HC Deb 24 May 1933 vol 278 cc1097-8

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Public Meeting Act, 1908, by extending its operation to meetings held during an election for local government office. I hope that the House will agree that this will be a useful little Measure. The Public Meeting Act, 1908, makes it an illegal practice, and provides appropriate penalties for the organising and promoting of disorder at public meetings for Parliamentary elections. It was thought at that time to be a remote possibility that people would take the trouble to organise the same sort of thing at municipal elections, and therefore that Act does not extend to municipal elections. The only object of the Bill which I am asking leave to introduce is to place municipal elections on exactly the same footing for this purpose as Parliamentary elections. A similar Bill was introduced in 1928, when it was well received in all quarters of the House, but no progress was made with it. The principle of free speech as applied to municipal elections is exactly as sacred as in Parliamentary elections, and if hooligans disturb public meetings at municipal elections they are invading exactly the same rights as they invade in the case of Parliamentary elections. Hon. Members will know how useful this Measure will be. We all know which party is responsible for breaking up meetings, the party to which we do not happen to belong. Disorder is something of which no party can approve. If a candidate wants to tell people what he stands for, and if the audience agrees with him, they will want to hear his wisdom. If they do not agree with him, they may want to listen to him nevertheless, in order to see to what lengths human effrontery can go.

We therefore have a common interest in supporting this Measure. There is nothing in it which will interfere in any way with the ancient and attractive art of heckling. It will still be permissible for Socialist hecklers to ask such questions as What price equality of sacrifice?" and "Who stole the children's milk?" Earnest-minded young Liberals can still ask what were the views of Cob-den on this matter in 1842. Nothing in this Bill will interfere with such heckling, or with the mild and dignified tumult which we all associate with well-conducted elections or with Liberal conferences, when the question is mooted as to whether the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) should or should not cross the Floor of the House. That sort of tumult will still take place. If a heckler has been fortunate enough to extract from a candidate an express pledge that he will give a plain answer to a plain question, yes, or no, the heckler will still be able to ask the candidate the old question: "Have you left off beating your wife?" All the old foibles and delights of election time will still remain. This Bill is only intended to suppress, so far as municipal elections go, the organised violence which prevents free speech and free hEarlng at election meetings. All of us like a little frolic at election times, but we do not want pandemonium. The House will remember the words of Tennyson, when he spoke of England as: …the land that freemen till, That sober-suited Freedom chose; The land, where, girt with friends or foes, A man may speak the thing he will. The Bill is put forward to enable candidates at municipal elections to have a chance to deliver their message to a waiting world, and to enable their audiences, poor devils, to listen to what they have to say.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Gerald Hurst, Lieut.-Colonel Ainsworth, Lieut.-Commander Astbury, Colonel Broadbent, Mr. Choriton, Mr. Essenhigh, Captain Fuller, Mr. Goldie, Mr. Magnay, Sir Alan McLean, Mr. Potter, and Mr. Savery.