HC Deb 18 March 1968 vol 761 cc34-40
Mr. Maudling (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about the disturbances in Grosvenor Square yesterday.

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

I have had a preliminary report from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

Demonstrators gathered yesterday afternoon in Trafalgar Square to protest against American policy in Vietnam and later marched to Grosvenor Square. The route to be followed had been agreed between the organisers and the police. The route was by North Audley Street, then around the three sides of Grosvenor Square not occupied by the United States Embassy, with an exit from the Square by way of South Audley Street. But the organisers were unable to keep control of the march and it is estimated that at one time up to 10,000 people were gathered in the Square.

Access to the United States Embassy was guarded by a strong cordon of police and the organisers were aware that the only people who would be permitted to pass through the cordon were a few representatives of the demonstrators. These representatives presented a petition.

A large number of demonstrators broke into the gardens on the side opposite the Embassy. At first they were held back by the police but then a number of demonstrators began hurling missiles. The police, both on foot and mounted, eventually succeeded in clearing the gardens with much difficulty.

On present information some 45 demonstrators received medical treatment, 117 policemen were injured, of whom 4 have been detained in hospital. Proceedings are being taken against 246 demonstrators, mainly on charges of assaulting or obstructing policemen, threatening behaviour and being in possession of offensive weapons. A number of windows were broken both in the Embassy and in other buildings and extensive damage was done to the gardens.

I greatly regret the outbreak of violence by some of the demonstrators and the injuries substained both by members of the public and police officers. There is no doubt that the police showed commendable restraint and self-discipline in the face of severe provocation.

Mr. Maudling

This outbreak of violence has shocked and scandalised the whole country. May we on this side be associated with the Home Secretary in the well-deserved tribute he paid to the restraint and efficiency of the police in this situation?

First, if there is evidence that some at any rate of the organisers of the demonstration were preparing their followers for the use of violence, will he proceed against them with the utmost severity? Secondly, if it be the case that some people of foreign nationality at present resident here either as visitors or students have been abusing our hospitality by stirring up violence, will he have them immediately deported?

Mr. Callaghan

My conclusion is that the majority of people who come to a demonstration of this sort have a genuine desire to protest in a peaceful way in the traditional manner about events with which they disagree. But there seems to be evidence that a not insignificant number of people also organise and come to these demonstrations with a view to provoking violence, and it is this facet of the matter which is extremely disturbing.

As to the question of preparations which may have been made for violence—certain changes are now being preferred and I would prefer not to say anything at this stage. It is true that a number of foreign nationals came to this country for the purpose of taking part in the demonstration.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the use of mounted police is a provocation? Should not their use in future be discouraged?

Mr. Callaghan

I have discussed the matter this morning with the officer in command of the police. He told me that he was very reluctant to deploy mounted police and that he held them in reserve. But because of the developments the situation became so difficult—and he was the man on the spot who had to decide—that he reached the conclusion that, if he did not use the mounted police, there would be greater damage and greater injuries.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an indication about the report of the quantity and number of offensive weapons taken from demonstrators on the way to the demonstration.

Mr. Callaghan

A number of demonstrators arriving in coaches were intercepted by the police and five of the passengers in one coach were arrested on charges of carrying offensive weapons and one was charged with offensive behaviour. The sort of things found were bags of plaster, flour and pepper, marbles and pots of paint. There have been other incidents which I would prefer at this stage not to go into further.

Mr. Bellenger

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any of the organisers themselves are under arrest or are to be charged?

Mr. Callaghan

The organisers agreed to the route with the police but unfortunately lost control. I do not think that it would be a proper matter on which charges should be preferred against them.

Mr. Bessell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a demonstration involving violence of this kind is utterly repugnant to the British people? Since a large number of demonstrators came armed for violence and were obviously more interested in Communism than in peace, will the right hon. Gentleman take appropriate steps to investigate the organisations concerned?

Mr. Callaghan

The demonstration in Trafalgar Square was peaceable, with no more than the normal amount of heckling and boisterous behaviour one expects on these occasions, and we should be reluctant to discourage a demonstration of that sort. But perhaps I may quote The Guardian on this subject, for I absolutely agree with the words. Referring to the scene in Grosvenor Square, it said: The demonstrators seemed determined to stay until they had provoked a violent response of some sort from the police. This intention became paramount once they entered Grosvenor Square. I think that that is a correct definition of what took place and it is something that the whole House and the country will condemn.

Mr. Hamling

Is it not intolerable that London policemen should lose a day off on a Sunday looking after hooligans? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that this kind of demonstration in Grosvenor Square undermines the long-held view in this country about the right of peaceful demonstration?

Mr. Callaghan

No, Sir. I do not think that it undermines the right of peaceful demonstration. I believe that the overwhelming mass of opinion in this country must make itself felt against these groups of people who come determined to provoke violence and who believe that they are advancing their cause by so doing.

Sir D. Renton

In view of the numbers involved, the violence used, the determination of those concerned and the length of time that this trouble went on, did it not come very near to being a riot? Will the Home Secretary bear in mind for the future the possibility of providing such help as may be necessary for the police in order to avoid such a large number of police casualties?

Mr. Callaghan

I do not know what the legal definition of a riot is. [HON. MEMBERS: "oh."] I would not care to give my definition this afternoon without notice, because I believe that it has certain legal and technical qualifications. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Home Secretary ought to know."] I begin to wonder whether we are getting a bit of a riot among hon. Members opposite. I discussed the situation before the procession took place with the Commissioner of Police, who believed that he would have sufficient police to handle the situation. In fact, the police succeeded in preventing any attempt to get at the American Embassy, which was part of the object of the exercise. To that extent we can say that the police held the situation fully in control.

Mr. John Hynd

It may not have escaped the Home Secretary's notice that there have been certain coincidences, not to say synchronisation, of violent demontrations of this kind in various parts of Europe as well as this country and that they are not always concerned with Vietnam or any particular issue. In the circumstances, does not my right hon. Friend consider that the time is due when the Government ought to make a full investigation of what is behind these violent manifestations and such demonstrations?

Mr. Callaghan

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of international preparation for demonstrations of this kind, especially in relation to Vietnam, but I believe that we can rely on the good sense of the British people and upon the forces of law and order as expressed by the police to ensure that they do no damage.

Mr. G. Campbell

While freedom to demonstrate must be preserved, will the Home Secretary consider in future the possibility of restricting the size and scope of demonstrations in London, as he has admitted that this got out of control? Is it not intolerable that pedestrians and children should be in danger in the streets on a Sunday afternoon?

Mr. Callaghan

I entirely agree that it is intolerable that a large crowd of demonstrators should sweep through some of the main streets of London, but if the hon. Gentleman reflects, I think that he will see that there are great difficulties about proscribing a procession of this sort. It is a suggestion which I shall keep constantly under attention, but it would present very great practical difficulties.

Mr. Heffer

Can my right hon. Friend indicate what other weapons of violence, apart from flour bags and marbles, were used? Is he aware that in student rags in Liverpool over the years flour bags and marbles have been the usual methods adopted by students, and that the ordinary people of Liverpool have suffered as a result?

Mr. Callaghan

Some of the weapons were smoke bombs, and a great many others might have been let off if precautions had not been taken by the police beforehand. People know what purpose marbles and ball bearings can be used for. They can create a very great state of tension.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In view of the heavy cost in terms of police casualties and the most courageous protection of the United States Embassy by the police, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Metropolitan Police have proper and sufficient equipment to enable them to deal with organised violence of this sort and on this scale?

Mr. Callaghan

I shall review that matter if the right hon. Gentleman expresses some dubiety about it, but I must say that in my talk this morning to the commander in charge of the police operations, he expressed no doubt on that score to me. He believes that it is possible for London policemen by traditional methods to keep control of this kind of situation.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will my right hon. Friend take note that he will receive 100 per cent. support from this side of the House in maintaining the right of British citizens to participate in peaceful demonstrations? But will he also note that he will have majority support from this side of the House for any action which the police have to take to deal with hooligans undertaking violent demonstrations?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir. I have absolutely no doubt that the whole country agrees with those sentiments.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the Home Secretary aware that it has been suggested that a similar demonstration may take place next Sunday? Will he say what preparations he has made, should this happen, to see that we do not get a recurrence of what happened yesterday?

Mr. Callaghan

A demonstration is being organised for next Sunday. The organisers are in touch with the police about the nature of the demonstration and I hope that the appropriate arrangements will be made between the organisers and the police to ensure that it passes off peaceably.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me, feeling as strongly about events in Vietnam as anybody in Grosvenor Square yesterday, that I and many of my hon. Friends recognise the difference between protest and hooliganism, that I support the one and will support him wholeheartedly in his efforts to suppress the other?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir.