PARLIAMENT SQUARE PROTEST NOISE – 2 March 2010

Dr Julian Lewis: I thank the Government for making it possible by their arrangement of the business tonight for us at least to discuss Amendment 3. Had we had an opportunity to discuss it in Committee, I am sure that it would have been accepted, because I understood at the time that the Secretary of State for Justice [Jack Straw] proposed to give the House a Free Vote. I have no doubt that if there had been a Free Vote, the amendment would have been overwhelmingly carried.

It is not a restriction of my freedom of speech in this place if, once I have had my say, expressed my opinion and communicated my views to other hon. Members, I proceeded to start ranting, shouting and continuing to demand to be heard even though I had had ample opportunity to convey my message – if I continued to insist on shouting my message in support of my views time and again, irrespective of the rights of others, defying any reasonable request to desist – I were then eventually forcibly removed from the Chamber. That would not mean that I had not had my freedom of speech, but that I had abused my right of freedom of speech and trampled on the rights of others.

That is what has been happening with the protest noise in Parliament Square. Hon. Members and, above all, their staff are sick to death of it. The previous Speaker, on a number of occasions, expressed his concern about the nuisance of constant amplified noise. I first became aware of the problem when I had my office in No. 1 Parliament Street a few years ago. It became impossible to concentrate on work because of persistent ranting through a highly amplified loudspeaker. When I investigated what was happening, I was astonished to find that there was no rally or assembly of protestors in Parliament Square at all. On average, there were between half-a-dozen and a dozen people standing around and the person with the loudhailer certainly did not need to use it in order to exercise his right to communicate with anyone in attendance who wished to hear his message.

I crossed the road to ask the principal demonstrator why he was broadcasting at such a loud volume when so few people were present. He frankly explained that only by doing so would he be able to ensure that his message penetrated into Parliament above the noise of the traffic in the square. That clearly had nothing to do with the right freely to express his views or to communicate them to a voluntary assembly of people who wished to hear them. By contrast, it had everything to do with forcing his views on people who simply wished to go about their daily business undisturbed.

As has been pointed out already in the debate – and as I can vouch from experience – the ranting messages broadcast at such volume are loud enough to be a continual source of disturbance to people trying to work in their offices in No. 1 Parliament Street, in particular, but also in various other offices and meeting rooms on the Parliamentary estate. We must not forget those people who live and work in the vicinity of Parliament Square and who wish to use the facility of Parliament Square for their own enjoyment – they should not be disturbed unduly.

For the most part, it is not possible to distinguish what the shouting is about. The political message is not reaching its target – all it is doing is causing massive annoyance and significant distress to people who are trying to work. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Eleanor Laing), who speaks from the Front Bench, I did a survey of people’s experiences of this persistent noise and 52 of them joined together and submitted a complaint to the Council. I attached those complaints to my submission to the consultation exercise that was held.

I should like to refer to the experiences of a number of hon. Members from all parties, including the Liberal Democrat Party. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) – I have to confess, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I did not warn him because I did not know that I would be referring to him in the Chamber today, but he gave me permission at the time to quote him in the submission that I publicly gave to the consultation exercise, so I am sure that he will not object to my quoting him now – wrote to me:

“We’re at one. You’re free to quote me objecting to the use of amplified material, provided I am also quoted as not wanting to restrict the right to protest outside Parliament. (Indeed I think that the present exclusion zone should be lifted.)”

That is an example of someone who was rightly distinguishing between whether the protest should be allowed to take place and whether the people taking part in the protest should be allowed continually to use amplified noise for hours on end simply to batter the eardrums of other people who had nothing to do with the protest in the square.

An hon. Member from the Labour Benches, who is well-respected on constitutional matters, said:

“There was, and always should be, the right to lobby your MP. As a student, I would leave my placards etc. on Westminster Bridge and join an orderly queue to see my MP. This whole episode shows the weakness of Parliament unable to control its surroundings let alone hold government to account.”

I have given examples from one Liberal Democrat Member and one Labour Member, and a Conservative colleague of mine – a Shadow Minister – said:

“I complained to the Serjeant and was told that there was nothing he could do. My office in 1 Parliament Street does not overlook Parliament Square and yet we are still tormented by the volume of the loudspeakers.”

The parliamentary assistant to a right hon. Labour Member said that:

“it drives me round the bend, especially when I am trying to concentrate. We have to put up with enough noise from the constant flow of traffic without having to put up with them shouting through the loudhailer”.

Another hon. Labour Member said:

“I fully support your contention that the protestors in Parliament Square do in fact disturb those working within the Palace of Westminster. My own office overlooks Speaker’s Court and the noise can clearly be heard – even with the windows closed. Which means of course in hot weather it is impossible to open the windows without further amplifying the disturbance. I pity the poor security staff who have to work directly opposite and suffer the barrage of abuse for long periods of time.”

I have only given half-a-dozen or so examples and there were 52 of them, which were submitted to the consultation. I believe that the consultation response showed that there was real concern about the noise, quite apart from the question of what people thought about the demonstration’s being allowed to remain on a virtually permanent basis in the square. So, I went back to the permission that had been sought, by the main protestor in Parliament Square, from Westminster Council. I found the minutes of the meeting, which were helpfully on the internet. The meeting was held by Licensing Sub-committee No. 5 on 30 June 2006. The solicitor for the main protestor was a certain Mr Grosz and the protestor, as we all know, is Mr Haw. The minutes state:

“Mr Grosz stated that the area in question was already noisy with traffic, bells and commentary from tour buses. Mr Haw’s site was a long way from the Chambers of Parliament. There was, Mr Grosz said, no evidence of noise from Mr Haw’s loudspeaker reaching those working inside the Palace of Westminster, and that Mr Haw had no intention that loudspeaker noise penetrate its buildings.”

It quoted Mr Haw as saying that

“he wanted to work positively with officers from the City Council to avoid creating nuisance”.

The sub-committee, it its naivety, accepted Mr Haw’s statement that he had no wish to cause a nuisance or a problem to people working in Parliament. That is, of course, exactly the opposite of what Mr Haw told me when I went to ask him why he was broadcasting at such volume when only a tiny handful of people were present.

The problem of noise harassment is real and serious. There is not an absolute unfettered right to shout one’s opinions in the face of everybody else for hours on end, long after any reasonable person would conclude that the first person had had his say. This is not freedom of speech – it is bullying. It is harassment. Indeed, in any other environment it would not be tolerated for a moment.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), said:

“Well, it’s all right. It’s remediable – you can take them to court.”

The problem is that it is not remediable. Under the existing law, nobody can be dealt with who is determined to go on making incessant noise at unreasonable volume. All that could happen is that he would eventually end up in a courtroom and there would eventually be some sort of conviction either for causing a nuisance or for breaking a byelaw, and then someone with a political axe to grind would pay the fine for him. At the end of the day, however, there would be absolutely nothing that anyone could do to stop him making the noise in the run-up to the court case or continuing to make it after the court case. This is not about freedom of speech; it is about intolerance. Those people are intolerant bullies who have not managed to have their own way and are therefore determined to shout, scream, rant, hector and harass other people.

There is only one way in which to deal with this matter: by applying a degree of common sense. I speak from experience because I am probably the only Conservative Member of the House actually to have been arrested for participating in a demonstration. As I have explained to the House on previous occasions, that was back in the 1980s when there was a demonstration against the Falklands War, and I was involved in a counter-demonstration. The police decided to remove us from the scene because we were the smaller demonstration of the two; but we worked with the police thereafter and were able to have our protests, because we regulated the amount of noise that we made. At that time, before any of these other laws, restrictions and rights came in, we were told that if we raised the noise level excessively, our equipment would be confiscated at least until the demonstration was over.

Freedom of speech requires tolerance on all sides. The people who are ranting, raving and shouting – often in extremely crude, rude and insulting terms – in a public place cannot be dealt with by any means that does not require the removal of the equipment if, on receipt of a complaint about the noise, they refuse to tone it down and keep it to reasonable levels. This issue is being dressed up as being about freedom of speech, but it is actually about the bullying and intimidation of people going about their lawful business. I am very sorry that the Government, in the form of the Home Secretary, will not allow Labour Members to vote according to their consciences, because I know that large numbers – probably a majority – of those Members would like the amendments to go through. However, now that the Government Chief Whip has entered the Chamber, I shall simply repeat what I said at the beginning of my remarks: I am grateful to the Government for having at least provided an opportunity for this issue to be aired and discussed.