HC Deb 03 August 1962 vol 664 cc1029-52

3.24 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for some time I have been trying to raise on the Adjournment the subject of free speech and disturbances at meetings, as it deeply affects many of my constituents. Unfortunately, because of the luck of the Ballot, I have not succeeded. I am all the more grateful to Mr. Speaker for permitting me to do so in this, the last, hour before the House departs for the Summer Recess.

A great deal of public attention has been given to this subject in the last few days. Obviously, it involves very serious issues, and has certainly aroused great concern. It is all the more serious because the House will have in mind the racial trouble that has arisen in the last few days in the Midlands, which was described by a police superintendent as A pack of ravening wolves after the prey, shouting, and brandishing weapons. It may be surmised that young people at an impressionable age may be influenced by this vicious propaganda, and there is, therefore, no need to apologise for pressing this matter on the attention of the House.

A Motion appeared on the Order Paper yesterday, signed by many hon. Members which, inter alia, declared its belief that freedom of speech within the law is the foundation of parliamentary democracy. Variations of that theme have appeared on the Order Paper today.

I would be the last person to seek to make any general attack on the right of free speech; at the same time, the doctrine of free speech must be distinguished from abuse of free speech. It never has been the law of the land that free speech is absolute. For instance, it is not so unlimited as to permit people to libel others, or to give voice to views or utterances likely to result in immediate public danger.

Professor Goodhart, in a recent letter, drew attention to some words spoken by Mr. Justice Holmes in the American case of Schenck v. United States, which can be quoted as being applicable here: The character of every act depends on the circumstances in which it is done. … The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting 'fire' in a theatre and causing panic. … It is a question of proximity and degree. One can take a glaring example from language used in literature put forward by what is called the National Socialist Movement. The expression, "Hitler was right" really means, does it not, that the spokesmen of that party are saying that a campaign of wholesale murder, not only of men but of women and small children, waged over years, was fully justified and praiseworthy? The House may remember that one of the most moving pieces of evidence in the Eichmann case was how Allied troops found thousands of pairs of children's shoes belonging to the innocent victims of Hitler's administration, and the House may think it hard to find any more dreadful doctrine than one that condones and praises that sort of thing.

I appreciate that the last thing one wants to do is to inflate the importance of the rather pitiful group of political crackpots who disseminate this sort of stuff. At the same time, as I have said, one must bear in mind that there are many young people who may be influenced by what these people say. It is, perhaps, not surprising, when one remembers that in this country we suffered from grievous losses in a long war against National Socialism, that dissemination of these views should have led many people to take the law into their own hands. Is it not too much to expect that people whose kith and kin suffered in concentration camps— who were tortured and killed—should exercise a due restraint in the face of what has been said? No doubt, of course, the ideal way of dealing with meetings at which these views are disseminated would be for people to ignore them, but this, a counsel of perfection, is, quite clearly, impossible.

There is this further consideration. In other countries, where the rights of free speech and political tolerance are not so well established, the holding of these meetings under police protection may not only be misinterpreted but may encourage the growth of the neo-Nazi movement—which the constitutions of those countries are less well equipped to resist. In this connection, I am glad to know that the Home Secretary has refused permission to persons who were to attend a conference of the movement in Britain. It would, indeed, be an unhappy day if this country were to achieve the reputation of being a meeting place for international Nazis.

Last Wednesday leave was given to bring in a Bill to amend the Public Order Act. I am not permitted, by the rules of order, to discuss legislation, but my object today is to ask the Home Secretary to consider what can be done to deal with the problem within the existing law. I wish, first, to consider which laws might be applied to the holding of public meetings at which Nazi or racial views are likely to be promulgated, and, secondly, to consider, as a matter of policy, in what circumstances and to what extent it is desirable, in the public interest, that action should be taken.

The Home Secretary, in his statement yesterday, said time and again that there was no power to ban a public meeting. He said that there was a difference concerning meetings in Trafalgar Square, where, apparently, the custom appears to be that permission must be obtained from the Minister of Works. If this is so—at any rate, for meetings in Trafalgar Square—there seems no reason why such permission could not be refused when it is obviously right to do so. In fact, there have been refusals in a number of cases.

It was for that reason that a considerable time before the Jordan meeting took place I pointed out the obvious results which would follow if that meeting were allowed to be held. I sought, by Question, letter and personal interview, in the company of the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Skeet)—unsuccessfully—to have that meeting stopped. I am tempted to say that had it been stopped in response to our representations a good deal of the later trouble could have been avoided.

I respectfully draw the attention of the Minister to two cases; the Queen v. Cunninghame, Graham and Burns, in 1888, which, as far as I know, is still good law and the case of Duncan v. Jones, in 1936. The decision in Cun-ninghame's case showed that the law recognised no right of public meeting in any public thoroughfare. The use of the thoroughfare is for people to pass and repass along it. In that case it was stated that the Commissioner of Police, being the officer responsible for the preservation of peace and order in the Metropolis, was in duty bound to take all necessary precautions to preserve order.

The Commissioner was fully justified, in accordance with his duty, in issuing a public notice that public meetings would not be permitted to take place in any place of public resort under his control where he had reasonable grounds for believing that a breach of the peace was likely to result. Indeed, in that case, with regard to Trafalgar Square, it was on that ground that the Commissioner did issue such a notice.

The learned judge in that case stated that Trafalgar Square was under the control and supervision of the police in the same way as any other street, public place or thoroughfare in the Metropolis. The case of Duncan v. Jones showed clearly that if a breach of the peace is apprehended as a result of a meeting being held, and if the promoters are warned of this, if they endeavour to hold the meeting they can be dealt with under our criminal law for the offence of obstructing the police in the discharge of their duty.

I suggest that these decisions show that the Commissioner has power to deal with this matter effectively and can prevent a meeting from being held if a breach of the peace is apprehended. Such circumstances, for example, as attempting to hold a meeting in a place like Ridley Road, which adjoins my constituency, a neighbourhood where hitherto the very people attacked have lived peaceably and happily, speak for themselves.

There is, next, the power under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which makes it an offence for any person at a public meeting to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned. There is further what is a misdemeanour at common law, the speaking of seditious words. Words spoken and published with the intention of promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of Her Majesty's subjects may constitute the offence of speaking seditious words.

There is, finally, the misdemeanour of taking part in an unlawful assembly—an assembly of three or more persons with intent to carry out any common purpose, lawful or unlawful, in such a manner as to give firm and courageous persons in the neighbourhood of the assembly reasonable grounds to apprehend a breach of the peace in consequence of it. I hope that it will not be thought presumptuous on my part to have reminded the House of these powers in some detail. I respectfully submit that within the existing law there is ample power to deal with the holding of such public meetings.

I turn now to consider the second point. As a matter of policy, in what circumstances and to what extent in the public interest should action be taken? I appreciate what is really over-anxiety to preserve the doctrine of free speech. I have dealt with that. I appreciate, also, the danger that prosecutions for some of these offences might in certain circumstances defeat their object, by giving unnecessary publicity to the activities of a lunatic fringe and possibly bestow the crown of martydom on some of them.

I recognise that it is not an easy problem. But against these considerations I pose these questions; are we to allow this growing menace to continue with all its perils? Are these people to be allowed to meet, as they are doing, under the protection of a considerable police force, which could be far more usefullly employed elsewhere, or have we not the right to demand, and is it not wiser in the circumstances that have arisen, that the law as it exists today Should be enforced so as to control, if not entirely to prevent, this ugly movement in British life?

The Home Secretary said yesterday that he deplored what had happened and he promised to give the problem careful consideration and examination during the next three months. There are already announcements of further meetings of this kind to be held during that period. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler) pointed out yesterday, the Recess is just the time when open-air demonstrations take place. The House will not be sitting, so that any difficulties which arise cannot be brought to the attention of the House I would, therefore, beg the Home Secretary not to delay in this matter. I suggest that the existing law provides sufficient safeguards to enable the situation to be dealt with immediately and effectively.

3.39 p.m.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Willesden East)

I think that we are all grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Stoke New-ington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitz-man) for having raised this most import-ant topic. Apart from being one of the sponsors of the Bill designed to amend the Public Order Act, 1936, which was introduced on Wednesday, I have had considerable experience of these Ridley Road meetings as a prospective candidate for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North some years ago, and I could see at that stage how dangerous these things can become.

I emphasise and underline what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. He is perfectly right to say that, although we all support freedom of speech, this freedom is not absolute. In a letter to the Observer of 15th July, Professor A. L. Goodhart, of Oxford, said: The common law has always recognised that there is no such absolute doctrine, for there must be limitations on this freedom, just as there are in regard to all other freedoms. Professor Goodhart goes on to say that it would not be right to go into a theatre and falsely cry out "Fire" and thereby create panic. It would not be right to form a meeting outside a person's house and try to intimidate him in some way. Carrying the matter further, we find in the law today provision against obscenity and against profanity.

I approach this matter from the standpoint that, while in this home of democracy we all wish to ensure that we have the maximum freedom of speech, we must be absolutely certain that the minorities in our midst are amply safeguarded. To quote again from Professor Goodhart's interesting letter: It may be suggested that a statement that Hitler was right, thus implying that the murder of five million Jews was justified, can hardly fall within any reasonable doctrine of freedom of speech. We live in an age when we are subjected to propaganda from all manner of sources, an age, also, when some of the experiences we have now, after the war, are not quite the same as experiences before the war. Anyone who has had the opportunity of reading Mein Kampf by that unscrupulous leader of Germany will recall the suggestion about the theme "ten-times repeated and it pleases". If these falsehoods are allowed to pass into the pubic mind, they can, in the course of years, do incalculable damage.

I emphasise also—this is borne out by the statement of Professor Goodhart —that it is not open to hold a meeting in any public place, not merely by virtue of the case to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred but for other reasons at common law. I very strongly hold the opinion that the meeting which recently took place should never have been allowed in Trafalgar Square, which is the centre of London. Meetings of this kind should be moved, if possible, to Marble Arch, where there are already a number of speakers to be heard, and some guidance for the conduct of them should be laid down by law.

Approaching the matter from another angle, the right to freedom of speech carries with it the concomitant right on the part of the listening public to attend. It is quite unreasonable to suppose that, if inflammatory statements are made, those who listen will not retaliate or react. When certain things are said, they have a right of self-defence. They have a right to indicate their views. Although I have read with interest what was said in The Times this morning, suggesting that it might be thuggery which is producing difficulties in other parts of the country, I suggest that that is something of an over-simplification. Many genuine people are concerned about the future of their own community, and they are perfectly right to come forward in their own defence.

It is open to the Home Secretary to consider what the law is today and properly interpret it, but I tell the House that I do not know precisely what the law is and I suggest that it is very difficult to interpret it. The Home Secretary has an opportunity to deal with the matter now, but I am rather alarmed at the prospect of three months elapsing during which time meetings may be arranged and action may follow. This is a very serious possibility, and I hope that my right hon. Friend has in mind an immediate way of dealing with these matters should they arise.

I turn now to another aspect of the matter. The public generally can adopt what is, perhaps, the wise policy of remaining away from these meetings. The Press, for their part, can play a very important rô1e. The newspapers have been saying, "Why not boycott these meetings?" But they have been giving them the maximum publicity. If this sort of thing goes on, more people will attend and these meetings will spread throughout the country.

Therefore, a special plea goes out from this House today—I am sure it has the support of all Members in the Chamber —to encourage the Press to adopt the attitude which it adopted some years ago in Dalston, namely, not to give any publicity to the people who are causing such difficulties in the country. I hope that through being deprived of publicity they will gradually fade out. Let us make no mistake about this. We paid very expensively for the atrocities perpetrated not only during but prior to the last war, and we should take early steps to ensure that they are not repeated.

We should consider several matters apart from the one to which the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newing-ton and Hackney, North referred. We should not provide any dangerous example which will be followed in European countries, such as West Germany and Italy, where people have a different approach to these matters. If we encourage these people to adopt our form of freedom of speech we should be careful that they do not reconstitute Fascism, which would be a great shame on all civilisation. We do not want the perpetration of crimes such as those which were experienced prior to the war.

The United Nations has had an opportunity of considering this matter, and I should like to refer to the resolution adopted by the Economic and Social Council on 27th July, 1961. After saying that it was deeply disturbed by the continued existence and manifestations of racial prejudice and national and religious intolerance in different parts of the world ", the Council makes recommendations calling upon the Governments of all States to take all necessary steps to rescind discriminatory laws which have the effect of creating and perpetuating racial prejudice and national and religious intolerance wherever they still exist, to adopt legislation, if necessary, for prohibiting such discrimination, and to take such legislative or other appropriate measures to combat such prejudice and intolerance. Recommends to the Governments of all States to discourage in every possible way the creation, propagation and dissemination, in whatever form, of such prejudice and intolerance". I should have thought that that made it perfectly clear to this House that we are being enjoined by the United Nations to ensure that our law is consonant with these recommendations. It is most important not only that we should make a (thorough analysis of it but also, by observing the precepts laid down here, we safeguard this country against the sort of things which happened years ago.

3.48 p.m.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I realise that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, particularly one who has a right and duty to speak on this occasion if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. Therefore, I shall try to make what I have to say as short as possible.

I have raised this matter on many occasions and have seen the Ministers about it. I speak on behalf of a vast number of people, including some 500,000 who happen to be of the Jewish faith. Sixty thousand of these are represented by an ex-Service men's organisation of which I am a vice-president, A.J.E.X. A number of them are members of another organisation which is part of the British Legion and bears the very distinguished Jewish name of a general, General Monash, who gallantly did his duty in the First World War.

Unhappily, I saw the beginning of these things in Whitechapel. While the atrocities were taking place in Germany, a large number of Germans were begging for something to be done to prevent the spread of the Nazi doctrine and Nazi methods of torture and cruelty. When some of us raised this matter in the House, we were not believed. Even those who have been to the trials at which evidence of definite proof of the tortures has been given, such as the dashing of children's brains out on the pavement, and all the rest of the horrific crimes, found it almost incredible. That movement in Germany began in circumstances similar to the circumstances in which it is being "tried on" in this country.

Let us not misunderstand the position. The Nazis lied. I remember seeing in the House books which were distributed by them which contained statements purporting to come from Jewish leaders— trade union leaders, and others—that the hair of nobody's head was being, or would be, harmed. It was the preliminary to one of the most ghastly outrages on humanity that has ever taken place. That is why I make no apology for endeavouring once again to impress upon the Minister that he must mot imagine that the kind of meeting that is beting held at the present time can be easily overlooked, or should be easily overlooked.

As the law stands, a police officer is enjoined not to allow a meeting to be held if there is apprehension of a breach of the peace. Certainly, we should not lean backwards to give opportunities for spreading their hateful propaganda, particularly to those who acclaim Hitler and all that he did, with all its vicious-ness and terrifying results. These are matters which we cannot take Lightly. I beg the Minister to reconsider the cases on the subject that I have already put before him. My introduction should at least cause the Minister to realise that if the law permits him to prevent these meetings, he should do so.

Now, a word about Trafalgar Square. Of all places in the world, meetings of this kind should not be allowed in Trafalgar Square. People come there for innocent enjoyment—feeding pigeons, for example. Take as an example those interested in the Common Market. If they come to Trafalgar Square and hear the kind of thing that is being said there —many of them, possibly, have been incarcerated in concentration camps— what are they to think of us and the methods that we allow to be used to besmirch the good name of civilisation?

Arguments have been very well put concerning the position in law. I believe that there is no question about there being no absolute right to hold these meetings. Those who hold the meetings let it be known beforehand by their behaviour that they are purporting to incite. That is the kind of language they use. I have documents which were sent out when Mosley was inarching through the streets of London before. Has he yet stated that he is no longer prepared to advocate Hitler's views? Has he told his henchmen that they should not do so? Are not his henchmen doing it continuously?

What right have we to allow a meeting to be held—the next one is on 2nd September—by a body from which a publication is issued which is full of anti-semitism and full of the most terrible abuse? These actions are obviously an incitement to a breach of the peace.

It is no good leaders of the Jewish community or others telling their people not to go to the meetings. They will not listen to us, and we can hardly blame them. Why should a man who has fought gallantly, or otherwise helped his country, be prepared to allow dirt to be brought from under the carpet by these people and used to besmirch his name?

I appeal to the Minister to see to it that meetings by the advocates of Hitlerism are not held and that, pending the return of the House, he will tell those who have already been informed that there is a possibility that they can hold such meetings that approval is being withdrawn, and that he wild ensure that real freedom —freedom of wholsome speech and the peace of mind and of thought of civilised human beings—is preserved.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)

I am very anxious to hear what the Under-Secretary will have to say on the points that are submitted to him and, therefore, I do not propose to speak for very long. I must take the House and those who read our proceedings back to what happened before.

In the area which is part of my constituency I saw this whole business develop and its effects upon the police and the citizens. I can see the same thing happening again. If this place is to be allowed as a venue for the dissemination of this violent, malicious propaganda, it will virtually mean that we shall get back to the situation in which the platform of one political side was put up in the morning and the platform of the other side at a later time. When the shops were closed there was a clash between the contestants as to who had the right to speak in the area. As a consequence, traders and residents there were living in fear of their lives. Their trade fell away because people would not go near and we reached a situation where action had to be taken.

I am one of those who believe in the night of free speech as something which it is vitally necessary for us to defend. I cannot indulge in the legal arguments of my hon. Friend, but I would say that we had to do something about it. We had to go to the then Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, with regard to the march in the East End, and eventually the uniforms of this particular group were banned, the marches were banned and by agreement of all the political panties meetings in this area were banned.

What do we see now? There is a return already to the wearing of uniforms. It is true that they are probably not the same uniforms as worn in those days, but, according to the Press today, there is to be a camp where people will be present in uniform and jackboots. We find now that apart from meetings the provocation exists merely in the presence of the individual. We are getting provocation by the marches of people who go to those meetings.

I put this simple point to the Undersecretary. As I argued the other day, the residents and business people of this area are not really concerned in the main with the rival views of the gangs who attend the meetings. They say, "A plague on both your houses. Get out of our way". I know that that does not solve the problem. If the two factions want to meet in Victoria Park or Hyde Park, let them go there.

Let them get on with the dissemination of their ideas and let them argue them, but I would ask the Minister not to allow these gatherings to take place, because I am convinced that we should not allow them, just as we would not allow, for example, children to have a cricket match in a place where there are cucumber or tomato frames; we would not allow children to play with hard balls there and break everything up. What all this means is that we are allowing in this area, and this type of area, the creating of a bonfire, which is causing fear and detestation of free speech.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do not adjourn.—[Mr. Peel.]

Mr. Butler

I hope that the Undersecretary will look at it from this point of view and will say that the powers given to protect citizens in particular areas will again be exercised during the Recess, so that when we come back we can look at any possible amendment of the law. This is what I am asking the Home Office to do, and I hope that we shall be successful after our submission today.

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The House is discussing a matter which is obviously attracting great public attention and causing very acute concern. The short exchange by Question and Answer yesterday, in my opinion, left the position even more obscure than I thought it was before, and I hope that something the Minister will say this afternoon will clear up the anxiety felt by my hon. Friends and myself and hon. Members on the other side of the House. There is no need for me to reiterate what my hon. Friends have said, with what anxiety and alarm we fear the re-recrudescence of any Fascism or Nazism or any movement in this country calculated to stir up racial hatred. We have all gone through experiences which show the abuses and evils which that can lead to.

As I understood what the Home Secretary was saying yesterday, he was trying to hold the balance between stopping this from occurring in our midst and trying to protect freedom of speech, which we all cherish as one of national traditions, but I would urge that there is no conflict whatever between freedom of speech, on the one hand, and, on the other, the duty of the Home Office and the police to preserve public order.

Parenthetically I pay my tribute to the patience, the tact, the restraint, the tolerance with which the police have handled some difficult situations, but I do not regard it as fair to ask the police over and over again to attend in their hundreds to protect Sir Oswald Mosley or somebody else, and to give him police protection for a meeting or a demonstration which is deliberately held in a particular place at a particular time, calculated to be provocative, in order to incite racial hatred and prejudice. The police ought not to be put in that position.

What is this argument about freedom of speech? Freedom of speech, in my opinion, is not violated because we stop a Nazi organisation from having either a procession or a demonstration at a particular place or a particular time. I cannot think that it has anything to do with freedom of speech if we try to prevent a gang of people deliberately going to Ridley Road, a Jewish area, and there intimidating and provoking, and propagating anti-semitism.

Take a parallel case. One is entitled, if one wants to, in Hyde Park or Victoria Park or anywhere else, to preach anti-papalism, to speak against the Church of Rome. That is one of the legitimate freedoms of speech, religious freedom. But can it be said that a party of Protestants or anti-papists would be entitled to organise a meeting of their most violent supporters in the precincts of say, Brompton Oratory or Westminster Cathedral on a Sunday, or other religious festival, at a particular place and at a particular time, to do something calculated to provoke and to lead to a breach of the peace?

That is not freedom of speech. No one has that kind of freedom. We must not confuse freedom of speech with freedom of assembly. In fact, there is no right of public assembly. There is a right for an individual to go to a certain place if he wants to, and for others to go with him, but there is no right in our constitution for a person who wants to pronounce violent opinions, calculated to inflame, to gather with him a mob and go to a certain place in order to propagate his vicious doctrine, and to have police protection while he is doing so.

I agree with my hon. Friends that the case of Duncan and Jones, decided by the Court of Appeal, consisting, among others, of Lord Hawart and Mr. Justice Humphreys, is very informative on this subject. If the law is as has been kid down, and if the practice is—as one might gather from two or three recent examples—that the police can stop a meeting after it has been in progress for three or four minutes because they apprehend that a breach of peace is likely to result, I cannot see how it serves either the interest of the freedom of speech or any alleged freedom of lawful assembly to stop it then any more than would be the case if it were not allowed to start.

If it is done merely because of some traditional respect for allowing a person to speak until he uses inflammatory language, we have got into a ridiculous situation. That kind of practice leads to riotous assemblies, and produces the kind of trouble that we have had recently in Dudley, Trafalgar Square and Ridley Road. If the police have that power and exercise it, it seems to me to be rational and logical that they should also have the right to intervene before that degree of violence and uproar result.

Therefore, I add my voice to those of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member opposite, that the Home Secretary should not only consider what amendments are required to the Public Order Act—I think that it should be strengthened, but it would be out of order to go into that question now—but should also, together with the Minister of Public Building and Works, where he is involved, use the powers that now exist to take steps in advance to prevent meetings being held which are known to be bound to lead to breaches of the peace and public unrest. I am very concerned about this matter, at this time when we are breaking up for the Summer Recess.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary seemed to say that if we did as has been suggested we should be creating a situation where meetings planned by anybody could be frustrated by newspaper or periodical announcements. That is not the case. Let us all hope that the Press will not advertise these meetings, but whether or not it does, the proposal put forward by my hon. Friends and myself does not amount to saying that anybody, by announcing his intention to do something in advance, can prevent what would otherwise be a lawful meeting. We are saying that where it is known that Sir Oswald Mosley is going to a place like Ridley Road, in circumstances where he is doing something deliberately calculated to produce a breach of the peace and to cause racial hatred, steps should be taken to prevent him before he holds his meeting, in the interests both of the public and of the police.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that during the Recess the Home Office will be prepared to take the action which hon. Members on both sides of the House have advocated today.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

There are two distinguishing features which we should keep separate in our minds when considering this subject. They are the question of the freedom of speech and the question of public order. It seems to me that the aspect which should concern us is that of the freedom of speech. It is that with which we should be concerned today. I agree with hon. Members who have drawn the distinction between freedom of speech and what is, in fact, licence to express these obnoxious opinions. One could draw many parallels. People are not permitted to stand on platforms and say things which are obscene. There is a law against that. I say that the opinions promulgated by these people are morally obscene. If I may use an analogy which is a little more far-fetched, the sale of poisons without proper safeguards is proscribed and the opinions which are being expressed by these people are poisonous and could damage the minds of those who hear them.

Even in this House one cannot express any opinion one pleases. One cannot insult another hon. Member. There are restrictions on what we can say, and they are perfectly legitimate. We do not object to them. I consider this the crux of the whole matter. It has nothing to do with the disorders which have taken place, and we should not allow that to influence our thinking. After all, there have been disorders at perfectly legitimate meetings, such as the one held by the right hon. Member who is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. We do not for that reason say that meetings held by the Labour Party should be proscribed.

To me it is a dangerous line of reasoning that, because disorders have taken place at meetings, they should be proscribed. Otherwise we should get gangs of thugs breaking up meetings in order that the Home Secretary might be persuaded to say that he would not allow meetings organised by certain bodies to be held in future because they were bound to lead to public disorder. It is the doctrines expressed at the meetings which I think might lead us to the conclusion that the dregs of humanity who are conducting these meetings should not be allowed to hold them.

We have already heard that we fought a war which lasted six years in order to defeat Nazism and that during that war millions of people were killed defending true democracy. It is also the fact that six million Jews were sent to die in gas chambers, by people who held the same opinions as Sir Oswald Mosley and others of his kind. I am not the Home Secretary and it is not my job to tell the right hon. Gentlueman how, within the framework of existing legislation, he could do what I think hon. Members on both sides of the House would like him to do. I should like him to give some assurance that, within the framework of existing legislation, he will take steps to prevent these meetings from being held now. We should like some assurance now. We do not want to wait for three months, during which time disorder may occur on which this House would not have an opportunity to comment.

I do not understand why the Government have not found time to debate the Bill which the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) seeks to introduce. That Measure appears to me to go to the root of the problem. I had not realised that there was in existence a resolution passed by the United Nations enjoining us to do just what the hon. Member for Eton and Slough would like us to do. However, it is too late for that now. The Home Secretary will have to work within the framework of the existing legislation. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can give us an assurance that we can do something within the next few weeks before more meetings are held similar to those at which disorder has occurred. If the right hon. Gentleman fails to give us this assurance today, I think that he has a grave responsibility for what may well happen.

4.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

I begin by congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) on his good fortune in drawing this occasion for the debate and congratulate him on the use he has made of it. This is the last debate of the Session and perhaps one of the most important topics which has come up during the Session. Although I have been in my present office only sixteen days, this subject has been in my mind day and night ever since I came to the Home Office. I can assure the House that neither my right hon. Friend nor myself have any inclination to under-estimate the gravity of the incidents which have happened, or to treat them lightly.

It was by treating this kind of thing lightly that the Nazis were enabled to come into power in Germany and other detestable tyrannies arose in other countries. It may seem to this House unlikely that the seeds of tyranny should be sown among the pigeons and tourists in Trafalgar Square or in the peaceful neighbourhoods of Hackney or of Dudley, but that view may not be shared by some of those who witnessed these incidents. I spent the whole afternoon of 22nd July in Trafalgar Square, apart from twenty minutes which I took off to look at the Leonardo Cartoon. A very large number of people did the same. They were, I think, more interested in looking at the Leonardo than looking at Mosley.

These incidents which I wish to recapitulate briefly were unfortunately of very great gravity, which is all the more remarkable for the fact that the same people have been holding similar meetings for a number of years in public places without the same thing having happened. The first occasion was on 1st July, and I think that was probably the worst. This was organised by the Nationalist Socialist movement, a breakaway from another breakaway from the British Union. I suppose one can only say that one or other of these organisa-sations is more vicious that the other, but if I were asked to say which was the more vicious I could only take refuge in the remark of Dr. Johnson that there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.

On this occasion twenty people were arrested and dealt with by the courts under the Public Order Act. As the House knows, the principal speaker is to appear before the court on 20th August to answer a summons. His case is sub judice and we have to suspend decision on some of the points raised by hon. Members today because interpretation placed by the courts on the Act in his case on 20th August may give us useful guidance for dealing with the problem in future. I should say in parenthesis that when my right hon. Friend referred to thinking over the matter in the next three months he did not in the least mean that nothing would be done in those months, but was referring to the fact that it is impossible to legislate until the House reassembles in three months' time.

The second case was on 22nd July when the Mosley organisation, the British Union, held its meeting. I can say as a witness on that occasion that in my judgment—and the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who was also present, has authorised me to say that he confirms this—the police behaved in the highest traditions of their service. In the square on that day I saw very few people whom I could identify as Jews and practically no coloured people. I think that we owe them both a debt of gratitude for keeping away from that disgraceful occasion. I think it an important point that on that occasion it was impossible to bring any charge against the promoters of the meeting because violence broke out the instant they opened their mouths. Under existing law they could not have been charged with any offence. There was also a meeting in Manchester and a meeting in the East End of London, both of which have been referred to. In both cases there were violence, arrests, and convictions. In both cases, again, the meetings were virtually prevented from beginning.

Finally, there was a disturbance of a rather different kind earlier this week in Dudley where there were arrests and convictions, but I propose to leave that on one side because it differs from the other cases in that no organised meeting took place and also because no one has suggested that any new powers are needed to deal with the kind of hooliganism which broke out in Dudley.

What are the points which arise from these experiences? The first point is that everyone agrees that this type of disorder cannot be tolerated. The police have taken vigorous action under their existing powers, and the Home Secretary has assured the House that he will continue to act with a firmness in any future situations of the same kind. All that has been done within the existing powers.

The question has been asked whether the law as it stands is adequate. It must be remembered that the law does not give anyone power to prevent any such meeting from assembling. I know that this question has been raised today by hon. Members who are much better qualified in the law than I am. They have quoted two cases of which they were kind enough to give me notice in advance so that, although not legally qualified myself, I am able to inform the House of the excellent advice which I have received upon these cases.

The view that the police have a power in appropriate circumstances to prohibit a meeting in advance on the ground that it will certainly result in breaches of the peace rested on the observations of the judges in the case of Regina v. Cunningham, Grahame and Burns in 1888 and Duncan v. Jones in 1936. It is clear from the case of Duncan v. Jonas that the police can close a meeting from the outset, and in that way prevent it from being held, if the police officers on the spot have reasonable cause to apprehend that a breach of the peace will result. I have studied this case in my unlawyer-like way, and there is no doubt what happened in that case. The police prevented the meeting from taking place, though they told the lady who wanted to hold it that she was free to hold it round the corner 200 yards away. But the decision in this case appears to go no further than the point which I have made, and I am advised that it is not easy to see how this case could fairly be regarded as authority for any wider proposition.

Mr. Skeet

Meetings have been advertised for August, September and October under Hitler was right. Racial Ruin. Surely my hon. Friend will have ample evidence to prevent those meetings from taking place.

Mr. Woodhouse

I am explaining to the House what is the existing law. As I understand these cases, it is not that there is power to prevent the assembly of people. There is power to prevent a meeting from proceeding.

Mr. Weitzman

I hope that the hon. Member will look at the case which I quoted of Regina v. Cunningham, Grahame and Burns because in this case notice was issued by the Commissioner of Police staling that the meeting must not be held.

Mr. Woodhouse

I was coming to that very case. It is true, as in that case, that the police could intimate in advance to the promoters of a meeting about to be held, say, on the following day, that in their view it would result in disorder and ought not to be held, but the judge stated in the case of Regina v. Cunningham, Grahame and Burns that such an intimation has in itself no legal effect and that the ultimate test in law must be the apprehension on the part of the police who are actually present at the place where the meeting is to take place that a breach of the peace will result.

I do not want to get into an argument with those who know the law far better than I know it about the intricacies of the case. I simply say that my right hon. Friend and I will keep an open mind on this question. I am not closing the door now. We shall look carefully at these cases again. I can only say that this is the preliminary reaction which my legal advisers have given me, and I hope that I may leave the point with the door open in order to get on with the substance of what I have to say.

Mr. H. Butler

If someone sets up a platform in a residential area and proposes to hold a meeting, is the Minister telling us that the police are powerless to stop it?

Mr. Woodhouse

No. At that point the police have the power. But they cannot prohibit it in advance, with the single exception of Trafalgar Square, which is a case apart under the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works.

Mr. Fletcher

Would the hon. Member bear in mind two propositions. First of all, it cannot be asserted that there is any right to hold a meeting of the kind to which my hon. Friend has referred and, secondly, there is a duty on the Home Secretary to prevent public disorder and breaches of the peace.

Mr. Woodhouse

I will certainly bear those two points in mind. My right hon. Friend will pay the closest attention to everything that has been said in the debate. I am only trying to state the law as it at present stands. I will pass over a number of details which I could have added on that point.

We are inevitably driven back to considering, if this advice is correct, whether the law needs amendment. My right hon. Friend has assured the House that he will give close consideration to representations which have been made to him with this end in view. We must recall that the Public Order Act, 1936, was expressly designed to deal with disorders, which were indeed on a greater scale, though of a similar kind, to what is happening today. Therefore, it is not a case of applying an old law to an entirely new situation for which it was not designed. This will show how difficult it is likely to be to find suitable amendments.

It is true that there is a difference in the situation today, to which hon. Members have drawn attention. One difference is that a war has been fought in between to extirpate a gang of vile and despicable creatures who murdered human beings by the million because of their race. It is true also that those creatures who were extirpated counted Mosley, whatever excuses he may choose to make today, as their best and, thank God, their only friend in this country. We must bear in mind also that there is another difference due ultimately to the same cause, that the conflict between those neo-Fascists or pseudo-Fascists and their antagonists today is a much more unequal one than in 1936, and I am glad to say that according to the best figures I can muster the total strength of all these detestable organisations together runs only to a few hundreds.

All these considerations and others urged in the debate must be taken into account, but there is one of very great importance to which I should like to refer. We have to admit that none of the proposed amendments which have been put forward by right hon. Members opposite and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Ire-monger) would have touched the Mosley meeting on 22nd July, for two reasons. First, the meeting was broken up before it began, or as it began, so no one had any time to commit any of the new offences which it is proposed to write into the law. Secondly, Mosley has always been very careful to keep within the law. He would undoubtedly do so if the law were amended, but undoubtedly his meetings would still be the subject of violent attack.

These considerations must weigh with us against precipitate amendment of the law, although I am not ruling out amendment altogether. It is already an offence to use words calculated to produce disorder, and that might well be interpreted in the present public mood to include words inciting racial hatred. This is why I ask hon. Members to await the case before the courts on 20th August, because the interpretation then placed on the law may be of guidance to us.

At the end of this short debate I think that I can fairly summarise the feelings which I believe we all share in this way. Everyone deplores what has happened and no right-minded person sympathises with any of the views which have been expressed by or attributed to—because in some cases we cannot say expressed —speakers at these Fascist meetings. The police have taken and will continue to take the strongest action to deal with such disorders and the courts have powers to impose heavy penalties. It is our hope that action by the police and the courts, with the general condemnation of public opinion, will prevent a recurrence, but it is not yet demonstrated on either side that the law is inadequate, although some hon. Members have suggested that it is more adequate than we think.

My right hon. Friend will consider all the representations which have been made to him. Before considering amending legislation, he would have to be satisfied both that it is needed and that it would be effective and enforceable. These will not be easy decisions. My right hon. Friend intends to hold, as he has said, the balance between the traditional right of free speech and the prevention of conduct which amounts to deliberate provocation and disorder, but I am sure that the House would wish him also to remember that traditional freedom should not be restricted simply because violent methods are being used to silence and suppress opinions with which most of us happen to disagree strongly.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half-an-hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, till Thursday, 25th October, at Eleven o'clock, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 1st August.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.