HC Deb 15 May 1970 vol 801 cc1696-700

Order for Second Reading read.

An Hon. Member


12.28 p.m.

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thought I heard the word " Object " muttered somewhere, and I suspect that it came from the Government Front Bench. It surprises me very much indeed that any member of this Government should openly be opposed to a Measure of this kind involving law and order. I am really appalled that any member of the Government should behave in this way.

It is with some surprise that I find myself able to make a speech here this morning, and I shall not detain the House for very long. This Bill deals with one of the most abhorrent and bestial devices invented in the 20th century. I was taken to task on a previous occasion by someone who said that perhaps I had never heard of the hydrogen or the atom bomb. Perhaps I should have qualified my remark. I had not forgotten those things but I had thought of them as comparatively successful deterrents, whereas I do not see any deterrent value in the petrol bomb.

Those who use these weapons can cause with them indiscriminate hurt and damage, and one must say that they show an utter disregard for human life and property. Since the war, petrol bombs have been used in Paris, in Spain, and, recently, in the United States. Only a week or two ago, petrol bombs were thrown into the offices of Thames Television near Euston, and last week more such weapons were thrown at the American Embassy.

The Times of 27th April carried an interesting news item about a young man sentenced to imprisonment in January last year for setting fire to the Imperial War Museum, which somewhat euphemistically referred to him as a pacifist. He had thrown two petrol bombs, and he had made the news, because his poems, written in prison, were published, strangely enough, in a magazine called Anarchy. If my Bill is passed, those who throw petrol bombs and are convicted will have plenty of time to write poetry.

I have seen many petrol bombs thrown when I have been endeavouring to restrain people during riots in Northern Ireland. I have seen them thrown at the police, and I have seen the appalling effect which they can have—policemen literally set alight in Londonderry—and I have seen the agonies which injury from this type of weapon can inflict.

At a time when the British public were being brain-washed about the alleged brutality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the men of that Constabulary were often standing for hours on end facing attack not just by stones and other missiles but by the very weapons of which I am now speaking. How wicked, it was said in certain organs and media of communication, when occasionally a policeman would throw back a small stone or even, sometimes, a larger one. This was said to be very wicked, but attitudes have now somewhat changed. When British troops in Northern Ireland —I readily pay tribute to their courage—have stones and even petrol bombs thrown at them, no one expresses the smallest surprise if occasionally they, too, throw a stone back. No one raises an eyebrow. I think that the British public have begun to realise what a serious menace this weapon could be when, or if, it comes in a large way to this country, just as they have come to realise how utterly unjustly denigrated were the Royal Ulster Constabulary who received their share of petrol bombs last year.

One of the problems to be dealt with is the ease with which petrol bombs can be made. I shall not attempt now to describe how they are made, but there are many varieties of them. The other day, I noticed that an Italian publisher who had published a book in which a description was given of how to make a petrol bomb was subsequently prosecuted, so I had better take care.

Some petrol bombs contain a special mixture of materials designed to spread the flame as widely as possible and to make the mixture stick that much better to whatever it hits. Others have contained stones—I have seen some of these —and other objects to make the bottles splinter more dangerously. Others— these were certainly thrown at the police in Londonderry last year—have been ingeniously equipped with hooks designed to attach the bombs to the clothing of the target.

The Bill would lay down stiffer maximum penalties for making or possessing a petrol bomb: on summary conviction, three months' imprisonment, £1,000 fine, or both; on conviction on indictment, five years' imprisonment, a fine, or both; or for using a petrol bomb, on conviction on indictment, 20 years' imprisonment, a fine, or both. That may seem Draconian to some, but there are many people in this country who have seen something of these weapons who will share my view that such penalties are fully merited.

The purpose of the Bill is obvious, and I need say little more about it now. I wish, so far as at all possible, to make it an offence of the highest order to throw these bombs. If the Bill is passed, it should prove a deterrent which will prevent the spread of this appalling weapon to any great extent in this country. Already, we are seeing something of it. Those who visited Northern Ireland in the past 18 months, who have seen the kind of appalling injury inflicted there, and who have seen the damage done to property, can have no doubt that, if there be anything which the House can do to prevent the spread of this atrocious mischief to this country as well, the House should do it.

12.36 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), with his connection in Northern Ireland, is well aware he illustrated them in his speech —of some of the problems which arise in our violent society. The sort of happening which he described, however, is not confined to Northern Ireland. One has slighter examples of it in this country, though not nearly to the degree which, unfortunately, one finds in Northern Ireland. This form of violence is found elsewhere in the world, too. Happily, despite our concern about events of this kind, however, they are not typical of these Islands; they are far more typical of other parts of the world.

While recognising the problem, I shall advise the House that there is no need to have the powers provided for in the Bill to deal with it. We are satisfied that there are sufficient powers already. Section I of the Prevention of Crime Act, 1953, deals with the problem of weapons, and the Malicious Damage Act, 1861, covers the petrol bomb. Therefore, while agreeing with the hon. Gentleman in recognising the nature of the problem, we in the Home Office are content that the legislation which we already have is sufficient, and I recommend the House to oppose the Bill.

12.38 p.m.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

May I have the leave of the House to speak again?

The Minister did not give much detail justifying his argument that these provisions are unnecessary. I think that he gave a rather hurried response, and I can understand why. I suspect that he, like myself, was surprised that we ever got this far this morning. We have all found ourselves from time to time in the position of not having done quite the amount of work on a subject which we should wish to have done, and I take it that that was the hon. Gentleman's position, as it was my own.

Although I am still anxious to see a Bill of this kind upon our Statute Book, because I believe, sorrowfully, that the need for it may increase rather than diminish over the next few months, I ask the Minister to undertake—when he has a little more leisure, as he may soon—to look again at my Bill and, parallel with it, the existing provisions so far as they may deal with the problem of the petrol bomb. I ask him to do that and to let me know whether he is still satisfied. There is a Question down on the Order Paper about it and, no doubt, there will be others. No doubt there will be other occasions when the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to give me the assurances I want.

However, I do not wish any other hon. Member to lose his Bill this afternoon, and I therefore do not propose—I hope that this will be taken in the spirit in which it is meant—to divide the House.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

With your permission, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

It is an unusual day with some unusual permissions.

Mr. Rees

I should like to make it clear that the Home Office undoubtedly has a responsibility for Northern Ireland and we have no doubt that we have sufficient powers to deal with the problems there. There may be a marginal aspect and I should be pleased to draw it to the attention of the hon. Member, but I do not want anybody to be in any doubt.

Mr. Chichester-Clark rose

Mr. Speaker

Even though the Chamber is almost empty we are not in Committee.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

The hon. Gentleman has shown that, as I suggested, he has not done all his homework. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Bill does not deal with Northern Ireland. It deals with a problem which may well arise in this country, although I hope that it will not. I hope that, having heard what I have said, he will reconsider the situation.

Mr. Rees

indicated assent.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

I understand he will, and I am obliged to him.

Question put and negatived.