HC Deb 04 March 1958 vol 583 cc1128-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Sir H. Webbe) will forgive me for poaching on his preserve in Trafalgar Square. I apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary for detaining him at this witching hour, but I am not at all sure that he does not owe me and my hon. Friends an apology for having a right hon. Friend who has brought about a situation which has kept us up late tonight.

The question of holding meetings on Good Friday in Trafalgar Square has caused some annoyance in this Christian country. I wish to discuss the question of holding meetings, the rights of people to hold them, and so on. Lord Dunedin said on the subject: There is no such thing as a right in the public to hold meetings as such in the streets. His Lordship went on: Open spaces and public spaces differ very much in character, and before you could say whether a certain thing could be done in a certain place you would have to know the history of the particular place. I cannot quote the whole of what was said by Lord Dunedin, but, to paraphrase, he said that whether meetings may be held in particular places should be determined by the precedents set up over the years.

I wish to examine the precedents in this case. As we know, Trafalgar Square has, by habit, become a meeting place and meetings are held there on Sundays and other days of the year. In 1916 permission was asked by the "stop the war" committee of that time to hold a meeting and it was refused. In 1919 permission to hold a religious service in Trafalgar Square was not granted, although later permission was granted to hold an all-denominational religious meeting.

On 25th February of this year, in answer to a Question on the subject, the Minister of Works said: The reason why permission for holding this meeting was not given was that for the past 65 years it has been the policy of my Department generally to limit the holding of meetings in Trafalgar Square to Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. Therefore there is no history of habit for holding meetings of this sort on Good Friday in Trafalgar Square. On what does the Minister base the argument that he is now upholding tradition by allowing a meeting to be held? On 25th February, in answer to a supplementary question, he stated: My hon. Friend must realise that in the past there has been a ban upon all meetings, including religious meetings. My Department has refused permission to the Archbishop of Canterbury for a religious demonstration on Good Friday, 1915, and to the Rural Dean of Westminster on Good Friday, 1952. I cannot feel that there is any justification for allowing meetings which obtain my consent to be held on other holy days in the year and to draw this distinction on Easter Sunday and Good Friday. The Minister may not be able to see the distinction, but there are other people who can. I am surprised at the Minister, for whom I have the greatest regard. There are good Christians who draw a considerable distinction between Easter Sunday and Good Friday and other Sundays and holy days in the year. I should have thought it was obvious, and I am puzzled at the way in which the matter has been handled. My right hon. Friend also said, after having first turned down the meeting: I have now reconsidered the matter and have come to the conclusion that, since the meeting"— which was asked for by the Direct Action Committee of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament— would have been permitted had it been proposed to hold it on a Sunday, it would be illogical to continue to withhold consent for it on Good Friday."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1958; Vol. 583, c. 177–8.] Why is it illogical to continue to withhold consent for a meeting on Good Friday when consent has been withheld for sixty-five years? Were all the former Ministers of Works illogical? Is my right hon. Friend the only logical Minister of Works we have had in sixty-five years? My view is that my right hon. Friend has made a genuine mistake. I wish to know what representations were made to him which caused him to change his mind. This looks like an excuse rather than a reason for suddenly having changed his mind.

It would be interesting to know what the reasons were. Surely he has not become a fairy godfather to Left-wing organisations? That could hardly be the reason, I am sure. Surely he must have given thought to the fact that the applications of the Archibishop of Canterbury and also the Dean of Westminster for permission to hold meetings on Good Friday had been turned down. Yet here he allows a meeting by an organisation which has a very Left-wing influence, I would think, and at which there will be present thousands of Communists. I am not afraid of the meeting, because their case is so bad that it will not do people any harm to hear what they have to say, but I am against holding meetings in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday, and so are many people in the country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am in a very cheerful mood, despite the hour, and I have the greatest confidence that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works will tell the House that he has had a hurried conference with his right hon. Friend earlier this evening and that the Minister has decided that he would again change his mind. I see no reason why, having considered this matter once, he should not consider it again and come to the only sane decision—that he may as well, as a Conservative Minister of Works, have some regard to precedent and to the feelings of many millions of Christians in this Christian country.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)

I would very strongly support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) that this very unfortunate change of mind by the Minister should be reconsidered. By reversing his decision the Minister is not only setting a precedent but is changing a long-established practice which will be regarded with deep resentment by a large number of Christians in this country.

In reply to a Question which I put to him today the Minister seemed to infer that I was suggesting that he should exercise some form of censorship on the type of demonstration or meeting in Trafalgar Square. I am doing nothing of the sort. I suggest that Good Friday is an especially holy day in the Christian calendar, a day of penitence and fasting, and a day of very particular significance to all Christians. It is a day set aside for religious observance. A public demonstration of a controversial nature is quite out of place on Good Friday. It is bound to be deeply resented by many in this country.

The Minister spoke on February 25th of the illogicality of withholding consent for this demonstration on Good Friday when, under the Trafalgar Square Regulations of 1952 and under the criteria applied during the last sixty-five years, it would have been allowed by his Department had the application been made for a Sunday. I think he totally misunderstands the particular significance of Good Friday to the Christian community. It is not the same as a Sunday, and it is certainly not the same as Easter Sunday. The Minister told the House on February 25th that his Department had refused permission for religious demonstrations in the past, in 1915 and 1952, and my hon. Friend has referred to both those refusals. What has happened to cause this reversal of policy after all these years, so that he suddenly authorises a secular and controversial demonstration?

I ask the Minister to reconsider the decision once again, and to revert to the custom that has been followed for so many years, so that this particular day in the Christian calendar may be respected in London in the future, as in the past.

12.10 a.m.

Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

I am bound to say that those who listened to the Minister's reply to Questions both last Tuesday and today must have been as puzzled as they were dissatisfied to know what were the sequences in his Department which Jed him first of all to ban the meeting and later to reverse his decision. On what ground did he ban it in the first place? Was it because he recognised that the gathering would be really a political meeting and one likely to be concerned with a subject that was very controversially political at the present time? Did the Minister realise that the promoters of the meeting were seeking to attract virtue to their purpose by holding their meeting on Good Friday?

If the meeting is held the promoters will actually be doing nothing else than exploiting for political purposes the excruciatingly tragic associations of one of the most holy days in the Christian year. So much for the banning of the meeting.

When it comes to the reversal of the decision, it is difficult to see by what arguments the Minister was actuated. He said that his powers of disallowance were not to be used as a kind of censorship, implying that he was not concerned with the nature of the meeting. I think that we are entitled to have an answer to these questions. While feeling a sense of resentment unless the Minister looks at the matter again, I think we are entitled to know what the policy is to be in the future and whether all Fridays, Wednesdays and other days in the week are now to be available for meetings in Trafalgar Square.

12.12 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I have the honour to sit on the Westminster City Council, and I appeal to the Minister to consider the feelings of the citizens of Westminster, particularly in view of the fact that St. Martin's, one of London's most famous churches, is situated in Trafalgar Square. I ask him to consider, too, what might happen if on the holiest day of the year worshippers going to St. Martin's were involved in incidents or disturbances created by the meeting in Trafalgar Square.

The purpose of the meeting itself is quite immaterial. What concerns hon. Members is that we should not have any incidents, political or otherwise, on Good Friday. I appeal to the Minister to give further careful consideration to the views expressed at this late hour which show the importance that hon. Members attach to this subject.

12.13 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Harmar Nicholls)

I should like to say at once that I very much respect the main points of view put forward by my hon. Friends on this topic. It could be very clearly seen by all that when they were talking about weakening the base of organised religion and commenting on the possibility of this very significant day in the Church year being used for Left-wing or any other wing, reasons, they were speaking with a sincerity shared by all of us in this House.

I think that point of view is shared by my right hon. Friend the Minister who has to give decisions on Trafalgar Square meetings. I am sure one can say without any hesitation that my right hon. Friend comes second to none in upholding precisely those principles discussed by my hon. Friends tonight. I feel certain that we can discard any suggestion that in using his judgment in this case he was acting in any way contrary to the vital considerations which my hon. Friends expressed.

If we examine the background to the use of Trafalgar Square and the days which have been set out for its use for this purpose, I am sure we can say that the matter has none of the implications suggested by my hon. Friends in their short speeches. The truth is that the decision that we are discussing was in full conformity with the spirit of the policy which has formed the basis of decisions for Trafalgar Square public meetings since 1892. I think I can satisfy my hon. Friends on that score. For sixty-five years the general line has been that Trafalgar Square could be used for public meetings on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and Bank Holidays, but not on the normal working day. That line has been accepted all along.

During that time the only considerations which have been taken into account by successive Ministers responsible have come under two heads. The first has been the avoidance of interference with the ordinary life of London by way of traffic congestion, as would be the case on a normal working day when that part of London is one of the busiest centres. The second has always been the advice of the police on the maintenance of public order. That relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall).

Those are the only criteria, and my right hon. Friend thinks that they should remain the real basis of all decisions. It certainly never was intended that permission should depend on either religious or political considerations. [Interruption.] One sees the force of the arguments put so well by my hon. Friends. All I say is that throughout the history of the use of Trafalgar Square for public meetings the only criteria have been the two that I have mentioned.

Mr. Fell rose

Mr. Nicholls

There will be time for my hon. Friend to put a question to me if he is not satisfied with my reply. I emphasise that religious and political considerations have never entered into the matter. I do not think I need labour the point. One can easily imagine the problems which would arise if those considerations were allowed to apply.

Various suggestions were made at Question Time today and at other times about the actual timing of the meeting. There was some suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) that the time of the meeting would interfere with religious ceremonies taking place in the afternoon. The suggested meeting is at 11 a.m., and would not clash with the service that my hon. Friend had in mind. Not that that would have altered the decision; I merely answer the point because there was that misapprehension at Question Time.

Mr. Fell

I told my hon. Friend that the meeting was being held at 11 a.m.

Mr. Nicholls

It was on the record at Question Time. I thought it as well to clear up the point.

I have to explain that it has always been adjudged permissible for meetings to take place on Sundays and public holidays, traffic and business considerations being held to be against meetings at other times. It was never deliberately intended—this is the point that one must have on the record—that Good Friday should he treated differently from any other public holiday. Certainly from the examination that I have been able to make it was never intended—

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Nicholls

I have only a short time, and I should like to make this point. It was never deliberately intended that Good Friday should be treated differently from any other public holiday.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

May I ask—

Mr. Fell rose

Mr. Nicholls

The reason why this meeting appears to have special significance now is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) said, there has never previously been a meeting on Good Friday. The fact that there has never previously been one certainly does not cut across the fact that it was never adjudged that Good Friday should be treated differently from any other public holiday. The reason there has not been a meeting previously on Good Friday is that there has been a great paucity of applications for a meeting on Good Friday—

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Nicholls

Perhaps my hon. Friends are not aware of the fact that over the past sixty-five years only two applications have been made by outside bodies for such a meeting. I can also see the confusion of thought that would arise on this matter when on the two occasions when applications were made for Good Friday meetings they were turned down. I should like to explain that. The reason permission was not granted was the special conditions which existed at the time of those applications, special conditions which certainly do not apply in this year of grace 1958. Perhaps I should remind the House of the circumstances surrounding those two occasions. It is important that my hon. Friends should know. If they do not know them, I can well understand their confusion.

The first was in 1915 when the Archbishop of Canterbury wished to hold a religious meeting in Trafalgar Square. The application was turned down on the advice of the police, who said that in their view problems could arise, and they thought that the meeting ought not to be held. On that occasion the application was turned down on the one criterion of the advice of the police. This year the police have let us know that they have no objection whatever.

The second application was made in 1942—not 1952, as said on two occasions—when the Rural Dean of Westminster wanted to hold a religious meeting. The Government decided that year that Good Friday would be a normal working day; in the context of the criterion of traffic in the centre of London, Good Friday was treated as a normal working day. Anyone who knows London on a Good Friday knows that the position is different from that of a normal working day.

The consideration does not apply in 1958. There is no question of Good Friday being a day on which the people who work in Whitehall and in the other offices add to the business traffic in London. There is no question of it being treated as a working day, as was the case in 1942. I have put that point to the police, who tell me that their experience in previous years is that conditions in the Square on Good Friday resemble those on a Sunday. They tell me that there are few workers and only the usual sightseers, and they confirm that there is no normal working day concentration of people or traffic. This was not the case in 1942, when Good Friday had been adjudged a full working day and when it was expected that there would be precisely the same busy conditions as are normal in that part of London.

I think it can be seen that one of the two criteria to which I have referred applied on both those occasions when applications were made. Those criteria are, first, interference with business in London and, secondly, the advice of the police. This year neither criterion applies.

Whether those two criteria should remain the only criteria was the next point made. I should like to refer to a speech made by Lord Samuel which expresses precisely the point of view which my right hon. Friend holds today. Lord Samuel, then Home Secretary, was opposing the use of Trafalgar Square on a Sunday for a "stop the war" meeting in 1916. He said: … I had received a report from the Commissioner of the Police in the Metropolis who told me that he had reason to apprehend very grave disturbances if this meeting were held in Trafalgar Square on Sunday next, disturbances so great that a very large force of police would be required to cope with them, and even then he could not guarantee that the persons holding the meeting would receive efficient protection. In those circumstances I have decided that on that ground the meeting must be prohibited and prevented from being held. I should like to make it plain to the House that the reason why I propose to take this action is not that the meeting is intended to be held in opposition to the policy of the Government, supported as it is by Parliament. The purposes of the meeting, I may be permitted to remark, are, of course, in my view profoundly unpatriotic and most mischievous … Yet, in spite of all this, I should not be prepared to lay down the doctrine that the Executive was entitled to suppress public meetings held in opposition to its policy even in time of war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th April, 1916; Vol. 81, c. 2247–8.]

Mr. Fell rose

Mr. Nicholls

I should like to finish my sentence. This expresses the position as it exists today. If my right hon. Friend gave a decision which expressed religious or political partiality about Trafalgar Square, there is no knowing where that would extend. My right hon. Friend has also control over the Royal Parks, including the famous Speakers' Corner, which is accepted as a model of freedom of speech throughout the world. If it were right for the Government to prevent a certain point of view being expressed in Trafalgar Square, how could we logically let the same thing go on in another part of London, or at Speakers' Corner?

I am sure that on further consideration my hon. Friends will see that we are doing the right thing not to set ourselves up as political or religious censors, be it in Trafalgar Square or on any other site under our control. It was precisely on that ground that my right hon. Friend changed his mind about this meeting. He based his first decision on an interpretation of the past rule that a meeting could be held on a Bank Holiday, but that Good Friday was not a statutory Bank Holiday in England.

12.27 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I wish, briefly, to support the Minister and to say how much I welcomed the Answer which he gave the other day and the speech from the Parliamentary Secretary tonight. If the Minister had come to any other decision, however much it might have been regretted, it might well have been interpreted as some form of political censorship. The Minister came to the right decision. We must avoid anything which would outrage public opinion on what is the most solemn day in the Christian year.

I do not believe that this meeting will. As I understand it, there has been no protest whatsoever from St. Martin's in the Fields about it, and that is the parish church of the district and might well speak with authority on the matter. The Minister is right to extend the general principle laid down by Lord Samuel. It would have been wrong to take any account of the popularity or unpopularity of the views which are to be expressed. I think it is right to take into consideration the nature of the demonstration and the character of those who are organising it. Whether hon. Members agree or disagree with the views of those who are responsible for the demonstration, nobody will question the sincerity with which they are held or the dignity with which they are expressed. It is not a question of thousands of Communists, as the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) told us. It is a number of people with very deep religious convictions who believe in what they believe to be the cause of peace. To deny them freedom of expression in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday would be a very odd way of commemorating the Prince of Peace.

Mr. Fell rose

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has really spoken on this Motion.

Mr. Fell

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary a question? The Minister announced that the reason why permission for holding the meeting was not given was that for the past six years it had been the practice to limit the holding of meetings in Trafalgar Square to Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. That is exactly the reverse of what he has done.

Mr. Nicholls

I explained that Bank Holidays were automatically allowed under the regulations, but that on examination—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.