CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

PARLIAMENT SQUARE PROTEST NOISE – 3 November 2004

Dr. Julian Lewis: I have waited seven long years to find something in common with the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). My wait has been fulfilled today, because like him, I have been arrested for demonstrating in public. I have even been locked up in a cell for demonstrating in public, and one of the reasons for that was that I made too much amplified noise in public.

John Bercow: Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether he informed the Selection Committee of the New Forest East Conservative Association of that important fact before he was selected?

Dr Lewis: I am sure that had I done so, the good burghers of New Forest, East would have made a far wiser selection than, in the event, they did.

In May 1982, there was a huge demonstration going up Whitehall, led by Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn, against the taskforce that was deploying to fight in the Falklands war, so I and a number of friends and colleagues ambushed – as it were – the demonstration from the rooftops, playing at excessively loud volume Her Majesty's National Anthem. That led the police to arrest me and others on the ground that by playing the national anthem we might so upset the serried ranks of Trotskyites, communists and other agitators marching in the main demonstration as to cause a breach of the peace.

Jeremy Corbyn: I have to inform the hon. Gentleman that he did not upset us at all. We quite enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of fun. Not one person on the demonstration requested that he or anybody else be arrested for mounting any form of counter-demonstration. There was a spirit of democracy about the event.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, as I should now like to tell him what happened next.

People felt that the police had been a tad heavy-handed, so on future demonstrations, in October 1983 and June 1984, we mounted similar counter-demonstrations, by arrangement with the police. The Council – I think it was Westminster – sent along an officer with a decibel meter, and whatever may or may not have happened in 1982, there were plenty of protests from the demonstrators to that environmental officer. He kept telling us: "If you don't turn it down, we'll confiscate your equipment". In those days, it was possible to hold a major demonstration with a minor counter-demonstration and to have a certain balance of forces so that both sides could put their point across.

Mr Alex Salmond: To boil it down to its essence, the hon. Gentleman is saying that 20 years ago he was arrested for noise disturbance and now he wants to arrest everybody else who –

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Unusually, I think I need say no more.

Dr Lewis: Would that life were as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests. What I am actually saying is that  somewhere between then and now there has been a change in the law. There has been a change in the rules and it looks as though it must have been brought in under the last Conservative Government in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, because according to a letter sent to me by Westminster Council,

"section 79(1)(ga) defines noise that is prejudicial to health or a nuisance and is emitted or caused by a vehicle, machinery or equipment in a street, as a statutory nuisance. However, section 79(6A) provides that section 79(1)(ga) does not apply to noise made by a political demonstration or a demonstration supporting or opposing a cause or a campaign."

The fact is, we have heard a lot of humbug talked about freedom of speech. We have freedom of speech in this Chamber; we each put forward our differing views. When we have had our say, we let the other person have his. We sit down, we shut up and we listen. We do not go on shouting in the face of the other person whether he wants to listen or not. We obey the rules. That is not happening in Parliament Square.

I have taken the trouble to go across and have extensive conversations with Brian Haw and I take much very much to heart the comments of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr Salmond) who tried to suggest that those of us who oppose the racket that Brian is making do so because we hate his message. I ask the hon. Gentleman and others to accept my sincerity when I say that I would take the same approach to anyone who demonstrated in the same way for a cause in which I passionately believed and who went on making a racket that was designed not to address the people who had come to hear the message but to penetrate the building of people who were trying to get on with their work looking after the interests of their constituents.

Perhaps some of those who speak so glibly about the noise have offices that are somewhat better insulated than mine, but I assure them that it is very difficult to do one's work when there is a constant racket and a barrage of noise, the words of which cannot even be heard clearly. It is a row, and it is made not to get a message across or in the interests of free speech but to harass and annoy parliamentarians. That is the beginning and end of it. Nothing other than a change in the law will prevent this abuse from continuing.

I am relatively agnostic on whether or Brian or anybody else ought to be able to demonstrate in Parliament Square. I have spoken to him and I admire his commitment to his cause. I will make a point that no one else has made. I know that one of his motivations results from the fact that his father went into and liberated one of the Nazi concentration camps. With my family background, I have every reason to hold anyone motivated in that way in the highest regard.

I do not think that Brian used to make all this noise in the earlier part of his campaign, and when he did not make the noise and just put his message across, I had very little, if anything, to say about what he was doing. However, I now think that he has taken freedom of speech into areas that become an abuse of free speech. There is no freedom to impinge on the freedom of other people. That is what he is doing.