

I would like if I may to revert to the problem of the disruption of traffic in central London. It is understandable that the man in the street is not normally aware of the positive aspects of a State visit and sees only the disruption of traffic which may inevitably accompany it—to a limited extent at least.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, it is only on the occasion when a Head of State comes here as a guest of the Queen and stays in London that there tends to be some disruption of traffic in connection with the State drive from Victoria Station to Buckingham Palace. The drive itself lasts only 20 minutes and every effort is made to ensure traffic flows until the last possible moment. Normality is restored as quickly as possible after the procession has passed. The drive gives the capital a chance to welcome the visitor and the visitor the opportunity to see a bit of the capital. Moreover, through the television, pictures usually reach mass audiences in both this and the visitor's own country.

It would be idle to pretend that there is no traffic disruption. But this cannot be avoided if the visitor is to be properly welcomed in the capital, and when we pay honour to our friends who come here as guests to Her Majesty it is only right they should be received in London. After all, this is the capital. Let us also remember that it is Britain's major tourist centre. Our Royal Family, too, are equally a part of the attraction that brings tourists to this country, as can be testified any day by the size of crowds gathering round Buckingham Palace.

It has been suggested that perhaps we should do away with the State drive and receive our guests at Windsor, but to dispense with the ceremonial drive, which, obviously, my hon. Friend regards as outmoded and something that we could modify or do without, would detract from the occasion of a State visit. A State visit, which is, and should remain, a relatively infrequent occasion, would lose much of its special impact without the ceremonial and pageantry. The reaction of French commentators on the recent visit by the French President testifies to this.

A State drive is still one of the finest examples of pageantry to be seen anywhere in the world. It is something that has come to be associated with a State visit to Britain, and I think my hon. Friend would find that many Londoners take a pride in it as well. They, too, enjoy this seldom-seen ceremony and pageantry. It brings a little touch of glamour to our capital city and is something that we should not throw away. The enthusiasm shown by most Britons, Londoners and visitors to London alike, not to mention tourists from abroad, for the ceremonial surrounding State visits suggests that they are far from being out of date.

I do not think anybody would suggest that these occasions are anything but beneficial. I am sure that if my hon. Friend meets and discusses with a wide cross-section of people in London he will find that this occasional disruption for a limited period of time when we receive a visit from a Head of State is something which the vast majority of citizens are not only prepared to tolerate but willingly accept as the small price they pay in order that the capital city can show its hospitality and friendliness towards visiting Heads of Government in a proper way. I am certain that that view would be shared by most people not only in London but throughout the country who have the opportunity of following these visits through the media.

I know that my hon. Friend has expressed serious views but I do not believe that he necessarily speaks for the overwhelming voice of London. He poses a real problem, which obviously will be considered seriously to ensure that on future visits, as in past visits, every effort is made to proceed with the State drive as expeditiously as possible and to make sure that there is the minimum disruption to the traffic of London, at the same time as extending proper courtesy to our visitors and extending it in such a way that we can display the pageantry of this country which is so well renowned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Four o'clock.