HC Deb 04 June 1964 vol 695 cc1249-56
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I will, with permission, now make a statement in reply to Questions Nos. 26, 27, 28, 29, 33, 40, 41, 42 and 46, arising out of the hooliganism at certain seaside resorts at the Whitsun weekend.

In comparison with the millions of young people who enjoyed that fine holiday weekend in sensible ways, the total numbers involved were not large, but their behaviour was thoroughly foolish and irresponsible, and they spoilt the holiday for many others. The situation was kept in hand by skilful and well organised action on the part of the police forces, and I am certain that if further outbreaks occur the police will be equal to dealing with them.

Effective machinery exists for mutual assistance between police forces, where necessary; I am keeping in close touch myself with the plans now being concerted between the chief constables most likely to be concerned, for coping with any recurrences of seaside hooliganism. It would not be wise to disclose these plans in geographical detail, but I give the assurance that the importance of being able to muster large forces of police quickly wherever trouble threatens is thoroughly recognised by all.

I feel certain the House would wish to join with me in paying tribute to the admirable behaviour of the police, in difficult circumstances, in the areas affected at Whitsun.

The courts have, in general, taken a stern view of those who have come before them charged with hooligan offences in holiday places, and I have no doubt of the salutary deterrent effect of sharp sentences in such cases.

As a nation we have to try all the harder to probe deep into the causes of feckless behaviour by young people, and remedy or eradicate them. More and more systematic study and genuine research are needed into the true reasons why groups of boys and girls break away into selfish behaviour that is offensive to the mass of ordinary decent people. The Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency which, with the Secretary of State for Scotland, I recently appointed to consider and advise on delinquency and on measures for its reduction will, I hope, have a significant contribution to make.

There is evidence that a great number of the young people who contributed to the Whitsun troubles at Brighton and Margate went there in the first instance as spectators rather than with the intention of doing any harm. It is easy for older people to condemn the whole lot of these young people out of hand. I would not do that, but we are entitled to ask them all to remember that behaviour which may seem amusing to them can develop into an unfair and intolerable intrusion upon the pleasures of other people, and, therefore, they ought to cease to encourage the perhaps few black sheep among them. We shall all do well to remember that there are exhibitionists and troublemakers who thrive on publicity.

I have given consideration to all the suggestions that have been made for providing the courts with new powers for dealing with these hooligans—for example, by confiscating their vehicles or by disqualifying them from driving or by reintroducing corporal punishment. I do not think that any of these provides the answer.

There would be formidable difficulties, for instance, in relating offences to the vehicles which offenders have used to come to the area concerned. It is not the case that the courts lack powers to deal with hooligans. There is a variety of offences with which they may be charged, and some of the recent sentences have shown that the courts can deal with them severely.

There is one respect in which I want to ask Parliament to widen and strengthen the powers of the courts. Section 14 of the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1914, empowers magistrates' courts dealing with cases of malicious damage to order the offender to pay compensation up to the amount of the damage, but use cannot be made of that Section if the damage exceeds £20.

I propose that the £20 limit should be raised to £100 and that the maximum fine which can, in addition, be imposed under the Section should also be raised from £20 to £100.

I believe that the principle of exacting restitution for damage done, along with the possibility of a substantial fine, is very important, and that this will help to reassure the public as well as to deter the hooligans. The necessary legislation will be introduced forthwith.

Sir T. Moore

While I think that the whole House will agree with the tribute which my right hon. Friend has paid to the hard-pressed and ever-patient police, and while welcoming the statement which he has just made as far as it goes, may I ask him to think again concerning two of the alternatives which he has mentioned?

As Vespas or motor cycles, or whatever they are, are the methods by which these young idiots get to their place of destruction, surely it might be thought wise to confiscate their licences or disqualify them for, say, five years. The other suggestion which I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider is whether a spot of physical punishment would not be a very useful deterrent, but, in any case, not to send these people to prison, because that makes criminals.

Mr. Brooke

I respect my hon. Friend's views on the subject of corporal punishment. I hope that he will respect mine.

We have to bear in mind that the majority of those who took part in the troubles at Whitsun did not arrive by road. Probably in each case the majority of them arrived by train, if they were not local.

The real trouble is that possession of a scooter, a motor bike, a van or a car, and using it to get to a place can facilitate the commission of a great many crimes of various sorts. It would be extremely difficult to have a particular penalty attached simply to crimes of hooliganism when the person concerned could be proved to have come, not to the place, but to the neighbourhood, by a motor vehicle. The difficulties are too great to encourage us to seek a solution along those lines.

Sir W. Teeling

In thanking my right hon. Friend for much that he has said this afternoon, may I ask, in regard to my two Questions, whether the first part of his statement refers to the police forces coming on to the Sussex Downs, as in Essex and elsewhere, at the Bank Holiday to ensure that the ordinary citizen can have a decent holiday? If that is so, can my right hon. Friend assure us that he will authorise payment for the services of police forces which go to the aid of the towns to be made from the Common Services Fund, which, I gather, is visualised in Clause 13 of the Police Bill, which is now going through Parliament?

Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that any punishments that the magistrates can inflict for offences such as obstructing the police are limited to fines of £5 under the Prevention of Crimes Act which dates as far back as 1912? Will my right hon. Friend please do something very much to increase this figure?

Mr. Brooke

If a police force sends for reinforcements from other forces, it will come to an arrangement as to the cost of the operation. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press me to disclose the plans that have been made to ensure that there will be plenty of reinforcements available wherever trouble breaks out, because I think that if I were to disclose these plans it might encourage certain youngsters to see whether they can circumvent them.

I hope, from what my hon. Friend said in the last part of his supplementary question, that he will thoroughly approve of the Bill which I hope to present tomorrow, which will substantially increase both the compensation that can be made payable by the court and the fine which the court, if it thinks fit, can inflict.

Sir J. Eden

Is not the present system for dealing with this type of trouble altogether too cumbersome and ponderous? While I do not wish in any way to get the matter out of perspective, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would not agree that there are two ways in which we should tackle the problem? One is the short-term cure and the other is the long-term prevention.

In regard to the former, is it not important to emphasise that this type of breach of the peace cannot be got away with without some form of punishment and that short, sharp corrective measures are necessary? As for the longer-term question, the one with which we must be primarily concerned, is it not important that the whole House should emphasise the need For less indulgence and greater discipline throughout the stages of the upbringing of the child from early youth onwards?

Mr. Brooke

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said in the latter part of his supplementary question. I would only add that I think that the responsibility lies on the young people themselves as well as upon the parents, on the schools and on all those who come into contact with them, including the media of publicity.

As regards the short-term problem, I have not heard any criticism suggesting that the sentences imposed on some of these troublemakers last time were too light, and I hope that, with the new powers which I am inviting Parliament to give, it will be possible to make absolutely clear to everybody that this sort of hooliganism does not pay.

Mr. N. Pannell

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether there is any truth in the suggestion that at Whitsuntide sections of the Press exacerbated the situation by interviewing some of these young people before they arrived at the scene of action and that this, by inflating their egos, stimulated them to undesirable activity?

Mr. Brooke

I have heard rumours and stories of that character, but I am sure that on a future occasion we can rely on the responsibility of the Press, which, I am sure, deplores these disgraceful scenes as much as Parliament itself.

Mr. David James

I agree with my right hon. Friend that most of these young people are no more harmful than we were in our youth, but does he not agree that the danger lies not in their youth or behaviour, but in the large numbers involved and in the danger of crowd psychosis developing? Will he bear in mind that the reason why I and others suggested the removal of driving licences or cars was to cut down their mobility? Would he seek other means, such as making sure that they have to report to their local police station several times daily, to make certain that the real troublemakers cannot congregate at the scene next time?

Mr. Brooke

I cannot estimate whether these young people behave worse than my hon. Friend did when he was their age. I entirely agree with him that the new feature in all this is the mobility. There have always been gangs of young people who have misbehaved themselves on public holidays and at other times, but now it is easier for them to get to a seaside place and create a scene there.

I have very carefully considered my hon. Friend's suggestions about doing something regarding their vehicles or their driving licences, but I really do not think that that is the right approach to a solution.

Mr. Lipton

I note that the Home Secretary has now decided to introduce legislation, which he refused to do when I suggested it to him as recently as 16th April—it will be found in column 584 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that day—but will the right hon. Gentleman take notice of the following, which arises from his remark that this behaviour is amusing to the young people but not to others?

Will he take note of the fact that the trouble very frequently starts by these young people, for want of a better phrase, trying to "take the micky" out of the police, and that this is very provocative and imposes a very considerable strain on the police and that nothing can be done about this under the law as it is at present? Will he take that into account, because it has been noticed as a very frequent feature of the trouble which has taken place?

Mr. Brooke

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. On the last bank holiday weekend very little was seen of the young people attacking other members of the public, and they were mostly fighting among themselves, if they were fighting at all, or trying to score off the police.

As regards the merit and the responsibility for the legislation that I shall introduce, no doubt the hon. Gentleman will be able to lay claim, if he thinks he can, to some of the merit on the Second Reading of the Bill, but I really think that it is mine.

Miss Bacon

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although it is very important to deal firmly with the troublemakers of 1964, it is equally important to take steps to prevent further trouble in future years? Can he say now whether or not he will have consultations with his right hon. Friends so that they can very quickly put into operation the Reports of such valuable Committees as the Wolfenden Committee and the Albemarle Committee, which might have prevented some of this happening?

Mr. Brooke

I entirely agree with what the hon. Lady says about the importance of looking ahead. One of my principal motives in setting up the new Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency is to ensure that we can focus the resources of all the Government Departments on this, and my right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments are closely associating themselves with the inquiries which that Committee has in hand.