HC Deb 14 November 1916 vol 87 cc593-6
Colonel CRAIG

On a point of Order. Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether you can suggest the best way in which this House can express its thanks to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Stanton) for breaking up pro-German meetings?


(by Private Notice) asked the Home Secretary whether he proposed to take any action in consequence of the breaking up of a conference in Cardiff to discuss civil liberties, and to take such steps as would prevent a repetition of incitement to riot through the public Press and on the platform, and thus preserve the right to meet in public to discuss questions of national importance?

Major-General Sir IVOR HERBERT

(by Private Notice) asked the Home Secretary whether he received a telegram sent to the Home Office after a meeting of citizens held at Cardiff on Friday evening last warning him of the certainty of serious disturbance if the advertised meeting of the so-called Council of Civil Liberties were held on the following day, and whether he would state his reasons for disregarding that and previous warnings, and for failing to prohibit a meeting calculated to offend public feeling and provoke the breach of the peace that actually occurred?


I was unaware that any question would arise. I am yet young and strange to the procedure of the House. I looked at the Order Paper and did not notice anything there. However, expecting that someone who knew more than I do so far as the games are concerned here, would raise this question, I think I am entitled to a little privilege, and I would like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, the House, and whoever is responsible for these things—whatever has happened, whatever has gone wrong—whether you are also aware of what has appeared in the Press that they threaten us in Merthyr with another of their pro-German meetings, and whether you are aware that we will not tolerate it, whatever the consequences? Also whether you are aware that whilst we were friends with some of them in the old movement we are not going to be hounded out of what we believe to be our rights as Britishers by a crowd of pro-Germans, who, if they come to Merthyr, will be dealt with whether you deal with them or no?


I was not aware of any of these things.


On Friday last I received a letter from the Chief Constable of Cardiff relating to the conference proposed to be held on Saturday, the 11th instant, in which he wrote that he did not state that he had reason to apprehend that the holding of the conference would give rise to grave disorder and thereby cause undue demands to be made upon the police; a patriotic demonstration would be held in Cathays Park simultaneously with the conference, but he was taking measures to prevent any clashing of the different parties.

In the local Press on Wednesday a letter had appeared from the gentleman who was organising that demonstration disclaiming all intention of attempting to break up the conference, and saying that they intended to rely wholly upon a legal and constitutional method of conducting their protests to the end. He had written in similar terms to the chief constable.

On Friday I received a telegram from the chief constable saying that information had reached him that morning that the dimensions and probable temper of the counter-demonstration at Cathays Park simultaneous with the conference would be such that he apprehended they would give rise to grave disorder and would thereby cause undue demands to be made upon the police. He recommended an Order under the Defence of the Realm Regulation 9a, prohibiting the holding of the conference at Cory Hall.

On Saturday morning I received the telegram to which the hon. Baronet's question refers sent on behalf of a meeting over which he had presided. The conference was to be an indoor meeting; it had been organised some weeks in advance, was to be presided over by the president of the South Wales Miners' Federation, and attended by two hon. Members of this House. Its underlying purpose, in my opinion, was such as would undoubtedly give offence to the great majority of the population of Cardiff, as it would, I believe, to the people of any other locality in this country, but its objects were not in themselves illegal.

It has been repeatedly stated that the Government does not propose to use the powers of the Defence of the Realm Acts to interfere, so far as it can be avoided, with the expression of opinion on matters of policy. Even if some disorder results when a small minority places itself in open opposition to the sentiments of the nation at large, that is preferable, so long as the disorder is not of a grave character, to the minority being able to assert that the Government uses its powers to suppress meetings by force of law and to prevent views attacking the Government's policy from being expressed. On a careful review of all the considerations, on the one side and on the other, I thought it inadvisable to prohibit the holding of the conference.

In answer to the hon. Member for Derby, I may say that the police at Cardiff are not under my direct control. From the reports sent to me by the chief constable, I gather that they used their utmost endeavours to secure order in the circumstances.


Member for the Borough of Derby, 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, "the circumstances under which a conference was broken up in Cardiff last Saturday, and the failure of the Home Office to give satisfactory assurances to protect the right of citizens to meet to discuss questions of national importance," and the pleasure of the House having been signified, the Motion stood over, under Standing Order No. 10, until a quarter-past eight o'clock this evening.


Is the Home Secretary aware that the organisers of this conference have announced their intention to hold a similar conference at Merthyr Tydvil?


That question can be raised this evening.