HC Deb 24 June 1890 vol 345 cc1807-21

Member for the Borough of Northampton, rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, a Proclamation of the Magistrates of Northampton prohibiting a public meeting intended to be held in the market place of that town last Sunday evening, and warning all persons holding or taking part in the same that they would be liable to imprisonment for so doing; but the pleasure of the House not having been signified, MR. SPEAKER called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than 40 Members having accordingly risen:—


I beg, then, to move the Adjournment of the House, and I assure the House that I do so in no spirit of hostility to the Government. I submitted a question to the Home Secretary on the subject, and be admitted that there were important points of law involved in the matter which could not be answered in reply to a question. When the House has heard the facts, it will be seen that the case is a fair and legitimate one on which to ask for an expression of opinion from the House and the legal advisers of Her Majesty's Government, because it touches the whole question of public meetings, and, if it were allowed to pass by, the Magistrates of any town would be able to prohibit any meeting they chose. The facts are very simple. Last week it was decided by the friends of temperance at Northampton to hold a public meeting on Sunday in the market-place. The meeting was not called in any special way by the Liberals there, but the principal persons present connected with it were Nonconformist ministers of the town. There were to be two platforms in the market-place, which is one of the largest in the country. At 1 o'clock the chair was to be taken by Mr. Campion, who is the editor of a newspaper there; and at the other Mr. Manfield, a large manufacturer, an Alderman, and a Magistrate, was to preside. On Saturday the Magistrates met and asked the conveners of the meeting to hold it on the racecourse. As a matter of fact, meetings are habitually held in the marketplace in Northampton; and in this case the managers of this temperance meeting had communicated with the brewery interest, and arranged that there should be a public discussion in the marketplace, and it had been agreed that both parties would do their best to maintain order. Very possibly there may have been affidavits laid before the Magistrates to the effect that the meeting might lead to a breach of the peace, but I apprehend that that did not warrant the Magistrates prohibiting the meeting or saying that to take part in it would render those who did so liable to imprisonment. The Queen's Bench Division, in the case of "Beatty v. Gillbank," decided that the Magistrates had no right to prohibit a meeting. The question there was whether a meeting of the Salvation Army could be prohibited because some other army threatened to interfere with the proceedings. The decision was that the Magistrates had no right to prohibit a meeting. They may warn persons against attending a meeting and may tell them they must take the consequences. If they fear that individuals are going to disturb the peace, they may call on them to find securities not to disturb the peace, and may put them in gaol if they refuse to find sureties. If that be the present state of the law, I say that the Magistrates had no sort of right to prohibit this meeting and to frighten people who wer8 going to it by telling them they would be liable to imprisonment if they attended. If this were to be permitted all meetings would be rendered practically impossible, since they could be stopped by the action of disorderly persons, who said that they were going to interfere with them. It is most desirable, in view of the fact that the Lord Chancellor is responsible for these Magistrates, who are an unelected body of men, that the Attorney General and the Home Secretary should distinctly declare to the Magistrates of Northampton, and through them to the Magistrates all over the country, that they have no right to interfere with this fair and proper action on the part of the electors of an English town. I beg to move the adjournment of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Labouchere.)

(5.40.) MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

I rise for the purpose of seconding the Motion moved by my hon. Colleague. I would take the liberty of suggesting that it is something new in parliamentary practice that, when a great question like that of public meeting is to be discussed, the bulk of the Ministry should at once leave the House. I make no complaint that the bulk of the Conservative Party should have done the same, because T have been in the habit of attacking them on the same ground, that they disregard the liberties of the people, and I am rather glad that my attacks have been justified by what has happened. We are apparently forgetting in England that regard for public right for which England used to be specially famed. The law is clearly and briefly stated in a little manual called Stone's Justices' Manual, and I will take the liberty of reading a very words from that book to the House. I find it stated that— A lawful assembly is not rendered unlawful by the knowledge of the persons taking part in it that opposition will be raised to it. If it were otherwise, any lawful meeting might be rendered unlawful by any half-dozen blackguards declaring that they would interfere with it. The position of the Magistrates is clear. I am indebted to the Solicitor General's (Sir E. Clarke) arguments in a case I shall refer to, for part of the legal arguments I shall submit to the House. I say for part of them, because it was my duty, some 28 years ago, in the Court of Common Pleas, to argue this point. The Solicitor General held that Magistrates had no authority to prohibit a meeting that seems likely to endanger the public peace. In the case of "Beatty v. Gill-bank," the Skeleton Army having declared they intended to break the peace as against the Salvation Army, the Magistrates took upon themselves to require several members of the Salvation Army to give security to keep the peace, and the Court held that the Magistrates had no right to require such securities. Not only is the law clear that the persons convening a lawful assembly cannot be prohibited by the Magistrates from holding it; but it is also clear that if some other persons threatened to break the peace the Magistrates have no right to call upon the persons engaged in promoting the lawful meeting to give surety to the police, which shall prevent them holding the meeting. In the case of "Beatty v. Gillbank," which is reported in the IX Queen's Bench Division, page 308, the order for the sureties was quashed by the Court, in a Judgment delivered by MR. Justice Field, who said— It is quite clear that there is no sort of ground or authority for any action by the Magistrates in interfering with the meeting. Now, what do these Magistrates do? They are as impudent as if they were Resident Magistrates in Ireland. They are as ignorant of the law as some of the Law advisers of the Government appear to be on the subject of Irish meetings. They claim the right to prohibit the holding of a meeting, and they announce that if the people go to it after the prohibition it will be an unlawful assembly. I regret that I have to condemn the legal gentleman who advised the Magistrates in relation to this proclamation. I regret it because, though I do not suppose he voted for me, it is my duty to defend the whole of my constituents as far as I can. I regret that in Northampton, where we have had some experience of the assertion of the right of meeting, there should be found any lawyer ignorant enough to advise the Magistrates they might issue this absurd proclamation. Magistrates cannot; a Government cannot; nothing but Parliament can make an assembly unlawful, if it be lawful otherwise. Parliament can do anything; it can take a man's rights, and it has taken a great many away in Ireland, but, at any rate, I hope the House will not permit the Magistrates to take away, without the authority of Parliament, what few rights we have got left. I can understand that the learned Attorney General may feel bound to defend these Magistrates, because I believe they are nearly all Conservative Magistrates. Unfortunately, we have had a great many deaths amongst the Liberal and Radical Magistrates in Northampton during the last few years. I am sure the Lord Chancellor only exercises his discretion for the purpose of promoting the due administration of the law, but it is unfortunate that he has found his discretion lie in the direction of gentlemen of his own political views and of worse lawyers than himself. Whatever one would say of the Lord Chancellor's views in other respects, no one would venture to cast any doubt on his views as a lawyer. I ask the Government, once for all, to say to the people who look to them for teaching "The Magistrates have no right to do an illegal thing." If the Government will not protect our rights we must protect them ourselves. I have never hesitated to do it in times gone by, and I will never in the future when the occasion arises, hesitate to do it. It is the duty of the Government not only to give no encouragement to, but to discourage any infringement at all upon the rights of the citizens, whether they agree to the Government in politics or not. But this stopping of the meeting did not save the three wretched clauses giving the publicans compensation; they had to go. I can conceive that those Magistrates who have been recently appointed wished to show their gratitude by doing the best they could to help the Government in their sore dilemma; but they will not do it effectively by prohibiting discussion. I trust that, little as the Leader of the House seems to care for the assertion of public liberty, some of the old traditions of his Party will be respected, and that, without reference to the question whether this is a Motion for adjournment or not, there will be some consideration for the rights and the liberty of the people which is involved in the Motion. If it had not been that the Home Secretary hesitated yesterday and mocked to-day I should not be speaking now. I said he mocked to-day, for he declared he knew nothing of the law of the land in relation to a most important matter affecting his Department. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I do not know what that shake means, but I do know that in answer to my Colleague yesterday he declared that this was an intricate matter of law, when there is no intricacy at all about it. He cannot have referred to the records of the Home Office or he would have found the Paper upon the Basingstoke disturbances, which was laid on the Table in 1882 by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby. He would have known then that there was some misapprehension, a misapprehension sanctioned by the Law Advisers of the Crown, as to what the rights of meeting were. That might have been a justification for the right hon. Gentleman's ignorance up to the 12th of June, 1882, but on the 13th of June, when the decision in the case of "Beatty v. Gillbank" was delivered in the Queen's Bench Division, that ignorance ought to have been swept away. I ask the House not to regard this as a Party question. It is our question to-day; it may be yours to-morrow; and the difficulty is that if the prohibition of discussion rests with the majority of the Justices in one place to-day it will rest with the majority of the Justices in another place by-and-by. The great thing which has kept this country in advance of every other country in Europe, and which has kept it more peaceful, has been the safety valve of public meeting, where opinions might be expressed. I can understand the Government feeling touchy about their Bill just now. A characteristic of a weak Government is that it gets annoyed with things that a strong Government passes by. I appeal to the House to join in saying to the Conservative Magistrates of Northampton, "Your have no right to gag your opponents, since free speech has been the deliverance of the land."

(5.57.) MR. C. R. SPENCER (Northamptonshire, Mid)

I am not in the habit of intruding myself on the attention of the House, and, therefore, I hope I. may be allowed to make a few remarks. I have known Northampton well for many years, and I do not think that, in all that time, it can be proved that Northampton is in the habit of indulging in riots. It was, therefore, with considerable surprise that I saw in the newspapers yesterday morning that the borough Magistrates had prohibited this meeting, especially when I know that the two gentlemen who were to take the chair at the meeting were two of the most law-abiding members of a law-abiding constituency. I venture to think that this was an extremely dangerous thing for the borough Magistrates to have done. I do not care what are the politics of the Magistrates, but it is a dangerous innovation in the practice of this country for the Magistrates to lay down the law like this. On Sundays we are accustomed to hold meetings of different kinds in Northampton, and it is nothing new for large crowds to assemble in the market-place, and, therefore, it is an absurd aggravation of the trouble for the Magistrates to have suggested to the people that they should go to the racecourse. I do not see why they should not have met as usual in the market-place, and I regret that some ill-advised persons should have considered themselves obliged to persuade the borough Magistrates that this temperance meeting should be prohibited. If my hon. Friend goes to a Division, I shall have the greatest pleasure in supporting him, as a protest against what I must call an infringement of the liberty of the subject.


The politics of the Northampton Magistrates have been referred to. For my own part, I have not the slightest idea what their political colour is. With regard to my answer on the question of the meeting, I stated that the Magistrates could not by such proclamation make a meeting illegal, and that the proclamation was only a warning to those about to take part in the meeting that, in the judgment of the Magistrates, it would be an unlawful assembly, and that such warning did not carry with it any penalty. I believe the three statements are perfectly correct. The only difficulty I have in speaking on the subject arises from my imperfect information of the facts. I have no information beyond the telegram I will read to the House.

An hon. MEMBER

Why not? There has been plenty of time to get it; only two and a half hours' journey.


The telegram is in an answer to inquiries which I made as soon as the hon. Member's question appeared upon the Paper. Does the hon. Member suggest I ought to have sent down a special messenger to the Magistrates? [Cries of "Why not?") The telegram which I received this afternoon runs— Chief Constable received information of organised opposition to meeting. Three bands to parade the town. Magistrates met three o'clock. Made suggestion to promoters that meeting should be held on race course, where it would be possible to check disorder and prevent damage to property. Impossible to do so in Market Square. Promoters declined suggestion, Second meeting of Magistrates at eight o'clock Meeting at Market Square prohibited. Magistrates again offered race course. Great excitement in town. Breaches of peace generally regarded as certain. Magistrates only anxious to keep peace in town. That telegram is from the deputy Mayor. I am reluctant to express any condemnation of men whose only desire was to maintain order in Northampton; but I must say that the prohibited meeting appears to me to have been called for a perfectly lawful purpose. Criticism of a Government Bill is, of course, perfectly lawful. One hon. Member has spoken as if the acts of these Magistrates had been the act of the Government. I must point out to the hon. Member that the Government have no control whatever over these borough Magistrates, who have acted with good intentions, no doubt, but on a mistaken view of their powers. If the facts, as narrated by the hon. Member for Northampton, are correct, I think there can be no doubt that the Magistrates were wrong in issuing this proclamation. At the same time, I do not think that the case deserves the very strong and emphatic language of the junior Member for Northampton, for it does not appear to me that the Magistrates had any dark design against the liberty of the subject, or liberty of free speech.


Will the right hon. Gentleman excuse me? Will he be good enough to express an opinion upon the proclamation? What I want to know is, whether that was legal?


I have said it hardly becomes me to say more than that I do not think the proclamation was justifiable or warranted in the circumstances. The Magistrates appear to me to have acted from a desire to keep good order, but they went the wrong way to work, as far as I can judge. The main outlines of the law relating to meetings are well settled, but there is considerable difficulty in the application of the law. It is the duty not only of Magistrates, but of every subject of the Queen, to prevent an unlawful assembly from taking place, if he can; but it is not always very easy to determine at what point an assembly previously lawful becomes an unlawful assembly. There are moments of excitement which, in some circumstances, may be overlooked, but the border line of danger to the peace is not always easy to discover, even by a calm and impartial onlooker. In matters of this sort there is always some difficulty as to the application of the law, and, for myself, I should always hesitate to attach blame to Magistrates whose intention was good and whose purpose was only to preserve the peace, and who were really persuaded that the peace was likely to be broken; and in this case it appears to me that the Magistrates did not wish to do more than to preserve the peace. So far as I can express an opinion on the facts, it appears to me, however, that they exceeded their powers, and were wrong in the course which they took. Having said so much, I hope the hon. Member for Northampton will agree that there is no great constitutional principle imperilled by the events that occurred at Northampton. Certainly there is none that will be imperilled by any action or word of mine. I hope I have expressed with sufficient fulness my view of the law of public meeting, and I do not think I am called upon to express any further opinion upon the action of the Magistrates. I trust the hon. Member for Northampton will be satisfied.

(6.7.) SIR W. HARCOURT (Derby)

I am very glad the Home Secretary has expressed, and I am sure he has with snfficient clearness, his view in reference to this transaction. He has said the proclamation was not justified by law. I cannot agree with him, however, in the belief that there isno great constitutional question raised by this Debate. I think there is. I have no desire to impute any evil motives, or other than good motives, to the Magistrates in this matter, but they have gravely misapprehended the law, there is no doubt. Up to 1882 a different impression prevailed as to the administration of the law by Magistrates acting on the advice of the Home Office, and perhaps, as the matter came under my personal administration, I may refer to this, though, as I have not had the opportunity to refresh my recollection, the House will accept my apology if I am not absolutely accurate in all particulars. In former times it was a moot point whether a meeting primâ facie and ab initio lawful could not subsequently be rendered unlawful through the action of people who proposed to disturb it. The point, however, has been set at rest for ever by the decision in the Basingstoke case. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Home Office has no control over the Magistrates in boroughs or counties. This must be understood, for it is the essence of our government that the Executive does not control the Magistrates, and the great complaint of the administration in Ireland is that they do. The independence of the Magistrates of the Secretary of State is to be borne in mind. Though the Magisterial Authorities are not bound to accept the declaration of the Home Office, they are very much disposed to follow the advice which the Home Secretary is in a position to give. Very often, in former times, Magistrates, finding themselves in a difficulty, used to consult the Home Office, and the Home Office consulted the Law officers. For a good many years before I had to do with these matters, Law officers had expressed the opinion that if a breach of the peace was threatened by a counter meeting, then the Magistrates could prevent both meetings. This opinion was acted upon in many instances, for instance, in Liverpool, when there were Orange processions and counter Catholic processions organised, also in Glasgow and elsewhere. Successive Home Secretaries had advised Magistrates so to act. I was consulted by the Basingstoke Magistrates. At Basingstoke, it will be remembered, the Salvationists used to hold meetings every Sunday, and they were attacked by the Skeleton Army, who were practically publicans. The Magistrates of Basingstoke, who had an insufficient number of police at their disposal, consulted the Home Office. This is my recollection of what took place years ago, but the House must take it cum grano salis. I gave the advice formerly given to Liverpool, Glasgow, and other places. In these circumstances, the question arose whether the meetings of the Salvationists were lawful; and in June, 1882, in the case of "Beatty v. Gillbank," the Court held that the course taken in prohibiting the Salvationists' meetings was not justified by law, and that an assembly lawful in itself did not become unlawful because it was likely to be attacked and interfered with. Since that decision, there has been no further doubt as to the law. I remember at that time I thought it was rather inconvenient, as these difficulties were likely to arise in many places, and, if I recollect right, we sent down a force to protect the original meeting against attack. The law, however, was settled beyond doubt, and I hope, after this Debate, the point will not have to be raised again. I attribute nothing to the Magistrates, except a want of clear understanding of the law so laid down. I do not understand, what was the ground of the Magistrates' alarm at Northampton. I am reminded of the story of the man on board ship, who, when a breeze sprang up, asked the captain if there was any fear, and received the reply, "Yes, a great deal of fear, but no danger." If the Publican Party and the Temperance Party agreed among themselves to discuss this matter there was no reason in that why the Magistrates should have apprehended a breach of the peace. There seems to have been an unfounded fear on the part of the Magistrates. This need not be discussed as a Party question; but I hope the discussion will make it clear to Magistrates that if a body of people call a lawful meeting it does not become unlawful because some other body choose to threaten to disturb it.

(6.16.) THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir R. WEBSTER,) Isle of Wight

It is scarcely necessary for me to intervene at any length, because I am pleased to find myself for once in entire agreement with the right hon. Member for Derby, Before reminding the House that there was no need to make this a Party question the hon. Member for Northampton might have waited until there was some indication of an attempt to make it a Party question; and the only way in which it could be made such would be by suggesting that Her Majesty's Government, or the Home Secretary, were in some way responsible for this act of the local Magistrates. There is, however, no ground for the suggestion that, either directly or indirectly, the Home Secretary or anyone representing the Government had anything to do with the meeting, or in any way endorsed what has been done. The interruptions of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. J. E. Ellis) seemed to indicate an idea that the Home Secretary was at fault because, on the spur of the moment, he was not prepared with more precise information, but this implies a control of the Home Office which does not exist. As to the state of the law, I understand, as I have formerly stated in the House, that for 40 years the law has been that a meeting called for an illegal purpose, or attempting or threatening to do illegal acts, or causing terror among, or giving reasonable grounds of terror to, persons in the neighbourhood, is an illegal meeting. The passage from the judgment of Mr. Justice Field is practically to the same effect. According to Hawkins's Pleas of the Crown, any meeting whatever of a great number of people, attended with such circumstances of terror as may endanger the public peace, or raise fears among the King's subjects, may truly be called an unlawful assembly. I do not know what may have led to the advice given at the time the right hon. Member for Derby was Home Secretary, but I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's exposition of the law, that a lawful meeting does not become unlawful because certain persons express an intention of interfering with it. No ground such as that would make a meet-unlawful; and it is a mistake to be under any such apprehension. Nor does a meeting become unlawful because a Secretary of State, or a Magistrate, or a Public Authority thinks fit to call it so. It depends upon the character of the meeting; it depends upon the real facts of the case, and not upon the opinion of any one individual. In my opinion, taking the facts as stated by the senior Member for Northampton, the proclamation issued was an unlawful proclamation. There were no circumstances to justify the Magistrates in issuing such a proclamation. Whatever might have been their own view of the law, there were clearly no circumstances to justify the issuing of the proclamation.


I did state, quoting from a newspaper, that the Magistrates did have certain evidence submitted to them on affidavit or otherwise.


I have no imformation on that. But on the state- ment of the hon. Member for Northampton there was no justification for the issue of the proclamation. Somewhat unnecesarily the junior Member for Northampton introduced the question of there being some distinction in this matter between the law of England and that of Ireland. I know of no such distinction in the law [An hon. MEMBER: Or the practice]—nor in the practice. The law was correctly laid down by my right hon. Friend the Attorney General for Ireland, on the 9th of June in the present year, when he stated that hon. Members who thought otherwise must have in their minds the Crimes Act of 1882, and not the existing state of the law, and that under the present system of coercion, as it is styled, in Ireland the law of public meeting is absolutely identical with the law of public meeting in England. I wish simply to enter my protest against the argument used, which does not bear upon the action of the Northampton Magistrates.

(6.22.) MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

From an Irish point of view it is not to be regretted that this incident has arisen. I have no doubt the Northampton Magistrates in this instance have been led to adopt the course they have taken, and which is now condemned on both sides of the House, simply by studying the answers given in this House by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and by noticing the fact that, across the water in Ireland, where so many things are so much better done than in this country, the law is held to be by the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Executive that it is absolutely within the discretion of Magistrates to proclaim a meeting or not. The Northampton Magistrates naturally thought they were justified in prohibiting this meeting, and possibly expected the same degree of support from the Home Secretary as the Magistrates of Ireland receive from the Chief Secretary. Therefore, I think it is not at all a bad incident, both from the fact that it has given the people of this country a slight touch of what goes on in Ireland, and because it brings into high relief the contrast between the way in which Irish Members are met when they make complaint of arbitrary acts of this kind, and the tone and temper with which similar complaints are met when they are raised in respect to Magistrates in England, who are independent of the Executive, by an English Member. I have no doubt, and never had a doubt, notwithstanding the sneer of the Attorney General that the law in Ireland is exactly the same as the law in England, with regard to this matter. I have no intention of transgressing the Rules of Order by referring to the state of things in Ireland, but as the Attorney General introduced the question I may be allowed to say that what we complain of is not the law but the administration of the law. What we complain of is that we do not get the benefit of the law in Ireland, whereas in this country, from the tone of the Home Secretary and the Attorney General, it is extremely likely that English people will not again very soon be treated in this manner. At the same time, in referring to what has occurred at Northampton, I feel bound to say that I do not take the same roseate view of the situation as right hon. Gentlemen opposite. They gladly welcomed the appeal of the hon. Member for Northampton not to treat this as a Party question, but, although I have not been in Northampton recently, and am not acquainted with local details, I cannot think there is a total want of connection between the fact that the borough Magistrates are supporters of the Government and the fact that the meeting was to be held in opposition to Government policy, and upon what is an extremely sore point to the Government. I must say I think the hon. Member for Northampton has done good public service in bringing this matter under the notice of the House when we consider that it may not be an isolated act, but part of a policy; for did we not see in this Metropolis determined efforts made to break up the procession, and put obstacles in the way of the meeting held in Hyde Park about a fortnight ago, and the same thing, as I am informed, has been done on other occasions. I consider it as part of a policy, an attempt, at a very great distance, and in a feeble way, to imitate the policy of the Irish Executive, by using the power of the Executive in favour of one Party, and in trying to prevent a public expression of opinion against the Government policy, and I think right hon. Gentlemen will find that by the attempt to introduce the methods of Ire- land into this country they will not assist their Party and smooth the passage of their Bill in this House. It seems to me a strong and instructive illustration of the truth of the old adage, "Evil communications corrupt good manners." It will be found impossible to carry on a system of persistent repression of public meeting in Ireland and persistent suppression of the right of free speech there without affording people in authority in this country the temptation to meet popular excitement here in times of political crisis by a similar evil action.


As my object in moving the Motion has been entirely fulfilled, I now ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.