HC Deb 20 March 1928 vol 215 cc223-5

I beg to move, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Pubic Meeting Act (1908) by extending its operations to meetings held during an election for local government office."

The object of the Bill is to extend to meetings held in the course of municipal elections the same statutory protection against organized disturbance which is now enjoyed by meetings held in the course of Parliamentary elections. The Public Meeting Act, 1908, imposes penalties on persons who at a lawful public meeting act in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business for which the meeting was called. That provision applies to all sorts of public meetings, but there is an additional provision in the Act of 1908 which makes it an illegal practice to organise the break-up of a meeting held at a Parliamentary election. That provision does not extend to municipal elections, and I submit that exactly the same principle which secures a public meeting during a Parliamentary election from organised disturbance ought to safeguard meetings held in support of municipal candidatures.

The principle at the root of this Bill is the right of anybody to say what he will, and the right of an audience to hear what any candidate has to say. Nobody suggests that the Act of 1908 should be repealed; the object of the Bill is merely to extend the same protection to municipal meetings which is given by that Act to Parliamentary election meetings. It is the common experience of the industrial north, that there is just as much organised violence and disturbance at municipal elections as there is at Parliamentary

mentary elections. In recent times, it has been almost impossible to hold a meeting in decent peace and order in many parts of the industrial north. [An HON. MEMBER: "That is not true!"] It is perfectly true in my own experience in the Manchester and Salford area. What with the shouting, the screaming and the singing of the "Red Flag" you cannot say what you want to say. [Interruption.] However unpopular what you want to say may be or however foolish it may be, the candidate has a right to say what he wishes to say, and the audience has a right to hear what he has to say. No party admits itself to be responsible for interruptions of this sort. If you hold a meeting and interruption takes place and you blame the Socialists, the Socialists will blame the Communists; the Communists will disclaim all liability and will say, perhaps, that it is the Anarchists, and no doubt the Anarchists will put it down to that nebulous and elusive body, the League of Young Liberals.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

Having had experience of two of the parties mentioned, may I ask the hon. Member if he is aware that many meetings have been broken up by Conservatives, old and young?


This Bill is no respecter of parties. It applies to all parties, in the common interest of freedom of speech and freedom of public meeting. There is nothing in this Bill which in any way affects or impinges upon the ancient and honourable art of heckling. There is nothing in the Bill that will in any way interfere with the right of the anxious antiquarian who wants to know what Mr. Gladstone said in 1885, nor is there anything in it to interfere with the curiosity of the ill-informed cynic who wants to know what the Government has done for the working man. These people can ask their old questions and they will get the old replies. All that the Bill does, is to give the same protection to meetings held during municipal elections from deliberate and calculated breaking-up or disturbance, very often by bodies entirely remote from the constituency where such disturbance takes place.


Is there any provision in the Bill to compel a candidate to answer a question when it is asked?


There is nothing to that effect in the Bill, but no doubt the hon. Member, if he puts a question, will get the same satisfactory and succinct replies from candidates which he usually gets from Conservative platforms. Whether he will get the same shortness and clearness in an answer from the other side, is a matter which I will not argue. The Bill simply aims at preserving the right of all candidates to say what they like and the right of audiences to hear any and every candidate, whether they speak wisely or foolishly. It preserves the ancient right of an elector in this country to hear what your candidate wishes to say.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gerald Hurst, Lieut.-Commander Astbury, Lieut.-Colonel Sir Godfrey Dalrymple-White, Dr. Watts, Mr. A,. R. Kennedy, Sir Joseph Nall, Mr. Gates, Sir Robert Newman, Mr. Hannon, Mr. Hilton, and Sir Robert Bird.