HL Deb 24 February 1972 vol 328 cc671-3

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the law controlling assemblies of persons in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament while Parliament is sitting; and whether the law is being enforced.]


My Lords, the Sessional Order of your Lordships' House and of another place requires the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to facilitate the passage of Members to and from both Houses during the Sittings of Parliament. The Commissioner has been in communication with Black Rod and with the authorities in another place about the control of mass lobbies, and consultations are continuing.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble Leader for going so far as he has, but is not the Sessional Order only part of the story? Has not Parliament in fact passed two Acts of Parliament, both of which I think I am right in saying are still in force, which lay down very strictly the control of assemblies near the Houses of Parliament? The two Acts to which I refer are the Tumultuous Petitioning Act 1661 and the Seditious Meetings Act 1817. Under these two Acts, which, as I say, are still in force, the Commissioner of Police has no discretion whatsoever.


My Lords, I am not sure that I am particularly grateful to my noble friend for that supplementary question. I am afraid I must add to his two Acts the Metropolitan Police Act 1839, which is also relevant in this connection. More seriously, I think we should all recognise that there are occasions when there is a conflict between the Commissioner's duty to ensure free access and the natural and understandable desire of large numbers of people to lobby Members. Recently there was a considerable mass lobby, on February 15, by the National Union of Mineworkers when, without any real disorder, some 3,400 persons were admitted to the Palace of Westminster in small groups in order to be able to speak to their Members of Parliament. But there are practical problems here. All I can do is to assure your Lordships that both in another place and here this matter is under earnest consideration at the present time.


My Lords, may I ask my noble Leader this final question? If the two Acts I have mentioned are not enforceable under modern conditions, would it not be better to have them repealed?


My Lords, I think that my noble friend might conceivably have a point there.


My Lords, can the Minister assure us that whatever consultations take place the right of the populace to demonstrate and see their M.P.s will not be abolished?—because when we get into the Common Market they cannot go to Brussels; they will still have to come here.


My Lords, I must congratulate the noble Lord on his ingenuity.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that we are grateful for his Answer concerning the National Union of Mineworkers, especially in view of an article which appeared in a widely read American magazine this week and which gave a completely different impression; namely, that there was disorder and anger and irritability on the part of the police?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I have no responsibility for what may appear in English magazines, and I have even less responsibility for what may appear in American magazines. However, this matter is being examined by the Services Committee in another place, and it will shortly be looked into by our own Administration Committee. I can once again assure noble Lords that it is the desire of everyone who is looking into this question to try to balance these two factors. It is not easy to do so.


My Lords, is the noble Earl the Leader of the House aware that the moderate and practical approach he has referred to is one that I am sure commends itself fully to Members of both Houses of Parliament? The degree of control that may be necessary, while as little as possible, none the less does occasionally have to take into account some extremist factions which join in these marches.


My Lords, I would say in reply to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that I always agree with him when he says such agreeable things.

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