HC Deb 02 August 1935 vol 304 cc3076-87

3.13 p.m.


On Tuesday last, when I put a question or two to the Home Secretary, I gave him to understand that I was not dissatisfied with his replies as far as their accuracy was concerned but with their inadequacy. He stated that at the Fascist meeting held at the Stratford Town Hall, on Wednesday, 24th July, there were 24 police engaged within the hall. In order to assist him I am going to ask him four points. First, what justification was there for police constables being used outside the building to assist the stewards of the meeting to decide who should enter the hall? It was an ordinary advertised meeting to which the public were invited, and in order to charge myself with some degree of accuracy, I have obtained particulars of what appeared in a local paper and what has been said by a local man. This man writes to the local paper: Instead of being allowed to walk right in as I have hitherto done when I have attended public meetings there, I was stopped by a policeman, who, before allowing me to pass the door, said to a gentleman in a blackshirt uniform, 'Is he all right.' On receiving an affirmative answer from the gentleman in the black shirt, I was allowed to pass up the stairs. At the top of the staircase, I was stopped by another gentleman in Facist uniform, who asked me for my ticket. I told him that I was under the impression it was a public meeting and that therefore I had no need of a ticket. He replied that all the seats excepting a few at the back of the hall were reserved for ticket holders. Therefore, I was compelled to sit at the rear along with a, uniformed member of Sir Oswald's party. What right had uniform policemen to be used on the steps of the town hall to assist stewards at any meeting, whether it be a Fascist, a Communist, a Labour, a Liberal or a Tory meeting, to decide who shall enter an ordinary public meeting? The burden of my question to the Home Secretary was, who asked for the presence of uniformed constables in the hall? His reply was: That they were not asked for, but that they were put there by the Commissioner of Police as a precautionary measure to deal with any breaches of the peace that might occur."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1935; col. 2474, Vol. 304.] I do not associate myself with any person or persons in this country who set out to smash up public meetings. I have never been a participant in such conduct, but I have frequently been a, victim. I felt rather amused at the reply of the right hon. Gentleman, and I ask myself what is the point of view of the police in regard to a breach of the peace which requires precautionary measures? What do they mean by a breach of the peace at the public meeting? Ordinarily, I suppose that it is fair to assume that any conduct by a person or persons likely to lead to public disorder or to injury to life and limb or property would be a breach of the peace. If the police constables were really used at this meeting to ensure that there was no breach of the peace and to deal with any such breaches of peace, I should not be standing here to-day. I am reminded of a discussion that we had the other day in which Mr. Speaker gave guidance in regard to statements in the public Press. Therefore, I have taken special pains to ensure that the few remarks to which I am going to refer are accurate. Our local newspaper, which is not of my political way of thinking, gave its impression of the meeting: The police in the hall watched with cold dispassionate gaze the ejectment of interrupters and seemed more or less bored with the whole proceedings. In the guise of stewards, the blackshirts were there to pounce quickly, and there was little evidence of the spirit of forbearance. They were there as chuckers out and meant to fulfil their purpose. I will not read all the evidence that I have, because of the time, but I have a little explanation to give to the Home Secretary. I asked him if he had been informed of an attack upon a uniformed member of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. I find that I was a little inaccurate. Although he is a member of the Brigade he was not in uniform, and therefore the police and the people present did not know that he was a member of the brigade. He did, however give some reasonable evidence when at the appropriate time for questions. He asked Sir Oswald a question. I will not ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept my words. These are the words of the local reporter, who sat beneath the platform and was capable of seeing what happened: A man was putting a question, the purport of which was not clear, when Sir Oswald Mosley said: 'I have seen men like you get behind a policeman and shout insults to Fascists.' The man was ejected, and he struggled and later on appeared in the hall with his shirt in tatters, and asked Sir Oswald Mosley if his organisation would buy him a new garment. He declared that he had listened without interruption to the speech. Sir Oswald Mosley said that while he was attempting to answer questions the man had yelled with the view to preventing the answers being heard. I fear that he was put out. That is the report of the local newspaper. I want to ask the Home Secretary if the police were there to deal with any possible breach of the peace, and if the local newspaper is correct that the police stood by with cold dispassionate gaze and looked bored with what was going on. what is really the position of these 24 men? I have had numerous letters sent to me, but I will refer to only two of them. I will give the names and addresses in order that the Home Secretary can verify my information if he desires. A young man called Jennings, of 8, New Providence Street, Stratford, writes: A young man (with a girl) who was sitting in front of me was attacked by a group of Fascists who still went on hitting him whilst he was lying on the floor. He was carried out bleeding from the face. The splashes of blood on the stairs were further evidence of their brutality. I do not want to deal with this matter in any humourous way, but we have to-day in West Ham Town Council offices three sets of artificial teeth still unclaimed. That is just a slight indication that there was violence of more than the ordinary kind. I want to know whether the presence of the police at the meeting was justified or not. If they were there to deal with any possible breach of the peace, will the Home Secretary say whether organised attacks upon ordinary people who attend such meetings can take place with this degree of violence and the police look on with cold, dispassionate gaze? The second point I put to him is with regard to the police in the streets. I remember the days of the general strike when the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave us good guidance in this House. There was no disorder in West Ham, no one was arrested, and I attribute that to the fact that the ordinary West Ham police were left to deal with the West Ham people. As a local magistrate and an official I have nothing but praise for the conduct of the local police, and I attribute the unpleasant incidents which took place to the fact that police from two other divisions were brought in. The Home Secretary looked with some degree of disfavour and displeasure on my suggestion that rather strong action was taken by the police outside the hall. Let me give him one or two facts. The local paper says: Generally speaking, they were patient and tactful, though in isolated cases, and when not under the eyes of their chiefs, a few were inclined to officiousness. The Home Secretary will, of course, explain that better. He will say that this officiousness means that the imported police were merely doing their duty.

A correspondent writes to the newspaper: I should like to know the position of law abiding citizens of West Ham versus police on occasions of meetings or demonstrations that may be arranged by any organisation. The police are expected to protect life and property we know, but what is the position of the public when the police by their action may cause a breach of the peace to be committed by their attacks on law abiding citizens? This man also writes: I emerged from the Broadway Cinema"— which is not a minute's walk from the Town Hall— on Wednesday night about 10.20 with my wife. We witnessed what I consider was an unwarranted attack by the mounted police on peaceful citizens who like myself, no doubt, had no personal interest in the meeting but were simply waiting for a tram to take them home. The mounted police, acting on orders from a mounted officer, charged their horses on to the pavement without warning, scattering the public into the roadway and forcing them to go the way the police intended instead of the way the people intended to go home. A letter signed by Mrs. Lynch, 42, St. Antony's Road, E. Horswill, 109, Neville Road, and Mrs. Clifford, 32, Gwendoline Avenue, states: Instead of maintaining the civil liberties of the public they (the police) on this occasion destroyed all semblance of freedom. A case in point is that of a young man who is a son of one of the signatories to this protest. He had no connection with the meeting inside the Town Hall nor with the huge crowd which had gathered in the vicinity.… Passing the Town Hall he paused to look through its doors, whereupon he was immediately commanded by a police officer to get a move on. Not responding immediately to the order, he was roughly seized by the shoulders and pushed on.… An inspector threatened that unless he did move on, he (the inspector) would wring his—neck. These ladies say: Such behaviour to the public by the police is intolerable and we think that an inquiry of some sort should be made. I have received this letter from a man whom I have never seen in my life. May I express my approval of your intended question to the Home Secretary re the conduct of the police at Stratford on Wednesday last…. The particular section of the crowd in which I found myself was of the most orderly nature, consisting mainly indeed of people leaving the Broadway Cinema who, nevertheless, were forced back by the police at a rate frightening and even dangerous to the women in the crowd. The mounted police mounted the pavement quite unnecessarily and continually addressed remarks to individuals in the crowd. I myself was told when I asked whether I would be permitted to proceed round into the main road, that I was silly to be there. I trust that your protest will not go unremarked by the responsible officials.—Yours faithfully, S. Reed, B.A. One of the most regrettable features in connection with this incident is what ultimately happened at the local police court. This, I think, is a matter of which the Home Secretary ought to take careful note because it affects the ordinary administration of law and the preservation of order in this country. There were only five people arrested, but there was a very large number of people outside. One man was remanded for a week, and when he came before the magistrate the charge was only of obstructing the police, and in the circumstances that could be quite well understood. One of his friends was on the ground, an altercation took place with the inspector, and the man was arrested. When he was brought up at the police court the week following, the man, Gerald J. Winter, came to give evidence. Winter described himself as an observer for the Council of Civil Liberties, which is a perfectly respectable body, and he said he heard Burford say, "This man's hurt." The inspector immediately ordered his arrest, and he was frog-marched away.

I am a member of the West Ham Bench, and we have applied to the Home Office for years past for a stipendiary, because people in West Ham feel that when they come before the court, if there is somebody on the Bench with no local political colour, they will get British justice. However, this stipendiary magistrate said to this man Winter; "What business had you there?" Fancy that. Fancy a stipendiary asking a witness what business he had on the King's highway. The man replied that he went to the police station to see the police and tell them he was going to give evidence for Burford, and the stipendiary said, "And did the police listen to you?" He replied, "Yes", and the stipendiary said, "What amazing forbearance".

I would like to say to the Home Secretary—and this is the consummation of a situation which has been very regrettable and unpleasant and which I hope will not be repeated—that I think it is very serious that a stipendiary of a great borough—


The hon. Member is criticising the action of a stipendiary magistrate, which is quite out of order on this Motion.


I am sorry, Sir, and if I had known that before, I would have done it another way. Nevertheless, I hope the Home Secretary will take note of that matter and in his own quiet way see that this sort of thing is not repeated. Will he tell me what use these men were in the hall, and what was the use of bringing in police from outside districts? If the right hon. Gentleman will see that this does not recur, the matter will end, but if he takes up the position that the police did their duty in a nice and proper way, I think he ought to institute an inquiry. I should like to feel assured from him that these very unpleasant incidents will not be repeated, and that in any future demonstration in West Ham the police of West Ham shall be used to keep the West Ham people quiet. I assure him that they are not hooligans, but law-abiding citizens, and if circumstances permit outsiders to come inside our town to preach a gospel that is not pleasant to all the people, I hope he will let the police use mutual toleration and not allow them to stand by while brutally ill-treat the people who attend the meeting. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman will tolerate the situation which I have presented. I have not put this case forward with pleasure, but because I regard it as my duty, representing that area, to see that the people of West Ham shall not be so treated. If he will take my remarks in the kindly spirit in which I have made them, I shall not feel that the afternoon has been wasted.

3.35 p.m.


The hon. Gentleman is entirely within his rights in bringing this matter forward, and I have listened with great attention to what he has thought it his duty to say. There are two things we have to bear in mind. The first is that on an occasion when there is some excitement and, I daresay, some hard words, different individuals necessarily get rather different impressions. The other is that on occasions like this the police in a locality, we all know, have a difficult task. The hon. Gentleman divided his observations into two parts. He had some observations to make on the presence of the police inside the building when this meeting which was addressed by Sir Oswald Mosley took place; and also as to some cases which he had as to police conduct outside the hall.

Let me take these two things separately. First, with regard to the presence of the police inside the hall, it might be convenient if I made this general statement. While it is true that ordinarily speaking a policeman would not be entitled without warrant to go into private premises or private property, if the organisers of a meeting, even though it be in a private hall, make the announcement that the public are invited to come to a public meeting, the police are as much entitled to go into the meeting as any other member of the public. They would not go there unless they were ordered to do so, and the circumstances in which they are ordered to go are these. They do not go in as stewards, but, if there is reason to think, and if past experience makes one fear, that there might be serious disturbance—the hon. Gentleman will remember the unfortunate incidents at Olympia—the better view is that the police authorities should be left to form a judgment as to whether it is well to have some police inside a great hall. It would be no good waiting until the damage was done. If there is likely to be serious disturbance, it cannot be a disadvantage to have the police inside. On this occasion the authorities thought that it would be well, and that is why some 24 uniformed policemen were inside. That does not mean that they were stewards, but that they were only to interfere if the occasion became a grave one.

I asked for a careful report in the matter and the House will be ready to believe that in this matter the police did their honest best. The report says that the police were present and that they were definitely instructed only to interfere in the event of there being a breach of the peace. While the meeting was in progress there was a certain amount of interruption—I gather from what the hon. Gentleman said, a great deal of interruption—and I am not surprised that the interrupters were ejected by the stewards. The police report says that they witnessed no incident that called for intervention on their part. A certain amount of force was used by the stewards, but the police did not witness any case of rough handling or the use of any more force than was necessary to eject the interruptors. In the use of force it must be reasonable as well as necessary. After all, though it is inconvenient for a speaker to be interrupted, it is one of the rights we all have, within reason, to interrupt in proper cases, and we must show every kind of tolerance towards one another's opinions. If, however, people deliberately go into a meeting and make it impossible for the meeting to be held, however unpopular may be the opinions that are being expressed, it is not surprising that there are stewards who on occasions do their best to put them out.

There was a chief inspector present, a man of high position in the force and of undoubted probity, and he was in charge of the police inside the hall. He says that he moved about among the audience, and that at no time did he receive any complaint whatsoever; and that neither did any of the officers under him report that they had received any such complaint. So far as what happened inside the hall is concerned, that is the report I got. I would very much deprecate police interference inside a meeting without extreme cause. We do not want to develop a condition in this country by which the policeman, if he thinks it necessary to be inside a hall, intervenes, if it can be avoided. I think it will be the wish of all of us that if the police should be there for the purpose of preventing improper violence or dangerous misconduct it must be the rule that the people who organise a meeting, and provide themselves with stewards for the purpose, are expected themselves to carry the meeting through in all ordinary circumstances. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for having informed me of the matter as it reached him, but I have no doubt at all as to the care and fairness with which the chief inspector conducted the matter. This was one of the first cases—because this is rather a new practice—in which police have been put inside a hall. I think it is very possible that we may, by experience, work out what is the best way of handling these matters. But I thought it was very necessary that there should be no opportunity of a repetition of some of those deplorable events which happened at a previous meeting at Olympia. So much for what happened inside the hall.

As to what happened outside the hall I think that the hon. Member is quite right to bring these details forward, but I think he has only heard the view of the matter as it presented itself to certain individuals who were undoubtedly inconvenienced. I must positively challenge the allegation that mounted police went careering about on the pavement in an inconsiderate manner. I think that the hon. Member said that they charged the crowd.


The newspaper says that.


I have made very careful inquiry, and I am assured that at no time did the small body of mounted police present do anything whatever but walk their horses. It is quite true that some people were coming out of a cinema at a rather unfortunate moment. Any confusion that arose was really due to the fact that naturally these people did not realise that they should not go their ordinary route and catch their ordinary trams, for at that moment the meeting was breaking up, and it was absolutely necessary to keep the crowds separate, and to secure that they moved on. Any of us who has had experience of election nights or similar occasions knows that when crowds are excited or moving in different directions there is pushing and jostling, and sometimes the police have difficulty in controlling them. I do not think there is anything in this story, so far as I could discover, which really would justify the view that something reprehensible was done by the police or that they left undone anything they should have done. And the best proof of that is the very newspaper to which the hon. Gentleman has referred in several of his extracts. I was not sure at first whether it was the same newspaper—


There is only one.


Then it must be the same, and I knew that it must be the same after a little time because the hon. Member read a sentence in a passage with which I had been provided. Let me read a little more. The extracts which the hon. Member has given us show that the writer in the newspaper has not failed to record, I am sure with the usual journalistic impartiality, some impressions which he thought it fair to make in criticism.

The article was headed "The Blackshirt Invasion," and said: Olympia was not repeated in West Ham on Wednesday, despite the dour prognostications of the pessimists. This gratifying fact was not due to the Blackshirts, nor to their political opponents, but was due to the thoughtful provision of the police authorities"— that is from my hon. Friend's local newspaper— who made their dispositions with such thoroughness that they would have been able to cope with any situation. That sentence he did not read. He read this sentence: Generally speaking, they"— that is the police— were patient and tactful, though in isolated cases, where they were not under the eyes of the chief, a few were inclined to officiousness. I understand that "officiousness" in that connection meant that they were disposed to interfere when they need not have done so.


You cannot have it both ways.


Neither can my hon. Friend. I understood that his main complaint was that the police inside the hall did not interfere when they should, and the newspaper says that in one or two cases the police interfered rather too freely. They certainly were not looking for trouble. They were there for the purpose of preventing it and they discharged their duty efficiently. In these matters you cannot expect British citizens all to have the same judgment on every incident, and I am far from claiming that any force, even so well-disciplined a force as the London police, never make mistakes, but I think a fair view of the matter is that they had a rather difficult task, and I am prepared to submit to the House—and I hope my hon. Friend will be prepared to take the view of the local paper—that generally speaking the police were patient and efficient, not looking for trouble but there for the purpose of preventing trouble, and did their duty efficiently. If there is any specific matter which my hon. Friend thinks I ought to look into further I am willing to do so, because none of us want to do anything but that which is fair, and while he is quite right to come here and voice the views of those who have communicated with him I know that he, like all the rest, will be prepared to look to the force to do its best in all circumstances. I think it is only fair to say that their efforts on this occasion in dealing with what was evidently a heated and rather turbulent crowd probably prevented very much greater injury which might otherwise have occurred, and that we are entitled to say that they have retained the confidence of the people of London.