HC Deb 21 March 1949 vol 463 cc37-44
Captain Crookshank

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has any statement to make on the disturbances in the Metropolitan Police district yesterday.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

Yes, Sir. I have received a report from the Commissioner of Police about the disorder which occurred yesterday.

The Union Movement had informed the Commissioner of their intention to organise a procession from Ridley Road to West Green, Tottenham, and had supplied him with particulars of the proposed route. As the Commissioner anticipated that disorder might arise on the route chosen he issued directions under the Public Order Act, 1936, prescribing a different route and prohibiting the use of banners and loud speaker vans on the route of the procession. The directions prescribing a different route were not disclosed to the organisers until Sunday morning with the object of preventing the new route from being publicly advertised.

Prior to the procession a meeting was held at Ridley Road. The organisers were warned Chat anything in the nature of provocative speeches would result in an immediate closing of the meeting. The speeches subsequently made did not call for police intervention. At the opening of the meeting about 500 people were present of whom the police estimate that one-third were supporters of the Union Movement. The crowd increased and towards the end of the meeting there were in the neighbourhood about 2,000 people who were clearly opposed to the meeting and bent on stopping the procession.

The opposing factions were not aware of the alteration in the route and assembled on the old route. They were prevented by the police from coming into contact with the procession, which moved off along the new route prescribed by the Commissioner. There were some attempts at this point to break the police cordon and ten arrests were made. The opponents of the procession used a loud speaker van to announce to their supporters the actual route which was being taken by the procession. Further attempts were made in the course of the march to interfere with the procession and obstruct the route, resulting in a further 16 arrests.

The intention of the organisers was to hold a final meeting at West Green, Tottenham. But on arriving within some hundred yards of the proposed meeting place it was found that it was occupied by four other meetings and the police informed the organisers of the meeting that there was no room for their meeting and suggested that the procession should disperse forthwith; the procession thereupon dispersed without disorder. When their opponents, who were mostly massed at the junction of Tottenham High Road, and West Green Road, discovered that the procession had already dispersed, they diverted their animosity on the police. Milk bottles, lumps of concrete, clods of earth, hurricane lamps and in fact any available missile were hurled by the crowd and in each case the target was the police. Attempts were also made to interfere with the mounted police by throwing marbles and ball bearings on the road. A further nine arrests were made by the police at this stage.

During the course of the afternoon 10 police were injured, but fortunately none of the injuries were serious. So far as the police are aware, no personal injuries were suffered by members of the public, and at no time did the police use or draw their truncheons. About 400 police were employed in keeping order.

The Commissioner of Police informs me that as a result of this experience he is of opinion that the powers conferred on him by subsection (1) of Section 3 of the Public Order Act, are not sufficient to enable him in present circumstances to prevent serious public disorder being occasioned by the holding of political processions in the Metropolitan Police district and has sought my consent to the making of an order prohibiting all public processions of a political character in his district for a period of three months. I have given my consent and the order will be made forthwith. I regret that it is necessary to take this step but it is intolerable that the streets of our Metropolis should be made a battle ground for opposing factions.

Captain Crookshank

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will express to the police, on behalf of us all, our sympathy with them in the difficult position in which they were placed yesterday. May I ask, first, whether the order to which he referred has to be brought before the House, or whether it is merely an executive act, and, secondly, am I right in understanding from the description the right hon. Gentleman has given us of yesterday's events, that in point of fact the organisers of the demonstration carried out to the full all the instructions the police gave them and that the disturbances were due to what the right hon. Gentleman called "their opponents," which I assume to be the Communist Party?

Mr. Ede

With regard to the first part of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's question, the Commissioner makes the order and submits it to me for confirmation. I do not think it has to be brought before the House; it certainly was not on the three previous occasions on which I was responsible. The organisers of the meeting carried out to the full every instruction given to them by the police. The trouble was caused by the people who were opposed to the holding of the procession.

Mr. H. Hynd

Has the Home Secretary's attention been called to the flouting of the law about the wearing of political uniforms yesterday? Also, will my right hon. Friend reconsider his description of this as a political procession, because no bona fide political party marches through the streets and provokes disturbances, but the Fascists do?

Mr. Ede

I have been informed that there were four boys, the eldest of whom was 17, who were wearing the same coloured blouses in the band that accompanied this procession. As soon as the police drew the attention of the organisers to the fact that this might be construed as a uniform, the blouses were taken off. I think the police were justified in that action, because it might be regarded as an effort to start the wearing of uniforms, and I do not think the police are to be criticised for what they did in this matter at all. My hon. Friend asked whether this was a political procession. It was a procession organised by people who have a political aim and I think it comes within the definition that the Commissioner of Police uses.

Brigadier Medlicott

Having regard to the grim history of political processions, is it not a fact that the mere organising of these processions is in itself provocative, and would it not be better for the right hon. Gentleman to take such powers as are necessary to bring this order into operation for longer than three months, so that we shall not have a recurrence of these situations?

Mr. Ede

No, Sir. I cannot bring it into operation for longer than three months. That is the maximum limit prescribed by the law. Political processions have taken place in this country for a very great number of years and it is to be regretted that two alien organisations coming into conflict on this matter should make one of the traditional ways of expressing public opinion in this matter intolerable to their fellow citizens.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a certain euphemistic approach in his answer? May I ask him, as the nation is proud of its support of the Charter of Human Rights, whether the time has not come for this country to ban political parties which have racial hatred as part of their creed?

Mr. Ede

I did not think there was any euphemism in the statement I made. I endeavoured to make it as colourless and factual as I could. I hope it may be possible in the not distant future to regain the tolerance for which this country was famed.

Wing-Commander Hulbert

Is it not a fact that, in spite of the provocation and the way in which they were assaulted, the police behaved in an exemplary manner yesterday, and can the right hon. Gentleman give the approximate cost to the police of looking after these hooligans? Also, were any police officers called from leave specially and if so, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that they shall not suffer, but shall be granted time off in due course?

Mr. Ede

I think that, in face of the very great provocation at the end of these proceedings, the police behaved with their usual tact and even courtesy. If anybody has lost leave, or lost his day of rest, I am quite sure that that will be looked after. I cannot give the exact cost of this without notice.

Mr. Piratin

Why did not the Home Secretary tell the House this afternoon that, prior to the demonstration on Sunday, he received a deputation from the foremost public citizens of a number of East London boroughs, including a number of Members of Parliament, some of whom are present this afternoon? Why did he not tell the House that these people tried to draw attention to the fact that there was widespread opposition to this demonstration taking place yesterday, and, as a Labour Home Secretary, why did he not act on the advice of these well-intentioned East London citizens?

Mr. Ede

I have two public duties to perform which, to my mind, are equal in importance. The first is to preserve order and the second is to maintain the traditional liberties of the subjects of this country. The balance between the two is often very difficult to determine and I regret that, for the purpose of maintaining order, I have, for the time being, to suspend some of the liberties that have been anciently enjoyed in this country. I think it is regrettable that there should have been no effort made by people who were capable of using their influence to restrain the hooliganism on this occasion.

Mr. Marlowe

It has been stated in the Press that some of these disturbers of the peace climbed on to buses and stopped them and deflated their tyres. Can the right hon. Gentleman make any statement to confirm that?

Mr. Ede

No. The police reports I have read do not confirm the deflation of tyres, but there is a mention of some people climbing on to buses.

Mr. S. Silverman

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the mayors of the boroughs concerned who came to see him were of opinion that this procession was intended to be a provocation and nothing else? Can he also say whether the political aim—to which he referred—which those in the procession wished to further, was the same political aim which this country spent six years of warfare to prevent and which has brought Europe down in blood and ruin?

Mr. Ede

The people who attended at the Home Office did regard the procession as a provocation, but I think that in this country we have to learn both to hear and to see things with which we do not agree, without feeling that we have been unduly provoked. This country spent six years in order to combat Fascism, but it did not spend six years in order to establish Communism.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

In view of the statement of the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin) and its implications, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that when people carry such things as marbles and steel ball bearings the implication is that that is aimed at mounted persons and, as there were no mounted persons in the procession, it must have been primarily aimed at the police?

Mr. McGovern

Is it not the case that there is a very small body of opinion in this country in favour of Sir Oswald Mosley and that if those who are opposed to him would allow him to demonstrate, it would be found that he has little or no support here, and that the only support he gets is because of the opposition and the methods they adopt towards him? Is my right hon. Friend aware that we had the same experience in Glasgow among religious gangs and that when people paid no attention to them, there was no provocation and the whole thing died a natural death?

Mr. Ede

The history of the last 12 months indicates that the meetings called by the Union Movement are very sparsely attended. On this occasion, it does not appear that there were more than 150 supporters of the movement present at any one time, and if their opponents did not turn up and make the meetings interesting to sightseers, I think they would soon die a natural death.

Mr. Bramall

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there are many people who are by no means Communists but who are very violently opposed to this movement, and that it is extremely difficult for them to hear tolerantly people who appear to support the open advocacy of the murder of a very large number of British citizens?

Mr. H. Strauss

Will the right hon. Gentleman say what he thinks of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) that those who threw marbles and ball bearings were demonstrating their belief in human rights?

Mr. Ede

I do not think that it is necessary to say anything on that.

Mr. S. Silverman

Might I ask my right hon. Friend whether the latter part of his answer to my supplementary question was intended to indicate that in his opinion the only objection to the procession in this part of London came from the Communists and whether, if that is his view, that was the view expressed to him by the mayors of the boroughs concerned?

Mr. Ede

No, Sir. They did not express their views as to what were the opinions of the people who were opposed to the processions. All the evidence that we have, including our inquiries into the antecedents of the persons who from time to time are arrested in these matters, indicates that the opposition comes from one particular party.

Mr. Langford-Holt

Will the right hon. Gentleman point out that this country dislikes both these organisations equally and that the one thing 'they both require is advertisement, which is just what they are getting today?

Mr. James Glanville

Is it not a fact that the police anticipated trouble, otherwise there would not have been 400 policemen there, and if they anticipated trouble why was the procession ever allowed to take place at all? Also, in view of the fact that we spent six years trying to fight Fascism, why should we allow it to be recognised? Why not kill it at once?

Mr. Ede

The police frequently anticipate that there will be trouble. It is their duty to take such steps as they can to prevent it without the undue use of force. I believe on this occasion they discharged their duties properly, and I think also that it is wise on their part to ask for a fresh order to be made so as to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the near future.