§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Commander Eyres Nowell.]
§ 11.0 p.m.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
I wish to draw the attention of the Lord Advocate to the prohibition of public meetings during the municipal elections in Greenock, and to the arrests following the disturbances there. For some considerable time in the West of Scotland agitations have been going on with regard to unemployment benefit and relief to able-bodied men. These questions have been exciting a great many of the population, and particularly the working-class people. Some time ago the unemployed sent a deputation to the Scottish Board of Health in Edinburgh and it met some officials. The deputation included persons from all parts of Scotland representing the unemployed. Shortly after the deputation returned certain events happened which led the magistrates of Greenock in their wisdom or lack of wisdom to put a complete ban on public meetings. In the first week in November the local elections to the Town Council are held, and public meetings of all candidates are essential if the candidates' points of view are to be expressed. It is particularly necessary that the candidates appealing to working-class organisations should hold open air meetings and that no interference should take place with these meetings.
The magistrates were themselves retiring councillors, and they were being opposed by other candidates, and they decided that no public open-air meetings should be held during the elections. That was an intolerable interference with the right of meetings at election times. 1246 Hitherto in Scotland public meetings have always been allowed to any candidate who wished to stand for a public authority. This is the first time that I know where the magistrates have barred public meetings, and particularly public meetings where the candidates were standing for an immediate election. The magistrates in their wisdom banned these meetings, refused to allow candidates to make any statement on behalf of their candidatures, and thereby to a. considerable extent prejudiced and interfered with the right of these candidates. It is a shocking position that magistrates should take this course, for nothing should be done to prevent these people holding meetings.
The second point I want to raise arises out of the disturbance in Greenock, when two batches of men, one of six and one of three were arrested. The first six arrested lay in prison for several weeks. An effort was made to get bail for them by applying to the lord Sheriff. It was refused. Then a solicitor, acting on their behalf, took the application to the Court of Session, and there again bail was refused. The Lord Advocate, in answer to questions the other day, said the men would have been granted bail if they had accepted an offer which was made by the Crown—or made by certain people—well, an offer was made to the six men from some source or another.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. William Watson)
I think I should correct that statement. The offer was made by the solicitor for the defence.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
No. There were two batches, and it is the first batch with which I am dealing. The second batch were given bail, the Crown asking from those three men a guarantee that they would take no part in public meetings. The moment that guarantee was given by the three men no opposition was raised to bail, and it was granted. The Lord Advocate, in answer to questions the other day, led us here to believe that if the first six men arrested had taken advantage of an offer made to them they would have been granted bail on condition that they would take no part in public meetings of any kind. We have made every inquiry we could. We have approached the six men, and in every case each man—or the solicitor —has said that no offer was ever made 1247 to them that if they refused to attend public meetings they would be allowed out on bail.
May I raise this other question? It is a peculiar thing that two or three of the men who were in gaol were candidates for public office in the town of Greenock. They were refused bail while the election was in progress, but the moment the election was by, in other words, the moment the magistrates found themselves secure in their little power, the magistrate could come along and say that public meetings could again be held. After they had been elected there was no danger! Also, the Crown discovered then that there was no serious reason to detain these men any longer and that they could be given bail. As showing that even the Crown did not regard the case as tremendously serious, bail was granted in the slim of £25 only, and the case is to be tried before a sheriff substitute. But the point is that bail was only allowed to these men, who were candidates, after the elections were over and when they would have no opportunity of putting their case to the electorate.
I know the Lord Advocate will say that magistrates have always had the right to veto public meetings in the interest of the well-being of the rest of the community, but there was no evidence that there were likely to be any untoward incidents in the ordinary public life of Greenock. I understand that none of these men—with one exception, I think—has ever been in any serious trouble before. Life in Greenock was following its normal course. It is quite true that at elections for town councils and parish councils, where Poor Law relief becomes a keen topic, men and women do not discuss events quite so calmly as they discuss abstract doctrines like Free Trade and Tariff Reform; the subject is too close to their everyday existence. That is no excuse for barring meetings. I have some knowledge of the town of Greenock and its administration. I hope that at least the Scottish Office, and the Lord Advocate will agree that it is their duty to secure for all men, no matter what their political opinions may be the right to stand for public election and the right to appear before the electors to state their views.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
It may be that the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) has suffered in that respect. All these men have the right to stand for public election and the exercise of this ban was an interference with the free election of members to the town council. I ask if the Lord Advocate has made inquiries as to the statement that these men were led to believe that if they gave the guarantee asked for they would be let out. I think the detention of these men for so many weeks without bail shows that at least public justice was not as it ought to have been.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
I understand that a deputation was sent by the Trades and Labour Council to interview the Greenock Parish Council about the reduction in the scale of relief. That deputation was refused an interview by the parish council. They went to Cathcart Square in Greenock, to a meeting which was announced to be held there. Afterwards there was a police charge; some of the crowd indulged in riot, and some shop windows were broken. The next day feeling in the town ran very high. On the second day after the disturbance six people were arrested and they were refused bail. Subsequently the magistrates made an order banning all meetings not only outside, but inside, which were of a political character. This ban held good for some time during the period of the local election, and I understand that some of those magistrates were standing for election. For the benefit of the House I may explain that the system in Scotland is different from the English system in that respect, as magistrates are elected by the local council to the magistracy, and, if a magistrate is defeated at the election when he runs for the office of councillor, naturally he cannot be elected a magistrate, because a magistrate must be a member of the town council.
Some of these Magistrates, I understand, were candidates at the election. They made this rule prohibiting meetings by the local trades and labour council, the Independent Labour party, the Communist party, and, I understand, any other political party. Afterwards the ban 1249 on indoor meetings was removed, but the ban continued, throughout the whole period of the election, on outdoor meetings, so that a candidate was unable to address the people that he hoped were going to be his constituents at an outdoor meeting thereafter. An arrest followed, because one of the candidates for the council refused to recognise this prohibition, considering it to be an intolerable interference with the right of a candidate to address the people that he wished to send him to the council. But the six men lay in gaol and were refused bail.
I want the Lord Advocate to have an inquiry into the circumstances of these events in Greenock, and I think we are entitled to have an inquiry into the conduct of these Magistrates" in denying these individuals the opportunity of being allowed to address the people and to ask for their support in returning them to the town council or the parish council. So highly respected was one of the six that, even although he lay in gaol all through the period of the election, being refused bail, he was elected to the parish council at the head of the poll. That shows that there was no great interference after all, but I make bold to say that, if these people had been allowed, or, if they had not been allowed bail, other responsible people had been allowed, to address the people at outdoor meetings, the results of these local elections in Greenock would have been very different, because the people were not allowed to get a statement with regard to the position that these people were taking up.
I suggest to the Lord Advocate that the circumstances of the banning of these meetings constitute an intolerable interference with the rights of candidates, and I ask him to allow an inquiry into the whole conduct of the elections in Greenock; and, if the elections have not been carried through properly, I would also suggest that it would be the business of the Government to declare the elections invalid, and to have elections carried out which would give the various candidates the opportunity of putting their views before the electors. Otherwise, I can see the Government themselves arranging with their friends to ban outdoor meetings at the General Election next year, and afterwards saying that it was all right. There is 1250 another thing that I want to say. On the night before the poll, when the bare on indoor meetings had been removed, I understand that the local Labour candidates were unable to hold their meeting, their let having been withdrawn at the halt that they were to have, so that the whole campaign was absolutely disorganised, and there has not been a free election in Greenock.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE
In the time at my disposal I hope to explain the facts a little more fully and correctly, though I snake no complaint of what the hon. Members have said. In the first place, neither I nor the Secretary of State for Scotland has any power to order any such inquiry as is suggested; and, secondly, even if we had, we sees nothing in the facts, as they are known to, us at any rate, to justify such an inquiry. First of all with regard to the question of the meeting. The ban on indoor meetings consisted of this: that as early as 3rd September last a letter was sent to the magistrates regarding a proposal to carry on indoor meetings, and asking for the use of the town hall. The application related only to the town hall and its use on Sunday evenings for election meetings. The magistrates agreed not to let the town hall for Sunday evenings to any party at all. Later an application was submitted to the meeting of the magistrates—on 24th September, still before any disturbance—when a letter was received asking that permission might be given to the proprietors of one picture house to have political meetings there again on Sunday evening.
The magistrates, of course, have control over licence of these places of entertainment under Statutory powers and their view was that as they had declined to allow the town hall to be used for that purpose the same reason applied to the cinema theatre. On 25th, 26th and 27th September there was serious mobbing and rioting in the streets of Greenock and considerable damage was done by the smashing of windows. That was consequent on the incitement, so I understand, of some meetings in connection with this proposed deputation to the parish council to which the hon. Member has referred. I am not going to-discuss the merits of the question, as, six men are awaiting trial on charges 1251 of mobbing and rioting in connection with it.
It is important to notice the date. At this stage, I would remind hon. Members of what I said the other day, that the public has not got the right of public meeting in the streets. The magistrates have the duty to preserve the streets free for passage and to prevent, of course, breach of the peace or the risk of breach of the peace in the streets. While, of course, there are many places in streets where no possible objection can be taken, or is taken, to public meetings being held, when there is risk of breach of the peace or obstruction to traffic, clearly it is the duty of the magistrates to give directions to the police that those things shall not occur. That was what was done in this ease consequent on that serious mobbing and rioting.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE
I am not going to discuss the details of that. That is a subject which is going to be dealt with at the trial.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE
I am giving the magistrate's reasons for directing that the traffic in the streets should be kept clear and the risk of a breach of the peace should be avoided by preventing the holding of meetings in the public streets.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE
No. It is not unusual, of course, but hon. Members must realise that according to the law there is no right of holding public meetings in the streets; they are not built or intended for that purpose; but while it may not be inconvenient to allow them to be held if there is no risk of their interfering with the peace of the neighbourhood—[Interruption Whatever the 1252 cause, there had been occurrences in Greenock which justified the magistrates in carrying out their duty and seeing that the streets should be preserved for their ordinary and proper purpose and no risks incurred. That was done before the end of the month. These precautions were maintained, as some hon. Members have said, until a date which would cover the elections, but it was quite obvious that feeling was undoubtedly running high during the whole period in Greenock.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE
One may be surprised that the precaution was withdrawn, even after the election was over. That certainly suggests a reason for maintaining it until then. After all this discussion as to the Magistrates not carrying out their duty, I have seen nothing to suggest to me that they did not carry out their duty in those circumstances. Accordingly, I do not think there can be any ground for complaint as regards that matter
The other point referred to was the question of bail. I do not blame the hon. Member who was a little incorrect in regard to what he suggested I said the other day, and in regard to 1the facts of the case. [Interruption.] Yes, I have it here; it is all right. Apparently these men were arrested on 27th September on a warrant of the Sheriff. They were brought before the Sheriff on 28th September and they were committed for trial on 5th October, when bail was refused. As has already been said, they appealed to the High Court, and again bail was refused. At that time there was no suggestion of any undertaking not to take part in meetings in the public streets of Greenock in contravention of police instructions. On 2nd November the Procurator-Fiscal, who was responsible for the prosecution as representing me in Greenock, received a letter from the agent of these men. It did not originate from the Crown at all, but from the solicitor for these six men. He asked the Fiscal not to oppose a fresh motion for bail, and at the same time offered, on behalf of the men, a guarantee that they would take no part in demonstrations or meetings during the trial. The matter was referred to the Crown Office, and he was 1253 informed that if such a motion were made, and such a guarantee given, the motion would not be opposed. In fact, the motion was made and it was not opposed and the men were liberated on that petition on 10th November, and they are at present on bail, pending trial. There again I do not see that there can be any complaint on that score. I do not think the question of bail arose in regard to the other three men on a subsequent meeting on the 1st November.
§ Mr. MAXTON
I am afraid we shall require another evening for discussion of this matter because I am profoundly dissatisfied. On the second occasion the men were charged with an ordinary breach of the peace and I went to the police station and offered bail on behalf of the men for an ordinary breach of the peace, and it was refused. In ordinary circumstances, if there had not been political prejudice, it would have been granted.
§ The LORD ADVOCATE
I should prefer to hear what the actual suggestion was before I deal with the matter on that point. Two of the men have already been convicted and fined on this 1254 charge, and there remains a third man whose case is awaiting trial.
§ Mr. MAXTON
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether the inquiries to which he refers have been made by an agent representing his own office, or is the statement he is making to-night made purely on the report he received from Greenock? Is it a responsible official in Greenock who has investigated affairs there?
§ It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ In pursuance of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER has nominated
- Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Henry Spender-Clay, C.M.G., M.C.,
- Sir Archibald Henry Macdonald Sinclair, baronet, C.M.G.,
- Captain Robert Croft Bourne,
- Charles Edwards, esquire, and
- Clement; Richard Attlee, esquire,