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Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

March 31, 2011

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Unlike the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and, I suspect, every other Member in the House at the moment-I did not have the privilege of being on the Bill Committee. As he will appreciate, however, Parliament square stands in my constituency.

I have quite a lot of sympathy with a number of the things the hon. Gentleman said in speaking to his amendments. Above all, there is nothing worse than the sheer powerlessness of this place in the public’s eye. He was right about the indeterminate number of hours spent on this small matter over the past 10 years. We need only consider the incidents and terrible disturbances last weekend on Piccadilly circus and Oxford street. There is a sense of powerlessness. Many constituents-they would not necessarily blame the police, and neither would I-think, “These events are allowed to go ahead, yet we have absolutely no say in the matter.”

In many ways, I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the sense in which Parliament is weak and almost entirely marginalised when these sorts of debate take place. A decision can be taken by Executive order to go to war and then be rubber-stamped 48 hours later in a parliamentary debate. I know that he and I take very different views about the rightness of what has happened, but I would agree with him in this regard: we spend endless hours debating these sorts of matters to no avail and end up with unworkable legislation. We have had some unworkable legislation in the past, so I share some of the hon. Gentleman’s fears that we might be going down that route again.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to have open opportunities for the public to protest. Whether we like it or not, Parliament square is an iconic place, in front of the Parliament building. There can be no other place where a more legitimate protest can take place, on an occasional and high-profile basis. I would be loth to repeat the idea of the erstwhile Administration, which was to have a 1-mile exclusion zone around Parliament, on the spurious grounds, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, of security. That was entirely wrong and an absolutely absurd route to go down. To that extent, my party has gone down the right route in this Bill by trying to row back from that position.

However, I share fears about the legislation still being slightly unworkable, not least because so many different authorities are involved, from the police and Transport for London, to the Mayor of London and Westminster city council. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about too much power potentially being in the hands of local authority officers. I do not doubt their ability: many are very able and have shown great judgment. Indeed, in places such as Westminster, local authority officers deal with such problems on a more day-to-day basis than they might in-with great respect-a borough such as Hillingdon. Ultimately, however, these are policing matters. Given the security, the high profile and the difficulty of a lot of what happens in Parliament square, it makes sense for the Metropolitan police to be involved in the process, rather than local authority officers.

John McDonnell: Can the hon. Gentleman update us and clarify whether it is true that the local authority and the Mayor have now secured sufficient legal judgments in the courts to remove the peace camp in due course anyway?

Mr Field: I understand that that will be “in due course”, and there is of course an important event on 29 April, which is in everyone’s minds when it comes to trying to clear the square, which is very much a focus.

Paul Flynn: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that we have to trample on the precious freedom to demonstrate in order to tidy the background for the royal snapshots?

Mr Field: The hon. Gentleman might not be quite as much of a royalist and a monarchist as I am, but he will appreciate that that is not what I am saying. However, there was a focus on trying for this thing, although the wheels of the law take a while to turn-there are a number of lawyers in the House, including, either side of me in the Chamber, some rather more distinguished lawyers than I ever was in my brief legal career. I understand that there will be no further legal proceedings on the matter until considerably after 29 April.

Jeremy Corbyn: It occurs to me that the people in Parliament square might actually be awaiting the royal wedding and have got themselves a good place from which to see it. They have got there early. We should commend them for their enterprise in being there so far ahead of the date.

Mr Field: I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the Evening Standard discovers a secondary market for the tents that are already erected, let alone any new ones that go up.

John McDonnell rose

Mr Field: I suspect I will never get off this point.

John McDonnell: But it is a valid point, which was also addressed in Committee. We get ourselves into a ludicrous position in which someone turning up with a sleeping bag to wait for the wedding-as the Prime Minister did, when, as he told us, he turned up with his sleeping bag for a previous royal wedding-could be arrested under the legislation in the same way.

Mr Field: Ad absurdum, the hon. Gentleman’s argument is right. However, that is also precisely the distinction that we have to face: the distinction between a one-off arrangement for the one, exciting night before a major public event, and having a permanent encampment around Parliament square. It is to the latter that most sensible people-not those only in this House, but many millions of our constituents-would turn their minds. It is not acceptable that a UNESCO world heritage site-Parliament square, the parliamentary buildings and Westminster abbey-is blighted by having a large permanent encampment. That is an issue, in part, of aesthetics. However, millions of tourists come to Parliament and they must be dismayed by what they see, week after week, month after month. It cannot make much sense for us to allow it to continue.

To an extent, I had sympathy with elements of what the erstwhile Government were trying to do, such as their idea of having a licensed system covering demonstrations when major debates were taking place. In my view, it would have been entirely legitimate, for example, on the day we had our debate on Libya, for those who felt strongly about the issue, on either side, to have held a large, peaceful demonstration. But the notion that encampments can exist day after day, week after week, is another matter. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Tamil encampment that was in Parliament square in the autumn of 2009, which reached a ludicrous stage. There was a lot of noise and disturbance. There were old-fashioned local authority health and safety issues, as well as the whole question of toilet provision, and the area became something of a health hazard as the Tamil group camped there for six weeks before finally leaving.

Many of our constituents are bemused by our sheer powerlessness, and by the fact that we have not been able to get our act together to get the necessary workable legislation in place to ensure that we can achieve our goal.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): One of the reasons that the previous Administration were on such a sticky wicket in regard to the legislation was that it simply did not work. This provision seeks to create a legal regime within which legitimate demonstrations can take place and be adequately controlled in accordance with the UNESCO status of Parliament square.

John McDonnell: That’s what the last lot said.

Mr Field: Indeed, one has heard those words before. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) is a relative newcomer to the House, but I fear that we have been having this debate for many years. As we all know, the workability, or otherwise, of legislation often does not become apparent until well after an Act has been placed on the statute book.

It is essential that we do our best, and we must protect the right to protest. I appreciate that Parliament square is a special place for protest, and I would be very loth to see the perhaps spurious ground of security being used to prevent legitimate, high-profile protest on days when debates were taking place in the House of Commons on high-profile legislation. This encampment, however, does disturb some local residents. That certainly happened when the Tamils were here in great numbers in 2009, and many residents wrote to me to say that their sleep was being disturbed.

We need to strike a balance. Either we have to solve this problem or we have to move on, because there is now a sense that we are powerless. Parliament and all the authorities are becoming a laughing stock. This should be a tremendous site for millions of tourists to visit from across the globe. Parliament is the most iconic building in the United Kingdom, and having that eyesore here is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the very valid comments that have been made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, but I also hope that we will move hastily towards getting a workable provision on to the statute book to ensure that that eyesore becomes a thing of the past.