§ Mr. LANSBURY
I wish to call the attention of the House to a case which was raised yesterday in reference to the arrest and imprisonment of a man named Boulter for a contemplated offence that he might commit on Sunday, November 12th. I wish at the outset to say as emphatically as I can that I have not the least shred of sympathy either with this gentleman's views or—
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. McKenna)
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to state that the prisoner in this case has given notice of his intention to apply to 657 the magistrate to-morrow for a variation of the order. I think in these circumstances it would be very undesirable to say anything with regard to the proceedings as to the prisoner's conduct.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
The point I want to raise is one that really does not concern the man individually, but concerns the rights of everyone as a citizen. I will try to say nothing that will raise any question either in regard to the man or the magistrate. I have not a shred of sympathy with this man's views or his method of expressing them. I suppose I hate and detest the views he gives utterance to as much as any man or woman in this country. But the point is this. Apparently on Sunday, November 5th, the lectures of this man culminated in a disturbance on Streatham Common. During that disturbance the platform was smashed, and some of his supporters were grossly ill-used by the people who attacked them. Nothing happened to the man on the Sunday. On the Friday the police came to the place where the man worked, arrested him on a warrant and took him to Bow Street Police Court. He was there without a friend near him, given the option of finding bail for £400 or going to prison for three months. If this is the law of the land I think it is a very dangerous law indeed. For I understand that the point of the case against him is that a warrant was issued, not for what happened on Sunday, the 5th, but for what might happen on Sunday, November 12th. The fact is that the police contemplated that there might be a disturbance on the Sunday.
To say that a man has to suffer three month's imprisonment for something he has not done seems to me a very tyrannical proceeding. [AN HON. MEMBER: "It happens in Ireland every week."] If it happens in Ireland every week I am extremely sorry that it does so. Two blacks do not make a white. We have not been accustomed on this side of the Channel to that sort of thing. I want to point out to the House where this sort of thing will land us.
The hon. Baronet, the Member for Hammersmith (Sir William Bull) champions the anti-socialist cause in this country. We who disagree with him have only to break up his meetings, and those of anti-socialist lecturers, too, and there is nothing to prevent the police from doing exactly what they have done to this man. During the Boer War some of us gave utterance to sentiments that hon. Gentle- 658 men on the opposite side of the House absolutely detested. They thought they were anti-national, anti-patriotic, and anti-everything that was good. But is there any hon. Gentlemen who would have forbidden us the right to hold our public meetings against the war, merely because people broke up our meetings and sometimes broke our heads?
It is not a question of this individual man. It is one as to whether the Metropolitan Police have the right or whether they are within the law, in saying that they will forbid a man to express his views. He does not compel anyone to stand and listen to him. I want to know whether the Metropolitan Police have the power to coerce people and to prevent them using the power all of us imagine we have, namely, the right at places set apart for public meetings to give expression to views we believe. I hope that this action was not taken with the sanction of the Home Secretary, and that in future the police will have to proceed in an entirely different manner.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
Perhaps I have less sympathy with the views of the person referred to than the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
That, however, is not the point. It really touches the all-important question of free speech, and I have always been of opinion that we should very jealously guard the right of free speech to every citizen in the country, whatever his views may be. This subject has given rise on several occasions to an examination into what exactly is the right a citizen of this country has with regard to free speech, and Professor Dicey, who examined this subject very carefully, laid it down that the right of free speech at a public meeting really originates from the right which a man has to leave his house and walk down the street anywhere he chooses, to meet a friend or friends, and to explain to that friend or friends what his views may be upon any subject whatever. So long as he does not create an obstruction, and so long as he is not guilty of conduct or of language calculated to lead to a breach of the peace, the subject's right to deliver himself in public of his views is undoubted. The question was raised and created a great deal of feeling in Liverpool because a gentleman was arrested there, not for addressing a public meeting in the park, but because it had 659 been announced that he was about to address a public meeting on a future date. The police took the view—it is almost similar to the case here—that if that individual was permitted—
§ Mr. McKENNA
The hon. Member is now arguing the merits of the case. He is arguing what the prisoner was charged with and giving his view as to the offence. That is the very point which is to be considered to-morrow, and is now sub judice. I really do not think the case should be tried in the House of Commons now.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
I have no intention of arguing either the offence of this man, if he has committed one, or the merits of his defence in any shape or form. This exceedingly important subject of the right of free speech to every citizen in the land has been brought before the House, and I am dealing in an entirely general way with the question. I do not think I ought to be dictated to by the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity of saying what he has got to say in reply in a few moments. I simply wish to deal with one of the most important subjects which relate to the liberty of the subject in England or in Ireland. I have made in my remarks up to now no distinction whatever between England and Ireland, and I have no intention of doing so. If the law in Ireland is very different from the common law in England it ought to be altered, but that is not the point. The point is that it seems to be the law as it stands to-day that if the authorities entertain the opinion that someone is going to address a meeting in such a manner as is likely to lead to a breach of the peace, they have the right to apply to a magistrate and to get a warrant to bring the man before the magistrate—they must convince the magistrate that the individual who proposed to address the meeting is likely to be or has advertised himself as going to hold a meeting and address it in such a manner as to lead to a breach of the peace. If they do so it is clearly laid down that if the magistrate is convinced on this point he can order the man to be bound over and give bail, or if he does not give the required bail the magistrate can send him to gaol.
The law is perfectly clear. The question went to the Court of Appeal in the case to which I have referred, and whilst I agree that this House ought to be exceedingly 660 jealous of the right and privilege of any citizen of the realm to address any public meeting he likes the line ought to be drawn and is properly drawn at the point where it is obvious that the intention of the man would be to do some act or deliver a speech which would be likely to lead to a breach of the peace. That is a question of fact for the magistrate to decide. I am not going to say anything about the merits of this particular case. It is a question of fact for the magistrate to decide, and he can use his own discretion. He can ask for bail of £5 if he likes. If the man says, "I will not do anything that is likely to create a breach of the peace and bring about a riot," then there is an end of the matter. Any citizen of the realm to-day is liable under the common law as it stands to be hailed before a magistrate and asked to give bail for his good behaviour, and the magistrate has always got a discretion if he thinks there is the slightest ground for supposing that the individual is likely to be guilty of an actual breach of the peace. Under these circumstances it seems to me that, while it is desirable on all occasions that a point of this importance should be called to the attention of the House I do not think until the merits of this matter have been gone into before a magistrate that the House has anything to do in the particular case mentioned.
§ Mr. McKENNA
The hon. Member for the West Derby Division of Liverpool has stated the law with complete accuracy, and has ended his remarks by drawing the proper conclusions. In the present case, whatever the facts may be as they appear before the magistrate to-morrow, the charge was that the prisoner intended to cause a breach of the peace. That was the charge, and not what he had said. There is no question of free speech in the charge. It is true that on 5th November a breach of the peace had been caused by what he said, but the present charge against him is not a charge in respect of freedom of speech, but a charge that it is his intention to cause a breach of the peace and cause a disturbance. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is so, and that is the charge. I am not saying it is proved, for that is a question for the magistrate to consider. He was haled before the magistrate and asked to give personal recognisances, to give assurances for his good behaviour, and an undertaking that he would behave himself on the following Sunday, the charge being that he intended to cause a breach of the peace.
§ Mr. McKENNA
That is another point. We are dealing now with the questions of freedom of speech and what was the nature of the charge. That was the charge against the prisoner. He was ordered by the magistrate to find two sureties of £100 apiece, and to enter into his own recognisances for £200. The Court, as a rule, does not inquire into a prisoner's own means, but no doubt finding two sureties of £100 each is quite a different matter, and the prisoner has now appealed to the magistrate to vary the order. Therefore, until the magistrate has heard the case, I think it would be quite improper for me to say anything.
§ Mr. McKENNA
Either in prejudice of the prisoner's case, or in his defence, I have not the slightest intention of saying anything either way. My hon. Friend touched another question which is material. Why was the man proceeded against on a warrant and not by summons? The facts are these: The disturbance occurred on the Sunday. Monday and Tuesday were spent by the police in seeing various persons who were present. The case was considered on the evidence, and it came up before the Chief Commissioner on the Thursday. It was considered whether one or two alternative courses should be taken; whether he should be proceeded against for using blasphemous language, or whether he should be proceeded against under another act, I think it was for causing a disturbance. The Chief Commissioner came to the conclusion not to proceed in cither of those ways, but to hail him before a magistrate and get security for the avoidance of a breach of the peace on the following Sunday. That conclusion was come to on the Thursday, and it is obvious, if this proceeding was to be effective, it must be prompt. A warrant accordingly was issued on Friday morning. Why not a summons? If a summons had been issued on Friday, probably it would not have been made returnable until Saturday, and if the prisoner had asked for an adjournment in order to prepare his case, it would have been difficult to refuse him on the Saturday, and that would have left him free on the Sunday to create the very disturbance which had been threatened. On the contrary, if he were proceeded against on the Friday forthwith 662 he could then, had he so wished, have applied to the magistrate for an adjournment of the case to the Saturday. It must not be supposed the prisoner is quite ignorant of the proceedings. It is not the first time he has been before the Court, and consequently he was perfectly familiar with everything he would have to do. He did not apply for an adjournment, and, so far as I am aware, he has never made the slightest complaint on that ground.
§ Mr. McKENNA
No; he has asked to have the order varied as regards the two sureties, but he has never asked for a retrial on the ground of not having got up his defence.
§ Mr. McKENNA
He has never asked for a postponement or a re-trial on the ground that he could not get up his case. He has asked the magistrate to reduce the amount of the security. The complaint of my hon. Friend was never made by the prisoner himself. It was necessary if he was to be prevented making a disturbance on November 12th that he should before that date be bound over to keep the peace. What is the jurisdiction of the Home Office in the matter? My only jurisdiction would arise if the prisoner by himself or by his friends petitioned me. I have not received any petition from either him or his friends, and I venture to say the prisoner has not asked the hon. Member to take up this question.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I think every Member of this House should be representative of the people, and if he thinks injustice has been done he should raise the question here. I think this man has been grossly and most unjustly treated.
§ Mr. McKENNA
I am only dealing with the jurisdiction of the Home Office. If 663 the prisoner had petitioned me or his friends had done so I should have had jurisdiction to interfere. I suggest that the hon. Member is not petitioning me on behalf of the prisoner, and I have therefore absolutely no jurisdiction in the case. The law must take its course, and I am bound to say after full investigation of all the circumstances and of the evidence upon which the magistrate proceeded I am satisfied that the police took a wise and prudent course.
§ Mr. HAROLD SMITH
I should not have intervened had it not been for the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. Without going into the merits or demerits of this particular question I cannot refrain from saying I have just listened to one of the most laboured defences of any action ever taken by the Home Office since I have been in the House of Commons. [An HON. MEMBER: "No action has been taken by the Home Office."] What are the facts which the Home Secretary claims justified procedure by warrant instead of by summons? Shortness of time is pleaded. But the police had plenty of time to act on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, or at any rate to decide the nature of the action they should take. Another point advanced by the Home Secretary was that if a summons had been issued the man would have applied for an adjournment and would have been able to repeat his performance on the Sunday. That was a ridiculous suggestion for the man might have been called upon by the magistrate to give an undertaking not to repeat his conduct if an adjournment were granted, and not the slightest difficulty need have arisen. I think this is a very lame and laboured defence, which has not convinced the House in the very least.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes before Twelve o'clock.