§ 8.34 p.m.
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
I beg to move, in page 5, line 22, after "refuses," to insert "or fails."
If I may I will deal also with a similar Amendment in line 27, because the two hang together. The object of the Amendment is to cover a case where you cannot say a man has refused to give his name, because what he has done is, perhaps, to turn his back and try to get out of the room. I think the Committee would desire that such a case should be covered as if it were an actual refusal. With this Amendment inserted it is, in our view, unnecessary to retain the words;or of intending to abscond,which are also the subject of an Amendment on the paper. There is a further Amendment to insert the word "reasonably" after "constable" to which we do not object.
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Mr. G. HARDIE
Supposing a man in a meeting gives a false name and address and it is not known at the time that he is not giving his right name and address. Will the police have to make inquiries and then seek that man again?
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
Yes, I think that is so. If the constable has reason to suspect him of giving a false name and address he can arrest him, but if he does not suspect that, and lets him go, believing he has given his proper name and address, the man may get away with it for the time, but there are ways of tracing people which sometimes result in their being found.
§ Mr. HARDIE
But what would be a ground of suspicion on the part of the constable? I understand that from his training a constable can generally tell something of a man's character, but take the case of a perfectly innocent person who may at some time have had something happen to his face. Suppose you have this quite decent fellow at a meeting and he gives his proper name and 656 address but the policeman is suspicious and arrests him. Is there to be some guard against anyone being treated in that way?
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Mr. PRITT
I should like to say a few words about this phrase "refuses or fails." It seems to be so reasonable that probably it contains some element of danger. It is a very familiar phrase. The Attorney-General and the Home Secretary must have looked at it hundreds of times, and so have I, but that has been in leisurely commercial litigation, and I want the Committee to picture what would, in fact, happen when a constable reasonably suspects a person of acting in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transacting of the business for which the meeting has been called. If there is not much disturbance the constable, who will probably be larger than the individual in question, will stand in front of him and say, "I want your name and address and I want it quick," and if the man does not give it he will be, in effect, refusing. It would be reasonable to say that refusal or failure in such a case would be enough to bring him within the law. But we must consider an occasion of hurly-burly in a meeting, when people are pushing about, and the constable is reasonably, but perhaps wrongly, suspecting this person or that or the other person. If all he has to do is to call out "I want the name and address of everybody in that corner of the hall" and then, on failing to get it, because of the crowd surging and pushing into the street, he is to be entitled to arrest without warrant everybody in that corner of the room, that is a serious thing.
While the whole matter lies in rather a small compass I suggest to the Government that we are really legislating to create a new crime, and every time we do that we are legislating against something which most persons of reasonable temperament would rather not do. To make it a criminal offence, one for which you can be arrested without warrant, not to give your name and address, although there may be a large number of physical reasons why you could not do so at the moment, is, in my submission, to carry 657 even modern restrictive legislation a little too far.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Further Amendment made; In page 5, line 27, after "refuses" insert "or fails."—[The Attorney-General.]
§ 8.41 p.m.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Sir IRVING ALBERY
I beg to move, in page 5, line 29, to leave out "or of intending to abscond."
If I understood the Attorney-General correctly he has accepted this Amendment.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Mr. PRITT
I beg to move, in page 5, line 30, at the end, to insert;and keep him in custody for a time reasonably sufficient for verifying his name and address, but in any case not longer than twelve hours.I am a little puzzled by the Clause as it stands, because while it gives to a constable power to arrest a person without warrant it does not by any means follow that a prosecution will be undertaken. There is the danger of a constable arresting a man on reasonable suspicion but not immediately deciding whether to charge hifm or not, because there is nothing to say what the constable is then to do with the man. It may be that the ordinary law is sufficient to cover the case, but I suggest that the matter is not too clear, and that it will be very much better to make some definite provision for releasing the man if be ought to be released. He is not arrested for an offence at all. The power given is a power of arrest without warrant, irrespective of an actual offence—and in all the circumstances I suggest it is a perfectly reasonable power, although I always distrust all powers—if he reasonably suspects the man of giving a false name and 658 address; but if he finds that there is nothing wrong with the name and address, or does not find it out within a reasonable time, it ought not to be within the power of the police to keep him in custody a moment longer—or even a few moments longer, while they may think of something else with which to charge him. While I am not wedded to the form of words I suggest that it is right that the police should have power only to keep the man in custody for some period of time which is related both to the seriousness of the matter and the interest of the police, in pursuance of law and order, in deciding whether he ought to be detained or not.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Sir J. SIMON
So far as it is the object of the hon. and learned Gentleman to get an assurance that there will not be unnecessary or prolonged detention I entirely agree with him. I do not think it would be well to add words to this effect and I hope that I can persuade the hon. and learned Gentleman to agree with me. In the first place the provisions of the Summary Jurisdiction Act and the practice of the police in this country, in respect of the power of detaining people in custody are as follow; Where the police arrest a person without warrant Section 38 of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, used to be the law. I think it is now the Section substituted by Section 22 of the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1914, which I will read to the Committee;On a person being taken into custody for an offence without a warrant, a superintendent or inspector of police, or other officer of police of equal or superior rank, or in charge of any police station, may in any case, and shall, if it will not be practicable to bring such person before a court of summary jurisdiction within 24 hours after he was so taken into custody, inquire into the case, and, unless the offence appears to such superintendent, inspector, or officer to be of a serious nature, discharge the person upon his entering into a recognisance with or without sureties for a reasonable amount to appear before some court of summary jurisdiction at the time and place named in the recognisance, but where such person is retained in custody he shall be brought before a court of summary jurisdiction as soon as practicable.That Section of the Criminal Justice Administration Act has worked quite reasonably; otherwise I should hear of the contrary again and again. The practice is to do everything possible to 659 bring the person before the court as soon as may be and, in cases which permit, if there is any possibility of bail, to admit him to bail.
To lay down 12 hours, or anything of that sort, I do not think will do. We must consider the possibility of anything which arises on a Saturday. Twelve hours, I take it, would include the Sunday. A great deal depends, of course, on whether the police have to make inquiries. The real truth is that if there were any practical abuse of the powers in this respect, I am quite certain that the authorities, the House of Commons and the Press, would hear of it very quickly. Many complaints are brought to the notice of the Home Secretary, but while I have been in this Office, which covers two different periods, this point has not been a real point at all. It will be unfortunate to introduce into an Act of Parliament a provision which inevitably suggests that the police need to be tied down in this way, and if a similar provision is not to he found in another Act of Parliament it shows that the police have a wider latitude. London comes rather closely under the eye of the Home Secretary, and the Committee probably know that from time to time the Home Office send out circulars to the police authorities, pointing out matters that ought to be considered. I have no doubt that I shall do so in reference to this Bill. If at all necessary, I should not hesitate to call specific attention to the Clause, pointing out that action should be taken in the promptest fashion. I am entirely sympathetic with the view of those hon. Members who want to be sure that no injustice is done, but I do not believe that the insertion of an Amendment of this kind would be an improvement.
§ Mr. PRITT
; I still have a little anxiety, for the reason that, as the Home Secretary has pointed out, under the general law, if you take a person in custody for an offence without a warrant, the matter has to go through with more speed. The Clause gives deliberate authority—I do not think it is a. bad one —to arrest people who are not giving their names and addresses, in circumstances where you cannot at present dream either of arresting them or charging them. I doubt whether this quick 660 and summary method of arresting people for the time being as suspected of an offence is taking them first into custody for an offence, and whether the Summary Jurisdiction Act and the Criminal Justice Administration Act apply.
§ Sir J. SIMON
; I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who takes the point of view which we expected. I will, of course, consult my advisers, but I am bound to say that the Lord Advocate's opinion is the same as my own. The Clause speaks of particular conduct which makes a man guilty of an offence. One kind of conduct is refusing to declare his true name and address, and the other is failing to declare his true name and address. The Clause goes on to say that when a constable reasonably suspects him of breaking that law he can proceed to arrest him. It seems a very slight argument to say that the constable has not arrested him for an offence.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Sir IRVING ALBERY
When the arrest takes place, it appears that the man will probably commit two offences. The first offence is disorder, and the second that of refusing to give his name and address. I raise that point now because it is going to have some reference to what we are discussing.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Mr. MAXWELL FYFE
May I allay the fears of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt)? Under the Common Law a constable has power to arrest on suspicion, and the person who is arrested need not have committed a felony; in fact the felony need never have been committed at all. A constable has the power at common law to arrest on suspicion of a felony having been committed, and the same power is given in certain circumstances in a Section of the last Act and in many other Acts, both public and local. The point, therefore, that seems to be troubling my hon. and learned Friend, namely, that a constable in these circumstances is not arresting for an offence within the provisions of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, is not one that has troubled any court that has had the problem before it. It has always been taken that, when a person has been arrested either for a felony or under the special provisions 661 of the last Act or of local Acts, he was arrested for that offence, although in fact the constable arrested him on suspicion. I think that on that point my hon. and learned Friend's suspicions, although entertained in a very worthy cause, have not the basis which they sometimes have.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Sir I. ALBERY
Do I understand, Sir Dennis, that you are not calling the Amendment, in page 5, line 31, to leave out Sub-section (4)?
§ The CHAIRMAN
Yes, that is so. may perhaps tell the hon. Member that there is no Sub-section (4) to this Clause.
§ The CHAIRMAN
That is not an Amendment which is on the Paper. It would be in the nature of a manuscript Amendment, and in that case I should still hardly be inclined to accept it, because I think the point can be sufficiently discussed, either on the Amendment I have just called or on the Clause.
§ Mr. PRITT
On a point of Order. May I submit that there is such a thing as Sub-section (4)? Clause 6 provides that an existing Section of an existing Statute shall have effect as if Sub-section (4) were added thereto. Surely it is worse than fine-spun—it is a thing which I should hardly do myself—to say, when Sub-section (4) is described as Sub-section (4) by the hon. Member opposite, that it is not Sub-section (4).
§ The CHAIRMAN
Perhaps I should have done better to adhere to the custom of not giving any reason why I did not select the Amendment, but I think the hon. and learned Member will probably agree with me that there cannot be a Sub-section (4), in view of the fact that there is not a Sub-section (1) or a Subsection (2) to this Clause.
§ Sir I. ALBERY
If you rule that you do not select that Amendment, I of course accept your ruling, and if the point is discussed on another Amendment 662 I shall feel that no harm has been done; but the point is a very important one. I think that what was meant by those Members who put down the Amendment is obvious, and perhaps you could see your way to make an exception in this case.
§ Mr. PRITT
May I say, if the hon. Member opposite does not object to support from this side of the Committee, that there is a Sub-section (1), and a Sub-section (2)? I have them in my hand; they are in the Public Meeting Act.
§ 9 p.m.
§ Mr. PETHICK-LAWRENCE
I beg to move, in page 5, line 31, to leave out from the beginning to "any," in line 34.
These are the words which provide that the police shall not institute a prosecution in these circumstances for the purposes of the Public Meeting Act, 1908. I was under the impression that this Amendment would be moved by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), in whose name it stands on the Paper. If I remember correctly, he referred to this question on the Second Reading, and I understood that his point then was—perhaps I shall be corrected if I am wrong—that the police were a more suitable body to institute proceedings than the promoters of the meeting. Whether that is the point which he desired to raise to-night or not, I do not know, but that is not precisely the point that I and my hon. Friend who is associated with me in moving the Amendment desire to put forward. As the Bill stands, a prosecution, if it is to be instituted, must be instituted by the promoters of the meeting. It is not our wish to substitute the police for the promoters of the meeting, and to make the onus rest upon the police whether to prosecute or not, but to provide the alternative that the prosecution can be instituted either by the promoters of the meeting or by the police.
The reason why we put forward this proposal is that we venture to think that the law as it will stand if the Clause be carried in its present form will not work out with quite an even hand in different circumstances. Let us suppose that in some village or small borough some very influential persons in the place are holding a meeting, and that one or two less influential persons come forward and make a disturbance which comes 663 within the provisions of the present Measure. The constable invites the disturbers to give their names and addresses. They either give them or are forced to give them later on, and the names are handed to the promoters of the meeting. Then, with all the authority which comes from their influential position, and with all the means at their disposal, they will have no difficulty, if they so wish, in prosecuting the offenders, and the law will proceed as was intended by those who framed the original Act and those who are framing the Amendment of the original Act.
But let us imagine the position reversed. Suppose that some persons are holding a meeting who have no influence in the place, who are very humble people and have no means, and that a band of roughs comes down and breaks up the meeting. The police, we may assume, will take their names and addresses in precisely the same way and hand them to the promoters of the meeting; but we venture to suggest that it may very well be that those people are not in a position to take proceedings. They may find it difficult for various reasons, one of which may be that they have not the means necessary to enable them to go forward with their action, and we are moving this Amendment in order to make it possible in such cases for the police, if they see fit—of course, if they do not, they will not do it—as an alternative to the promoters, to take the proceedings. If that were so, the preventive action of the law would come in much more effectively than as at present provided. Of course, the object of most of these laws is not to institute proceedings and get a conviction and fine the offender, but to raise a standard, to act as a deterrent to people who would otherwise take the action which by these laws is declared punishable in some way; and we feel that, as I have said, that deterrent effect would be greater if the alternative we suggest were provided.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. EDE
While I regret that it is not possible to move the Amendment standing in the names of the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams) and other hon. Members—it is very regrettable to find that so eloquent an exponent to other people of the way to 664 do things should have been caught napping in this, and share that position with at least one Privy Councillor—we are bound to accept the position as it stands. I would rather have supported his Amendment than this one, because I think it will be a very deplorable thing if these are always to be private prosecutions. I was a colleague of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Epsom (Commander Southby). He and I stay away now because we may as well pair there as elsewhere. We hold different views about the possibility of motorists, and things like that, which generally cancel out on the bench. A prosecution that is undertaken by the police, especially in the Metropolitan Police District, is entirely an impersonal prosecution. Very rarely can it be insinuated that the police are actuated by other than quite proper motives in bringing a case before the court and presenting it in a way that it is perfectly fair to both sides. These prosecutions will arise in cases where personal antagonism has been aroused. It was said on the Second Reading that a lot of people will not want to prosecute, not because a prosecution is not justified, but because the prosecutor would be regarded locally as a political persecutor. It may very well be that the Clause as drafted will prevent cases which ought to come before the Courts not coming before them because of that point of view being held.
I was rather surprised to hear it suggested that that would arise during a contested election, because generally when a summons is applied for—most of these prosecutions will be by summons, and not as a result of arrest—the justices do not make the summonses returnable during the time that the writ for the election would be running, and the prosecution would be heard after the election. Then it might be said that the side that had lost was trying to get its own back on the side that had won. If the Amendment of the Public Meeting Act is to be really effective, the prosecution must be undertaken in an atmosphere which will remove it from the feeling that either political prejudice or antagonism is being vented by the prosecution taking place. I also wish to reinforce the point that my hon. Friend has made. The first time that I was ever connected with the Home 665 Secretary was when, in the 1906 election, after he had won Walthamstow, he was imported into the Epsom division to address a meeting at Cobham. When I was the Labour candidate for Epsom I had the greatest possible difficulty in getting a chairman at all in Cobham. [Interruption.] The hon. and gallant Gentleman who represents the division may well laugh; it is the power of his supporters in that district to make people understand that it is going to be a bad thing if you belong to the Labour party that produces that state of affairs. I know that is quite alien to his spirit. He would desire that, if a man holds a political view, he should have the transient glory of being the chairman of a meeting where it was being expounded.
If you are going to leave on the chairman of a meeting the possible responsibility of having to launch a prosecution, you will make it still more difficult for certain parties to get chairmen in certain places where it is thought that being associated with a certain political party may not be too healthy for your worldly prospects. That will reduce this Subsection to nullity. After a man has instituted a prosecution he has to prove his case and, if he fails, he may be landed in the costs of the defence as well as the costs of the prosecution, and that might well make a man of limited means hesitate before he prosecuted a person who was known to be of sufficient wealth to undertake a defence which would mean a substantial cost to the prosecution if it failed, and he might have to rely on his own lay presentation of the case as against a defence conducted by an advocate.
If this Clause is to be made effective, there should at least be the possibility that the prosecution should be undertaken by the police. After all, it is not anywhere in the country the local policemen who will decide whether a prosecution should take place. He makes his statement to the chief constable or the Commissioner, and it is carefully considered at police headquarters, or at Scotland Yard, and if a prosecution is to be undertaken it is after a very careful review of the whole of the circumstances by people who can view the subject quite dispassionately. For this class of offence it seems to be precisely the sort of preparation for the presentation of the case 666 that should be undertaken. I hope the Government will realise that the Amendment raises a point of very great substance and really raises the issue whether the Act as amended is to be effectively administered or not.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Mr. FOOT
The Mover of the Amendment raised the point that the chairman or organiser of the meeting who had to determine that proceedings were to be taken, under this machinery might have to bear the costs of the prosecution. I have had that point put to me in one or two quarters outside the House. It had not occurred to me that he would be saddled with that liability—I should not have thought so—but it would be useful if we could have a statement from the Front Bench on that point. What is contemplated in the Clause is that the police officer shall convey the name and address, when he has obtained it, to the chairman, who shall then decide whether the law is to be Put in motion. It would be very useful if the Home Secretary, or whoever is to reply, would make clear to the Committee precisely how the law is to be put into action when the chairman has made up his mind to prosecute. Will it not simply be a matter either of laying formal information or of lodging a complaint with the police? If so, would not the prosecution be undertaken by the police in the ordinary way? I should have thought that that would be the procedure, but I may be wrong, and it is a point that ought to be cleared up. It ought to be made quite clear whether there is any danger of the chairman of a meeting being mulcted in the cost of the prosecution. I can very well appreciate the point in the mind of hon. Members who support the Amendment, but I am still rather doubtful whether the position that would be created, if this point were carried, would be much more desirable than that which is set out in the Subsection.
The Committee has to decide upon whom the responsibility is to rest for starting the proceedings. The view embodied in the Bill is that it ought to rest upon the chairman or organiser of the meeting, and the view of some hon. Members who spoke on the Second Reading, is that it should rest exclusively upon the police. There may be a great deal to be said for the one view or the other, but it seems to create a difficulty if you are 667 to have the two authorities each of whom may start the proceedings. It puts the police in a somewhat difficult situation if they never know whether the chairman of the meeting is to start proceedings or whether it is to be left to them. We have to decide upon one alternative or the other.
The Clause, as I understand it, is a compromise between those who think that no addition is necessary to the Public Meeting Act, 1908, and those who think that the police ought to have the power to prosecute those who break up public meetings. The Government have chosen a very fair compromise. Have they not met the situation by saying that every person who indulges in the sort of conduct contemplated in the Act of 1908 should be prosecuted as a matter of course, but by this machinery they make it clear that every person who acts in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business of the meeting is laying himself open to a prosecution and that he has definitely put himself in peril? At another stage of the Bill I expressed the view that, in achieving the object we are setting out to achieve, we ought to content ourselves with the minimum that is necessary. This is on the whole a fair and reasonable compromise, and personally I should be inclined to acquiesce in it.
§ 9.19 p.m.
§ Sir I. ALBERY
I very much regret that some of my hon. Friends whose names were attached to the previous Amendment to that which has now been called and which deals with a similar matter, are not present, because I know that they feel very strongly on this subject. I am unable to understand the difference between the man, for instance, who obstructs the traffic in the street and is arrested by the police for an obstruction of that kind, and the man who commits an offence under the Clause with which we are now dealing, which provides,That any person who at a lawful public meeting acts in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business.Conduct of that kind at a public meeting at which the police are present and find themselves obliged to take action, and possibly to make an arrest, seems to be a 668 suitable occasion for them to take also the subsequent proceedings. In any case, if these proceedings are to depend upon the chairman of meetings, I can conceive it possible that it may lead eventually to further disorder. It is possible to imagine a case with the chairman on one side deciding to take no proceedings, no matter what the disorder may be. On the other hand, the chairman may take proceedings which may really increase feeling and lead to further disorders in the particular locality. I imagine that if the police see fit to arrest someone because he refuses to give his name and address, it will be the responsibility of the police to take action against him. It is a peculiar state of circumstances if the police are to take action for what seems to be quite the minor of the two offences, that is, giving a wrong address, while on, the major offence, which was the indirect cause of the minor offence, they are not to take any action at all. I do not feel quite happy about the Amendment as at present moved, and I regret that it was not possible to discuss the former Amendment which was not selected. I certainly should prefer the Amendment now being moved to the Clause in its present state, and I hope that the Home Secretary will see his way to make some concession and perhaps provide a better form of words than that now before the Committee.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Mr. SILVERMAN
I hope that the Home Secretary will be able to see his way to accept the Amendment. It will make things worse if you are to have legislation making it easier for one party in politics than for the other to take advantage of the Bill. If you have a situation where a great many people, if not all, who are well supplied with this world's goods are likely to be found on one side of politics, and a great many people, if not all, who are of the very poorest, on the other side of politics, and the legislation which you are proposing in order to preserve the rights of everybody under the law is so drafted that it makes it easier for those who have the money to avail themselves of their rights than for those who have not the money, obviously that is not quite the object that every Member of the Committee contemplates in this legislation.
669 I was unable to follow the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) in his criticism of the Amendment. Quite apart from legislation of this type, under the ordinary criminal law the police have the right, and indeed the duty, to prosecute offenders, and private persons who are aggrieved, and, in some cases, private persons who are not aggrieved have the right to bring prosecutions. If that were the position in the law that we are now seeking to enact, it would be nothing new, but it is new to make a differentiation between the offence that is being created in this Clause and all other offences. If you are going to say that of all the functions known to law there shall be one and only one where the police shall have no right to prosecute, that is not going to help to keep the law separate; it is rather going to tend the other way and tend very strongly the other way. Why should you draw the distinction? What purpose is it intended to serve?
What is the end you have in view when you say that although the police may take names and addresses and arrest people without a warrant if they suspect that they are getting a wrong name and address, they may not be in any way associated with the prosecution of an offender under the Clause? Either that has no result at all, in which case there is, no reason why we should pass it, or if it has any result it can have the result only of placing power on one side of politics, to avail themselves of the new law which is being made, whereas the other side in politics have the legal right but not the practical opportunity of availing themselves of it. A foreign observer said that in England all people were equal under the law; it was as much an offence for a millionaire to be found wandering on the Thames Embankment without visible means of subsistence as it was for an unemployed man. If we are to have that kind of equality in law people are going to smile.
§ 9. 28 p.m.
§ Mr. LYONS
I do not quite see how the proposition of equality in law affects the matter before us. I want to dissent from what was said by the Mover of the Amendment. It seems to me that if there has been interruption of a meeting which brings the interrupter within this Clause it should be the right of the chairman and the promoters of the meeting to 670 institute a prosecution under the Bill. This is the position that might arise where a man has interrupted a meeting and has put himself in peril and leaves the meeting. If you put on the police an insistence to prosecute it may open out in large measure an interference with the police. This might very well be the means of opening up interference with the authorities who prosecute if that is left in the hands of the police alone. I hope that it will be left in the hands of the promoters and chairman of a meeting to institute proceedings if they wish. That will be the means of seeing that the machinery is fairly set in motion and will take away all possibility of any attempt to interfere with the police if it is put on them that they should have the right and duty to institute proceedings under this Bill. Therefore, I hope that this Amendment will not be proceeded with.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. MAXWELL FYFE
There are one or two considerations which seem to make this Amendment, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said, of great importance. It seems that we have to make up our minds between two difficulties—one, whether the chairman is to be compelled to incur the odium of commencing prosecution, and, on the other hand, whether in an area where the tide is running fairly strongly one way, where the interruptions are continuously being made by one side, the police, if they are going to take proceedings, would not appear to be actuated against the side which makes the interruptions. That will require serious consideration. I should like to follow out for a moment what will happen. What we hope will be the result of the Bill in its present form is that at the ordinary meeting, if there is interruption and interference in the way that is feared, the chairman will be able to say that these powers exist, and, if the interruption continues, the police can ask for names and addresses, and get them or exercise their powers if they are not given. It is hoped that that will be enough.
But suppose the bluff is called? What is going to happen then? There is bound to be some sanction, and, if no prosecution is undertaken, the Bill will have no good result. That means that the prosecution must be undertaken at 671 once. It is no good saying, "We will wait until after the election and institute a prosecution then." As the Bill is drafted, the chairman of the meeting cannot go to the police. Whatever be the position as to the police evidence, the chairman cannot say, "I have indisputable evidence—my evidence, the evidence of police officers, and here is prima facie evidence for you to prosecute." They are bound to say, "We cannot" The chairman must either lay his own information or make application for a summons to start proceedings. As the matter will be tried at a court of summary jurisdiction he becomes liable, as the hon. Member for South Shields pointed out, for the costs of the prosecution if the case fails. You have in that method the odium which the chairman will incur for instituting the prosecution, with resultant odium on his party, and his personal liability for costs. In a case like that it is obvious that he cannot put forward his own case. That is one side of it.
On the other side, he goes to the police and where the police consider it satisfactory they institute a prosecution. It has been pointed out that in practically every case this is not decided by a constable or even an inspector; it has to go, probably, to a superintendent, and in many cases the superintendent goes to a solicitor who does the police work. Is that going to have the result of identifying the police as being against those who are making the disturbance if they are identified with one particular party? I have given the matter anxious consideration. One knows, if I may say so to the Home Secretary, the great care with which all these matters were framed. I do ask my right hon. Friend to consider whether there is not more risk of the Act being stultified and the desires of hon. Members in all quarters of the House being nullified by placing this difficult decision on the chairman of the meeting rather than the other way. It is the balance of difficulties I admit, but I do ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether the balance of difficulties does not come down on the side I have indicated, and whether the practical course would not be to consider whether there should not be some means by which the police could, if they desired, and if they are so advised, institute a prosecution?
§ 9.36 p.m.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I have listened with care to this interesting Debate, because I was most anxious to be informed fully of the views of hon. Members in different parts of the Committee on what, I agree, is rather a difficult and puzzling question. I do not complain, because I know hon. Members wish well of the general efforts of the Bill, and I can understand that they should feel some doubt as to the way the Clause is framed. I hope the Committee will allow me to state as clearly and as bluntly as I can the consideration which led us to draw the Clause in this form. May I, in the first place, most respectfully ask that the Committee should put out of their minds, because the suspicion is quite unfounded, any idea that this is a Bill designed to favour the wealthy on one side of politics as against the poor on the other side? It is nothing of the kind.
§ Mr. SILVERMAN
I should be very sorry if the right hon. Gentleman thought that I had intended to convey the idea that that was the purpose either of the Bill or of the Clause. I am certain that it is not. What I was concerned to point out was that it might have that effect, even though that was quite different from its intention.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I thank the hon. Member. I think everybody knows how much anxious care we have put into this matter, and I appreciate the candid and fair way in which the Bill has been dealt with, and I should be very sorry if anybody entertained thoughts of that kind. May I put my difficulties to the Committee, and I think hon. Members will sympathise with them. There is a feature about the police system in this country which, I believe, is one of its greatest successes, and of which we are rightly proud, and in respect of which we may truly say, whatever our political colour may be, that this country on the whole shows up better than many other countries in the world. It is this, and it is a thing in which we ought all to take great interest and resolve to do all we can to preserve it—it is the principle that once the police have got in their hands a man against whom a charge is made nobody, whatever his position may be, whatever his opportunity of influence 673 may be, shall be able to interfere to prevent his being brought before the court.
I speak on this matter with some feeling and with some little knowledge. I do not wish to praise everything in our institutions, but this is a thing of which WE: are entitled to be proud, and when WE think of the way that it works in some other countries, we must all of us, I am sure, be very anxious to preserve that principle. Consider what the difficulty is. The promoter of a public meeting may be a very strong-minded or authoritative person. He may be a person whose opinions would, I do not say corruptly, have considerable weight; but if once you allow a system in our country under which after a charge has been taken at the police station there is some power to intervene behind the scene before the person is brought before the magistrate, we should be doing a very bad thing for the system of police in this country. This is a point which has pressed very strongly upon all of us.
I do ask the Committee to consider this point very seriously. It is a fact to-day, that, if some riotous young man is arrested, say, in Piccadilly and taken to Vine Street, not all the powers in heaven and earth can prevent him from being brought before the magistrate. Once the charge has been accepted at the police station, the rule is as strict as can be, and we should regard it as a very grave breach of discipline if there were any hanky-panky about it. That is a thing that one cannot say of many countries. Do let us preserve it here. It is in the interest, both of poor people and of very influential people, and it is in the interest of the ordinary citizen that that should never happen. Let us apply that principle to this machine. I agree that it is a very difficult thing to think out. I have weighed it in my mind with great care. One thing was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Mr. Fyfe) with which I do not think that I quite agree. I understood him to suggest that even after a policeman has brought an arrested man to the station and made a charge there is some higher authority, a superintendent or the solicitor advising the police, who meditates as to whether or not the man should be brought before the magistrate. Not at all. Once the policeman has brought the man to the police station and the charge is accepted, 674 it has to go forward, and it is in the interest of the British principles of justice and fair play that it should go forward. There may be a case in which, after the constable brings the man to the police station, the station inspector says; "But I think you must have been romancing. This man has a good explanation. You have made a mistake." In that case the man is discharged, the constable has made a mistake and he has to stand for it.
§ Mr. PETHICK-LAWRENCE
Is the case exactly as the right hon. Gentleman presents it? As I understand it, the constable does not arrest and bring the man to the police station, but he takes the name and address. In the majority of cases the constable takes the man's name and address at the meeting. There is no question of bringing him to the police station. All that I understood my hon. Friend behind me to say was that the man's name and address are taken, and afterwards consideration is given to the case. Surely in that case the consideration would be as to whether the facts are sufficient on which to bring a prosecution.
§ Mr. MAXWELL FYFE
That is the normal procedure which I was contemplating. As my right hon. Friend will remember, there is still another procedure, namely, that when a man is arrested, if it is a case where he is arrested, he can be brought before the superior officer who may not continue the arrest, but may adopt the procedure, which is very often taken, of releasing him for summons. The first procedure is that mentioned by the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). In most cases the charge at the police court would not follow arrest.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I think all the three cases have been quite satisfactorily stated. If I omitted any I am sorry. Certainly, the instances which I have given would arise, but that would not be the only way in which they might arise. Let me put it rather more broadly. It seems to me quite clear that if you consider this particular kind of offence, the offence of acting in a disorderly manner so as to break up a meeting, not necessarily a political meeting, but a meeting of any sort, it is certain that if the obligation which falls upon the police to 675 prosecute, whether under one set of machinery or the other, cases will arise, and I think they will arise pretty often, where, as a matter of fact, the desire on the part of those who would have to give evidence would be that the man should not be prosecuted. I think it will appeal to the common sense of everybody that that must be so, not only at election times, but on other occasions. The value of this Clause is very largely that it makes it plain that if persons try to break up a public meeting the machinery is here, and they lay themselves open to a charge.
I must say that I view with great concern the idea that there should not follow a prosecution. The hon. and learned Member behind me has pointed out that there would be many cases where there will be no arrest but procedure by summons. I understand that, but once it has been established to the satisfaction of the police that the case is one in which it is proper to prosecute, then, if it is their business to prosecute, they should prosecute without fear or favour. That is what we all wish. The question is, is this kind of offence one in which we really can serve the public good by putting this automatic machinery into motion? That is the point which the Committee should consider. I think it would be much better on the whole not to do so. I view with the greatest concern the introduction into our law of a procedure in which, after the police have taken notice of a particular offence and have come to the conclusion that it is a proper case in which to prosecute, none the less they should not prosecute. That would lead to favouritism and all sorts of undesirable things.
On the other hand, I am equally clear that under the Bill there will be many cases in which the police may come to the conclusion that there is a case which could be proved, but where there would be a strong desire locally, for very good reasons of friendly feelings, that none the less a prosecution should not take place. For example, the police may come to the conclusion that Mr. A had behaved in so riotous and violent a manner as not to give the chairman a fair chance of carrying through the meeting. That would be a proper case for a prosecution. Who would be the witnesses? The most natural witnesses, the best people to testify, 676 would be the people on the platform, including the distinguished visitor who had come down for the night and had not taken the interruptions as well as distinguished visitors ought to take them. The police would be engaged in collecting statements from these persons and, therefore, would be putting forward unintentionally one side of the case, or would be looking to those people to prove a case which could be proved, who were most unwilling to prove it.
§ Earl WINTERTON
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be advancing a most extraordinary argument.. Do I understand him to say that if an individual so behaves as to make it impossible to carry on the meeting and there are police constables present, the magistrate would not hear the evidence of the police constable in regard to such an incident?
§ Sir J. SIMON
My right hon. Friend has been a Member of the House so long that he must know on how many occasions the Home Secretary has been challenged because a man has been convicted on the evidence of one policeman. The defendant would at once say "Call the people who you say were incommoded by my behaviour." I am convinced that if we attempt this procedure we shall land ourselves in a position which we do not want. My Noble Friend called is an extraordinary argument—
§ Sir J. SIMON
Not at all. We are dealing with a very different kind of case. We are all thinking, I imagine, of an instance which is so clear and plain that there is no trouble about it. That is natural. But we must remember the width of this provision. It does not apply only to political public meetings, but to public meetings of all sorts and kinds. There are numbers of cases in which the police may be present, but there are all kinds of public meetings at which the interruptions cannot be regarded as of first class importance from the point of view of our criminal law.
§ Mr. SILVERMAN
If the interruptions are as trivial as that, no one would want to go into a court of law. Is not the position this, that it is only an offence against the criminal law if the conduct is of such a nature as to prevent the 677 business of the meeting being carried through at all? If the offence is as gross as that, why should we not deal with it?
§ Sir J. SIMON
I do not think the argument I am putting forward is so easily disposed of, and I hope it may be possible for the Committee to listen to the explanation. I have pointed out the risk we are being asked to take, and I would invite the Committee to think again and ask themselves whether the considerations I am putting forward are not of some weight. When you are dealing with a real offence against the public right of ordinary citizens there is no question at all. Of course it should be for the police to prosecute. On the other hand, there is the case where someone has hired a hall, advertised the meeting and has got his speakers together, but the meeting did not go through in the way it should have gone. There has been gross interruption. I cannot think that in that case it can be regarded as an offence against the public in general, and that the police as the guardians of law and order should be bound to prosecute. I would suggest, with the greatest respect to the hon. Member opposite, that his first view may be wrong. I hope hon. Members opposite will see the force of what I am trying to put, and I would ask the Committee not to allow first impressions on this matter to carry them away. We all desire to have a workable Bill, and I think that if we make the change we may regret it.
I should like to make this further point, that the Amendment which the hon. Member for East Edinburgh has moved would leave the question in this position; either the police or private persons would prosecute. We must make up our minds one way or the other—either to put upon the police the duty in any case in which the evidence is sufficient to prosecute—as I have tried to point out, I believe that would have very unfortunate consequences—or we must recognise that the assistance which the police should afford in case of need in meetings is to take the name and address, and that that is the form of public assistance that should be given to strengthen the Public Meeting Act. There is no question of party politics in this; it is merely a question of finding out which is the best machinery. I may not have succeeded in making as clear to 678 hon. Members as I would wish the considerations which have weighed very heavily with me, but I have talked this matter over with very great care with a number of people whose independence of judgment is beyond all question, and I am bound, in view of the advice I have had, and my own judgment, to urge the Committee to take the view I have put forward.
§ Sir I. ALBERY
Will the Home Secretary kindly inform me whether I am correct in supposing that, in the case of a man who refuses to give his address and who, I believe, would be liable to a penalty of 40s., the police would prosecute 3 As I read the Bill, they would do so. If so, would the Home Secretary explain why they would prosecute in what is, after all, a minor subsidiary offence, whereas they would not prosecute in the major offence?
§ Sir J. SIMON
I listened to the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir I. Albery) making that point, and I apologise for not having dealt with it. The offence to which he referred is an offence because the citizen does not do what the law requires him to do on the demand of a constable. It is the constable who asks him to give his name and address, and if the constable demands that, within the law, and the persons refuses, it must, of course, be the constable who prosecutes. Who else could do it? It is the same as refusing to show a passport to an immigration officer. What is the good of saying that the chairman of a. public meeting should prosecute? The person who makes the demand must prosecute. That matter, however, does not seem to me to bear on the main point I was putting. I am not saying which is the most serious offence, but, the material for prosecuting having been obtained, the Committee must decide which is the right way to carry the matter further. I should be very glad to hear the views of one or two hon. Members opposite, because I know they are perfectly open-minded on the matter, and I think this is really a very serious point.
§ 9.58 p.m.
§ Mr. PRITT
I agree that this is a serious and important matter and that we ought to listen carefully to the discussion on it. I agree also that first impressions are not the whole of the matter and, as far as I know, there are 679 no party politics involved. Hon. Members have very decided views as to which course they would like to follow, and I would like now to do what I can to help on the very important legal matters to which the Home Secretary, with all the advantage not only of his own training but his advisers, has been referring. I am sorry to have to say that I think on this matter, where there are no axes to grind, the right hon. Gentleman has been stating something which is a little beside the point. I will try to explain my views on the matter. In the first place, it is clear that if it be an evil to lay the burden of prosecution in this matter on the police, it is an evil which has continuously operated unnoticed for 28 years.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I do not think that is really the case. In 1908 it was the universal view that the police could not go into a public meeting.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I do not mean that. If my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams) got up a riot in a meeting in Croydon, they would have come in.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I think I am right in saying that the old view was that, except, of course, where there was a serious breach of the law, police did not come inside a meeting unless they were invited.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I believe that the recent view is that they may—certainly in London and some other places they often do; but when the Public Meeting Act was passed in 1908, and for many years afterwards, I do not think the prospect was that there were going to be police prosecutions.
§ Mr. PRITT
I cannot help thinking that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong again, for the following reasons. In the first place, a very large number of public meetings then held in public halls were in fact attended by the police. Secondly, a very large number of public meetings— 680 and particularly those which the Act was designed to protect and did protect—were held in public in the streets and market places of England, and the police were there. I have addressed thousands of public meetings; i confess that I have done it for the Tories, for the Liberals and for the Labour party in the course of my political career—[An HON. MEMBER; "You are an all-round man!"—in the presence of police since the Public Meeting Act. That, however, is not the point. If, in fact, it is an evil which has passed unnoticed for 28 years, let it be dealt with; but my submission is that there is not really an evil in the police being in the ordinary position there. I do not think anybody will disagree with me when I say that the ordinary law of England is that for every offence, with a certain number of exceptions made by Statute, any one can prosecute. The police have a very high duty in the matter, but the police constable can take off his helmet, go into the court—even under this Clause—and say that he is a private citizen and is going to prosecute. It is left free to the whole world, except the police, to prosecute under the Subsection as proposed in the Bill.
Let the Home Secretary express his anxiety about the police possibly being put in a position where it might be thought they might be "got at" by somebody—and he rightly praised our system of police work in that respect—but that difficulty with regard to the police applies to every offence in the United Kingdom, and not only to this one. Although I do respectfully agree that semi-private offences such as this one have an air of privateness about them, I submit that the Home Secretary, in all innocence—it may be for the first time in a great many years—approached a point of law from the wrong end. He said that once anybody has been brought into the hands of the police and charged, and the charge is accepted, it is right that no one should interfere. Under this Subsection, not only would that not happen, but it could not happen, because if a policeman brought a man into Vine Street police station, for instance, and said to the charge inspector—or whoever might be the right person—"I charge this man with acting in a disorderly manner at a lawful public meeting," the inspector would say "You cannot do so because a 681 charge on this man under these circumstances amounts to an institution of proceedings." I think I am right in that. "Under the Sub-section," the inspector would have to say, "we cannot even institute proceedings because we are the police."
It is only the police in England who cannot prosecute in these offences, and they are the people who have been established to prosecute all offences. We know that we have amateurs on benches, but we do not naturally prohibit lawyers from taking part, and getting prosecutions. We keep a quite good police force, but tell it that it cannot operate, whereas we give the right, not only to people who go to the meetings, but to any amateur who likes to interfere. In my submission this is what will happen in almost every case on an offence against Sub-section (1). The police will consider whether they will issue summonses in the ordinary way or not. They have no powers of arrest. It is true they can arrest persons who are committing a breach of the peace and persons who give false names and addresses, but, when they have arrested those persons, I think it would be improper to charge those persons with these offences against Subsection (1). I think the proper course would be to release them and then summon them. If the law is to be as the Home Secretary—sincerely but in my opinion acting on wrong advice—desires, the police will have to say "In those cases we cannot even summon them."
The Home Secretary made another point which wants consideration—that very often offences against Subsection (1) will be offences for which people reasonably do not want to prosecute and that, to put it no higher, it is very much more difficult for the police to drop a prosecution than for the amateur—the chairman or the organisers of a meeting—to do so. I submit that there is not a great deal in that point. If I understand police procedure—and I have not yet suffered from it very much—the ordinary course of the police authorities, when it is suggested that someone should be summoned, is to consider all the available evidence and all the circumstances, and then to exercise an honest and quasi-judicial discretion as to whether there should be a prosecution or not.
682 I stand open to correction from those who know the law about the matter, but surely there must be hundreds of occasions on which a police official, who is responsible for deciding whether there should be a prosecution or not, will take this view; "I do not say there is no evidence for a prosecution and I do not even say that a prosecution might not be brought to a conviction, but in all the circumstances I am not going to allow a prosecution to proceed." The matter may be too trivial or it may be ill-advised for various reasons to prosecute, and it is therefore decided not to go any further with it. If that be so, there seems no reason whatever why there should be this difference in the law, either from the point of view of any difficulty in the law itself, or, what is even more important, from the point of view of maintaining the high traditions under which the police should and very often do act.
What the Bill is seeking to do is to make a grave and curious alteration in the law as it has stood for years. It is asked, "Who are to be the witnesses in a matter like this" I That is a real difficulty, but it is a difficulty which arises in every case of this kind, and in one sense it is a difficulty which arises in every prosecution in the United Kingdom or indeed in the world. I do not think it is peculiar to this kind of case. The real question before the Committee is; Shall the police be the sole prosecutors, or shall the police be the only people in the United Kingdom not allowed to prosecute, or shall it be left to the ordinary law under which the police will normally consider whether they ought to prosecute or not, and under which, if they do not consider that they ought to prosecute, it remains open to the directly interested public, or to the uninterested public for that matter, to prosecute if they wish.
I have occupied the Committee for some little time upon what is a lawyer's matter and I leave the other part of the question which is not a lawyer's matter to be dealt with by more experienced people on my side of the Committee. I do not know whether they differ from me or not upon it. They certainly differ with each other about it, and so I suppose some of them must differ from me, but I leave it there without taking up further time. There is only one point that I would like 683 to mention before concluding. The Home Secretary has said, "Do not let it be thought that there is in this part of the Bill any motive to prefer the rich to the poor." I do not desire to say for a moment that there is any such motive, but the tragedy is that, of course, neither in legislation nor out, of it, is it possible, under the existing system to do anything that does not automatically make things more difficult for the poor and easier for the rich.
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I think I am one of the few Members of the Committee present, except the Home Secretary himself, who was a Member of the House when the Public Meeting Act was passed in 1908, and I think it is in order that I should tell the Committee something about that Act the amendment of which we are considering. In the first place, the Home Secretary's recollection of the circumstances in which that Act was passed, has, I think, suffered from what is rather pompously known as the efflux of time. I do not want to score a party point, but if the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite reads the Debates which took place on that occasion he will find that it is not right to say, a§ was said in connection with a previous Amendment that the Act was brought in because of disorder in the 1906 Election caused by the supporters of those who sit on this side of the Committee. The exact opposite was the case.
§ Earl WINTERTON
No, it was long before the suffragette movement. There were great complaints by members of the Conservative party about the disturbances caused at political meetings of that party in the 1906 Election. Public opinion outside, non-party as well as party opinion, sympathised with that point of view. When, therefore, Lord Robert Cecil, as he then was, brought in a private Members' Bill to deal with that disorder, the Government of the day yielded to the feeling in the House that something should be done. I was in opposition to the then Government but I say that they showed a public-spirited attitude. They took up the position that things had gone too far, that there had been far too much interference with the 684 right of public meeting and public speech and, even though the Bill was introduced by an Opposition Private Member, they gave it their support. That was the genesis of the Public Meeting Act. My first point to the Committee is that that Act has become a dead letter. I ought. to say, indeed, that it has always been a dead letter and for the very reason why, in my opinion, this Clause, as it stands, is so weak. This Clause perpetuates the reason which made that Act a dead letter because, in the majority of cases, neither a candidate nor his agent, nor his chairman will prosecute. They think that it may damage their cause and they believe also that the result even of sustained disorder throughout an election, is likely to benefit rather than injure them.
Having followed the most of these proceedings I have been much struck by the felicitous and tactful manner in which the right hon. Gentleman has conducted this Bill. He has shown great ability and knowledge of the House but I was not particularly struck by the argument which he has just used. In effect it was that this is really quite a small matter, that it is not criminal, arid that we all take it in good part if there are a few interruptions. I venture to think that that is not the right way to look at it. We have to consider, not the interests of the Government, or the agent, or the chairman, or his supporters, but the public interest. Is it in the public interest that in certain parts of England, or indeed in all parts—it certainly happens to hon. Members opposite from some of their extreme left supporters—that it should be impossible to address a public meeting throughout an election'? I put this to the Attorney-General; Is it, or is it not, in the public interest that people going about their lawful business and wishing to hear the speeches of the other side should be permitted to do so? To my mind, to prevent people from doing so is a public mischief of the highest magnitude.
Everybody knows that this Act has been a dead letter for another reason also—it is an open secret—because the police have said that they do not like being mixed up in political matters. That is the genesis of this proposal, but whether they like it or not, unfortunately, owing to circumstances which have recently occurred, they have become mixed up in them inextricably. 685 What is likely to happen at the next election? We have now in this country a party which, rightly or wrongly, has, as one of its mottoes, this proposition: It says, "We will undertake that in whatever part of England we hold meetings, however antipathetic it is to our cause, we will have sufficient force present to see that that meeting is held." Take an district where it is impossible to hold a meeting at present. What happened? Perhaps the police themselves went to the chairman of the division and said, "I should not hold a meeting in this or that particular village, because it would be sure to be broken up." That is a very grievous state of affairs. In my judgment, one of the primary duties of the police is to see that free speech has a, fair chance.
What happens? Owing to the rise of this new Fascist party, they say they are going to hold meetings wherever they like, and they have candidates now. One must presume that their intentions are genuine and that they are going to run candidates. Incidentally, to show that I have no sympathy with Fascism, they have a candidate against me, and they have one against the Leader of the Opposition, and candidates against many other hon. Members in this House. In my judgment, the result of this will be that unless precautions are taken by the police at the next election, we shall have most serious riots.
Some hon. Members may say, "How would this particular Amendment deal with that position?" My answer is perfectly simple. If you put on the police the onus of taking the steps under the law to check such conduct at public meetings as leads to disorder, and afterwards to prosecute, I believe you will not have the trouble that you will have otherwise. But, apart from that, could anything be more ridiculous than the law as it will stand? The police are encouraged by this Clause to take the names of the persons at public meetings who interrupt, and yet they cannot prosecute. A police constable, we will say, takes the names of a number of people and reports them to the chairman, who, for the reasons I have mentioned, decides not to prosecute. The next night a fresh batch of interruptions occurs, and the police take another batch of names.
§ Earl WINTERTON
Yes, but in any event it turns the whole thing into a farce. When my right hon. Friend assures me that it will be very difficult to prosecute on purely legal lines, because you will not be able to get evidence, and when he says that there is an objection in this House to merely police evidence, all that I can say is that I hope he will bring in to-morrow an Amendment to the motor car law. If you say you cannot bring in a Statute because only police evidence is taken, well, that is an amazing position.
I am very much encouraged by a considerable consensus of opinion in the House that favours this Amendment. This is really no party matter. There has never been a time when it was more important to preserve the rights of public speech than now, and what is the use of having a unilateral Bill and saying that we shall stop, and rightly stop, processions or provocative uniforms, while at the same time we have had disclosed a growing determination of a certain section of people to make public speaking impossible? After every election complaints are put in this House to the Home Secretary, not from one section only, calling attention to disorder at meetings, and asking what is going to be done about it. The Government with their enormous majority and the great authority which they enjoy have a golden opportunity of dealing with it, and I greatly regret that in this part of the Bill they have come to such a weak conclusion. The police would be well advised entirely to alter their attitude towards this matter, and to realise that unless they take time by the forelock they will be faced at the next election with a condition of disorder at public meetings which may well result in a coroner's inquest. To say that the police dissociate themselves from this matter, that this is not a criminal matter and not the kind of matter with which they are normally engaged, is, in my opinion, completely to misunderstand the reason why the police force is paid and sustained in this country.
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ Mr. ATTLEE
I do not disagree with the main proposition which has been put by the Noble Lord, but we are in a definite difficulty here. We are all anxious to preserve order in public meetings, and to see that nothing is done 687 to interrupt proper discussion at public meetings. The question which concerns us in this Clause is how best to make the Public Meeting Act, 1908, effective. It is clear that there is a good deal of difference of opinion in the House, which is largely caused by different experiences in different parts of the country. I am not satisfied with the Sub-section as it stands and not entirely with the suggested Amendment. I would like to ask the Home Secretary whether he would look into this matter again and consider whether he could not get this Sub-section into a condition which would give effective power to enforce the reasonable provisions of the Public Meeting Act, and at the same time not give rise to some of the dangers that some people see. Will the Home Secretary undertake to reconsider the matter between now and Report, because I think that the Committee is fairly united on a non-party issue in the desire to get the best possible results from the Bill?
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I think that what the Leader of the Opposition has just suggested is very wise. The discussion has been an interesting one, and I do not think that it has been carried on in too vehement a manner. The truth is that this is a non-party question. There is some difference of opinion in all quarters of the Committee, and I think that it will be good for all of us if we just look through the Debate, talk it over with our friends, and, I dare say, have some sort of conference as far as may be with one another. That is what I should like. I have been interested to see the course of the Debate because it has followed the kind of emotions through which I myself have gone. It may be that wisdom will come, not so much from second thoughts as from the thoughts of today's Debate. I will follow the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman, for it is due to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that we should follow that course. If, therefore, the Committee will agree to do so, I think it will be better to negative this Amendment, because it is admitted that in any case this particular change is not the right one to make. Therefore, I would ask the Committee to end the discussion of this Amendment on the under- 688 standing that the matter will remain open for the Report stage, and I hope that I may have the good will of all those interested, without distinction of parties, because this really is a question which we ought to look at from the point of view of administration. If the course I have suggested can be taken I shall be very glad.
§ Mr. PETHICK-LAWRENCE
In view of what the right lion. Gentleman has said I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ 10.26 p.m.
I do, because I object very strongly to police democracy. I have experienced arrest at a public meeting, and I have a right to speak. I say that while the Clause is bad the Amendment would make it much worse. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Amendment is being withdrawn."] It has not been withdrawn yet. I want hon. Members to understand what has taken place. I was once at a public meeting, the organisers of which had feared there would be disorder and had arranged for police to be present, outside the meeting. There was disorder at the meeting and the police were brought in. The stewards pointed out the people who were making the disturbance and those persons were arrested and taken to prison, and were kept there until their names and addresses were verified. I happened to go up to the chairman to protest against the procedure—he was a friend of mine—and the police, without any authority, arrested me and took me out, but although I was kept in prison till my name and address were verified there was no one to make a charge against me of disturbing the meeting, because I had made no disturbance. If the police had had the power which it is proposed to give them now they would have made a case against me. I have had too many cases made against me not to understand.
How is it possible to suggest that the police should be allowed to come into a public meeting and arrest anyone and start a prosecution on their own initiative, I cannot think. Would anyone 689 suggest that the police have the right to arrest anyone and take him to gaol on a charge of assault when the person assaulted is unknown? If anyone is assaulted he makes a charge and the police arrest the man accused, but for the police to be given the powers suggested here is absolutely against all conceptions of democracy and has nothing whatever to do with the maintaining of democracy or public order. I also wish to say a word about the nice remarks of the Home Secretary, that this legislation is not aimed at the poor any more than at the rich. It is aimed at the poor, please understand that, and at nobody else. The rich do not have to go to working-class meetings and protest about the means test, or about poverty or about the hardships imposed on them. When the poor are suffering the most terrible worries under the means test, with no money for rent or food, some important speaker will come down to speak at a meeting about all the wonderful prosperity there is. I have been told that last night there was a picture in the cinemas showing the Prime Minister talking about wonderful prosperity. Just following that talk about our wonderful prosperity, was a picture of the party which was touring distressed areas in South Wales, and of the squalor, poverty and misery there.
You get that sort of thing, some important personage coming along and talking about prosperity, while people are sitting there and hoping that something will be said to alleviate their trouble and take the burdens from their shoulders. They have a right of protest, and yet it is now proposed to give power to the police to drag them down to gaol. Can hon. Members give me one case of a wealthy man being taken to gaol? On the other hand, give me the case of a poor man who has been arrested, and I will show you one who has protested against a wrong, and who had a right to protest against the wrong. This proposal is a compromise with democracy. In no circumstances should the party on this side of the Committee give encouragement to any right of the police to arrest workers and put them into prison for protesting at a public meeting.
§ Amendment negatived.