HC Deb 07 December 1936 vol 318 cc1659-62

"Any person who writes any threatening, abusive, or insulting words on the surface of any highway, or on any wall, fence, or building abutting on any public place with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, shall be guilty of an offence."—[Mr. Lewis.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.56 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

As all hon. Members know, there are people who from time to time write exhortations and catch-words on walls, buildings, pavements and so forth, and to a large extent the practice, though obviously objectionable, does not lead to serious consequences. If, for example, one writes "Vote for so-and-so" or "We want this or that" no particular harm is done, but in times of public excitement these writings sometimes take a much more serious turn. For example, in connection with the disturbances in the East End recently there were cases where people wrote "Kill the Jews on such and-such a date." Quite obviously any remarks of that kind which are written in public places, where many people see them, are calculated to inflame public opinion, and may in certain circumstances directly lead to a breach of the peace. I am aware that it may be argued that it is difficult to detect the offender, because this is essentially a cowardly form of propaganda; he simply writes something on the wall and runs away; but while that may be true, I feel that if some notice were taken of the practice in this Bill that would be calculated to act as a deterrent. It would appear that the wording of Clause 5 is, perhaps, wide enough to cover this issue, because that Clause says: Any person who in any public place or at any public meeting uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace and so on. It might be held that the word "behaviour" covers this case. My answer to that argument would be that the value as a deterrent of some such specific words as those proposed in the new Clause is much greater than that of the somewhat very general words of Clause 5. For these reasons, I hope that the Government may feel inclined to adopt the proposed new Clause.

4.0 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I do not think that under the existing law this particular action which we seek to make an offence is, in fact, an offence, and I should be glad to have my hon. and learned Friend's Ruling on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) and I both thought that it would be advisable to insert in this Bill some words of a nature similar to those which we are proposing. I think that the question of detection is not an insuperable point. It is not a, very difficult point. Probably a large number of people will continue to write offensive and abusive words on walls without being detected, but it may be that if this Clause is adopted someone will be discovered doing so and will be prosecuted and incur the penalties under the Bill. A few salutary examples might arise as the result of the insertion of these words.

4.2 p.m.


My two hon. Friends have explained very clearly the purpose they have in mind, and in so far as they desire to secure that offensive use of the pavements should not escape proper restraint, and in proper cases punishment, I agree with them entirely; but for reasons which I will state I do not think we ought to add this Clause to the Bill. We must distinguish between writing on footways and roadways and writing on walls, fences and buildings. So far as writing on footways and roadways is concerned, there is no general law which makes it a criminal offence. To write on a footway or roadway that a meeting will take place at a certain place next Sunday is a cheap way of informing passers-by of what might be quite properly arranged, and in many cases struggling or ill-provided organisations do so without the expense of actual advertising. So far as by-laws exist, over a very large part of the country they secure that the use of the pavement for the writing of offensive things shall be effectively prevented. There is a model form of by-law which is usually put forward to the Home Office and which from time to time we approve. It is now in operation in a great many places. It reads thus: DEFACING PAVEMENTS, ETC.—No person shall, for the purpose of advertising or disseminating news, propaganda or the like, deface the footway or roadway of any street by writing or other marks … In a very large number of areas, including 194 Provincial boroughs and 18 Metropolitan boroughs, provisions of that sort have been made. As regards writing on walls, fences and buildings that may be a very offensive thing. In the Metropolitan district there is a provision which makes it punishable in any thoroughfare or public place, without the consent of the owner or occupier to write upon, soil or mark any building, wall, or fence with chalk or paint. In the same way, outside the Metropolitan area, there are by-laws which deal with that sort of subject-matter. The short answer to my hon. Friends, is that really this matter is dealt with under the existing law. I do not think we ought to carry these things to a pedantic extent. If the substance of the thing is secured without doing a possible injustice to individuals who do not mean any harm, it is better to have it in that way. The law is far from being a dead letter. I have asked for information and I am told that police action has been taken in 17 cases of writing upon roads, footways or walls in one part of the Metropolitan area. I have the details here. I hope the House, therefore, will take the view that this matter is properly dealt with under the existing law and that we ought not to burden this Bill, which deals with matters of more general importance, by the adoption of this Clause.

4.6 p.m.


I do not know what the penalty is under the by-laws of the authorities. I assume that it is a good deal less than the penalty under the Bill. I ask the Home Secretary to reconsider the matter in that light. I would be most adverse to penalising anyone for writing up a notice informing passers-by when a meeting is to take place. The new Clause makes it illegal to use any "abusive, threatening or insulting words" on any wall, fence or building. It seems to me rather anomalous that if you speak insulting words in the street it will be an offence punishable by possibly three months' imprisonment, but that if instead of speaking the words you write them you will be treated only under a by-law, if the town in which you live has incorporated the model by-law; but otherwise not at all. Perhaps when the Bill is in another place the Government will reconsider this question, not perhaps by means of a new Clause but by widening the scope of Clause 5 so as to make it clear that a person may be guilty if, instead of speaking the offensive words, he writes them, with the same hostile intention before the writing.


It is quite true that the penalties under the by-laws are not as severe as the penalties provided under the Bill. Clause 5 is a Clause which applies, with a more serious risk of penalty, not only to words, but to behaviour, and I do not see any reason why if there was any case of abusive or insulting behaviour under that Clause it might not be a case of writing insulting words on the pavement. I hope my hon. Friends will think that this matter is much better dealt with by local by-law on the motion of popularly-elected local authorities, because the more serious offences are already covered by the Bill.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.