HC Deb 07 December 1949 vol 470 cc2042-52

11.25 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

Mr. Weitzman (Stoke Newington)

It is with great reluctance and extreme regret that I am compelled to raise this matter, which I have called "Unrest in North London," on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House. I represent a constituency which, like the constituencies adjacent to it, contains mixed communities of Gentiles and Jews. They are simple, ordinary, hard-working British citizens, men and women, who have lived together peaceably, pursuing the same interests, and respected one by the other. Recently, however, there has been something which is beginning to poison that relationship, leading to disquiet and anxiety, and bringing with it fear and frustration to a considerable number of people. I refer to the Fascist meetings which are being held, to the scurrilous statements made at them, and to the number of cases of physical violence which occur at them, or elsewhere. During the hearing of a case against a young man named Shaw, who was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for a most brutal assault on two schoolboys, counsel representing the young man told the court that his mind had been so poisoned by propaganda disseminated at Fascist meetings that he acted with violence. I should remind the House also, that although this young man stated that he was one of a number of 20 concerned, there was considerable surprise and even indignation that nobody else was arrested and charged with participation in the offence.

I would like to draw attention to Section 5 of the Public Order Act of 1936. It reads: 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 or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, shall be guilty of an offence. It is a useful provision for matters of the kind with which I am concerned but, for some extraordinary reason, I cannot find grounds why, as I understand it, this Section is disregarded rather than observed. I suggest to the House that, if this provision had been properly implemented, a great amount of the trouble which has arisen would have been avoided; and, even more important, trust in the police, which is so necessary in these times, would not have been endangered. As at present interpreted, this Section is treated as if its sole purpose were to protect the speakers at these meetings, no matter what those speakers may say. I have always understood that it is the right of any person to attend a meeting, and yet, in these cases, if any person attending one of the meetings hears the Jewish community grossly insulted, and desires to protest, as is his right, he is the subject of police action, and not the speaker.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said in this House that when complaints were made, proof was not forthcoming, but I can give some examples of the sort of insults of which I complain. I want to quote to the House some examples of what has been said at these meetings. Each one of these examples has been reported to the Home Office and I say that, although they obviously violate the clear meaning of the fifth Section of the Public Order Act, no satisfactory reply has been received from the Home Office, and no satisfactory action has followed.

On 18th January, 1948, at Hereford Street, a Fascist speaker made the allegation to a crowd that "the Jews lived off brothels." The attention of the Home Office was drawn to this matter and the reply was not that it was not said, but that the remark* was the result of provocation from the audience.

On 6th June, 1948, at Ridley Road, the statement was made by a speaker that "Jews live off brothels and sweat shops." On the same day, at Hereford Street, the speaker made the statement: "The scum was allowed to concentrate here and Hitler did a good job against a certain people."

Both these statements led to a question in the House and the reply was that the matter was being referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Nothing further happened. At Lewisham, on 30th November, 1948, the speaker, talking about a Jewish public meeting, said: "Can you imagine what a stink they made, all that number of Yids together?" Reported to the Home Office, the reply was that though police reporters were present, they had not heard the remark.

On 1st December, 1948, at Trebovir Road, Earls Court, the most disgusting and lying remarks were made about the Jews and the Talmudic teachings. The speaker added that though he might get 12 months for what he said, he challenged the inspector to report his remarks to the Home Secretary. The reply of the Home Secretary to a complaint was that these remarks were not to be found in the notes of the official shorthand takers or heard by the police.

On 5th December, 1948, at West Green Road, Tottenham, a wild attack on Jewish citizens was made by a speaker. In fact, the senior police officer present warned the speaker. The reply from the Home Office admitted that the speeches were objectionable and that the warning by the inspector was justified, adding that it had a sobering effect on the speaker in question. I should like to read to the House what the Home Office calls a sober speech, the remarks made by the speaker after he had been warned. "Jews are filthy, parasitic vermin, feeding on the political body of this country. The sooner we get rid of this lot the better. Hitler closed the doors of his gas chambers too soon. If I had my way I should send all Jews to Palestine with a one-way ticket and then supply the Arabs with atom bombs." Can one imagine a more disgraceful abuse of Section 5 of the Public Order Act. If anything calls for action under that Act, that statement did.

I have quoted a number of statements. They are, unfortunately, typical of many. They continue right through the present year. In some cases, although shorthand notetakers are sent to meetings by the police they apparently do not present a verbatim report, because when complaint is made of remarks heard by persons who are ready to come forward, the answer is given that there is no evidence in the notes taken by the police. Here I point out that an offer was made that these persons were prepared to come forward and give evidence.

What is the attitude taken up by the Home Secretary in regard to this matter? I know his task is a difficult one, but how can it be said that the remarks of the kind I have quoted should be allowed to be made without any action of any kind. Is it surprising, having regard to these quotations, that there is reason for disquiet at the licence given to these speakers to carry on a hateful campaign against a self-respecting and law-abiding section of citizens? Is it to be wondered at that the Jewish community feels disquiet? They hear the most wicked statements made about themselves and their religion. They expect, and they are entitled to expect, that they shall be protected against this foul abuse of freedom of speech, a freedom taken advantage of by those people who openly state they will do away with this freedom if they come to power.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of the police. I know that in the main they are a fine body of men anxious to do their duty I realise that they are understaffed. Yet there is no lack of police to attend Fascist processions or attend speakers at Fascist meetings. A short time ago the Home Secretary reminded us that the police were only civilians in uniform enforcing the law Apparently the view is taken that to dress a civilian in police uniform is immediately to give to him an unchallengeable claim to veracity and make any statement by a civilian in civilian clothes unacceptable as a statement of fact. Surely, it cannot be believed that every statement laid before the Home Office by reliable observers is inaccurate and every statement from the police must be accepted as a matter of course. That is certainly not the way in which to inspire the confidence of the public in the Home Office or in the police.

It is said that if people do not like Fascist meetings, they should not attend them—a new restriction on our freedom. If they do not attend these meetings, then the poison is spread among the audience without protest, as in the case of Shaw to which I referred. If they do attend, what does one expect a Jewish ex-Service man or a Jewish mother who has lost her sons in the war to do, if foul statements of this kind are made? The very meetings are held in many cases in Jewish districts and it is obviously the intention of those who organise them to provoke the Jews who live in the vicinity. It is wrong that ex-Service men, many with outstanding records, who have spent years in fighting Fascism, should now be told by the Home Secretary they must suffer in silence while vile abuse of them and their religion is made by Fascists who spent the war years in internment as suspected traitors. I do not ask the Home Secretary to do anything new. I do not ask him to engage in any revolutionary course of conduct. But I ask him to give ear to complaints from civilians as he does to representations from the police.

I ask that protection should be given and that Section 5 of the Public Order Act should be applied in proper fashion. I ask that it should be implemented and that these persons who utter these vile and lying accusations should be properly called to account. From the records I have seen, out of many complaints made in the last 18 months, only seven cases of speakers making abusive remarks appear to have been dealt with, and that list includes one person who was charged three times. On the other hand, there appear to be many oases of persons who protested who have been charged.

It is vital that the spread of this false, poisonous propaganda should be brought to an end. I submit that the strict application of this Section will have that effect, and that in my constituency, as in others, people will be able once again to breathe freely and live together in friendship and in trust. I am sure this is the true desire of every decent citizen, irrespective of religion. I would remind the Home Secretary of the words he used on 22nd November: ., the insistence of the Government on the maintenance of law and order, without consideration of the political, religious, or racial affiliations of any individual citizen, who may be the subject of the attention of the Police, either as in need of protection or for a breach of the law."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd November, 1949, Vol. 470, c. 212.] I respectfully submit the course I have suggested will have that result.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)

I only intervene for a few moments because I have taken an interest in this subject in the past year and wish to express my disappointment at the ineffective action of the Home Office in this regard. When the matter of vile action and conduct on the part of a certain section of the community was under consideration about 12 months ago, I drew the attention of the Home Secretary to this kind of language because I had heard it myself. I had hoped, ere now, that there would have been some response from the Home Office. We really cannot allow these things to go on. I do not know if the Under-Secretary at the Home Office has heard the kind of statements that are made at these meetings. If he did go to these meetings, I am sure he would feel ashamed that in this country we should allow this sort of thing to go on, and I hope, if tonight he cannot give a very favourable answer and a more specific answer than has been given up to now, he will personally go and try to get his right hon. Friend to go with him to hear for themselves the kind of things which really are a blot on our public life. If he does, I am sure he will be as ashamed as I am and will take some action more effective than has been taken up to now.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)

I would like to deal, for one or two moments, with some points additional to those which have been raised. I need hardly say that, from the knowledge of most of us here, the facts which have been stated and the points which have been made by my hon. Friend are certainly correct and that investigation has shown that the type of action on the part of men of the description of those to whom he has referred is shocking. I do not propose to take up the time of the House for long as the Minister has to reply, but I do want to ask, in addition to my hon. Friends requests, how can the following facts which I shall quote be considered as consistent with appropriate action having been taken under Section 5 of the Public Order Act?

There is no doubt that at the present time we are suffering from a crime wave which cannot be regarded as otherwise than extremely serious. One of the answers given why no more can be done to suppress it invariably is that there is a shortage of police. The Metropolitan area, I believe, requires something like 5,000 more police. This is not a time when we can permit the use of police to protect an organisation which is deliberately out to crush freedom. I would like to refer to the startling numbers of police occupied at these meetings.

I understand from investigations i have made that something like 10 per cent. of every audience are policemen and in my opinion that is an inordinate number for what claims to be regarded as a peaceful demonstration.

At one meeting, the audience of which numbered something like 60, there were 16 foot police and two police cars in the background. Another meeting of 100 people was attended by 15 police. One of 75 people had 12 foot police and a police van in reserve. A meeting of 250 was attended by 26 foot police with two police vans in reserve. These figures, I understand, are the minimum and only refer to uniformed police, and there were probably more police there than I have indicated.

When one turns to meetings at which their leader himself attended, one gets a further picture of the wastage of effort and time forced upon the police by these activities of the Fascists. Mosley's first meeting on 1st May last year was attended by some 450 supporters and practically every supporter had two policemen to protect him, including 48 mounted police and numerous squad cars, radio cars and motor cycles. One could give numerous instances of similar attendances of police. If the police have to go to these meetings in such numbers, surely this shows that the commission of a serious breach of the peace is anticipated by the authorities.

I would ask that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department should let us know definitely that he will prevent these meetings from taking place particularly in districts in which the assistance of police has to be sought to the extent to which I have referred and in which it is obvious that there is a breach of the peace contemplated by the police themselves.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I intervene for a few moments because I represent a constituency adjacent to that of the hon. Member for Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman). I myself have been present at some of these meetings at Ridley Road and elsewhere. I think one must recognise that the police have a very difficult task. But at the same time there is very great concern among all people in East and North-East London about the way in which these meetings are held—meetings at which continuous provocation by Fascists takes place and at which there is every appearance of their having police protection.

There is not the slightest doubt that the Jewish population and the English population of those parts of London are subject to very great strain by this continuous scurrilous language and deliberate provocation. I very much hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to tell us that energetic action will be taken under the Public Order Act.

11.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Younger)

This is by no means the first time that we have debated this subject in this House. I hope the House by now appreciates that this is an exceedingly difficult matter to deal with. I am sure, and I think we all accept, that in the last 18 months or more there have been, particularly in this area of East and North London, a considerable number of speeches made which, to use the words of the hon. Member for Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), are, to say the least of it, scurrilous. They are abusive and unpleasant statements of which we would all disapprove.

In almost every instance when these statements have been reported to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and complaints have been made to the Home Office, he has given his personal attention to this matter. Indeed, there have been few weeks in which he has not personally had occasion to take notice of this difficult problem.

Full inquiries have been made into every complaint. I do not need to emphasise—because my hon. Friend who initiated the Debate did so—what a difficult position the police are in. None of us here want them to be in any way a judge of what is a proper and not a proper political meeting except in so far as they have reason to anticipate a breach of the law. Their duty is to enforce the law, and it is none of their duty beyond that to approve or disapprove of what may be said. I have been asked tonight, very reasonably, to give an assurance that the law, and in particular Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which my hon. Friend quoted, will be fully enforced. That is a matter to which my right hon. Friend has given attention for many months past. He has sometimes been worried himself by the first accounts of what has occurred to find that no action has been taken. Each case has been fully checked to see whether that Section of the Act could have been used. May I remind hon. Members of the requirements of the Act? It does not bring within the mischief of the Section a statement which is merely abusive or merely insulting. Those words in the early part of the Section uses threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour, are followed by with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned. Those are the additional points which have to be proved over and above the insulting or abusive nature of the words.

On the question of whether particular words do or do not fall within that Section, the final arbiters are, of course, the courts. The object of the police, one need hardly state, in bringing a prosecution, is to get a conviction. While they may have occasion to bring a case where they think a conviction likely but not certain, I think the House would agree that nothing would do more harm than for the police to bring prosecutions which frequently fail. Indeed they have had some rather unhappy experiences where they have thought a particular sentence or passage in a speech might fall within the mischief of that Section, where they have prosecuted, and where the prosecution has failed, and where on numerous subsequent occasions the same speaker has used those sentences over and over again, adding that the courts had already said that it was quite all right. Therefore it will be appreciated that a great deal of care has to be given by the police, and those who advise them on questions of law, before they bring prosecutions if there is a considerable likelihood that the prosecution will fail.

Mr. George Porter (Leeds, Central)

Surely within the meaning of the Act it is incumbent upon the police not only to bring prosecutions but to take such steps as they think fit to stop a breach of the peace if they think something is likely to incite? It is not a question of taking action in the courts but taking immediate action to stop the meeting where it is likely that the occasion may lead to a breach of the peace.

Mr. Younger

That has been done on a number of occasions, but it is perfectly clear that they must be satisfied that the conditions of the Section are fulfilled or likely to be fulfilled. My right hon. Friend has in fact made it clear to the police that in his view, if the words are of a kind they think are likely to lead to a breach of the peace, it is their duty to take action and not to wait for it to occur. The fact is that all these matters are tested in the courts to decide whether or not a particular speech is one whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned. They inevitably ask, first, whether there was a breach of the peace, and if the answer is "No," then they ask, "Did it look as if there was going to be?"

In many of these cases a large proportion of the audience are either police, observers from some of the organisations interested in the activities of these fascist bodies, or supporters. In a large majority of cases—in all of them that I have been able to trace since my hon. Friend gave me notice of his intention to raise this matter—there has been no likelihood, at that moment and in those circumstances that a breach of the peace was going to occur. That does not entirely rule out any possibility of prosecution simply because of the nature of the words themselves, but hon. Members will appreciate that it is not a strong position to be in for a prosecutor in court to have to say that there was no breach of the peace nor did he expect one. It very often is the simple fact that there was nobody present at all except one observer from the Board of Deputies, one police officer, and three or four members of the Union itself. I draw attention to that as a considerably limiting factor on the prosecutions that can be brought.

As regards complaints which have been made, and the statements—some of which I recognise among those my hon. Friend mentioned—I cannot deal with them all, but I can say of those I recognise that we were very careful when the complaints came in to check them against the notes, in some cases shorthand notes of police officers present, but not all, and in some cases there were discrepancies. The House will appreciate that a prosecution has to be based on actual words, and not on the gist of a passage.

Mr. Weitzman

Is it not a fact that these observers were ready and willing to come forward and give evidence as to the words actually used? I have a copy of a letter in which that offer was made.

Mr. Younger

I do not know whether that is the same letter as the one I was about to quote. I was coming to that. My hon. Friend will appreciate that he must look at this from the point of view of those who have to take official action. We received a complaint from the Board of Deputies—this is an old case, in June, 1948—and said we would investigate it. We wrote to them, and in the course of the letter said this: It would be of assistance if you would let me have the names of persons who support these reports so that, if it should be decided that proceedings shall be taken, consideration may be given to the possibility of giving evidence. The reply we received from the Press Officer contained this passage: As to the observers who submit these reports, they all act under the direction of the district committee of the Jewish Defence Committee. They would, of course, give evidence on subpoena, or if called upon, but until then they do not wish their names to be given. The effect of that is that we are invited to bring a case, subpoena them and trust to luck. They do not wish their names to be disclosed until we subpoena them. In many of these cases the shorthand notes of the police officers do not agree with the complaints. We specifically asked that we might know who the persons were, and we were informed that they would be prepared to come forward and their names would be revealed after the proceedings had been started.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Heywood and Radcliffe)

What qualifications are required of police officers who make these reports?

Mr. Younger

My hon. Friend knows what the qualifications are, but I am sorry that I have not time to say all I really wished to say because my time has been cut rather short.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o' Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.