HC Deb 17 October 1961 vol 646 cc155-66

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I wish on the Adjournment to draw attention to the events in and around Trafalgar Square on 17th and 18th September on the occasion of the anti-nuclear demonstration by the Committee of 100. In doing so, I want to emphasise that I strongly disapprove of civil disobedience as a method of political expression. I believe equally strongly, however, that every citizen should be protected from any abuse of police powers, and the House may well consider that there were such abuses on the occasion to which I am referring.

In the early part of the day, the conduct of the police—indeed, of the crowd—was, broadly, unexceptionable, but even at 5.15 p.m. there were isolated cases of unnecessarily rough treatment. In common with other observers, I watched the scene from the roof of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. With field glasses, I clearly saw men and women dragged along the ground by one arm and one man dragged along by his legs with his head, scraping the ground.

In view of the tension which was building up, however, and the great mass of people present, I could take little exception to the police conduct in the first three hours, and I was glad to pay tribute to them in a television interview and, later, at a Press conference called by my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway). I have still no reason to doubt that the great majority of the officers on duty lived up to the best traditions of the police service. However, there is certainly a case for an impartial inquiry into the behaviour of the minority.

My criticisms in the early part of the proceedings were concentrated on the action of the Minister of Works in banning a meeting in the Square—the first time since the 1914–18 war—and the Home Secretary's decision to use his powers under both the Public Order Act, 1936, and the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839. I think that I should explain that the latter Act is always in force and is frequently used by the Metropolitan Police. To bring into force the Public Order Act, however, needs an Order by the Commissioner of Police made with the approval of the Home Secretary. Accordingly, on 13th September it was announced that the Home Secretary had approved an Order prohibiting the holding of processions for 24 hours from midnight on Saturday, 16th September.

Late on the 17th, the Sunday night, the police appear to have decided that they would need their exceptional powers for longer than had been anticipated and a police car, with a loudspeaker attachment, announced, according to The Times, that: … the Commissioner of Police has decided to extend the Order banning processions and assemblies until midnight on the 18th. The Guardian quoted words to the same effect, that is to say, that the Commissioner had "extended his Order". The Daily Telegraph, moreover, on the 18th carried a headline: Ban Extended Until Midnight Tonight. The Home Secretary, who very courteously apologised to me for not being present tonight, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) about this point on 21st September, and I hope that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity of following me in this debate. I would only say, therefore, that that letter of the right hon. Gentleman certainly does not clear up why the Commissioner of Police felt it necessary to give the impression that the Public Order Act—I repeat, the Public Order Act—was still in force. After all, the Metropolitan Police Act is always in force and needs no such announcement.

After midnight there was an exodus from the Square, and only about 300 people remained. At this stage the police behaviour seems to have become much tougher, and a Daily Telegraph reporter described how violence developed. He told how a number of demonstrators were making their way quietly out of the Square when they were thrown to the pavement, dragged forcibly to vans and coaches, and manhandled. Mr. David Painting, a Fellow of the University of Wales, described how women and girls were dragged head downwards across the paving stones and slammed down in the gutters.

Lord Kilbracken, in a television programme, told how soon after midnight an organised body of policemen descended on the remaining demonstrators. Lord Kilbracken said: They got hold of them by an arm or a leg, by the scruff of the neck or by the hair and dragged them the full length of the Square in the oposite direction to where the police lorries were now waiting. I saw a woman in her forties being dragged face downwards by one leg through deep puddles of water at the double from one end of the Square to the other and then left lying against a wall … a group of constables carrying three demonstrators, two of them women, and throw them into the deep water surrounding one of the fountains. The following account was formed by Geoffrey Frampton of London, W.C.2, who told the Council for Civil Liberties: After midnight … I saw one policeman approach an inert man and deliver two well-aimed kicks to his ribs … I was next dragged the diagonal of the Square on my back at express speed, carted up the steps and thrown into the gutter below the National Gallery, where almost immediately a young girl landed on top of me. I spoke to him this morning and he said that he had been dragged on his back by the legs.

Subsequently, Mr. E. Megaw of London, N.W.3, and Mr. Robert Mac-Gibbon, also of London, N.W.3, both described how they were picked up by the police and thrown into the fountain, one of them twice. Mr. Marks, of London, E.17, reported in these words: A couple of policemen picked me up, carried me over to the fountain nearby and dropped me in the water. A lady, too, has complained to the National Council for Civil Liberties for being thrown into the fountain. One witness has testified that he saw a policeman at the bottom of Parliament Street punch a Mr. Melvin Bookbinder, from Oldham, twice in the body and once on the head, and Mr. Bookbinder himself has complained of being kicked and punched several times.

In Trafalgar Square, Mr. Hugh Shaw, of London, W.1, alleges: I was punched or kicked in the face with sufficient force to break my nose and cause it to bleed so profusely that the police seemed alarmed I also want to draw attention to the case of Mr. Adam Roberts, described in the New Statesman and Nation on 22nd September. He describes how there was increased violence after midnight, although the police had behaved with restraint up to that time. He describes how a policeman Deliberately raised his foot above me and kicked me in the stomach near the kidneys. … Afterwards, half-conscious, I was carried, dragged, kicked and thrown into the road. Mr. Roberts reports on his arrival at Bow Street Police Station: I was then dragged out of the bus, kicked, told to get up and thrown against the railings … a police sergeant came with a hose and drenched us. He goes on to say that they were carried into the police station in turn by about eight policemen. They deliberately bumped us on the steps and I was actually thrown about six feet on to the floor of the charge room. Mr. Roberts states that he was absolutely non-violent and that a policeman said 'All right; take him where there aren't any witnesses'. He says that two policemen held his arms in "Chinese twists" while the other four kicked, and a well-built policewoman said: 'Kick him harder. Kick him harder'. Mr. Roberts quotes his family doctor as saying that the injuries he had sustained were consistent with his story. It is significant that Mr. Roberts' story is corroborated, in part at least, by four witnesses, including the mayor of a metropolitan borough.

Finally, I must tell the house of the case of a girl of 16 who refused to give her name and address on arrest. At the police station she alleges that she was asked by policewomen whether she was pregnant, whether she had been in a remand home, and whether she had ever slept with men. It was suggested that she had stolen the watch she was wearing. I quote from the girl's own account: A matron came in to search me. There was another policewoman in the cell. She lifted my jumper and brassiere and felt me underneath and round my hips under my skirt. She told me to take off my shoes so that she could look inside them. This was when they began to tell me that I should be sent to a remand home with thieves and prostitutes. Another policewoman came in and because I was frightened and because she was a motherly one I told her my name and address. A policeman then came in and said I did not know what I was talking about and that I ought to have my bottom smacked. The matron came back and was amiable. Then I was told that I would be kept until Wednesday or Thursday and then sent to a remand home. This was the case of a young girl of 16 in a police station late at night. It seems to me, to say the least, improbable that the girl should have made up details of that kind.

I wish to be fair about this, and I have no doubt that the cases that I have quoted are exceptional and that the general behaviour of the police was satisfactory. But cases like these must raise a doubt in the minds of many people and I do not believe that the inquiry announced by the Commissioner of Police himself will allay those doubts. It is the police who are in the dock and they cannot expect to be judge and jury as well.

There is at least a prima facie case of police misconduct and possibly of abuse of power by the Commissioner of Police. I believe, therefore, that the Home Secretary should recommend the setting up of an independent tribunal to bring any who were guilty to book and to clear the names of the vast majority of police who are rightly popular with the public and who did their duty, in spite of all the unnecessary difficulties which the Minister of Works and the Home Secretary had created for them, with moderation and good humour.

10.12 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

In the few minutes remaining, I want to refer particularly to the police ban on processions in the area after midnight on 17th September. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) has quoted the substance of the police announcement made over a loudspeaker at about 10.15 p.m. and repeated subsequently. It was widely quoted in the Press the next day and there were, no doubt, some slight variations in the announcement made on each occasion. However, it was generally understood by those who heard it and passed the message on to mean that the ban under the Public Order Act had been extended, and individual police officers and the Press were evidently under the same impression.

As I had seen no reference to the Home Secretary having approved an extension of the Order, and as I was doubtful if an Order could be extended in this way, I wrote to him on 19th September and he replied as follows: I have your letter of the 19th September about the Order made by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, with my consent, under section 3 (3) of the Public Order Act, 1936, prohibiting processions organised by the Committee of 100 in the Whitehall area on Sunday, 17th September. This Order expired at midnight on that date and it was not extended. In addition to the Order under the Act of 1936 the Commissioner—as the Press and the Committee of 100 were informed on the 13th September—gave directions to constables under the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, designed to prevent obstruction in the White-hall area on the 17th September. These directions did not require my approval. In the light of the situation as it developed, the Commissioner decided to give similar directions in relation to the 18th September. It was this police action to which the loudspeaker announcement in the area affected referred; and I have no reason to doubt its competence. I would point out that the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, does not give the Commissioner of Police power to ban processions. Indeed, it is precisely because it did not do so that the Public Order Act, 1936, was introduced. This was the reason why the Home Secretary approved an Order under the 1936 Act banning public processions in the Trafalgar Square area for 24 hours from midnight on Saturday, 16th September.

If the Metropolitan Police Act was sufficient, why did the Home Secretary approve the original Order? Alternatively, if an approved Order was necessary for the first 24 hours, why was no approved Order considered necessary for the second 24 hours?

This is not a dry legal point but a vital issue of civil liberties. Processions to testify to beliefs or support of organisations are an inherent part of our democracy. Such liberties may be whittled down or lost completely if there is not a clear administration of the law by those in authority on these occasions, or if authority speaks with two voices and seeks to maintain law and order out of the confusion thus created.

I believe that there is a clear case for a full public inquiry into these events and into the procedure which was followed.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I was in Trafalgar Square from 5 o'clock until 8 o'clock. Unlike some hon. Members, who were on top of the church looking down, with a bird's eye view, I wandered about the Square talking to people. I went back again at about midnight and, as I could not gain access to the Square itself, I drove round it several times and could see quite well from my car what was going on. During the whole period, the policemen whom I saw were using the very minimum of force and doing their duty with very good temper. I would add that the leaders of the demonstrators also were doing their best to see that the demonstration was kept orderly and to prevent hooliganism.

I was most impressed by the organisation, discipline and good temper of the police and, may I add, I do not think that a demonstration similar to the one which took place in Trafalgar Square that Sunday could have taken place anywhere else in the world. In my view, it is a great credit to the Metropolitan Police Force that the whole incident passed off so well.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I was not present on this occasion. I do not know anything at all about what occurred then and I offer no comment. I am waiting with interest to hear what the Minister of State has to say. I rise only to offer the hon. and learned Gentleman one warning, which I hope I may do respectfully.

Policemen are human and, when complaints are made against them, they are not less likely than other people to defend themselves as best they can, and they do not always tell the exact truth. I say that now to the hon. and learned Gentleman for this reason. There was an occasion recently when prosecutions were brought in London after a number of people had desired to present letters of protest to the South African High Commissioner. I say nothing about the case—I was professionally concerned in it—except this. Subsequently, complaints were made by one of my hon. Friends and others to the Home Secretary about police action on that occasion. The Home Secretary sent a reply which was, no doubt, based on information furnished to him by the police. In the course of that reply, he made statements, on the authority of the police concerned, no doubt, as to some of the happenings. Those statements were in diametric opposition to what the magistrate found. They accorded with some of the evidence given by police witnesses. They were in opposition to what was said by the defendants.

The magistrate expressly accepted the evidence of the defendants and rejected the evidence of the police on those points, yet those were the points on which the Home Secretary relied in his answer to the complaints made to him. I am not blaming the Home Secretary for that. I only ask the Minister of State tonight not to assume that a policeman who tells him something is more entitled to be believed than anybody else.

10.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Renton)

That rather interesting intervention by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) underlines the difficulty that the House is in in matters of this kind. We are not really in the position of a magistrate or a judge and jury able to see witnesses and hear both sides of the case, taking evidence. We are in the somewhat unusual position of being limited to considering the Minister's responsibility, and in this case, of course, one has to bear in mind that the Home Secretary, being the police authority for the Metropolitan District, is responsible to the House for answering for what the Commissioner does even though under Statute it is the Commissioner who has to decide how to do it.

There are a very few limitations on the Commissioner's free exercise of his discretion. One example has been mentioned tonight, and that is under the Metropolitan Police Act. Under Section 52 of that Act, the Commissioner, if he wishes to give directions under the Act, as he did in this case, has to obtain the consent of the Home Secretary. I shall deal with that later.

Before I discuss the detailed points made in the debate, it is right that I should remind hon. Members of the background to the matters that we are discussing. This was a question of dealing, not with a law-abiding demonstration, but with a large-scale attempt to break the law in order to draw attention to a particular point of view. The primary object of the demonstrators on this occasion was to commit breaches of the law. That was the position with which the Commissioner was faced. The demonstrators who went to Trafalgar Square on 17th September did so knowing that the holding of the meeting arranged by the Committee of 100 in the Square and any interference with the freedom of passage in the area had already been forbidden.

In view of the publicity given to the occasion, it was not unnatural that there were many sightseers. There were also a number of hooligans who exploited the situation and whose object simply was to make things more difficult for the police. In this situation the Commissioner of Police decided that the best thing to do was to confine the demonstrators to the Square, as the best way of preventing them from carrying out their announced intention of marching down Whitehall to Parliament Square and obstructing the traffic in Parliament Square by sitting down there.

As has been said quite accurately, the Square began to fill up well before 5 o'clock, the advertised time for the meeting, and it was not finally clear until about 2 a.m. the following morning. The operations, therefore, lasted for nine or ten hours. As I understand the position, the complaints which have been made by the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) and others, both inside and outside the House, relate to the action of the police during the short period after midnight. My hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) was there for the first three hours, and in the Square itself he did not notice anything untoward.

The police estimate that at midnight or soon after there were over 1,000 people still in the Square. They were addressed by the Mayor of Woolwich and advised to disperse in an orderly and dignified manner and to go home. About half of those present then left, but the remainder ignored the advice, and at this point the Commissioner of Police thought it right to take the opportunity of trying to bring the proceedings to a close, and he decided that the Square should be cleared, after a reasonable interval to allow those who wished to go to do so.

The police on duty in and around Trafalgar Square shortly after midnight numbered about 300. They moved in to the well of the Square among those demonstrators who insisted on remaining They arrested those not willing to leave and took them to the south and east sides of the Square to await removal to places where they could be charged. The clearance of the Square was completed by about 12.45 a.m., but many of those who had been arrested had to stay on the pavement for a short while awaiting transport. However, demonstrators started coming back into the Square, and by about 1.25 a.m. on the Monday about 200 people were again sitting in the Square. Police cleared the Square again.

Those are the essential background facts. It must be remembered that not all the demonstrators were passive or co-operative. A few resisted strenuously and others stiffened themselves, making their removal difficult. Senior officers were on duty throughout and had a close control over the whole operation. They have reported to the Commissioner that they did not see any improper handling of those arrested. No complaints were made to senior officers at the time of arrest about the actions of those police officers who carried out the arrests.

There are no grounds for any suggestion—although no suggestion has been made by the hon. Member tonight, I should rebut it now, because it has been made elsewhere—that Press or television observers were deliberately cleared from the Square to enable the operation to take place without being observed.

Mr. Greenwood

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether any television operators or Pressmen were arrested?

Mr. Renton

Not without notice. I must confess, however, that although I have been through a great many reports on this matter, I do not recall a report of that happening. [An HON. MEMBER: "They were.") As the Commissioner has said in a Press statement, full inquiries have been and are being made into the complaints, which began to come in mostly about a week afterwards, about the action of the police.

I should now say something about the procedure which has to be observed in dealing with complaints against Metropolitan Police officers. Those complaints are dealt with under the Police Discipline Code. Each complaint is thoroughly investigated by an officer who was not concerned with the incident in question. This may take time, especially when the information given is vague and contains little or no identifiable detail. If the report made by the investigating officer indicates that there is a prima facie case for thinking that the disciplinary code may have been infringed, a charge is formulated and is heard under the disciplinary procedure which is laid down. The Commissioner, and not the Home Secretary, is the disciplinary authority, but there is, of course, a right of appeal to the Home Secretary in more serious cases. On this occasion, action has been taken, or is being taken, under the established procedure.

My right hon. Friend is informed by the Commissioner that so far at least thirty specific complaints have been or are being investigated. For the most part, they are concerned with alleged unnecessary violence, sometimes of the kind mentioned by the hon. Member for Rossendale. Also, there are allegations of unfairness to members of the public. In those cases where inquiries have so far been completed, insufficient evidence has been forthcoming to substantiate the allegations, but inquiries in at least half the cases are still going on. Since inquiries are still proceeding, the House will not expect me to comment on individual allegations.

Quite apart from this investigation under the disciplinary code, which is a statutory machinery for investigating complaints, it is open to anyone who considers that undue force was used in the course of arrest or otherwise to take action in the courts against the police officer in question. It may seem that it is rather long after the event for inquiries to be still incomplete. The trouble is that many of the complaints were not made for some time and the facts, as I have already mentioned, have made it difficult to carry out the investigations expeditiously.

I can say with confidence that the police as a whole, operating for nine or ten hours under conditions of great strain, were worthy of commendation and I greatly appreciate the tribute which the hon. Member for Rossendale paid on this occasion. If evidence is available that any individual officer handled demonstrators more roughly than the occasion demanded, the Commissioner will make the most thorough and detailed inquiries to ascertain the facts, and disciplinary action will be taken if appropriate. It is suggested that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should hold a formal inquiry, but he feels that it would certainly be wrong to take a decision about that until the statutory machinery has been fully used.

In the last minute which remains, I must deal with the somewhat technical point about why the Commissioner extended for another twenty-four hours his directions under the 1839 Act. The hon. Member for Rossendale said that that Act is always in force, but that is not quite the point, because directions under the Metropolitan Police Act attract a penalty only if they are communicated to those concerned and the announcement of their extension is thus—

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

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.