HL Deb 19 November 2003 vol 654 cc1928-30

2.37 p.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will have discussions with the relevant authorities with a view to the removal of the displays in Parliament Square.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my officials have had discussions with the Metropolitan Police, the Greater London Authority and the City of Westminster about the displays in Parliament Square. The nature and location of these displays means that there is no immediate action that can be taken. The Procedure Committee in the other place has examined the Sessional Orders and Resolutions, including the Sessional Order designed to keep the access to Parliament open. The committee published its report this morning and we will consider its findings most carefully.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, we shall be interested to see the result of that consideration. Is the Minister aware that the dirty and untidy encampment has now become a permanent feature of Parliament Square? Most of the time it is left empty for any protester to take over and use as they will. Is not planning permission necessary for camping arrangements in that area? If so, who gave that permission? If planning permission is not required, can any member of the public park their mobile homes, vans or cars there? Does not the Minister agree that tourists come from all the four corners of the earth to see Westminster? Does he not think that this eyesore is defiling the most beautiful parliament building in the world?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that what I am about to say will be the most popular of words uttered in your Lordships' House. While I might agree with much of what the noble Baroness has said, we have to respect the democratic right of people to make their protests and views felt. The Baroness makes a very important point. We shall of course consider the implications of the report issued today.

Baroness Boothroyd

My Lords, who owns the square? Would it not be worth while for the Government to purchase Parliament Square? They could then take action themselves when it is vandalised in this way.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the square is the responsibility of the Greater London Authority. Policing it is a matter for the Metropolitan Police. They obviously keep the situation under careful review but, as long as there is no obstruction to the Houses of Parliament, those who choose to use the square for the purposes of protest can do so.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister agree that demonstration placards and pamphlets in Parliament Square are an expression of our tolerance and democratic values? Should we not protect the rights of those who wish to protest in this way? All the visitors that I have met have marvelled at the patience of the British people in tolerating the situation in Parliament Square.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord has said.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, with all deference to what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has said, whose democratic rights are we talking about? Is it reasonable to protect the rights of one individual to the detriment of the well-being of the community at large? Is there not an enormous difference between exercising democratic rights in a spontaneous way—we must all protect freedom of speech—and the quasi-permanent residential situation that we all have to endure at the moment?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I had thought that the noble Baroness was a member of the more tolerant part of the Conservative Party opposite. While she may find it disagreeable to look upon protesters—

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is how it sounds to noble Lords on these Benches.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, why should we feel embarrassed to show the world that a vibrant democracy can manifest itself in inconvenient and ugly ways? The exhibits of the demonstrators are not manned overnight. If we want a little order on the site, all we have to do is to ensure that if they cannot be manned they are taken away. This would mean that the site would then remain for demonstrating radical opinions and we would preserve the very democratic nature of the ongoing debate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is a sensible way to address the issue. Perhaps it would be a better way of doing things. But it is not for us to determine. The land is not ours. Responsibility for it rests with the Greater London Authority. Westminster Council has sought action on this and has failed so far.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the situation has arisen, in part, because two police forces are involved and neither wishes to take responsibility?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as far as I am aware, that is not the issue.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while I support my noble friend's proposal, is the Minister aware that posters with the message that "The end of the world is nigh" have been allowed in prominent places in London in the past, although the passage of time has proved the message to be inaccurate at the least?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not sure that that requires a ministerial response.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, seems to have the answer. It is not people protesting that is objectionable but the permanent camp, which is unoccupied at night. I cannot see any reason why the impedimenta should not be removed when abandoned in the evening, either by the people who have got it, by the police or by other authorities. Is the Minister aware that the report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, published this morning, recommends that the Government should introduce appropriate legislation to prohibit long-term demonstrations? There may be one or two of us on this side of the House who would support such legislation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as I made plain earlier, I am aware of the report. I also made plain that we will keep the situation under review. We have not had long to absorb the full import of the report. We have recently addressed some of the issues raised by passing the anti-social behaviour legislation, certain features of which will enable action to be taken when a static demonstration becomes a nuisance. So there are statutes and statutory opportunities available should they be required.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, why could not a public-spirited citizen, of his own accord, go to the site when it is unmanned and remove the litter? Would he not be performing a service for the public rather than committing an offence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, these matters are best dealt with in a quiet and sober manner. While the noble Lord's suggestion may have some attraction, it could create further difficulties.

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