HC Deb 30 May 1963 vol 678 cc1546-52
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about public order.

As promised in my statement of 8th November last, the Government have reviewed the adequacy of the law relating to public order in the light of the two cases which have, since then, been before the courts.

In one case, Colin Jordan, leader of the so-called National Socialist Movement, John Tyndall, its national secretary, and two other members of it were charged under Section 2 of the Public Order Act, 1936, with running a quasi-military organisation. They were found guilty at the Central Criminal Court on 15th October and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.

Jordan and Tyndall sought leave to appeal against their convictions and sentences, but this was refused by the Court of Criminal Appeal on 9th November. They have since been serving their sentences.

In the other case, Jordan and Tyndall had been convicted by the Magistrate at Bow Street on 20th August last of using, in Trafalgar Square on 1st July, insulting words whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned, contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Both appealed to quarter sessions appeal against conviction was allowed against conviction and sentence. Jordan's Tyndall's appeal against conviction was dismissed, but a fine of £10 was substituted for the sentence of imprisonment.

The chairman of quarter sessions was asked to state a case for consideration by the Divisional Court, which decided on 19th March, 1963, that the appeal should not have been allowed and that Jordan had been rightly convicted by the Magistrate. The Lord Chief Justice said in the course of his judgment that a man was entitled to express his views as strongly as he liked … but he must not threaten, abuse or insult by hitting with words". An application for leave to appeal to the House of Lords was subsequently refused, and the case was sent back to quarter sessions, where a sentence of one month's imprisonment was imposed.

The Government are determined that extremists should not be allowed to provoke violence by stirring up racial hatreds. The action so far taken under the existing law has been effective, and offenders have been punished.

The immediate action required is to strengthen the penalties for offences under the Public Meeting Act, 1908, and Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936. A Bill for this purpose is being introduced forthwith in another place.

The people of this country are united in their detestation of Fascism and in their determination not to allow abuse of free speech by extremists, leading to breaches of the peace.

The police can be relied on to enforce the law with vigour; and I would remind the House that the sanctions provided by the existing law do not rest entirely on statute law, and that 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.

That offence extends to the stirring up of hatred or hostility on the ground of race; and it is punishable by fine and also by imprisonment, the amount of the fine and the term of the imprisonment being entirely at the court's discretion.

It will be the duty of the Government to watch the situation closely, and if further legislative action be found necessary we shall not hesitate to take it, for we are determined that the law shall be fully adequate to deal with any persons or groups whose words or actions give rise to breaches of the peace.

Mr. Fletcher

I am sure that the whole House will welcome the general sentiments expressed by the Home Secretary, in particular when he said that the Government are determined that extremists should not be allowed to provoke violence by stirring up racial hatred. We also welcome his statement of intention to increase the penalties under the existing law.

While I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has said about common law misdemeanour, however, many of us on this side do not agree with the conclusion that he has drawn from the recent case of Jordan. We consider that it would be far more satisfactory to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act, making a specific offence by inserting the words "calculated to incite to racial hatred".

Sir K. Pickthorn

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to know whether other hon. Members, who have not had the advantage of seeing this statement on paper, will also be entitled to put views for or against the Government's intentions when the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) has finished his speech?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) was very far out of order. He had rather a complicated matter to explain before he could formulate a question. We have to have a little mercy about this, but I must confess to some concern about the length of discussions which arise on statements.

Mr. Fletcher

My specific question is this: will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the terms of the Long Title of the Bill will be drawn sufficiently widely to enable us to put down Amendments, on the lines I have suggested, to Section 5 of the 1936 Act?

Mr. Brooke

I must ask Parliament to await the publication of the Bill. I know the hon. Gentleman's views about the case for amending Section 5 of the 1936 Act, but, at the same time, it is exceedingly difficult to see what would be added to existing powers by inserting a reference to words such as "inciting hatred of any racial group", because it is extraordinarily hard to see how any words of that character could not be called "threatening, abusive or insulting" and, therefore, regarded as constituting an offence under existing law.

Mr. Iremonger

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House will greatly regret that the Government have decided that no useful purpose would be served by making it clear beyond doubt—far more clear than it is now under the common law and decided cases—that incitement to hatred on sectional grounds is a serious and punishable offence?

Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing the new Bill, if present legislation has not got this characteristic, with a sufficiently widely drawn Title to enable a new Clause to be tabled and debated'? Will he also ensure that the Committee stage is taken on the Floor of the House and not in Standing Committee? Will he consult with the Leader of the House on these points?

Mr. Brooke

I think that Parliament must await the terms of the Bill. As / have said, the Government are determined that the law shall be adequate to deal with any person or groups whose words or actions result in breaches of the peace and that if further action is found necessary we shall not hesitate to take it.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is a matter which the House must determine and not the Government? In view of the strong feeling on both sides of the House on this—this is not a party matter it cuts across party differences—will not he agree to hold back the Bill until he has had a chance to consider whether it fulfils the conditions laid down by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) and the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger)—in other words, that it should include the suggested additional passage, or that it be drafted in such a way that it will be in order to move the inclusion of that passage?

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman has now said twice that we must await publication of the Bill, but did he not say in his statement that it is being introduced first in another place'? Would not he agree that this raises matters of considerable constitutional importance, particularly if the Bill acts as we think all hon. Members on both sides want it to'? Will he ask the Leader of the House to introduce the Bill into this House first and see that it is in wide enough terms to enable this House to declare its views?

Mr. Brooke

The view of the Government is that the urgent thing here is to get the penalties increased at the earliest possible moment. We are most likely to get the Bill quickly on the Statute Book if it starts its progress in another place. But the fact is that there is no evidence at all up to the present that the existing law is inadequate to deal with these hateful offences.

Mr. Skeet

is my right hon. Friend aware that considerable difficulties are likely to arise here, and that any astute agitator can drive a coach and horses through the provisions of Section 5 of the 1936 Act? I would have thought that if clarification was required—and in my view it is required—it would have been right to have allowed Parliament to lay down what the Section should say and not leave this to the interpretation of the courts.

Mr. Brooke

I am advised by the police that there is now no doubt whatever about interpretation [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—about taking action on Section 5 of the 1936 Act and that the Section has been fully adequate to deal with any situation that has arisen up to now. If future situations arise for which Section 5 is not found to be adequate the Government will be prepared to go further.

Mr. H. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman keeps on saying that there is no evidence. That means that he thinks that there is no evidence. Is he aware that the House is getting a bit tired of exculpatory statements and that the House as a whole, and not the right hon. Gentleman, should decide this? Will not he look again at the point about the drafting of the Bill?

If it has been introduced in another place—in the view of some of us, quite improperly since it is a constitutional Measure—will he at least ensure that when it comes here the Title is wide enough to enable this House to examine it from the point of view expressed by hon. Members, and that he will not confine our discussions to a quite narrow point just because he thinks that a narrow point is good enough?

Mr. Brooke

The Government must decide on the terms of what legislation to present to Parliament and in which House to present it. I can only repeat that at present there is no evidence that the existing law under Section 5 is proving inadequate. If it is found to be inadequate we shall remedy it.

Sir B. Janney

While appreciating the points that have been made by the right hon. Gentleman, I ask him again to reconsider the questions raised from this side of the House. Will he realise that there is very strong feeling in the House? Is he aware that, for example, placards and posters are being exhibited acclaiming the arch-sub-beast Hitler and his followers and that these are in themselves conducive to racial discrimination? Will the Government include a provision to ensure that the exhibition of posters and placards of that nature is prohibited? Before the terms of the Bill are finally settled, will the right hon. Gentleman take into account the Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Genocide, which give ample scope for any civilised community to see to it that anything of the kind which happened in Hitler's time will not be tolerated now?

Mr. Brooke

We are not going to have in this country the kind of thing that happened in Nazi Germany. I know how the hon. Gentleman feels about this. He and I have discussed the matter. But I must ask him to await the terms of the Bill. Meanwhile, I hope that anyone who comes across offensive leaflets or posters or the like will bring them to the notice of the police immediately.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We really cannot debate this without a Question before the House.

Mr. H. Wilson

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. We have still not been told when the Bill is to be introduced in another place. [HON. MEMBERS: "Forthwith."] What does "forthwith" mean? Today, or tomorrow, or when? [HON. MEMBERS: "Forthwith"] I am putting this question to the Home Secretary. [HON. MEMBERS: "A point of order?"] I am raising a point of order on the ground that the rights of the House are in question because we have been told to await the Bill. We have not been told when the Bill is to be introduced. Therefore, I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, whether we can ask the Home Secretary when it is to be introduced and in what form.

Mr. Speaker

I do not see that any point of order arises from that. I cannot make the Home Secretary answer. My recollection—and I am subject to correction—is that in one of his two questions the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asked when the Bill would be introduced. If he did ask that, I am not in a position, on a point of order, to compel the Home Secretary to answer.