HC Deb 08 November 1962 vol 666 cc1158-61

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


TO ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what consideration he has given to amending the Public Order Act, 1936, to make words inciting hatred against racial groups a specific offence.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 37.

In accordance with my undertaking before the Recess I have given thorough consideration to all the various proposals put to me for amending the Public Order Act.

The whole House, I believe, regards with abhorrence the expression of views likely to incite to racial hatred. But we need to be certain, before we legislate further, that the present law is less than adequate to deal with the situation which exists and, in addition, that any amendment of it which is proposed would be enforceable and more effective to stop the evil. These are matters upon which we are none of us yet in a position to come to conclusions, because important aspects of the present law are at this moment under consideration by the courts.

There are now two cases involving leading members of the so-called National Socialist Movement which are still sub judice, and they both have a very important bearing on the matter. In the first, Jordan and Tyndall were charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act with using at their Trafalgar Square meeting on 1st July threatening, abusive or insulting words whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned. They were convicted by the magistrate, but Jordan's appeal was allowed at the London Sessions. This case is now going to the Divisional Court.

In the second, Jordan, Tyndall and two others were charged under Section 2 of the Public Order Act and have recently been convicted and sentenced. Jordan and Tyndall have appealed. Until these cases are finally disposed of, it is not possible to form a final view as to the adequacy of the present law.

The sanctions provided by the existing law do not rest entirely on statute law. A person who speaks words or publishes matter calculated to provoke a breach of the peace, with the intention of stirring up hatred or hostility between different classes of the Queen's subjects, is guilty of the common law misdemeanour of sedition. This, of course, extends to the stirring up of hatred or hostility on the ground of race as well as on any other grounds. This offence is punishable by fine and imprisonment, and the amount of the fine and the term of the imprisonment are entirely at the discretion of the court.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that the penalties at present available to the courts in respect of offences against Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936, and the Public Meetings Act, 1908, are inadequate and need to be increased. The Government propose to take steps to rectify that as soon as a suitable opportunity occurs.

This is without prejudice to any further steps which may be considered necessary in the light of the decisions reached by the courts in the cases which are now sub judice. The Government will review the situation in the light of these decisions, and if the law should then be shown to be inadequate we shall give that immediate attention.

In the meantime, the closest watch will be kept on the situation, and the police can be relied on to continue to make full use of their powers under the existing law to deal promptly with any threats to the public peace. I am assured that prosecution will be instituted in every case where the facts warrant it.

I am certain that for their part hon. Members on both sides will discourage those who imagine that the right way to deal with speakers whose views they dislike is to resort to violence themselves.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome very much a good deal of the statement which he has made today, particularly the announcement about the review of penalties involved in the present law and the fact that he has still not shut his mind to the possibility of a change of the law being applied?

We understand the difficulty of dealing with this matter while the appeal in the first case, at any rate, is going on, but does he not feel that the second case to which he referred, in which the prosecution says "for seeming to set up "—or words to that effect—" a quasi-paramilitary organisation", seems far removed from a reference either to using insulting language or trying to put out racial hatred? To some of us that second case seems largely irrelevant to the issues that we are asking him to consider. Can he tell us how long these appeals will take?

We shall look forward to discussions with him a little later to see whether, in the light of what happens, the law, even so, should be amended.

Mr. Brooke

I am obliged to the right hon. Member for what he has said. The time it takes to dispose of these appeals is, of course, a matter for the courts. I am advised that the application of Jordan and Tyndall for leave to appeal against sentence under Section 2 of the Public Order Act is likely to be heard in the near future. I think it necessary for us to wait until both these cases are decided, although I will agree with the right hon. Gentleman, if I am right in thinking so, that I think one of these cases is more directly relevant to the problem than the other.

Sir B. Janner

While thanking the Minister for the expressions of his views on this shocking kind of thing that happens, may I ask whether he would consider that although cases are pending there is still reason for legislation to be introduced so that the kind of meeting that is held with the obvious object of creating racial hatred shall be stopped, so that, among other considerations, the police and others who are concerned with keeping meetings in order shall not be compelled to go to meetings of that nature knowing full well that that type of doctrine is to be preached there? Does the Minister realise that a very bad impression has been created outside our country because of the fact that this kind of meeting is being held and that there is no legislation here to prevent it?

Mr. Brooke

I have said that, in any case, it is the intention to have legislation to increase the penalties, but I think that the hon. Member will realise that we shall get into very deep water if we think in terms of giving any Government power to prohibit in advance the holding of political meetings by certain persons.

Mr. Mitchison

While I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, may I ask that when he is introducing a Bill—as he will have to—to increase these penalties, he will consider making it wide enough to allow the House to decide whether any further amendment to the language of the Bill is required? It may be a question of the Title of the Bill.

Mr. Brooke

I think that the time to consider whether any wider legislation is desired is when we have the final outcome of these two cases.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Iremonger. I beg the pardon of the hon. Member for not calling him if he rose earlier I failed to notice him, as he was so far distant from his usual place.

Mr. Iremonger

While thanking my right hon. Friend, may I ask him two things? First, could he tell the House what the penalties are for sedition? Secondly, could he find a suitable means of conveying what he has said about sedition to chief constables, because it might seem that it would have been more appropriate in the case of the offence for which Jordan was charged under Section 5 if the charge had been brought under the common law crime of sedition.

Mr. Brooke

I think that I am right in saying that a charge of that sort is not a matter for a chief constable, but for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. In any case, I am quite certain that the statement I have made today about sedition and other matters will have the widest publicity in all relevant quarters.

The reply to my hon. Friend's question about the extent of the penalties is that, in the case of a conviction for sedition, the fine is unlimited and the period of imprisonment is unlimited.