Yesterday, Lord (Patrick) Cormack – one of those people here who has been one of my political foes so long that he has become a friend – asked the Government to enact emergency legislation to stop people camping out in protest, whether at capitalism or anything else.
The Bishop of Bath and Wells ex-communicated him neatly, saying, “The Church of England maintains a presence in every community in the land. It is a broad church-it is perhaps the original big tent. Is the Minister aware that St Paul was a tent-maker and that St John records that Jesus pitched his tent among us, in a non-designated public space, to rescue us?”
That set the tone for our very short mini-debate on his question (8 minutes). In truth, Patrick and I simply look at this issue from opposite ends of the telescope. If the present protests are disruptive, and disorderly, that is surely a product of the inadequate arrangements we have in this country for people to make their views known.
I have long favoured a sort of Speaker’s Corner arrangement in Parliament Square, right outside the seat of our democracy. It should be an active, moving space, which therefore deters permanent encampments of tents and encourages ongoing dialogue between the elected and the electors.
Yet for the Square to become a successful public space, for protest or anything else, it must be a place that the public can access without risking life and limb to cross the road.
A few months ago, I put forward a special Private Members Bill designed to remove the ridiculous regulations put in place to restrict protest around Parliament. See Parliament Square squared and All square?. I did so partly to provoke debate about how to develop and pedestrianise the square into a more welcoming, democratic space.
Not for the first time, the Hansard Society has done us a great service by producing a booklet illustrating just how this could be done. Entitled A Place for People: Proposals for Enhancing Visitor Engagement with Parliament’s Environs it does an admirable job of bringing together the various suggestions that have been made over the years into a coherent plan. You can read it yourself at www.tinyurl.com/placeforpeople.
Its objective is simple. In the words of Peter Bradley, a former MP, and now Chairman of the Speaker’s Corner Trust, we want to reconceptualise Parliament Square as a place where the public ‘stake their claim as citizens in, rather than visitors to, Westminster’.
As the Bishop might say: Amen to that. If we could achieve it, perhaps there would be less need for people to plonk themselves outside St Paul’s, and less need to legislate to prevent them doing so.