HC Deb 22 July 1968 vol 769 cc34-40
Mr. Hogg (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he would make a statement about the disorderly events in the West End yesterday afternoon.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)

In accordance with arrangements settled in advance between the organisers and the police, a meeting took place in Trafalgar Square yesterday and was followed by a march to Speakers' Corner via Grosvenor Square. Although there was some disturbance in Grosvenor Square, the main proceedings were orderly throughout.

When the main party of about 3,000 to 4,000 marchers left Grosvenor Square, about 500 stayed behind with the evident intention of making trouble. This group headed towards Hyde Park Corner and on the way set fire to some rubbish and did other damage to property. Disorderly groups subsequently reformed and moved through Berkeley Square towards Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. The last of these mobs was eventually dispersed by the police about 8.30 last night.

A number of police officers and civilians received injuries requiring medical aid, but none was detained in hospital. A total of 49 arrests were made and those concerned will be brought before the courts as soon as possible.

The House will, I am sure, agree that the police once more showed exemplary patience in dealing with a comparatively small number of hooligans. The purpose of these people is to attach themselves to peaceful demonstrations in order to force clashes with the police, damage property and make a complete nuisance of themselves. I have discussed this situation with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and have left him in no doubt that he will have my full support in measures to combat mob violence and keep the streets and public places clear for peaceful enjoyment by ordinary citizens.

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Home Secretary for the information which he has given us. I am also quite sure that the whole House will endorse his praise of the police and his condemnation of what I accept was a disorderly minority of what was basically an orderly demonstration.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these repeated breaches of the peace by an exhibitionist fringe are endangering the whole right of peaceful demonstration? Will he possibly consider that marches are one thing and meetings in Trafalgar Square and at Hyde Park Corner are another, and that if this sort of thing goes on he may have to limit demonstrations to meetings where they can do no damage?

Mr. Callaghan

It is clear that this kind of thing, taking place continuously, is bound to cause the kind of question which the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts to me. But I think that he and the House will take it that I should be very reluctant to interfere with these demonstrations.

In my view, the police and the courts now have adequate powers to ensure that such demonstrations are peaceful. I re- mind the House, for example, that assault on a police officer in the execution of his duty can lead on summary conviction to six months imprisonment or nine months on a second or subsequent conviction, or a fine of £100, or both; or on indictment the punishment can be as much as two years' imprisonment or a fine. I believe that the powers exist and, therefore, I would not feel it proper to interfere with peaceful demonstrations.

Mr. Hogg

I accept a great part of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He has pointed out that much more serious penalties are available to the courts on indictment. Can he ensure that those powers are used and that those who break the law in future are not allowed to get off with a mere police court sentence?

Mr. Callaghan

No, I cannot ensure that the powers are used. I can point out what they are, because I think that it is in the interests of every one of us that the right of peaceful demonstration should be preserved. To me, that is the cardinal principle which should be followed. I am pointing out that there are adequate powers to deal with those who deliberately set out to provoke breaches of the peace.

Mr. Wyatt

Is it not disgraceful that thousands of our fellow citizens should spend Sunday demonstrating outside the American Embassy instead of outside the Russian Embassy at a time when the Russians are trying to crush freedom in Czechoslovakia by threats of force?

Mr. Callaghan

As the authority concerned for the police, I am sure that the Commissioner would be very willing to extend peaceful protection to any march which wants to take place in any direction in London during the next few months.

Mr. Sandys

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the public have had just about enough of seeing policemen injured, property destroyed and foreign embassies insulted, and that everyone will welcome the fact that he has asked the police to consider further measures? May we take it that he will make a statement to the House about those measures in due course?

Mr. Callaghan

I do not think that there is any need for further measures. The Commissioner of Police fully understands what his responsibilities are and where they begin and end, and I am satisfied that he will carry them out.

Mr. Tinn

But does not my right hon. Friend think that perhaps the time is coming when he should consider, before permission is granted for such demonstrations, whether the organisers should be required to deposit a substantial sum of money as partial indemnity of the public against the cost of these disturbances?

Mr. Callaghan

I have taken part in a considerable number of demonstrations myself—[An HON. MEMBER: "On Sunday?"] On Sunday. I was proud to march with 2,000 agricultural workers, and there was no trouble of any sort. But no one can prevent a group of troublemakers from attaching themselves to a demonstration, and it would be very hard on the organisers of a peaceful demonstration if they were to become responsible financially for the misdemeanours of others.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that after the Grosvenor Square demonstrations in March I tabled certain Questions suggesting a strengthening of the law and the right hon. Gentleman replied that it was then premature? In view of the last shameful episode and the possibility of repetition, does he now agree that it is urgently necessary to strengthen the law so as to maintain order, protect people and property, and preserve the rule of law and the high reputation of our country?

Mr. Callaghan

My answer to all those questions is "No." I think that the powers exist. They must be used.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that quite a number of people who oppose American policy in Vietnam are strongly opposed to the violence and hooliganism which occurred yesterday?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, I am. I draw a very clear distinction as does the Commissioner of Police, between the organisers of this demonstration and those who attached themselves to it for the purpose of making trouble and creating mischief.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is it not the purpose of this minority of troublemakers to try to provoke the authorities and the police into repressive action leading to the loss of our liberties and the right of peaceful demonstration? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that men such as this are planning violence on a really big scale for October? Is this being kept in mind, and if so, are precautions being taken?

Mr. Callaghan

I believe that it is the hope of some of those engaged in these demonstrations to provoke a situation in which the right to demonstrate might have to be interfered with. This is why we must be careful and—I accept what the hon. Gentleman says—to beware of falling into such a trap. I know, and the Commissioner knows, of other demonstrations which are being planned.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that there is a very large section of the community who would wish to give every possible support they can to the police who, weekend after weekend, are subjected to these appalling outrages. Will he consider consulting the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to see whether there is some way in which some voluntary effort might be recruited to support the police in their efforts?

Mr. Callaghan

I do not think that the police would want that, and I doubt whether, on reflection, the House would wish it. In my view, the police in these circumstances behave in a manner which is unequalled in any other part of the world, both in their wisdom and in their tolerance in handling these kinds of demonstrations. I am sure that it is best to leave it to them.

Mr. Shinwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although I would be the last to condone the hooliganism which was exhibited yesterday, or at any time when these demonstrations occur, I believe that some provocative speeches have been made by right hon. Gentlemen opposite which have some effect on the behaviour of these people?

Mr. Callaghan

I am not sure that those who go to these demonstrations for the purpose of provoking violence care very much about the nature of any of the speeches that are made.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how many police officers were injured yesterday, and how many demonstrators?

Mr. Callaghan

There were only minor injuries. Thirty police officers and nine members of the public suffered minor injuries as far as I know.

Mr. Paget

Is my right hon. Friend aware of what happened in Paris, when demonstrators were successful in provoking stronger action by the police and the consequences of that stronger action? Have not we every reason to be exceedingly grateful and to congratulate ourselves on the result of the police restraint here?

Mr. Callaghan

I am glad to accept that, and will pass on to the Commissioner what my hon. and learned Friend has said.

Sir C. Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman permitted to send a recommendation to magistrates throughout the country—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I do not know, I am asking. Is the right hon. Gentleman permitted to send a recommendation, or at any rate to let magistrates know what penalties are available for those who are convicted?

Mr. Callaghan

I must be very careful here. The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) rescued me on a previous occasion. There are people coming before the courts now as I speak, and I do not think that I should be accused of influencing the course of justice in any way.

Mr. Hogg

Although the right hon. Gentleman is entirely right in saying that he must not circularise magistrates, he can indicate to those in the employment of the Commissioner of Police what kind of charges ought to be preferred, and whether they should be proceeded against summarily or on indictment. Can he give an assurance that he will at least indicate that where an offence is capable of either treatment the question of indictment will not be overlooked?

Mr. Callaghan

The question of indictment or summary conviction is con- stantly under review. I maintain close contact with the Commissioner of Police on these matters.

Mr. Thorpe

Notwithstanding the importance of that, will the right hon. Gentleman be prepared to leave these matters to the Attorney-General, who is a qualified lawyer, and to nobody else?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir. I am very deferential in the presence of all qualified lawyers.