HC Deb 07 December 1936 vol 318 cc1756-85

9.42 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 7, line 40, at the end, to insert: (3) This Act shall come into operation on the first day of January, nineteen hundred and thirty-seven. I hope that it may be possible, when we have carried the Third Reading of the Bill to-night, to get the Bill dealt with in another place promptly. It is desirable that it should be carried into law without delay, but it would not be right to say that it should come into law the moment the Royal Assent is given. There must be time, if it be only a week or two, for the Measure to be printed and circulated to magistrates and for a circular to be senj to chief officers of police with an explanation of some of the Clauses. Then there will have to be the instructions of individual members of the Force. I hope that hon. Members will agree that 1st January will be an appropriate date to make this New Year's gift to those who require this legislation.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

9.44 p.m.


We have now reached the last stage of the Public Order Bill. On these benches we have co-operated with the Government, both in promoting and in amending the Bill, and we shall support it on its Third Reading, if indeed it goes to a Division. We have taken this course not because we desire in any way to weaken the liberties of the people of the country. Our position in that respect is well known. On the contrary, we wish to extend the liberties which we at present enjoy. We have no desire to limit the rights of minorities; we recognise that public meeting, demonstration and procession are part of the life blood of a free people, and essential elements of Democracy. The reason why we have taken the action that we have with regard to this Bill is that we believe its provisions to be necessary in order to deal with an evil which has only recently arisen. We regret that necessity, as I am sure hon. Members in all parts of the House do, but difficulties demand remedies from time to time, even though those remedies may sometimes be not very pleasant to take.

Even in this House there wag a time when some of our present expedients were unknown, when there was no Closure and Guillotine, and Members had the right to talk upon each Measure as long as they liked. The advantages of that method will, I think, have been apparent from our debates on this Bill. There has been no factious opposition to the Bill, and I think the debates have been exceedingly interesting and illuminating. The Government have been very accommodating, and in a number of cases where we have put forward and proved our claim, as we have, for an alteration in the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has met us, and I believe he will agree that the Bill has been very much improved as a result of such modification as it has received from all parts of the House. Of course, however, there came a time in the development of this House when that method of allowing Members to talk as much as they pleased became difficult to continue, owing to definite obstruction, and then the Closure and the Guillotine had to be introduced.

There is no doubt about the provocation which has made it necessary to take some action in regard to the events that have been happening in the country. Only a few months ago there was the meeting in Edinburgh to which I have already drawn the attention of the House while we were discussing one of the Clauses of the Bill on Report, and only two or three days ago in London, at a meeting of the body which we have in mind in this Bill, the most abusive language, likely to bring about a serious breach of the peace, was used. I do not think that the passing of this Bill into law and its coming into operation at the beginning of next year is any too early to stop the very dangerous proceedings which, even to-day, are going on. Some of us had supposed that the powers of the Home Secretary were great enough to enable him to deal with these people even under the existing law, but the Home Secretary has considered that his powers were inadequate, and that it was necessary that they should be extended in order to prevent the abuses which have been going on. The contributions we have made by the Amendments which we have put forward have not been intended in any way to weaken the effective powers conferred upon the executive by the Bill for dealing with the menace with which we have been confronted, but they have been directed, I think effectively, to lessening the possibilities of abuse which there may be under the Bill. Only recently the Lord Advocate referred to an instance where, in widening the Bill in one direction, he found that he had widened it too far in another, and, of course, that difficulty has confronted, not only Members on the Front Government Bench, but Members in all parts of the House. Cases have occurred in which, when it was sought to improve the powers of the Bill in order to prevent abuse, other necessary powers for dealing with the evil were infringed upon, and when attempts to control the mischief rendered the Bill liable to do things in the direction of curtailment of liberties which I think none of us, with one or two possible exceptions here and there, could possibly wish to see carried through.

It is only fair to the Home Secretary to say that we have not found him reluctant to make modifications in the Bill which the House as a whole would wish to see. He has adopted Amendments which Members in some parts of the House recognise as essential for the preservation of liberties in this country, and I fully believe it is his intention to operate the Bill in the same spirit in which he has con- ducted the debates on it in this House. I am sure that he more than anyone else will recognise that it is not his good faith that is in question when I say it is necessary to have a Measure which not merely can be defended in this House, but which will act without curtailment of liberties when it comes to be put into operation. Naturally, the Home Secretary cannot expect to remain in that position for ever. Perhaps in this Government, and certainly in future Governments, we shall have other Home Secretaries, and we have, therefore, to provide within the limits of the Bill itself a Measure which is not open to great abuse. I do not pretend for a moment, and I do not think the Home Secretary will pretend, that this Bill is entirely abuse-proof; there never has been a Measure which cannot be abused if people set out to use it improperly, and this Bill is certainly no exception to the rule.

Personally, I am not afraid of abuse of the Bill in regard to any substantial minority. There are in the proceedings of the courts and in the proceedings of this House a large number of natural safeguards where there is a minority sufficiently considerable and sufficiently vocal to call for the protection of their rights. But there is always a danger that, when you come to an inconsiderable minority, and particularly at times of public stress when large masses of opinion move in one direction, that the essentials of liberty may be called in question; and it is our duty here and now, in framing the provisions of this Bill, to see that they are of such a character that the dangers at those times will be reduced to the smallest dimensions. It is for that reason that I think we have done well in putting in all the safeguarding Amendments that have been made. If there does arise a Government that abuses the provisions of this Bill, no doubt all of us here to-day who have taken part in carrying the Bill through will be blamed, but the responsibility will be a very heavy one upon any Government that uses the provisions of the Bill to abuse or restrict public liberty, for it will be a greater attack upon democracy even than the attack which is being launched to-day by the forces which we are seeking to control by this Measure and which is due to the introduction of foreign elements and foreign conceptions of public life into our British democracy which we cherish in this country.

There are only two or three further words that I should like to say. Nearly at the end of the Debate on the Report stage we dealt with a Clause in which we gave even wider powers to the police than the right hon. Gentleman originally proposed in. his Bill. That shows, I think that in all parts of the House there is at the present time very considerable confidence in the right use of power by the police, and I believe that that is the view of the public. I am not saying, of course, and I do not think anyone would say, that there are not black sheep in the police force. For that reason we have always to be careful as to the powers that we give to the police. Though I believe it is a view shared by all sections of the House that the police act fairly in the matters that come before them, of course the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and it is necessary, above all, not to give the police too wide powers, and to watch very carefully how they carry out the very extensive powers to which we add from time to time and which we 'are increasing even in this Bill.

The Clause dealing with processions is one to which we have given a great deal of time, I think rightly, because there we are introducing new powers and new rights of restriction which are, so far as I know, unknown up to the present in British law. Therefore, it is of great importance that we should watch those additional powers of restriction very carefully in giving them to the executive. In Committee I urged upon the right hon. Gentleman the need of scrutinising most carefully to see whether Amendments could be put down to limit and safeguard those powers. He was not able to do that, and we ourselves, as well as Members of the Liberal party, put down Amendments most of which the Government did not see their way to accept, but I am glad that they accepted one Amendment definitely limiting the period for which processions could be banned. That has introduced a very important safeguard into the Measure. The right hon. Gentleman was not present. The Lord Advocate said he did not particularly like the Amendment, but, if there was a very considerable opinion in the House, he would not press his opposition, and he afterwards saw fit to accept it.

Although the Home Secretary has not introduced any Amendments further to safeguard the law with regard to processions, he has promised us one thing for which I thank him. He has said that, in sending his instructions to the police, he will word them so as to make it quite clear that Clause 3 (2) is only to be used in very exceptional circumstances. That is a very important point and, even although his instructions only bind himself, yet they set a precedent which, I hope, will be followed by those who come after him. I think hon. Members opposite were in some cases rather surprised to find that we supported them in our desire to have order kept at public meetings. They were under the impression that there was nothing that we loved more than to have their meetings broken up, and they were rather surprised to find, what is in fact the case, that we particularly dislike their meetings broken up. We think that their arguments are so weak ani ineffective that, the more they are heard, the more they will be disliked and discredited by the electors. So we have joined, and will continue to join, with them in any steps that will really be effective in preventing public meetings being broken up in that way.

I come to Clause 5, which deals with threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace. It is important for the House to realise that those words are not new. They reproduce words in Section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839. They have rather a checkered history because, though their meaning apparently would be perfectly clear, there have been cases where the use of them has been strained. I refer to arrests of women on the streets—not necessarily what are known as common prostitutes. That Section of the Act has been put into operation in many cases quite improperly b y stretching those words far beyond their meaning. In fact this was admitted by a Home Office witness before a committee that sat on this question. In their report they expressed their strong conviction that the Section ought not to be invoked in this case.

There are two points that I want to draw from that statement of fact. The first is a narrow one with regard to this particular offence and the arrests by the police of women on the streets. I trust that the Home Secretary will not, particularly after the objection raised by the Committee, use the wider powers that he has under the Bill to stretch the words out of all their meaning. I want also to stress the wider point that arises as a moral out of the facts that I have been narrating. It is clear that, with the connivance of the magistrates, the old provision was stretched out of all its meaning in regard to these particular persons. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that for the purpose that we have been considering in the course of these Debates these words shall be strictly interpreted wherever they are employed, not merely against women taken in the streets but in all cases where they are invoked to deal with possible offenders.

It seems to me that everything in regard to this Bill turns upon the way it is administered. The Home Secretary has already promised on Clause 3 to issue instructions fairly and properly so that effect should be given by the police to the intentions that we here have expressed. I feel confident that he will undertake to do that not merely on Clause 3 but on all the Clauses and to the Bill as a whole, because if he starts off the administration of the Act in the right spirit we may hope that it will achieve the purpose for which we have promoted it and will not achieve other purposes to which we are violently opposed. If the administration of this Act were to be carried out in a way foreign to the spirit of our Debates in this House, I am sure that a great number of people who have contributed to the passage of this Bill would be deeply grieved and disappointed. I, therefore, support the Third Reading of the Bill, and I ask the Home Secretary to respond to the points which I have made in the spirit in which I have put them forward.

10.6 p.m.


It has been a strange spectacle, as this Bill has passed through its various stages in this House, to see Members of the most diverse political views vying with one another in evolving ingenious limitations of individual lberty. I think that the explanation of it is that we have all been conscious of the fact that in the cause of liberty, as in the cause of every other good thing, it is best cheerfully to give up a little if you can thereby make sure of retaining the greater part. I think that the restrictions laid down in the Bill have been agreed to by this House for that reason. With regard to the militarisation of politics, which was, I suppose, the prime reason for the introduction of the Bill, there are two propositions to which, I think, probably everybody in the House will agree. One is that the King's Army shall be kept out of politics, and the other is that in this country we will not tolerate any army other than the King's Army, and it is the second of those two propositions with which we have been particularly concerned in this Bill, and which I hope we have secured the more firmly by the Bill.

It is true that there is another side to the Bill. Advantage has been taken of it to put in certain provisions, which, we hope, will secure a wider extent of free speech in this country, by securing a wider extent of fair hearing for speakers. No doubt it is too much to hope that the mere passage of this Bill will remove from this country all the follies of Fascism and Communism, and doubtless it is too much to expect that by the passage of this Bill it will be possible in every division in the country for people of every political view to get a fair hearing, but at any rate we hope that we shall have accomplished something towards both these purposes. If the temper of the House during the passage of the Bill is a criterion of the way in which the Bill will be administered, we have shown to the outer world that whatever may happen in Russia, in Italy or in Germany, we in this country have not yet lost the capacity for governing ourselves and that we do not yet require any dictators to help us to do it.

10.10 p.m.


I would not like this Bill to pass from the House without offering one or two observations upon it. The hon. Gentleman opposite and one or two others have talked about the way in which Members of all parties have vied with one another to place the Measure upon the Statute Book. I did not think that I had done anything that could rightly be described as vying. I frankly admit that I have not put up the hostile objection to it that I might have done in other circumstances. I, in common with a great many other people, for reasons that are perhaps good or perhaps not good, would like a crack at the Fascists. I say that, not because of their particular form of organisation nor their particular method of propaganda, but simply because their views are at the opposite political pole to mine. I do not know whether that is a good motive, but in not putting up an opposition to the Bill I and my colleagues on these benches have very grave doubts and many misgivings about an Act of this kind coming on to the Statute Book. I do not want my politics vetted by the chief constable in a town or county in Great Britain that I know of, and certainly I do not want his local constable on the beat or his local sergeant to be the censor of what I am to do pclitically. It would he a very bad thing indeed if the Fascist regime came to power in this country and said that I was to do nothing at all. I do not know that I like the idea of the local constable telling me any more than I would like the idea of a dictator telling me.

Sometimes in this House when we attempt to evade the evils of dictatorship we are just in danger of imposing upon ourselves all the essential evils of dictatorship. I question very much whether the hope that I have in my mind in allowing this Measure to go on the Statute Book will be realised in practice. I have a fear that the Fascist party will make the necessary obeisance and carry on, but the law will be there, and those of us who are not so easily able to swing round into the other methods of expressing cur political point of view will find that this guillotine does not cut off the head that it is meant to cut off, but some others. I have been the subject of a political prosecution once or twice in the course of my life, and I think it is not being unfair to say that whenever the courts bring in other matters where political prejudices come in, there is one law for the rich and another law for the poor. My colleague on my left asks me which am I. [An Hog. MEMBER: "Hon. Friend, not colleague."] I might say "comrade." The hon. Gentleman asks me what I am, rich or poor. I will tell the House quite frankly that I know that James Maxton, Member of this House, is more likely to be classed by a judge as rich than Janes Maxton, Socialist agitator outside, would have been. When I use the term "rich," I mean that in these matters there are gradations of justice, and the fact that a man has some public standing as a Member of the House of Commons would mean that my treatment would be somewhat different from that of a fellow who holds my point of view but is merely a paid agitator. My chance of escaping the heaviest weight of the law would be much greater than his, and anyone who has had experience realises that that is so.

Hon. Members who have been immune from this sort of difficulty in their political life will perhaps get some idea of the position that one is in in these matters if they face up to the tremendous agitation that has grown up among middle and upper class people in recent months about the unfairness of the courts in dealing with motoring cases. I am very glad that these cases are happening so widely and so frequently, because for the first time a large proportion of middle-class peaple are realising how absolutely helpless the ordinary citizen is in going into court if he is up against two police witnesses. Through the whole of this legislation our political activities are liable to be at the mercy of two police witnesses. It is a very serious thing if the organised State, as represented by the law courts, the Home Secretary and the police force is going to decide in what way men and women in this country shall express the political beliefs that they have. It means that we are coming near to the idea of the one party State, the very thing that, presumably, this Measure is out to fight against. I have had no enthusiasm for the Measure, but I have not had the hostility towards it that I should have lad if it had been presented in the abstract without the concrete position of anti-Fascism being connected with it. If it had been brought down as an abstract Measure I should have been completely hostile to it at every stage, and I am very dubious 'to-night whether this House is doing the right thing in allowing the Measure to go to the Statute Book.

10.19 p.m.


I think everybody will agree with the hon. Member in disliking and distrusting the effect of this Bill. I should think that no Bill has ever been passed, as this will be passed, without a vote against it, which was so intensely disliked. The reason why we are going to allow the Bill to go through is solely because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I am one of those who joined in asking the Home Secretary to take action after the events in East London. Until the Sunday I had hoped that those events which did take place would not take place. I hoped that it would have been possible to have brought the situation through without the disturbance that followed, but everyone in East London knows that the conditions were such that anything short of the precautions that were taken would have resulted probably in bloodshed and death. Therefore most people thought that we must come to the Home Office and ask that a Bill of this kind should be brought forward.

We have the Bill. It is a Bill not only to deal with processions but with public meetings. In regard to public meetings I should like to say that throughout my life in East London we have had disturbances at public meetings, sometimes by my friends and sometimes by others. Sometimes I have been the victim and sometimes my opponent has been the victim; sometimes both of us have been the victims. I have been locked in a public office all night on two occasions, but the difference between those conditions and the conditions which we are up against today is that we all knew, my Conservative opponent and myself, that the people who disturbed our meetings were suffering from poverty, privation and social misery. Few of us lost our temper, except perhaps for a very short time, and we have often walked home together after a nice break-up of our meeting because there was a sort of comradeship between us which enabled us to understand the reason for the action which was taken against us.

To-day we are up against something entirely different. We have a situation where men come from other parts of London and pursue a vindictive policy of racial and so-called religious hatred which is foreign to anything I have ever experienced in the East of London or anywhere else. It was clear that unless this was taken in hand and stopped in some way there was an end to any democratic organisation, certainly in the East of London. That is the reason why for my part I welcome the fact that the House of Commons has supported the Home Secretary in this manner. But I want to say to the Home Secretary that what the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) has said is perfectly true. The success or failure of this Bill will depend absolutely on how it is administered. I should not like to say a single word against any police authority in London or against any police constable in London or anywhere else, but I should like to say to the Home Secretary that there is a strong feeling in the East of London that the police do not treat Fascist demonstrations and Fascist speeches in the same manner as they treat Communist, and Socialist speeches and demonstrations. Whether that feeling is correct or not I cannot say, but I am sure that feeling is abroad in East London. There is also the feeling that when this Bill becomes law, the people who will suffer most will not be those who provoked the House of Commons into passing this Bill, but the? others who, as the hon. Member for Bridgeton said, belong to the poor.

I make a very earnest appeal to the Home Secretary to take this question into consideration again, especially the question of speeches at meetings. The speeches made in Bow, Poplar and Bethnal Green by the Fascists, if made by Communists or Socialists or, as in the days of the suffragette agitation, by people such as myself, would have caused proceedings to be taken against them. I hope the Home Secretary will send his note-takers to the Fascist meetings as religiously as was the custom in the days of the suffragettes and during the whole of the unemployed agitation in London. When I remember those days and think of what people such as myself were charged with some years ago, and then think of the utterances that form the usual propaganda that is carried on in East London, I cannot help feeling that there is some justification for saying that there is one kind of administration for the Fascists and another for the other people.

The open-air meetings are held in a very provocative manner. Men march down from the other end of London, or from somewhere else; there are great flaring head-lights, and loud-speakers screech out some of the most outrageous statements about the Jews. I am sure this House agrees that there is no crime in being born a Jew. None of us chooses his parents or his nationality. I think it is time there was a really determined effort by the authorities to deal with the question of provocative language at open-air meetings and at indoor meetings. I am not afraid of disturbances at our own meetings now. I am sure there will be no prosecutions, for the presence of only one policeman in a great crowded meeting nearly always silences the opposition. What I am afraid of is that outside there will not be a fair and equitable holding of the balance between the two parties which, if this Bill is to be successful, must be the case. I will not detain the House any longer, except to say that I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this Bill, and that I and my friends in the East End will be still more grateful to him if he and the Commissioner of Police for London see and insist that as between Socialists, Communists and Labour people and the Fascists there is a fair, just and equitable holding of the balance.

10.30 p.m.


There has been, so far in the Debates on this Measure, an almost heavenly unison in the political orchestra. It is true that some, like the right hon. Gentleman who has just resumed his seat, have been a little flat and others have been a little sharp, and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) put his foot through the big drum, but the only effect of that was that he was unable to beat it, and it is the fact that there has been a measure of unanimity in favour of this Bill. I desire to put forward one or two considerations which have not, I think, been voiced up to the present, at any rate in the form in which I propose to put them. On the whole, I welcome the Bill, but I do not think that this first Clause is needed, and I regard it as somewhat reactionary in character. I can understand, and indeed applaud, the motives of the Government in putting in this uniform Clause, but in this connection I would quote the words used by Cardinal Morton in 1488, which might have been used by the Home Secretary in introducing this Measure:

His Grace (that is the King) saith, that it is not the blood spilt in the field which will save the blood in the city; nor the marshal's sword that will set this kingdom in perfect peace; but that the true way is to stop the seeds of sedition and rebellion at the beginning, and for that purpose to devise, confirm and quicken good and wholesome laws against riots and unlawful assemblies of people, and all combinations and confederacies of them by liveries, tokens and other badges of factious dependence. That quotation from an eminent Archbishop of Canterbury seems to me to be very apposite to our present discussions. To-night we are giving a Third Reading to a Bill which goes back 450 years for its sanction. Are we wise at this juncture in accepting the first Clause of the Bill? As I said, I can understand its motive. It is the practice with which I do not find myself in agreement. It has been curious in these Debates to note hon. Members of both sections of the Opposition, who bitterly opposed the Incitement to Disaffection Act joining with the Government in welcoming this Clause. They, of course, accepted the Bill because of this Clause which is directed, so they say, against the Fascists. If they opposed the Incitement to Disaffection Act on the ground of interference with the liberty of the subject, how much more should they oppose this Clause, which is a far greater interference with the liberty of the subject? The offence under the Incitement to Disaffection Act was an offence against His Majesty's Forces, which is an offence against all the men, women and children of the country who depend on His Majesty's Forces to protect them in time of war.

I do not wish, however, to engage in controversy with hon. Members opposite but to explain the point on which I am somewhat hostile to at least a part of the Bill. I am not a revolutionary by nature, and consequently I have not much sympathy with the authors of the French Revolution, but they did achieve one thing. They defined liberty better than it has ever been defined before or since. They held that liberty consisted in doing that which did not harm somebody else. I claim that the mere fact of wearing a black shirt, a green shirt, or any other form of shirt does not do the slightest harm to anybody else in any way at all. It is merely the fact of disorders arising as a result of the activities of the people who wear those shirts which may cause trouble. I will endeavour to prove that statement. The Greenshirts have been mentioned during these discussions. The Greenshirts, as we all know, are a perfectly harmless and estimable body of men who profess some vague and obscure financial panacea which hardly anybody in this country understands. They do not injure anybody at all, except possibly to inflict a certain amount of mental disturbance on their hearers, but nobody could possibly say that otherwise they are anything but perfectly harmless.

Therefore, the mere fact of wearing this uniform does not do any harm at all. It is merely the disorder which may arise in consequence of the activities of these people, either Blackshirts or Greenshirts, which may conceivably inflict some injury on the people. I would say that, if any body of men wearing black shirts or any other sort of shirt think that by the mere wearing of these extremely unbecoming uniforms they are able to persuade the law-abiding people of this country that they are more capable of governing this country because of the wearing of these uniforms than those who merely wear a tail coat or a lounge suit, good luck to them, and let them try, but do not let us introduce archaic sumptuary laws against these extraordinary professions. Is it not better to allow the good sense of the people to destroy these foolish foreign fancies than to try to suppress them by the force of law?

We all agree that disorders, if they arise in consequence of the activities of the Blackshirts or others, ought to be suppressed, and, therefore, it seems to me that the proper action is to suppress these disorders through the existing law, and I would say that the existing law is quite sufficient to deal with any disorders which may arise in this way. I believe that for using obscene or abusive language you can get a penalty of five pounds, that if you assault a policeman you can get up to two years' imprisonment, that for malicious wounding you can get five years, and that in very grave cases you may get a life sentence. But what has happened? The fact is that where disorders have arisen recently in the East End the full penalty of the law has not been enforced. I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down that either the police or the magistrates in the East End have acted un fairly. I believe that they have done their best to be fair to all parties, but magistrates in some cases have had before them persons accused of disorder and have said, "We take a very grave view of this offence, and you are bound over to keep the peace for six months." That is utterly useless. Where you have disorders and where Fascists fight Communists and the police are called in and then get assaulted, it is no good binding people over or fining them small sums.

An example should be made of them, and that you can do, I claim, under the existing law. An hon. Member might conceivably say to rne, "It is all very well to talk like that, but you are not a nervous Jew resident in the East End of London." That is true, but I have always understood that one of the chief virtues of our Parliamentary system is that we con- sist of 615 Members representing different divisions and parts of the country, and where one local community or a group of communities has a grievance, there are some 600 Members representing other divisions who can take a reasoned, fair, and dispassionate view of that particular grievance, which may be only local and purely ephemeral.

There is another aspect of this situation to which I should like to refer. As I understand it, when this Bill becomes an Act it will be illegal for Fascists wearing black shirts, in the event of trouble or projected trouble involving this country with Spain, to march to Hyde Park bearing banners saying, "Hands off Franco." It will, however, be legal for a procession of Communists to march to Hyde Park with red ties and red rosettes with banners saying, "Hands off Caballero." I do not think that that is in accordance with our best ideas of English justice. I went the other day to the Gaiety Theatre and saw a play in which Mr. Leslie Henson and some of his colleagues dealt faithfully and excellently, according to what is my idea of the British method of treatment, with the various would-be dictators and wearers of coloured shirts. The method which Mr. Henson adopted in that admirable play was far more suitable and commendable than the method which the Government are adopting in this Bill. The Bill is, so far as the first Clause is concerned, a sign, not of panic —for there is no reason for that—but of light flurry. I believe in the ancient and honoured right of the Englishman to be allowed to make a fool of himself in his own way. While I intensely dislike the theory of the Fascists and their methods, I would put in a plea for the liberties of Englishmen, including Fascists, even for that liberty which they themselves would deny to others.

42 p.m.


I would like to add a few words to the valedictory observations which have been made at this stage. When this Bill was introduced on Second Reading it seemed to my hon. Friend and me that there were certain clauseos which simply bristled with points to which we took objection. It is fair to acknowledge on the Third Reading that a great many of those points have been dealt with by the Government. The criticisms which we put forward have been met with a readiness and courtesy which we desire to acknowledge. There have been other respects in which the Government have not been so well advised, but I hope that when the Bill gets to another place they will not weary in well-doing. In one or two quarters recently the passage of this Bill through the House has been held up as a sort of object lesson to show how well the Parliamentary system can work. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary made that point in a speech outside the other day, and it was repeated in a different form by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis). I think that that is true, though in a rather different sense from that used by them.

When the Bill was first put before the House we all realised, as was pointed out by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt), that it was very skilfully drafted. That is no wonder, because we were given to understand that it was for the most part drafted by the Home Secretary. We all appreciated the skill with which it had been put together when it was first introduced, but, in spite of that, I think that nearly all of us, and I hope even the Ministers on the Front Bench, will acknowledge that now, after it has passed through the Report and Committee stages, it is a very much better Bill. That is what I mean by saying it is an admirable example of the working of Parliamentary procedure. Although none of us could compete with the Home Secretary in his skill as a draftsman, it goes to show the truth of the old saying that the House of Commons has very much more sense than any one Member of it.

But there are some features left in this Bill to which my hon. Friends and I still object. There is the search warrant Clause, particularly that part of it which makes it possible not only to search the premises concerned but anybody found on those premises. We still think that the powers contained in Clause 3, Sub-section (2), are very much wider than they need be. I still object to that Clause, because in spite of the fact that three separate entities have to be brought in, the chief of police in the first place, the local authority in the second and the Home Secretary in the third, it is still a purely executive Act, and the reasonableness of the apprehensions on which the Order is founded cannot be tried out in any tribunal. I am one of those who think, when we consider civil liberty in this country, that it. is in danger not from any obscure faction in black shirts or red shirts but, rather, from the growing power of the executive at the expense of the Law Courts and of this House.

It has been suggested in some quarters that we have been rather over-critical in our attitude to certain parts of the Bill. I would make no apology for that, because I think there is the danger in Parliamentary countries that the growth of Fascism may be made an excuse for restrictive legislation. I will give one example. Two years ago I visited one of the small States at the far end of the Baltic. There they have been threatened with a form of local Fascist movement. The members of it did not call themselves Fascists, but it had all the marks of a Fascist movement. They were threatening all the established parties and all the old gangs. After a time the movement grew to such alarming proportions that the Prime Minister of the day felt that emergency measures would be needed to deal with it. He therefore proceeded to suspend Parliarnent altogether, and it has remained suspended ever since, though being allowed, I think, to meet one day a year. He proceeded to sack the whole of his Ministers in all parties, and to put the permanent heads of the Departments in their place. He proceeded to gag the Press and to prohibit demonstrations, processions and public meetings of every kind. That is what has gone on for something over two years in that country, in order to resist the oncoming of Fascism. It is just an extreme example, but it serves to show how fatal it is to try to treat Fascism by introducing Fascist measures.

That is why I always regard any Bill which proposes to restrict the rights of demonstration with considerable suspicion. Nevertheless, I want to say that my hon. Friends and I do recognise the necessity for the main parts of this Bill. We do appreciate that there are parts of the country, particularly in East London, where shirts of a certain colour have become something more than a means of expressing political views. They have been deliberately made the symbol of political and racial persecution. One realises how easy it is for violence to breed violence and persecution to beget persecution. As regards the suppression of private armies, they always have been suppressed in our history and must always be suppressed as a necessary foundation of civil liberty. I would like to say one word in answer to the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick). He first reminded us of our attitude on the Incitement to Disaffection Bill. I do not know how close attention he paid to the Committee stage of this Bill, but he may have noticed that some of the Amendments we put down on this Rill were precisely the same as the Amendments we put down to the Incitement to Disaffection Bill two years ago, and that we resisted some of the Clauses of this Bill for precisely the same reasons as we resisted Clauses of the earlier Bill.


Would the hon. Gentleman deny that the whole of the Opposition resisted a great deal of that Bill and also voted against it on Second and Third Reading?


I quite agree, and we resisted it for this reason: We believed that that Bill would interfere with freedom of demonstration and freedom of speech in certain respects, and we have resisted all parts of this Bill which we think might encourage a similar interference. I do not know that any distinction can be drawn between our attitude then and our attitude now. The hon. Member went on to give a quotation from a Cardinal in the fifteenth century. He did not give the context, but I rather gathered that the speaker was referring to the suppression of private armies and the suppression of liveries. Surely the hon. Member and other hon. Members will be aware that it was essential to suppress the liveries and the private armies before it was possible to have any civil liberty for the ordinary citizen in this country at all. There was one point which the hon. Gentleman raised which has been in the minds of a good many people. He was hot expressing sympathy with the Fascist movement, but he spoke of a march or a demonstration which might be held by the Fascists, and I gathered that his point of view was that you should not deal with the Fascists but with the people who try to stop them. I appreciate the force of that reasoning. If it is easily possible you ought not to prevent a demonstration or procession, but deal with the people who are opposing it. But though in some cases it may be fine distinction, I think there may be a very real distinction.

I happen to represent a city where we have had quite considerable experience of that form of rowdyism of which the Fascists complain. For many years there have been certain elements who have made it their duty to howl down almost every political candidate. They started that habit with the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), and they are still keeping it up, and at the last two elections and between elections, when I have not had sufficiently loud amplifiers at my meetings, I have had the experience of not being able to say one single word. It has been impossible to make a speech at all. I agree with the hon. Member that I have never known whether the votes I have received at an election came from people who heard my arguments or people who were prevented from hearing them. Although I have had that experience again and again, and although there has been every sign of marked hostility on the part of a certain section of the electors, I have never during two elections and over five years been offered any kind of physical violence or physical resistance. But there is no doubt that if the Blackshirt movement were to go to that part of the country they would encounter that violence and that resistance. The distinction is between those who do and those who do not go out looking for trouble. We believe that the main objects of the Bill were necessary to be secured, and for that reason, in spite of many criticisms we have had to make, we support it. We hope that when the Bill comes into operation the apprehensions that have been expressed will prove to have been ill-founded.

10.56 p.m.


I support the Third Reading of the Bill. When the Bill was introduced I had the horrible idea that we were being asked to legislate in respect of a party that had no representation in this House, but having heard the wonderful explanations by the right hon. Gentleman I have entirely changed my opinion. Even to-day, he has very much improved the Bill; I refer particularly to Clause 6. Hon. Members may have forgotten that I had the honour of representing Bow and Bromley for ten long years, and for those years neither I nor my party, at any open meeting, had ever a chance of saying a single word. The late Sir Alfred Yeo had a far worse time in the south part of the borough than I had, but we never called in a policeman at any meetings. I found that it was very much better to show up the intolerance of my opponents than to call in a policeman. That applied not only to political meetings but to others. Things have changed now. I am very surprised to know that my opponents now call in policemen, and for their benefit I am very glad that the Bill is passing. I thoroughly support the Third Reading.

10.58 p.m.


When the Bill is passed I may have some difficulty in keeping out of gaol. When the Bill gets into operation, I hope I shall have the responsibility of raising many cases and putting many questions to the Home Secretary. I would draw attention to the fact that the Bill is supposed to have been brought into being as a consequence of the events in the East End of London. The party to which I belong called upon the people to turn out and to prevent the Fascists from passing into the Jewish streets. What the right hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) has said, is correct; if the Fascists had passed into the Jewish streets there would have been not only serious injuries but dead. If those people had gone into those streets with their vile insults to the Jews, nobody could have stopped some bloody tragedies from taking place. When we called upon the workers to prevent that vile provocation from taking place, we were acting in the interests of peace and of Democracy. [Laughter.] Do hon. Members not understand that? To allow the Fascists to go into the streets and commit all kinds of brutalities against the Jews—is that encouraging Democracy? We did a good act, but the Bill, as I have said, is being used to do the work that Mosley is concerned with, limiting and attacking the rights of the working class. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) talked about what happens in the law courts. Many hon. and right hon. Members in this House have been in the law courts, but they have been at the dispensing end. When I was in court I have been absolutely astounded at the ease with which a jury can be got to bring in a verdict of "Guilty." When I was at the High Court in Edinburgh before a jury, a reverend gentleman, a friend of the right hon. Member for Stirling Burghs (Mr. Johnston), said the case was so feeble that I was sure to get off. I said I was not, and he offered to bet me a shilling that I would get off. I bet him a shilling, and I won the shilling. [An HON. MEMBER.: "Did he pay you?"] Oh, yes, I got the shilling. I know that when a revolutionary goes into court, and is presented with a jury of small business men, you have only to look at the horror on their faces when Bolshevism is mentioned. You know how many of you feel yourselves when you hear the word "Bolshevism"; you cannot understand that it represents the greatest advance that human society has experienced. Hon. Members say that Russia, Germany and Italy cannot look after themselves, that we can look after them; but the workers and peasants of Russia have been looking after themselves for the past 17 years without any capitalists, and they have a Constitution which is newly passed—


That is not in the Bill.


I want to object to the attack that is made on disturbance at public meetings. The experience of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) is a natural refusal to allow him to speak. If I had been in Dundee and had had any influence, I should have used my influence to get him a hearing; I have done it many times; but I contend that the public who go to a meeting have as much right to protest against what the speaker is saying as to cheer what he is saying, and if policemen go to public meetings they should not only be watching the poor unfortunate workers who are there, but should be watching the speakers. When a public speaker or leader from the ranks of the National Government goes to South Wales or Jarrow and talks about the restoration of prosperity to people who have not had a day's work for years, who cannot get food or clothing, and are having their lives worried out of them, have they not the right to protest? I object to the giving of the further powers tp the police to interfere at public meetings.

I was at Cardiff one day at an open meeting in the street. The miners could not gather round because a policeman stood in front of me in the middle of the road. I spoke for 20 minutes. Suddenly I discovered that there was a big fellow at my side wearing a rainproof, but with a policeman's uniform under it and a big cigar in his mouth. He said, "That will do to finish up." The sergeant and the other fellow came up and they got very friendly. I had to adopt a very strong attitude towards them. He told me he had told the chairman he would be allowed 20 minutes for a public meeting. I said, "If you have anything to say to the chairman say it, but do not interrupt the meeting." I went on with the meeting for an hour after that. The local fellows got very self-confident because we carried through the meeting, and the next week they had another. Nine were arrested and fined. That can go on now. It goes on all over the country—interference of every kind—and this Bill is going to strengthen it. It is a very dangerous Bill, and no one can justify such an attitude as we have had expressed to-night. We will sacrifice a bit of democracy to get a benefit of some kind, though what the benefit is I am not quite sure. It is utterly unjustifiable and indefensible. It is bound to destroy democracy and not strengthen it. Never in any circumstances should the House be prepared to adopt such an attitude. It should aim all the time at strengthening and extending democracy. If you are going to put an end to militarism in politics, the way to do it is not to weaken democracy but to strengthen it. I am very bitterly opposed to most of the Bill, and I shall have reason later on, I expect, to show my opposition arising out of many cases that will take place under the law.

11.8 p.m.


The hon. Member has told us a most entertaining story about a policeman with a uniform underneath a raincoat and a cigar on top who, at a particular moment, and perhaps prematurely, said it was time to finish up. I think the House feels that it is time now to finish up the Debate. It will be necessary for me to make a few valedictory observations. First I should like to thank Members in all parts of the House for their co-operation, and for the consideration that they have shown to those responsible for the conduct of the Measure. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) said this was a strange sort of Bill for here we are, all more or less helping to pass it, at any rate not violently opposing it, and yet it is a Bill in a sense which we all dislike. That is quite true. I had far rather there 'was no need to bring in such a Measure. I think that is a feeling that we all share and it has made us do our best to see that it contains, as far as we can secure it, the necessary safeguards and precautions.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) said, that this is a case in which we are trying to devise what he called ingenious limitations of liberty—agreeing upon certain restrictions in order to preserve the substance of liberty as a whole. I think that that is a perfectly just account of what we have been trying to do, and it has been done by the general co-operation of the House.

One of the most remarkable features in our discussions has been that the whole House has been deeply interested in this very important subject, and yet the immediate crying need for some of this legislation is really only felt in a very limited number of constituencies. It is very creditable to the House of Commons that when a grievance is actually felt in a limited number of areas, it is a matter to which the House as a whole feels it to be its duty to give consideration. I hope that the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick) does not mind if I do not quite agree with him in his description of this Bill as being merely concerned in trying to prohibit by law what he called these foolish foreign fancies. Cornwall is a very long way from the East End of London, and it reminds me of Ripling's: The Toad under the Harrow knows Exactly where each tooth-point goes; The butterfly upon the road Preaches contentment to the toad. We have here to consider the case in which there is a real danger to be averted, a real injustice to be corrected and a real security to be afforded. It has to be done by the House as a, whole. We most of us in our own constituencies and our own experiences are not immediately concerned with these troubles which press so hardly upon our fellow-citizens. In the same way I think the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth in his most entertaining quotation from Cardinal Morton in the year 1488 made a very curious selection, because surely what Cardinal Morton was urging was that there should be a prohibition of liveries. I should have thought, I must confess, that liveries in the Fifteenth Century were what we are meaning by uniforms in this Bill. I know that uniform has not been defined, and I have very carefully abstained from the temptation presented to any ingenious mind, to illuminate by exposition or illustration, which would have been a very dangerous thing to do.

Now that the Bill is through as far as this House is concerned, I will offer my one and only illustration of the subject. I think that the courts have been accustomed to say, when they have to interpret the wording in a Statute without the assistance of a definition clause, that they must give to it its ordinary meaning as ascertained by its use in literature and speech, having regard always to the subject matter of the particular Statute. There is a passage in English literature in which this interesting word appears in very limiteci context. Once or twice when I heard some hon. Gentlemen speculate whether a button or rosette or flower was uniform, I whispered to myself the words which occur in "Patience": When I first put this uniform on. I said, as I looked in the glass, It is one to a million There's not a civilian My figure or form can surpass. I cannot believe that the character in that admirable play who thus gestured before the mirror would be attired in uniform if he had on nothing more than a button.


There is another quotation: He goes down Piccadilly, With a poppy or a lily, In his mediaeval hand.


That was another character. It is not the character who sings this song but I agree that it is a very proper reference. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) made a speech, very charming in its reservations, as his speeches always are, but it was not a speech which showed that he had paid very close attention to the provisions of the Bill. It was couched in such exceedingly mild terms that I do not feel greatly alarmed when he tells us that he fears this Bill is riveting upon this country the evils of dictatorship. The Bill is the work of a free Parliament. In this country almost alone of any country in the world the police are liable to be brought into the ordinary courts of law at the suit of an ordinary citizen, and nobody can prevent that being done. This Bill in every part contains those precautions and provisions which the wisdom of the House has thought fit and proper for securing that this shall not be a piece of dictatorship on the continental model, but, on the contrary, shall be administered under the open light and challenge of the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend said a thing which I am always sorry to hear, and I hope he will forgive me if I make one observation upon it. He used a well worn cliche, when he might have provided us with something fresh from the mint of his own mind. He proceeded to recite that ancient formula, "One law for the rich and another law for the poor." Before we part company with this Bill I take the opportunity of saying that I do not think that is a just judgment on the character of our administration. If he means that it is always very necessary to be watchful and to be helpful in the case of those who need help most and can least help themselves, to secure that they shall enjoy the rights of free citizenship, I agree with him.

Consider what is the true nature of the efforts which are being made. Go to a London police court and see if it is true that the magistrate sitting there thinks that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Go inside the Home Office and see if it is true in that Department, which spends its life in examining what ought to be done in the case of those who have been convicted and are still in prison, that the poor man is not looked after while the rich man is. The hon. Member in the next sentence contradicted his own proposition for he was glad to say that the middle class, and those who drive about in motor cars, are complaining that they cannot get an indulgent view of their claims before the Courts. That is for the very reason that it is not true in this country that there is a law for the rich and another for the poor.


One man gets three years, and another gets off, for the same offence.


My hon. Friend sometimes exhibits his feelings in a very moving way. I know that he feels the hardship of the lot of many, and he has a deep and sincere sympathy with those who suffer. I beg him to believe that that is the spirit in which we try to administer the law. The hon. Member for Hendon (Sir R. Blair), who used to represent the constituency of the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley, said that he secured his election for some 10 years by the simple process of never being able to make any speech which his constituents could hear. Such a result was satisfactory, and I think he will be pleased that, in the Bill, there is the provision that a policeman is not required to act in a public meeting unless he is invited to do so.

The hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) I thought rather established the case for the Bill. He explained, not for the first time, that when a Fascist procession was proceeding through the East End of London when there was so much trouble and anxiety, that the misfortune was that the police interfered, and that if only he and his friends had been left to handle the matter the procession would not have got any further. It is not for me to inquire by what process that result would have been attained, but I would refer the hon. Member to that portion of the Bill which deals with those who seek to "usurp the functions of the police."

The hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) asked me a question about Clause 5, more particularly in its application to women in the streets. His concern is that if we carry Clause 5, which increases the possible penalty, it might entail a severe application of the law as applied to that class of persons, and the hon. Member was a little disquieted about it. We have been in correspondence about the matter. The actual position is this. The usual course is that acts of solicitation are proceeded with under a Section of the Vagrancy Act which deals with behaving in a riotous or indecent manner, or under another provision, Section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act, which deals with this class of case under the discription of loitering in a public place for the purpose of prostitution and solicitation to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers. My hon. Friend is quite right when he desires to know whether it would be likely, now that there is a heavier penalty provided in Clause 5, that there is any intention to bring this class of case under the new Clause. Of course, in so far as it comes under the new Section, what I am saying is not intended in the least to interpret the law, but I am very glad to assure the hon. Member that I agree with him in his general view as to the proper way in which to proceed. I propose to draw special attention to the point that if such proceedings as I have referred to have to be taken, they shall be taken under the old Section. I propose to call attention to that in any explanatory memorandum which may go to the police when the Bill becomes law.


That was only one of the two points. I also wanted an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that the new law in the same way would not be similarly strained in other cases as well as in those to which he referred.


As my hon. Friend will agree, that is a question of the interpretation and application of the law. I shall be very glad to have an opportunity of conferring with him on this matter. I know he takes a very public-spirited interest in this point, but he will understand that I cannot possibly make a declaration, on the Third Reading of this Bill, on a point of interpretation of that sort.

I hope I have dealt, as far as the House will think necessary, with the speeches made on the Third Reading of the Bill. I am very glad we have come to the end. I ventured to tell the House, when I introduced the Bill, that I did not offer it to the House for its consideration as a major task of the Session; but I did present it to the House as a very necessary Measure which, I hope we should agree, ought to be disposed of fairly promptly, and a Measure which, after due consideration in Committee, ought to pass in defence of our democratic liberty.

It must be remembered that the essentials of this liberty are not only the rights of those who wish to demonstrate or protest, but also the rights of the general public, who have their interests in being protected from suffering from serious and illegitimate disturbance. It must be remembered that we are not passing legislation simply for the purpose of striking at one particular section, but trying to base our legislation on a general principle. That general principle is tolerance in British public life. We should give a reasonable amount of consideration to those who wish to express views other than our own; we should give a full measure of opportunity for those who wish to gather together and demonstrate to do what they wish to do; and we should live together as people who inherit this great tradition of liberty in this country and reject foreign methods as thoroughly in our legislation as we do in our hearts.

I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind references he made to me in his speech. I would only say that I take them as being addressed to the Attorney-General and the Lord Advocate as well as myself; and I hope I may be allowed to say that I have had, in carrying this Bill through, great help from the Under-Secretary, who, although he has been a silent witness on the bench, has played his full part in securing the cooperation with which the Bill has been received.