HC Deb 03 July 1962 vol 662 cc279-84
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

You're your permission, Mr. Speaker, and by, I think, the wish of the House, I should like to make a statement about a meeting organised by the National Socialist Movement and held in Trafalgar Square on the afternoon of Sunday last.

I am informed that this movement has less than 100 members. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis tells me that the meeting began with about 2,000 people present. Later, the number rose to about 5,000. The speakers were interrupted by an organised body of 300 to 400 persons. The police found it necessary to stop the meeting on two occasions while order was restored, and eventually closed it altogether on the ground that a serious breach of the peace was imminent.

Twenty arrests were made and there were 15 cases of offences under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936. All but two of these cases have been dealt with by the courts, and offenders have been fined or conditionally discharged. The speakers themselves were not arrested. I am told that a full report is being submitted for consideration of proceedings under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

I deplore the disorder which occurred on this occasion and, even more, the obnoxious doctrines expressed. As I have indicated, the police dealt firmly with the situation, and I believe the existing powers to be adequate. We must not put ourselves in a position of lightly restricting free speech. However, I wish to make it quite clear that we shall not tolerate provocation of disorder by the abuse of free speech. I shall, therefore, watch the position with care and shall consider any representations that right hon. and hon. Members may wish to make to me.

Mr. Shinwell

May I, first, express my gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman and also to the Leader of the House for their prompt attention to this matter?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in the questions I venture to put on this subject, it is not intended to interfere in any way with free speech but only with free speech accompanied by provocative language and offensive statements which are directed against certain members of the community?

As his statement indicated, the right hon. Gentleman is aware that several people who were arrested on the ground of breach of the peace have been fined, while, on the other hand, those responsible for the provocation have gone scot-free. Will he take note of that, take whatever action he regards as necessary in the circumstances, and, more particularly, carry out his apparent intention to prevent provocative meetings of this kind from taking place in future?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. On the first point, proceedings are under consideration under Section 5 of the Public Order Act in the case of the speakers, who were regarded as the most provocative people on this occasion, and, therefore, I cannot interfere in connection with that.

As regards the situation generally, permission was given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works under his powers in relation to Trafalgar Square. I am quite satisfied that he was perfectly right in giving that permission after receiving the advice of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, whom I have myself seen. The Commissioner's advice was given after consideration of previous meetings of this type, which have not led to public disorder. However, I should like to say, after having' seen the Commissioner, that I am quite satisfied that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works— and I myself in so far as I am brought into it— will work in future from the experience gained from this meeting.

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

While thanking my right hon. Friend for the tone of his statement, may I ask him whether he realises the depth of feeling that is caused by the utterance, in the centre of London, with a mass of police protection, of doctrines which are not only obnoxious but which are being condemned by the judgment of the whole world? Does he also realise that, while the right of free speech is precious to us, if Trafalgar Square, the heart of London, is to be used as the centre for the propagation, with police protection, of these diabolical views, the rest of the world will simply fail to understand how we can put free speech in all its forms above something so debasing and so affronting to the conscience of all British people?

Mr. Butler

I very much sympathise with my hon. Friend's observations on the quality of what was said on this occasion and on its content, but I must say, having regard to previous experience in September, 1960, and April, 1961, when meetings of this sort went off without any particular interest and— as was reported to me by the police— with boos and catcalls but without disorder, I think that it was reasonable to hope that that would happen on this occasion. It has not been the case, however, and it is these new circumstances which we are taking into account.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that to a large number of people it seems extraordinary that, while Section 5 of the Act is clearly directed against those who provoke, it was only those who were provoked who appear to have been proceeded against on Sunday? Will he consider whether the Act is strong enough to deal with provokers themselves, who use, in the words of the Act, … threatening, abusive or insulting words… and, if he finds that it is not strong enough, consider the legislation in other countries? I am told that in Holland and the Scandinavian countries legislation specifically prohibits this kind of racial attack. Will he consider amending the Public Order Act so that this specifically becomes an offence?

Mr. Butler

I said on purpose at the end of my statement that I would listen to any representations made by right hon. and hon. Members. I will certainly pay attention to the representations made by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). At the same time, I must draw attention to the fact that proceedings are under consideration against those who provoked these disorders, so I cannot comment on those. I would rather not take it further today. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to substantiate his point, I would be glad to hear from him further.

Mr. S. Silverman

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain a little further? Whose is the actual responsibility for allowing Trafalgar Square to be used? Is it his responsibility, through the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, or is it the responsibility of the Minister of Works? In either case, on what principles is the responsibility exercised?

Moreover, in dealing with future applications for the use of the Square— and I am sure that he will agree with me in this— will he consider that the world did not fight six years of bitter and bloody war at the cost of 50 million human lives in order to permit Mr. Colin Jordan to recommend the British people to imitate Adolf Hitler?

Mr. Butler

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works gave a full answer, including his reasons, last Tuesday in HANSARD, column126–7,in answer to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner). If the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) will direct his attention to that Answer, he will see the reasons which brought my right hon. Friend to this conclusion.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Minister of Works whether it is really a good idea to have controversial meetings in Trafalgar Square at all, because, if a Minister of the Crown has to authorise these meetings, and if he is to exercise the sort of discrimination and censorship indicated in some of the questions this afternoon, will we not find ourselves in a very difficult position?

Would it not be sensible to treat Trafalgar Square as a great square and national monument and not one that ought to be used for intensely controversial purposes of any kind? Will he discuss that with the Minister of Works? I believe that there is a considerable body of opinion in the country which feels that way?

Mr. Butler

I will certainly discuss it with my right hon. Friend, but it has for long been a tradition that a certain freedom of expression of opinion should be allowed. I think that this is one of the things which has created the greatness of our country. I will discuss the suggestion of my hon. Friend with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works, but I do not think we shall get very much further on that.

Sir B. Janner

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that apart from the Public Order Act, the courts have held, in the case of Duncan v. Jones, that once it is apprehended that there will be a breach of the peace it is the duty of the police to prevent a meeting being held? As there was not the slightest doubt that the susceptibilities of decent people would be badly hurt by the kind of trash and obscenities that are always uttered by these people, it was obvious that there would be a breach of the peace.

Will the right hon. Gentleman see to it in future that if there is such an apprehension a meeting of this description shall not be held? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the speakers declared themselves to be Nazis, and that this word in itself is an abhorrence to all civilised people?

Mr. Butler

I considered the case of Duncanv. Jones, reported in 1936, King's Bench Division, at page 218, and I discussed this morning with the Commissioner the question of when the police should or should not have intervened. It is clear, as the hon. Gentleman makes out, that the police could intervene even from the outset, on the basis of this judgment. The police twice stopped this meeting, and eventually stopped it altogether. In future, they may take a stricter line, but I am satisfied that they were proceeding on the understanding that they should allow freedom of speech prior to stopping the meeting.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have so much to do that we really must make progress.