Royal wedding planners powerless to evict Parliament Square protesters
David Cameron wants Parliament Square cleared for big day, but police say protesters are not breaking any laws
The prime minister, the home secretary and the mayor of London have all vowed that the ramshackle tented peace encampment yards from Westminster Abbey in Parliament Square will not become a backdrop to the perfect royal wedding tableau in on 29 April.
But the sound and fury emanating from the politicians belies an embarrassing powerlessness, the Guardian can reveal.
Despite numerous legal attempts, no one – from No 10 down – has been able to come up with any legal power to move the ragtag band of peaceniks, campaigners and eccentrics from the pavement between the Houses of Parliament and the abbey, where Prince William and Kate Middleton will marry on 29 April.
As the countdown to the wedding begins, Tory politicians are venting their fury at Scotland Yard, piling the pressure on senior officers to do something. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is understood to have made it clear in private to the Metropolitan police that he does not want anything – not a tin of paint, a placard or a tent flap – to spoil the wedding day.
David Cameron told the Commons that he could not understand why demonstrators were being allowed to sleep in the square, and stressed at prime minister’s question time that he wanted the peace camp removed before the wedding.
The home secretary, Theresa May, even created an amendment to the police reform and social responsibility bill, which outlaws the erection in Parliament Square of “any tent, or any other structure that is designed, or adapted… for the purpose of facilitating sleeping or staying in”. The legislation is about to enter its second reading in the House of Lords and will not be law in time for the big day.
At Scotland Yard, there have been high-level meetings to scour legislation and identify a clause that would give police the power to act. Given the level of political pressure, there have been conversations about the possibility of using emergency powers but, after a meeting at the Yard this week, it was concluded that there was nothing the Met could do. A senior police source said: “They are putting us under huge pressure, but … They made the laws and to date there doesn’t seem to be one we can act on. If there was we would have done it by now.”
Hopes had been resting on attempts by the Greater London Authority and Westminster council to remove the inhabitants of the camp, their 14 tents, placards, montage pictures of war victims and two home-made police boxes, by taking action through the courts. But most protesters have permission to stay on the Parliament Square pavement under a clause in the Serious and Organised Crime Act 2005.
There is a small chance that the GLA – which is responsible for the grass on Parliament Square – might be able to move two tents pitched on a patch of lawn at the edge of the square next week if an appeal by peace campaigners Brian Haw and Barbara Tucker fails in the high court. However, all Haw and Tucker need do is move their tents three feet on to the pavement.
Westminster council – which is responsible for the pavement – has more chance of success by arguing in the high court that the peace encampment is an obstruction under the Highways Act. But the case has is not due in court until 9 May.
“Unfortunately, we have no grounds to clear the camp away for the royal wedding, and, yes, it looks like they are going to be there on the day,” said a spokeswoman for Westminster council.
Meanwhile, some inhabitants of the camp – which was first settled 10 years ago when veteran peacenik Haw pitched his tent on the grass of Parliament Square – are making what they see as a generous gesture in a spirit of compromise.
One protester, Maria Gallastegui, has written to Buckingham Palace offering to cover up her placards for the day.
She received a noncommital reply – delivered to her police box. The Prince of Wales, the letter said, “appreciated” her offer and “careful note has been taken on the points you make”.
For their part, Cameron, May and Johnson seem unlikely to accept the olive branch. A Home Office spokesman told the Guardian: “We are still working with the police and other agencies to address this issue and find a solution to ensure that Parliament Square is in a fit and proper state for the royal wedding.”
Party like it’s 1981
Councils are to be given legal advice from the health and safety watchdog that they have no reason to ban royal wedding street parties. Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has ordered the Health and Safety Executive to give an immediate ruling that street parties are not a health and safety threat, and will not be liable to legal action. Duncan Smith took action after the cabinet heard from the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, that some councils may be deterring street parties. Figures from the Local Government Association reveal there have been 4,000 applications for street parties in England and Wales. A government source said: “We are furious that councils may be making it difficult. Often it emerges that the Health and Safety Executive have done nothing wrong, but we end up with these myths.” Grant Shapps, the local government minister, said: “There is a tendency among some councils to gold-plate everything they do. We want it to be very clear that street parties are easy to set up.” A deadline of 8 April has been set for applications and at present Richmond borough council the London borough of Richmond leads with 64 applications. London’s boroughs have dealt with 500 applications, and outside the English capital, Bristol 53 and Cardiff 35.