HC Deb 02 February 1960 vol 616 cc796-801

3.39 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it an offence to insult publicly or conspire to insult publicly any person or persons because of their race or religion; and for purposes connected therewith. The House will be aware of the unhappy circumstances which have prompted me to take this opportunity to seek leave to introduce this Bill. It will be aware of the rash of swastikas which have been daubed on public walls throughout our cities and towns, of other written insults to Jews and of constant insults being made to coloured citizens of this country.

These are not events which have taken place and then ceased. The House will be aware that as recently as last night the hallowed premises of the Pitt Club, in Cambridge, the political nursery of many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, were so treated. In addition to this, there are a great number of acts of intolerance shown against religious minorities in this country with which I propose to deal later and which have rarely had the attention of the House.

Practically all the statements are not mere expressions of opinion. If they were I do not think that I would be moving my Motion today. They are definite incitements to racial hatred. They are incitements which, ultimately, lead to physical assaults, if not dreadful mental assaults, on particularly innocent people. I have heard the suggestion made that this is a manifestation either of ignorant boys or of lunatics and that it should not be taken too seriously. I do not accept that view. I prefer the view expressed in the Sunday Times leader on 3rd January of this year which said, in part: It is easy to write off the scrawling of swastikas on synagogues as the operation of a lunatic fringe. But where does lunacy end and a dangerous minority faction begin? And when we realise that a mass of people in the middle have no very strong views or clear thoughts, and can be swayed by a few who passionately believe themselves right, we may well awaken to some anxiety. We should also remember that the lunatics perceive themselves, not as lunatics, but as the only sane people around. Many are zealous evangelists who seriously seek to convent enough of their fellow citizens to make their views effective. And some of them could. It is no bad resolution for the new year in public affairs, as in domestic, not to oversleep". Those words of the Sunday Times are supported by an article written in the Daily Telegraph on 19th January of this year by Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, who is perhaps one of our greatest living experts on German affairs. He said this: It is no coincidence that the desecration of synagogues and attacks on Jews in Germany should have been accompanied by similar outrages in Britain and many other countries. There exists a Fascist International, whose members come from almost every country in Europe and keep in constant touch with one another. Clearly, something has to be done if we are to extirpate what is for every one of us a loathsome phenomenon in this country which, if we do not extirpate it immediately, may grow from comparatively isolated incidents to quite disastrous proportions. I appreciate that the Home Secretary is very perturbed about the situation and deplores it. He has gone on record as saying so. He has said also that he is in close consultation with the police. I would not have expected anything but that from a man with his liberal traditions.

All this is very good, but there is something else I wish to ask him. There is a rumour that the Home Office has a Bill on the stocks to deal with the perpetrators of such outrages. If it has, I hope that the Home Secretary will produce the Bill. It would be much more competently drafted and much more ably introduced into the House than anything I could produce. I would quite willingly withdraw my Motion if fiat is the intention of the Home Secretary. Failing action of that kind. I ask the House to give me leave to introduce the Bill.

The argument has already been put to me that what I am seeking to do is to put a restraint on personal freedom. Of course I am. Society is always putting restraints on personal freedom. Society generally acts in a purely pragmatic fashion. We are not allowed to drive on the right-hand side of the road merely because we want to. There are certain restraints on our freedom to poison our wives, to shoot policemen, or to drop pieces of litter on the pavement. We may want to do things. But whether it is an act of deliberation, or whether it is a careless act, society sees to it quite pragmatically that we do not commit anti-social acts, for if we were to commit them we should be reducing society to a state of anarchy.

Years ago, long before I entered the House, Parliament decided on the banning of political uniforms, which in itself was a very direct attack on personal freedom. But is there any hon. Member today who does not agree that it was a wise and successful move to ban political uniforms in this country? It is in that pragmatic fashion that I am introducing the Bill.

As a citizen of this country I find it intolerable that hooligans of all classes and of all ages should be occupied, as they are now, in insulting Jews, negroes and religious minorities, by imitative scrawlings on walls. The scrawling of this vile swastika symbol on the walls of our country is designed only for the purpose of creating consternation, alarm and despair in the breasts of innocent people, people who have seen millions of their co-religionists tortured, gassed and burned to death in Hitler's Germany. I know of a professional man who, when he saw swastikas being written on the walls in front of his house said, "I can't go on. I can't go through this all over again". Hon. Members may feel that this is exaggerated defeatism. They may regard it as the defeatism of a craven creature. But hon. Members have not had to lie awake at night waiting for the knock on the door at 3 o'clock in the morning. They have not been herded in cattle trucks to concentration camps.

Very few of us mourn for loved ones of ours who have been burned in the incinerators in Hitler's Germany. None of us had to lick the pavements, or wear a badge of shame to distinguish us from our fellow citizens. Countless numbers were made to do these things under the very banner of the swastika which is now being repeated in this country. I believe that if we had suffered one-hundredth of what the Jews suffered in Germany, Austria and other occupied countries during the war we could appreciate the bitterness of this perfectly innocent man's feeling. This man, who was a German Jew, is now a naturalised British citizen, giving good service to the country.

It is not only the misery to the refugees in World Refugee Year about which I complain. I complain of the insults to hundreds of thousands of British Jews who are good citizens, as good citizens as every one of us in the House today. I am complaining of and trying to legislate against the insults to the coloured citizens of this country and of the Commonwealth who are publicly insulted every day by seeing signs like, "Niggers get out" and "Keep Britain white", with their undertones that any poor white is better than any good black, yellow or brown man. This is taking place in the year of African independence. I object to Catholics in some part of this country being met with signs saying, "Protestants only", or "Catholics need not apply".

I know that it has been said that one cannot legislate against these occurrences, but one can. For example, in Sweden Chapter 2 of the penal law makes it an offence for anyone publicly to threaten, calumniate or defame a population, group or religious belief. There is the famous Lex Alberg in the Constitution, a Press law which makes it an offence to print attacks on people simply because of their race or religious belief. Switzerland has a law dealing with group libel. New York has a law dealing with racial discrimination, which is not quite my point but is an illustration of the fact that legislatures can take, and have taken, action to deal with this sort of squalor.

I am also told that there is plenty of opportunity under the Public Order Act to deal with this situation, but that argument absolutely misses the point which I want to make, which is that I believe that the House should make religious and racial insults a specific and separate offence from anything which now stands on the Statute Book. Racialism is not always a breach of public order, but it is always an insult and an injury to innocent people who cannot defend themselves.

If I am given leave to introduce my Bill, I propose that the maximum penalty for these offences shall be a fine of £100 or six months in gaol, or both. I am told by some of my hon. Friends that this is savage. I am prepared to listen to the arguments, the counsel and advice of those experienced in the administration and practice of the law—I have no rigid feeling—but I would remind the House that the sentences imposed on the Notting Hill rioters have had a most salutary effect. Those sentences were harsh—indeed, some of my hon. Friends thought that they were too harsh—but the fact is that there has not been a repetition of that particular horror.

I am told, also, that this matter must be dealt with by education. The Germans failed to educate their people, but do we educate our people? An 18-yearold sailor was fined £15 for swastika-daubing at St. Annes-on-Sea, in Lancashire. He had heard of Hitler, but he had not heard of Belsen, Auchwitz, Dachau and other German camps. When shown photographs in Lord Russell's book, "The Scourge of the Swastika", of what had happened under the Nazis it is said that he went white. Was that young sailor educated? Are we educating our children about the last war? I should say that our history education stops about fifty years ago.

Can we afford to wait for the slow progress of education to counter this swift march of racialism? That is not the view of the Church of England, it is not the view of the Trades Union Congress, and it is not the view of the Convocation of Canterbury. Last week, a United Nations sub-commission on the prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities passed a unanimous resolution condemning anti-Semitic action and calling on Governments to pass additional laws, where needed, to prevent it. The sponsors were France, Austria, Uruguay, Finland and, I am proud to say, Great Britain.

The General Council of the Trades Union Congress called last week for the strengthening of the operation and provision of the law to put an end to all such incidents, and the Convocation of Canterbury passed a resolution deploring the outbreaks … and called on all men of good will to resist by every means in their power all forms of racial bitterness and hatred. All hon. Members are men and women of good will. We all have in our hands the power to deal with this situation. In asking hon. Members to give me leave to introduce the Bill, I say that the least that can happen by giving that permission is that this House passes a unanimous condemnation of these outrageous practices and a determination to stamp out a pattern of behaviour and a philosophy that is alien to our nation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Leslie Plummer, Mr. Creech Jones, Mr. Driberg, Mr. Charles Royle, Mr. Mellish, Mr. Stonehouse, and Mr. Kenneth Robinson.