HC Deb 25 July 1957 vol 574 cc600-5

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

92. Lieut.-Colonel BROMLEY-DAVENPORT

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is aware that the use of violent and unlawful methods of picketing in the present provincial bus strike is threatening a general breakdown of law and order; and what action is being taken to restore peaceful conditions.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware that the failure of the police throughout the country to prevent the interruption of public transport services this week by unlawful violence has created the danger of a general breakdown of law and order; and what steps he is taking, in the interest of national security, to protect the interests of people who wish to use these services upon their lawful occasions.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is aware that violent assaults on travellers on omnibuses and motor coaches by those who claim to be engaged in peaceful picketing during the present provincial omnibus strike threaten to lead to a general breakdown of law and order; and what action the Government are taking to restore peaceful conditions.

The Prime Minister

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is in attendance on Her Majesty, I will answer these Questions together.

There have been Press reports of the unlawful use of force by strikers in connection with the provincial bus dispute and in the London food markets. I would like to say, first, that I am sure that the violence which has been the work of a small minority of the strikers will be condemned by trade unionists generally.

The law allows peaceful picketing for the purpose of communicating information or persuading any person to work or abstain from working, but intimidation in any shape or form is unlawful. It is the duty of the police to enforce the law, and the responsibility in any area rests with the chief officer of police concerned.

My right hon. Friend has received reports from these officers and is confident that the police in all parts of the country are well aware of their duty and will fulfil it. I must make it clear that the Government are determined to see that law and order are maintained.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all of us deplore the use of violence in any trade dispute? There is no question whatever about that. Is he further aware that it will give general satisfaction that he underlined that these acts of violence are the work of a small, indeed a tiny, minority out of the 100,000 men who are on strike in these disputes? I think it is also fair to remind the House that trade union leaders, on a number of occasions recently, have equally condemned the use of violence.

The Prime Minister

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I think that a clear expression of disapproval from all those who have authority, and to whose leadership these men look, is of great value. I hope that there will be no misunderstanding about this matter.

Mr. H. Fraser

In the same sense that assistance has been given to motorists who carry persons otherwise prevented from travelling, would my right hon. Friend consider extending insurance cover to those private bus companies still operating buses in the Stafford and Stone area against hooliganism, which has been organised, and the hiring of thugs to beat up buses? Would my right hon. Friend consider covering these buses which operate against this form of intimidation and covering them against riots and civil disturbance?

The Prime Minister

As I understand, the question is whether some form of insurance or cover can be given to protect buses or owners of buses in these cases. I will consider that.

Mr. Robens

Did the Prime Minister fully hear what his hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. H. Fraser)said? May I repeat it? He said that there was organised hooliganism and the hiring of thugs. If that is the case, would the Prime Minister seek from his hon. Friend the fullest details and pass them to the police so that prosecutions may take place, that these charges may be heard in the courts, that the proper evidence may be brought forward and that we may see precisely on which side truth lies?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not know that not only have the trade union leaders engaged in the disputes indicated orally to their other officials that they must not engage in anything but peaceful picketing, but that written instructions to that effect have also been sent out? Is the Prime Minister aware that although 4,000 market porters and others are on strike at Covent Garden today, there have been 30 charges laid arising out of 12 incidents? If the suggestion is that there is hooliganism which the police are not controlling, that appears to be a reflection on the police services and not on the trade unions or the men.

The Prime Minister

We must try to keep a sense of balance on both sides. There have been some very unfortunate cases. I saw, for instance, that one official said that there was over-enthusiasm. To hit a man in the stomach with a crowbar is more than over-enthusiasm. There have been some very unfortunate cases, but it would be quite wrong to represent them as in any way general.

What we must try to do, what I know the police will try to do and what I hope hon. Members on all sides of the House who have influence will try to do, is to keep these cases to an absolute minimum through any influence which they can use.

Sir H. Butcher

Is my right hon. Friend aware that cars carrying persons are now proceeding into Hertfordshire to block the main roads to prevent food lorries from being driven to London and to intimidate the drivers? Will he ask the county constabulary to be specially alert to that kind of practice?

The Prime Minister

I understand that the constabulary have been alerted about this matter.

Mr. Shinwell

While in no way condoning outbreaks of violence in industrial disputes, although I have seen many in my time and shared in many, for which I shall not apologise, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is not aware that a measure of responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the proprietors of the private bus companies, in view of the shocking wages paid to the bus drivers and the miserable offer of 3s. a week increase? Is it altogether surprising that some men lose their tempers in a situation of that kind?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of that, and would it not show more wisdom on the part of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues in the Government if, instead of becoming hysterical about this affair, they did something to bring a little more comfort and contentment to these bus drivers and conductors?

The Prime Minister

I quite understand the right hon. Gentleman's interest in these matters, but I thought that we all felt nowadays that whatever might be the subject matter of the dispute, or the rights and wrongs of each side—and I would remind the House that this dispute is now before the Industrial Tribunal—we ought to try to do our best to see that disputes are carried on peacefully and in accordance with the law.

Captain Waterhouse

Is it not the case that in the Covent Garden dispute the matter has already been to arbitration and that it is a strike against an arbitration award? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that although everybody has the right to picket and to go on strike, people also have the right to work if they wish to do so?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I do not think that the arguments on either side are relevant to what we are discussing and I did not wish to go into those questions. What I hope the whole House will support is that there should not be this kind of incident, which is quite contrary to the whole character of our people and quite inappropriate to modern conditions.

Mr. Bellenger

The Prime Minister has referred to the Tribunal which is investigating this strike. Can he say when the Tribunal will report?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I referred to it only so as not to be drawn into any question on the merits of the case, for I was dealing only with the question of law and order.

Mr. Maude

Is the Prime Minister aware that some disquiet has been caused by the fact that certain police forces have attempted to discharge their duty of preventing breaches of peace by advising citizens to yield to threats of illegal force, and that that is not considered, on the whole, to be a real triumph for law and order?

The Prime Minister

I have no information of that kind. I believe it to be ill founded. If my hon. Friend can give me any such information I will, of course, have it most carefully inquired into.

Mr. Grimond

While welcoming what the Prime Minister said about the subject of intimidation and appreciating that, for the transport strike anyhow, a Tribunal is sitting, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of the great public anxiety over these strikes, he will give an assurance that a statement will be made to the House if they are not settled by the weekend?

The Prime Minister

I will consult my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour about that matter.

Mr. Mellish

Is the Prime Minister aware that undue publicity has been given to these incidents—[HON. MEMBERS: "Undue?"]—and that some of the better incidents in this dispute have been given no publicity at all? For example, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at Covent Garden adequate representations have been made to ensure that hospitals, and so on, will be supplied? Again, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the provinces a vehicle was stopped by pickets but that when it was found that it was required for handicapped children the men actually drove it and made sure it got through, loaded it themselves, and make quite certain that essential services would be maintained in that way?

Will the right hon. Gentleman not concede that the Press, almost from the beginning of the strike, have been determined to do what they can to misrepresent the point of view of the men, and have done great disservice by trying to present the trade unions in a bad light and do all the harm they can?

The Prime Minister

I read the Press fairly widely, and the incidents to which the right hon. Gentleman referred I had read in the newspapers. The point remains that whatever may be the rights and wrongs of the dispute, the rights of the public and the rights laid down by law must be maintained. Peaceful picketing has been defined. There is a long history behind it. If it is misused, it is the duty of those in authority to see that that misuse is discontinued. That is all I am pleading for, and I believe that the whole House is on that side.