HC Deb 23 February 1960 vol 618 cc331-40

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

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)

In a general debate on immigration in December, 1958, I intimated that I would return to this question of the sentences on my constituents who were convicted following the riots arising out of the Notting Hill disturbances. I am conscious that in appealing to the opinion of the House of Commons on an issue of this nature I must bear in mind the long struggles which have taken place in the development and the history of the British legislative system as we know it. Our respect for law and order, our obligations to the Commonwealth, and the wider issues involved in race relations, were all contained in the incidents which led up to the Notting Hill riots.

Every man, no matter what his status or however famous, has something to gain from emotion and experience. The eminent and learned judge in his summing-up of the case brought against my constituents was also subject to a degree of emotion, which may or may not have led to the imposition of the sentences which caused a great deal of concern in legal and social institutions throughout the country.

Let us consider, first, the background of the case as it affects my constituents. These were nine youths, aged 17, caught up in a subject which is so complex that over the centuries the answer to the problem has not been found—the subject of race relations. They were caught up in an emotional issue which was fanned by political agitators in the area. Arising from those emotions, riots took place and attacks were made by white people upon coloured people and my coloured people upon whites. Against that background, let us in the House of Commons, with its mixture of the various degrees of our civilian life, and which calls men from all quarters—from elementary schools, private schools, public schools and universities, and from all professions—look at the issue as it affected these boys.

Here were boys brought up in an atmosphere and in a district where justice is swift. They were brought up in working-class family backgrounds, nevertheless having the same deep love and care bestowed upon them as is bestowed upon people who are born more fortunate. In this trouble cauldron, these boys found themselves. Nobody in the constituency takes the view that they should not be punished by law, and punished swiftly, for what they did. That is exactly what occurred. The sentences on these boys were four years in gaol.

Eighteen months have elapsed and the time has now arrived when further consideration may be given to a reduction of these sentences if it is not possible to quash them altogether. I spoke, in the earlier debate, of the extent of the problem which was affecting Notting Hill and I rejected completely the Home Secretary's structures at that time that these riots were due, in the main, to woman jealousy. These riots were due mostly to the difficulties arising out of a very bad housing situation. Every man's home is his castle. Our people, who have developed our institutions and our law, have also developed an insularity which extends to our homes. We regard our homes as private and sacred to ourselves.

Into this huge city, where people scramble for houses and where the Rent Act is in operation, streamed thousands of colonial nationals. They had a perfect right to come here under the Constitution of the country and their associations with the Commonwealth, but, nevertheless, they aggravated a problem which was already acute.

On 5th December, 1958 I gave figures, which I will read again, which illustrate the size of the problem of the number of foreign nationals within our borders. In the debate on immigration control, I said: My researches show that prior to the war, there were 240,000 aliens in Great Britain. After the war, we had the European voluntary workers scheme by which 57,000 men and 30,000 women entered the country. Then we had the 110,000 Poles from General Anders' army, and in addition, students, prisoners of war and miscellaneous groups who accounted for another 10,000. Whereas, in 1931, we had 268,000 people of foreign birthplaces, in 1958 we had an estimated 800,000 and this does not take account of the coloured population which has been coming in in recent years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December. 1958 Vol. 596, c. 1590–1.] This does not take into account the influx of Commonwealth nationals which now total, I am told, about 240,000.

This situation gives rise to housing difficulties. I am investigating every one of these cases as they affect my constituency. In every case there has been trouble either between white landlord and coloured tenants or vice versa. In these circumstances, among people who have been reared in working-class districts, one gets a slow simmering to boiling point extending over two years, finally erupting in the mob violence which the learned judge punished very severely. I am the last to decry the ability, the impartiality and fairness of our judges but, as I said in my speech on that occasion, it is impossible, in matters of this character, for a man to divorce himself from his environment, his emotions, his upbringing, and his passions.

I want to consider for a moment some of the words which the learned judge used when he came to deliver his judgment. Addressing the youths he said: It was you men who started the whole of this violence in Notting Hill. With due respect to all the authority of British law, this was not so. This trouble has been simmering to a great degree over two years. It is only those who live with it and those who have constituencies where this problem exists who know the difficulties in getting these people to live together. The learned judge, with all the majesty of the law behind him, and the long-established institutions of British justice at his call, came to the conclusion that these boys started the violence. There had been incidents many times before this. This was only the climax of incidents which had been slowly developing over a period of years.

We should ask ourselves what kind of homes these boys had and whether they were lawless and violent by nature and why they found themselves in this situation. All nine had never been convicted before. In the "pubs" and clubs of West London where people said that they had respect for the law and wished that the law should be upheld and justice demanded, let alone in circles of a more insalubrious character, it was intimated that the sentences on these boys were extremely severe.

It may well be that the learned judge had in mind that this trouble might spread. He may have thought that to impose a deterrent which was seen to be effective would be a means of stamping out this trouble. That may have actuated him in his judgment and have led him to impose these sentences. We do not know, but we do know that since the judgment things have been a great deal quieter in the Notting Hill and Shepherd's Bush districts, though there have been isolated incidents.

But if that judgment had the desired effect, is it not time, in mercy and humanity, for the public opinion which can be expressed in the House of Commons to ask the Home Secretary that Her Majesty he petitioned to secure a reduction or the abolition of the remainder of these sentences? We have a job as Parliamentarians distinct from the Legislature. Part of our job as humanists is to try to rescue for society those people who may be worth the effort. These boys, having incurred the penalty, having been in prison now for eighteen months, should, in my view, be offered the full mercy of the law.

Tonight, I am asking the Home Secretary, through his right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State, to petition Her Majesty to reduce or quash these sentences, because it is not only the boys who suffer from the penalty of imprisonment. In two cases the fathers of the boys have died and the mothers are hard put to it to manage without the earnings which the boys formerly brought into the households. Two were articled apprentices, whose firms are most anxious to get them back so that their apprenticeships shall continue. We ask, in fairness and equity, that those boys shall now receive the full mercy of the law. Let it be shown to them that while the law operated against them at the time, and justly, for the crime they committed, the law can also be merciful. Let us see if we cannot rescue them at this juncture and give them a chance to become better citizens.

I ask the indulgence of the House for just a few moments more. This is a difficult question to raise. It is full of passion, prejudice and violence. In representing a mixed constituency such as my own one has to be careful not to hurt the feelings of any one section in putting a case of this character. I have raised the question tonight because I think that the time has now come for interested bodies to work together to procure the release of those boys. I am, therefore, asking the Home Secretary to petition the Queen to pardon them so that they can be given a chance to become decent citizens again. If we can do this by example and precept, it will be much better than making them serve the full rigours of a four-year term of imprisonment, bearing in mind that at the tender age of 17, three years after leaving school, they were sentenced with the full severity of the law in an atmosphere which they did not themselves engender but of which they found themselves part. If we in the House of Commons can do that, we shall have done something worth while, and I therefore ask the Home Secretary to do it.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I wish to support the plea which has been made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney), who has presented a strong case skilfully and persuasively.

We are speaking tonight of heavy sentences on boys who became caught up in some big questions without really knowing what they had got caught up in. It is so easy for such an atmosphere to generate into lawlessness. Of course, when that happens the people who are lawless must be punished, but we must also have regard to the age of the people concerned and to the motives that should be imputed to them. They should be punished, surely, only for the violence of which they were guilty, and not for the nature of the persons against whom it was directed.

In assessing the sentences, I asked myself whether those boys, with the character which they had, would have been given exactly the same sentences if they had inflicted the same degree of violence not upon—

Mr. Speaker

Order. What the hon. Member is now saying is a plain criticism of the sentences inflicted. That is out of order in the context. He may, of course, urge that the matter should now be reviewed. That is different.

Mr. Bell

I was doing that, although from a slightly different direction from that followed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North. I was trying to show, and, I hope, succeeding in showing, that these sentences were inflicted in the circumstances of the time, a time of great emotion, when it was thought that race riots might continue in the neighbourhood if they were not stopped.

I was trying to point out that if one takes those cases out of that context the sentences would then seem to be rather heavy, and I was postulating the case of the same degree of violence used by similar boys against not coloured people, the context in which these cases occurred, but against, say, white people, possibly on the other side of the controversy, perhaps too strong advocates of race discrimination.

Let us suppose that the boys had attacked them and let us postulate that they did so because of their very indignation of people who advocate race discrimination. Would the same sentences have been imposed in that case?

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

Would the same iron bars have been used?

Mr. Bell

We do not have much time in Adjournment debates.

I suggest that in those circumstances much lighter sentences would have been inflicted. Those circumstances, happily, have passed away and I ask my right hon. Friend to represent to his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that these punishments should be reconsidered in the context of February, 1960, to see whether these very young, very immature, and undoubtedly, at the time, violent people have not now purged their offences against the community and are now subjects fit for clemency.

10.32 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney) has tonight raised a subject which received great publicity eighteen months ago, a subject which he has taken up with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in the intervening eighteen months. He has said, and I agree with him, that it is not an easy matter to raise and I think that he will appreciate that it is not an easy matter to answer.

Before dealing with this case, I should like to make clear, and I think that the hon. Member is aware of this, the position of my right hon. Friend in these matters. He is not, as you will know, Mr. Speaker, a reviewing authority, nor is he a further court of appeal. His duty of advising on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative enables him to intervene as an exceptional measure if it becomes apparent that an injustice has occurred which cannot be corrected by the ordinary methods of appeal, or if compassionate or other circumstances come to his notice which warrant the remission of part of a sentence.

Normally, this means if circumstances arise which were not before the court when it imposed the sentence. For example, a man may be released slightly earlier than he would otherwise be because his wife has been taken ill and he is needed at home to look after children who would have to be taken into care by the local authority; or perhaps on another occasion information has come to light about a man's circumstances which, had they been known to the court when he was sentenced, would have caused the court to impose a lighter sentence than was in fact imposed.

It would be wrong, and I am sure that hon. Members appreciate this, for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in considering an application for the exercise of the Royal Prerogative, which is what the hon. Member asks, to ask himself, "If I had been in the judge's shoes, should I have imposed a lesser sentence?" That is something which he cannot do, because it is the function of the judiciary to decide what sentence is appropriate in a particular set of circumstances. It is important that the Executive, in the shape of my right hon. Friend, should not interfere in the exercise of that judicial function.

Mr. Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

Did not this case also go to the Court of Criminal Appeal?

Mr. Vosper

All the men concerned sought leave to appeal.

There is a class of case in which it may occasionally be appropriate to reduce a heavy sentence because circumstances not related to the individual in question have changed; for example, where a sentence includes a substantial exemplary element, and the circumstances in which that element was considered necessary no longer exist, as when an exceptionally heavy sentence has been imposed for an offence which in time of war it is essential to discourage and, when the war comes to an end, it may be thought no longer necessary for the whole of the sentence to be served.

I have mentioned this class of case because it seems to me to be the only one of the grounds for clemency advanced on behalf of the nine youths on which my right hon. Friend could possibly act, and he is by no means convinced that this ground in these cases provides sufficient justification for clemency.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

The right hon. Member has referred to nine youths. Should not the number be five?

Mr. Vosper

There were several cases involved. In the case raised by the hon. Member nine youths were concerned. I should like to give the history of the case. The youths in question toured Notting Hill late one night in a car in which were found four iron bars, four pieces of wood, a table leg and a starting handle. They attacked five coloured men in four separate incidents. The men were strangers to them who were going peaceably through the streets. Three of the men were seriously injured; indeed, one was in hospital for three weeks.

As Mr. Justice Paull said in giving the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeal on the youths' appeal: It was clear that this was a perfectly deliberate gang affair in which these nine youths deliberately made up their minds to injure, not coloured men who had taken part in the past in any events of violence which might have occurred, but any innocent person walking in the street, provided that his colour was not the same as theirs. This was just about as serious a matter of this sort as the court had to deal with. At a time when violence, particularly crimes of violence by young men, is increasing, a gang of youths who deliberately go round hunting for and beating up innocent strangers must expect to be very severely dealt with.

In these circumstances I am unable to indicate a prospect that the Home Secretary will find it possible to recommend any remission of the sentences which the court considered right and which were upheld on appeal. I can undertake to report to my right hon. Friend what the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) have said, and I can give an assurance that the cases will be kept under review. I regret that I cannot do more than that.

Sir Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I was sorry to hear what my right hon. Friend has said, not because I underrate the heinousness of this offence but because I believe that some moderate show of clemency in this case would have a good effect on race relationships in this country. The coloured population here is not vindictive—although I cannot speak for all of it—and I think that clemency would have a good effect. The circumstances which quite rightly called forth this devastating sentence have passed by, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will think again.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I would also urge the Joint Under-Secretary to represent to the Home Secretary very strongly the feelings which have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We all feel the importance of the principle that justice should be upheld, but it is strongly felt that there was a considerable element of exemplary punishment in this sentence, no doubt calculated to have a deterrent effect, which we believe has served its purpose.

Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order. My hon. Friend has used words in the sense of speaking on behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that he will make it quite clear that he is not speaking for anybody except himself on this occasion.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order; it is an objection.

Mr. Fletcher

I was saying that opinions have been expressed from both sides of the House which will, no doubt, be conveyed to the Home Secretary. I sincerely hope—I am speaking only for myself—that the Home Secretary will find justification for asking that the Queen's pardon should be extended to these young men, who have already served a very large part of a heavy sentence.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I would not have intervened in the debate had not my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), perhaps unwittingly, given the impression that he was speaking for hon. Members on this side of the House. He was, as he said afterwards, speaking only for himself.

Many of us feel that although we certainly think that justice should be tempered wtih mercy, we are not at all sure that in this case there is more reason for mercy than in other cases where people have had very heavy sentences indeed inflicted on them. I do not think that a case for any remission of the sentences has been proved.

I hope that the Minister will look very carefully at the matter before recommending any alteration in the sentences. If, of course, it is proved that there should be such a remission then certainly that should be given, but in present circumstances I do not think that my hon. Friend has proved his case. I think that the sentences should remain as they are with, of course, the usual remissions for good conduct taking place in the ordinary way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.