HC Deb 15 February 1894 vol 21 cc465-8

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware that a man named Williams, calling himself the organiser of the unemployed, headed a gang of men on Wednesday last, and perambulated some of the West End squares, uttering the most violent threats against the owners of property there, and that, among other things, he is reported to have said that it would be a good thing if the Duke of Westminster and the members of his class were dealt with as the French peasants treated Foulon, and hanged to lamp-posts with grass in their mouths; and whether it is his intention that this man should be allowed to be at large?

MR. W. F. D. SMITH (Westminster)

At the same time, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether his attention has been drawn to the language used by a man named Williams at a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square, on 3rd February, when violence was advocated, and those present were advised to loot the shops in the neighbourhood; also to the language used by the same person on 5th February, when he proposed to remove the police by "chemical parcel post"; and whether it is intended by Her Majesty's Government to take any steps to prevent a repetition of such language, seeing that one violent collision with the police has already occurred?

MR. BENN (Tower Hamlets, St. George's)

Before the right hon. Gentleman answers, I should like to ask him whether the cause of this disorder was not a Report of the Mansion House Committee on the Unemployed, which describes these men as improvident, idle, loafing, or vicious; and whether, in view of such aggravation, ho will cause inquiry to be made into the serious injuries which several men received at the hands of the police?


I do not think that the two parts of the last question refer to the same occasion. The hon. Member refers to the successful attempt of the City police to prevent a procession from taking a route other than that which had been described. I do not see how any Report with reference to the unemployed could affect that. With respect to the questions on the Paper, I may claim the indulgence of the House if, in view of the importance of the subject, my answer exceeds the ordinary length. The police report to me that the statements in Question 34 are partly exaggerated and partly inaccurate. The so-called procession consisted of a small body of men who marched through the City and the West End to Hyde Park. They occasionally sang The Starving Poor of Old England, and on passing Grosvenor House gave several groans, but they did not halt anywhere, nor were any speeches made or threats uttered. They were accompanied by the police, who state that at no time was there any disorder or obstruction which would have justified their interference. The reference to the French Revolution and to Foulon was made at a meeting at Tower Hill, in the course of a denunciation of the House of Lords as an institution. Neither the Duke of Westminster nor any other Peer was mentioned in connection with it. At a latter part of the speech the men were told that they would pass the house of the Duke, who was described as an "idle vagabond." Neither I nor the Commissioner of Police have the power to prevent processions in the streets, so long as they are conducted in a decent and orderly manner. If any attempt were made to halt the procession so as to obstruct the traffic, or to indulge in demonstrations against particular houses or individuals, or in any form of disorder, the police are instructed at once to break up and disperse the procession, and there is no doubt that they will carry out their orders promptly and effectively. As to the speeches made by the man Williams at Tower Bill and elsewhere, there can be no doubt that he has on several occasions used language inciting to violence, such as would render him amenable to the Criminal Law. I have not, I think, shown any indisposition in cases of necessity to take strong measures for the protection of public order; and I shall hardly be suspected of any tenderness for this person, or of any superstitious dread of infringing what in such a connection it is absurd to call the right of free speech. But the question of prosecuting in such cases is one of expediency, which can only be properly determined by a full knowledge of all the facts and upon a review of the general situation as it affects public order. I have the advantage of being advised by police officers who in experience and ability are second to none in the world, and it is their deliberate opinion, in which I concur, that under existing conditions, and up to the present moment, a prosecution of this man would do much more harm than good. They regard him as an insignificant person, with no authority or real following except a small handful of casual loafers, and incapable either by himself or by any influence he has with others of doing any serious mischief. So long as this is the case, a prosecution, by giving him fictitious importance, would simply be serving his own ends. It must be clearly understood that I am not in any way fettering our action as to the future, and that if at any moment the balance of public advantage seemed to turn the other way we should act accordingly. In the meanwhile, I venture to renew an appeal which I made some time ago in the interests of public order to hon. Members here, and in particular to great organs in the Press, not to propagate and give prominence to the mouthings of these obscure and contemptible ranters, and thereby to create the very mischiefs and dangers which they cannot be more anxious than I am to prevent. They may be sure that the police are keeping a most vigilant watch, and are prepared to anticipate any outbreak involving risk to life or property.

MR. T. M.HEALY (Louth, N.)

May I ask whether the reference to Foulon's being hanged to a lamp-post with grass in his mouth was not a quotation from a speech made by the right hon. Member for West Birmingham?


It is extremely likely.


Have not the French Government increased the stringency of their Criminal Law, in consequence of recent events, in the direction of greater stringency, and will the right hon. Gentleman follow their example?


I have read a statement in the newspapers as to the action of the French Government described by the hon. Member; but we must settle our own affairs according to our own ideas and to our own local circumstances.