HC Deb 15 March 1900 vol 80 cc926-9

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if his attention has been called to the recent riots in Stratford-on-Avon, and to the statement of Mr. H. H. Bullard that his house was invaded by a mob, who broke the windows and damaged or completely destroyed his whole stock of old china and antique furniture; and what steps are being taken by the Government to protect peaceable citizens from such proceedings.


Yes, Sir, I have made inquiries, but as proceedings are being taken against two of the ringleaders, and as I am informed that Mr. Bullard is about to make a claim under the Riot (Damages) Act, 1886, it would not be proper for me to say more at present except that I hope the local authorities, on whom the responsibility lies, will everywhere exercise firmness in preventing such riotous proceedings.


Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to say a word in answer to the concluding part of my question, with regard to the steps to be taken to prevent a recurrence of these disorders.


I thought my answer implied that I thought the Government could not do anything more at present. Proceedings are, as I explained, being taken against two of the ringleaders, and a claim for damages will be made. Under these circumstances it would be highly improper for me to say anything as to the circumstances attending these proceedings.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that under similar circumstances in Ireland trial by jury would have been suspended under the Coercion Act?

[No answer was given.]

MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to a meeting near Highbury Corner, which was being conducted in a perfectly quiet manner, last Sunday, until broken up by the police on the ground that it was likely to become disorderly; whether this is a sufficient pretext for interfering with a peacefully conducted meeting; and whether he can promise that such gatherings shall be protected in future.


I have made enquiry into this matter. The police did not interfere until the meeting had in their judgment become disorderly and there was serious danger of a breach of the peace. I am of opinion that the police were entirely justified in the action they took.


I beg to ask Mr. Attorney General whether his attention has been called to the damage to property in Scarborough during recent riots, belonging to Mr. Wood head, a late Member of this House, and other persons; and whether he can say from what source, if any, compensation can be claimed by those persons out of public funds.


I have not seen any particulars of the incident to which the hon. Member refers, and it is, therefore, not possible for me to express any opinion as to whether any proceedings for compensation would be successful.


I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether, in view of the numerous recent instances of disturbance connected with meetings called for the discussion of South African affairs, or directed against the person and property of individuals owing to their supposed opinions about the present war, Her Majesty's Government will cause inquiry to be made how far and by whom these disturbances were organised; and will he consider what steps are necessary to prevent a repetition of such occurrences, and to punish the offenders.


Every case reported to my right hon. friend the Home Secretary has been carefully examined, and every such unhappy occurrence will be so examined. There is not the slightest evidence that there has been any organisation of these demonstrations, which appear to be absolutely spontaneous in their character as far as the evidence which has come before my right hon. friend goes to show. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, it is the local authorities who are responsible both for the maintenance of order and for the punishment of transgressors, and any aid which can be given to them in carrying out those duties shall, of course, be readily afforded. Speaking for myself, I strongly deprecate these demonstrations, and I expect no good of them. I think that they are contrary to the best traditions of English life. For a large part of my political life I have belonged to a party which was unable to hold meetings in certain portions of the country, and, therefore, I am at least as anxious on this subject as the right hon. Gentleman, who has been more fortunately situated than I myself could possibly be. But I think that the responsibility rests not only upon the local authorities and upon those concerned in these unfortunate proceedings, but also upon those who called the meetings. It must be remembered that public feeling is necessarily deeply stirred at the present time. In every district of the country there are persons who have lost near relatives or friends in the present war; and nine-tenths of the country—ninety-nine hundredths of the country—believe, rightly or wrongly, that these meetings are called for an object which, if it were effectual, would render the occurrence of these great calamities possible. They think that in no other country in the world, and least of all in the Transvaal itself, would such meetings be tolerated; and they are aware that the fact of such meetings being held is, by people who know little of our methods and traditions, used abroad as an indication of a divided country and a hesitating Government. In these circumstances, the tension of public opinion must necessarily be of a kind affording a grave anxiety to those responsible for the public peace; and I venture to add that those who call these meetings ought to be careful lest they ask more of human nature than all history shows that human nature is capable of giving.


I have only two questions to ask the right hon. Gentleman in reference to the somewhat long explanation which he has made. The first is this. I wish to know whether he is aware of what I believe to be the case, as far as I have been able to look into the matter, that a large number of the meetings which were the occasion of these disturbances were private meetings, and not public meetings at all. In the second place, I wish, for the sake of curiosity, passing by the general political effect of what he has said, to ask the right hon. Gentleman on what occasions and where the party to which he belongs has been prevented from obtaining a hearing—[Cries of "Aston Riots!" and "Birmingham!"]


As to the in formation which the right hon. Gentle man desires, in regard to the nature to the meetings, I am afraid that I must ask him to put the question to my right hon. friend the Home Secretary, who has the details, or to give me notice of the question, when I shall be glad to answer it at a future day. As to the second supplementary question of the right hon. Gentleman, I listened to it with some surprise; for I remember that during the crisis of the Home Rule discussion it was impossible, even in most parts of the metropolis, for the Unionist party to hold a meeting.


I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman this simple supplementary question. He spoke of having consulted with the Home Secretary. Will he take care that inquiry shall be pursued further, and shall apply to the incidents which have occurred in Scotland?


I will consult my right hon. friend the Lord Advocate on the subject.