HC Deb 24 February 1972 vol 831 cc1485-7
34. Mr. Wall

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will call for reports from chief constables on the enforcement of the law regarding peaceful picketing during the present coal strike.

42. Mr. Fowler

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will now make a further statement on the operation of the law concerning peaceful picketing.

54. Mr. Waddington

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will call a conference of chief constables to consider what steps should be taken if, in any future industrial dispute, persons physically obstruct and prevent others from entering premises to which they have a legal right of access.

Mr. Reginald Maudling

I have been kept fully informed by chief officers of police about incidents involving picketing during the miners' strike. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment, told the House on 22nd February, the law on picketing and related matters is being reviewed in the light of recent events.

Mr. Wall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that intimidation and even violence by pickets in certain areas, shown clearly on television screens, gives cause for widespead anxiety? What action do the Government propose to take before the next special case industry goes on strike?

Mr. Maudling

Certainly incidents of violence, particularly picketing outside offices, were to be seen on television screens. The police are responsible for carrying out the law, and I think that they did it extremely well. A large number of people were charged with offences, mainly of the more normal character of obstruction and that kind of thing. In general, as I have said, the vast mass of the picketing was entirely legal, but there were examples of people latching on and behaving very badly, about which I think everyone feels disquiet.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Does the Home Secretary accept that a great deal of the intimidation was on the part of lorry drivers who had been bribed by employers? Does he also accept that there were many examples up and down the country of the inexperience of the police in dealing with picketing? Will he ensure, in any reform of the picketing regulations, first, that all pickets have a fair chance to nut their case to those who are picketed, and, secondly, that anyone who is arrested is given full and proper access to legal advice?

Mr. Maudling

On the last point, that is obviously the position. In this instance I have heard criticisms of the police from both sides: sometimes that they were too tough and sometimes that they were not tough enough. In my judgment, on the whole, in exceedingly difficult circumstances, chief officers of police did a very good job indeed.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment said, a review of the law on picketing is to be undertaken.

Mr. Fowler

Will my right hon. Friend emphasise as widely as possible that these rules and regulations are not laid down by some remote Government Department but are the law of this country? Will he further emphasise that the rule of law is the hallmark of a democracy and that when it is ignored and challenged in this way, for whatever reason, it represents a basic combat against freedom in this country?

Mr. Maudling

The criminal law on these matters, for which I am responsible, is as clear as it can be made in practical circumstances. However, responsibility for actual operation rests with the chief officers of police, and they must not be subject to political direction either way in how they carry out their duties. As I have said, I think they carry out their duties very well.

Mr. Waddington

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take this opportunity to make it abundantly plain that mass picketing, such as occurred outside the Saltley Coke Works, designed to prevent people from entering premises which they had a perfect right to enter, cannot, by the greatest stretch of the imagination, be lawful? Will he do his best to ensure that in future such blatant and obvious breaches of the law do not occur?

Mr. Maudling

I understand that there is a decision by the courts which holds that the mere numbers involved can turn lawful picketing into intimidation. This is a fact of the law, and in practice the law has to be administered by chief officers of police.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

The Home Secretary, in the course of the miners' dispute, recognised that, by and large, the police had behaved with great sense and also that the National Union of Mineworkers had endeavoured to maintain a state of peaceful picketing.

I should like to ask two questions. First, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise—I am sure he does—how very much the institution of peaceful picketing is valued by trade unions? Secondly, in view of the fact that peaceful picketing in the miners' dispute entered rather different phases than in earlier strikes, may I ask whether, apart from any changes in the law, he will consider the possibility of a conference involving chief constables to discuss what rules, in practice, should be laid down at ground level for use in any future strike?

Mr. Maudling

I think that consultations between chief constables on these matters is very valuable, and I am glad to have them.

On the first point, I repeat that the union involved certainly did nothing to countenance violence or illegal activity. However, as the House knows, on occasions of demonstrations often other elements of a quite different kind exploit them in an illegal way.