HC Deb 25 March 1936 vol 310 cc1227-32
62. Mr. MABANE

asked the Home Secretary whether he is aware that for a considerable period on Sunday night last the free passage of His Majesty's subjects was interrupted by the Metropolitan police in an area adjacent to the Albert Hall; and whether he will state a reason for this inconvenience?

63. Mr. H. G. WILLIAMS

asked the Home Secretary whether his attention has been drawn to the distribution last week of quantities of leaflets inciting persons to assemble in large numbers outside the Albert Hall on the occasion of a public meeting therein for the purpose of opposing the objects of the meeting; and if he will state what steps were taken to frustrate this attempted interference with free speech?


asked the Home Secretary whether his attention has been called to the action of the Metropolitan police in dispersing a meeting held in Thurloe Square in the evening of Sunday, 22nd March; whether he is aware that batons were used by the police; and whether he will cause an inquiry to be instituted into the action of the police on this occasion?

66. Sir P. HARRIS

asked the Home Secretary whether he can explain the reason for the dispersal by mounted police of a crowd at Thurloe Square on Sunday; and whether any preliminary warning was given to the persons involved?


asked the Home Secretary whether he has any statement to make in regard to the disturbances at a Fascist meeting at the Albert Hall on Sunday last; the cost of special police employed on this occasion; and what steps he proposes to take to prevent similar meetings being held which cause such disorganisation of traffic and general disorder?

68. Mr. V. ADAMS

asked the Home Secretary whether he has any statement to make on the disorders attending the Fascist meeting at the Royal Albert Hall on 22nd March; whether any extra expenditure was involved in special police protection for the Fascist demonstrators; and whether any prosecutions are to be taken in view of cases of violence employed by the Fascist stewards in ejecting members of the audience?


asked the Home Secretary whether he has made any inquiries into the disturbances which took place on the night of 22nd March in the vicinity of the Albert Hall, and especially into the allegation that mounted police made an unprovoked assault with batons upon a peaceful meeting in Thurloe Square; and what action he proposes to take in the matter?


The reply to these questions is rather longer than usual, but I will limit it to essential matters. I have made inquiries, and the facts are as follow: With a view to preventing disorder in the streets (such as has previously occurred) in connection with the Fascist meeting last Sunday evening, the Commissioner of Police issued directions that no counter-procession or counter-meeting should be allowed at the same time within half a mile of the Albert Hall. Intimation of this direction was officially given to the London District Council of the Communist party and to Mr. John Strachey, from whose address a, circular had been issued calling for an overwhelming demonstration to take place outside the Royal Albert Hall at 7 p.m., to be followed by a public meeting in Exhibition Road at 8.30 p.m. It was, of course, explained to these parties that there was no objection to meetings in the usual meeting place in. Hyde Park, but they none the less persisted in their original plans. Anti-Fascist processions from several quarters were escorted into the Park, where they held a meeting. Attempts, however, were also made to hold an anti-Fascist meeting in Exhibition Road, and later a crowd of two or three thousand collected in Thurloe Square (which faces the end of Exhibition Road) where Mr. Strachey and others addressed them. A body of about 20 mounted police and 60 foot police proceeded to the Square. Before the arrival of the police there was disorder at the bottom of Exhibition Road, and members of the crowd were stopping motor cars. A bottle was thrown at a police officer, but missed the officer and broke a shop window. In order to prevent the approach of the police to Thurloe Square, a number of persons round the meeting linked arms and appealed to the crowd to stand fast. The police were informed by a member of this body that they bad better not approach the crowd, or the police would get more than they anticipated. The officer in charge of the police replied that the assembly was in the prohibited area, and was, moreover, causing serious obstruction, and he appealed for the meeting to be closed and for the crowd to disperse. The crowd refused, and some of them threw stones and earth. The officer in charge ultimately instructed the mounted police to disperse the crowd; they advanced, and, in view of attempts made to unseat the riders, truncheons had to be drawn and in some cases used. The crowd was dispersed in about 10 minutes and order was thereafter restored.

In connection with the police arrangements, vehicles passing along the Kensington Road were diverted round the back of the Albert Hall.

As regards the meeting in the Albert Hall, I understand that the speakers were constantly interrupted, and a number of interrupters were removed by the stewards. About 30 police were stationed inside the Hall itself. In addition, about 100 police were posted at the doors leading from the Hall itself to the surrounding corridors, and they received from the stewards the persons who were ejected and escorted them out of the building.

The number of police employed in connection with the Fascist meeting and the anti-Fascist counter-demonstration was about 2,500, and, in addition, about 400 were kept in reserve. It is estimated that the additional expenditure involved was about £300.


In view of the fact that the interest of the general public is far greater than that of either of these sections, does not the right hon. Gentleman think he would be justified in requiring that a place such as the Albert Hall should not be made available for meetings—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]should not be made available for meetings likely to cause a breach of the peace and serious interference with the general body of the public?


The disposal of the Albert Hall is not, of course, in public hands, and I think we must face the responsibilities of living in a free country.


With reference to that part of the original answer which dealt with the meeting in Thurloe Square, has the right hon. Gentleman read the statements which have been supplied to him, of persons who were present at that meeting, and who say that it was an orderly meeting and that the action of the police was unprovoked; does he say that those statements are untrue; and, if not, does he not think that there is matter there which demands inquiry?


I am obliged to my hon. Friend for having sent me certain statements collected by the Council for Civil Liberties. They did not include any statement from Mr. John Strachey. Of course I will pay due attention to those statements, but I have made very careful inquiries myself, and I have given the House the result of my own inquiries. As regards the character of the police action, I would ask leave to add that 24 persons were arrested; that not one of those 24 persons complained at the police station that they had received injury; that not a single one of them even asked to see the doctor; that at least two policemen received very severe kicks; that one is suffering from a most painful assault and is still unable to resume his duty; and that the assaulter, who was in Thurloe Square, was so violent that the police had to remove his boots, and he has since been convicted by the magistrate and fined.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the management of the Albert Hall refuse the use of the hall to anti-Fascist bodies?


I was not aware of it, but the hon. Member must realise that that is a matter quite outside the scope of the Home Office.


Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the question of freedom of speech, therefore, does arise?


Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House the name of the officer in charge who ordered the squad of mounted police to charge? Further, in view of the fact that the impartiality of the police is in question, why was the Fascist procession allowed to proceed along Constitution Hill, past Buckingham Palace and along Birdcage Walk, contrary to all precedent?


If the last part of the question is really suggesting that the police have been showing favouritism, I assure the hon. Member that there really is not the least ground for the suggestion. The route that was taken I do not know at all. These people were going to their meeting, and it was quite right that they should go to it, whether you or I agree with them or not. Equally, of course, the processions of those of another view are looked after with equal care and equal courtesy. I only know that the police—I hope the House thinks they were right—took the most skilful steps to secure that there should not be a collision between the two parties. As for the name of the officer, I will, of course—[HON. MEMBERS: "No !"]—I do not know whether my excited friend behind me will allow me to finish my sentence. As regards the officer, I will, of course, make inquiries, but my present information is that he was a most responsible officer, and I take responsibility for what he did.


May we take it that the right hon. Gentleman will afford as much protection to an anti-Fascist meeting as he would to a meeting of Fascists?


Inasmuch as this is a free country, and we all value freedom, I should have thought it hardly necessary to put such a question, but, since the hon. Member thinks fit to put it, let me give him an assurance that as long, at any rate, as this Government is in power we shall not seek to draw any distinction at all between one party and another.


As Thurloe Square is in my constituency, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to see that no further demonstrations of any kind are held there? It is a quiet residential neighbourhood, quite unsuitable for demonstrations.


I beg to give notice that I shall raise the Thurloe Square incident on the Adjournment.


May I ask a supplementary question in respect to my question?


I think the supplementary questions that have been put have covered the ground.