HC Deb 17 June 1974 vol 875 cc29-37
Sir K. Joseph (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the events in Red Lion Square on Saturday.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

The violence which took place in and around Red Lion Square on 15th June followed police action to prevent a clash between a demonstration organised by the National Front and a counter-demonstration by a movement now called Liberation.

I understand that the National Front arranged some time ago to hold a meeting in the larger of two rooms at Conway Hall on the subject of "Stop immigration—start repatriation". Subsequently a small room at Conway Hall was made available for the Liberation meeting, and both meetings were to be preceded by marches.

I would prefer not to go into detail at this stage about the precise sequence of events on 15th June. With around 50 charges pending, as well as a coroner's inquest, it is obvious that there are substantial sub judice aspects. It is evident that there are some differences of opinion about the actions of those involved, clearly pertinent to the court proceedings. I would also like more time to consider a report which was given to me this morning by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

However, I take this opportunity of expressing regret—on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House—that in the course of Saturday afternoon a young man died. There were also a number of injuries, not least among the police. The exact cause of the death is not yet clear and we should be careful not to comment on that.

I cannot be too emphatic in my condemnation of the actions of all those who contribute to acts of violence. The burden imposed on the police by disorder of this kind is very heavy. It is more than time that those who organise demonstrations which may develop into violent confrontations realise and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Sir K. Joseph

We on this side of the House also regret the death of the student and the injuries, not least those of the police.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the vast majority of the public will have nothing but respect and admiration for the way in which the police carry out their very difficult duties? We understand that the right hon. Gentleman needs time to consider the reports that we shall be receiving. We echo the words of condemnation that he rightly used against those who seek to exploit opportunities for violence.

I have three questions for the right hon. Gentleman. Does he take into account, in deciding how to use his powers under the Public Order Act, the degree to which assurances given to the police in the past by the same organisation have been fulfilled? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we recognise the difficulties of the age-old dilemma of tolerance for the intolerant with their hateful propensity for violence? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that there is far too much violence already and, although he cannot work miracles, is he determined to learn the lessons of Saturday, whatever they are?

My third question, which follows from the second, is to ask will he consider whether the powers under the Public Order Act 1936 are adequate in present conditions?

Mr. Jenkins

My powers under the Public Order Act are limited and can be used only in response to a request from the Commissioner of Police or other chief officer of police concerned. Clearly the police would take these matters into account. The police have had to be used over a period of 10 years or more past for dealing with demonstrations with a potentiality for violence, and there have been substantially larger demonstrations than those which took place on Saturday.

I will certainly draw all the lessons I can, as I am sure that we all shall, from events of this sort. I am always open to constructive suggestions, but I do not think that at present an amendment of the Public Order Act is called for.

Mrs. Jeger

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's difficulties, but can he say at this stage whether permission was given by the police for both these marches to take place at the same time in the same small area in my constituency? Can he say also whether any advice was given by the police to the authorities of Conway Hall? It seems extraordinary to some of us, not only that part of Conway Hall, which has been a venue of many liberal and progressive assemblies, should have been let out for Fascist purposes on Saturday, but also that simultaneously another part of the same hall should have been let out to a rival organisation. Can my right hon. Friend say whether any advice was given on those points?

Mr. Jenkins

No permission is necessary to hold a march. The police had consultations with the organisers, who wished to march along the same route, and arranged that they should march along separate routes which, it was hoped, would avoid their coming together.

The letting of the hall and the holding of a meeting on private premises is a matter not for the police but for those who own the private premises and are responsible for the letting. Those responsible for the hall were aware of the possible difficulty and, indeed, issued a statement making it clear that they believed in free speech and that they were determined to go ahead on this basis, including, where the contract had been entered into, letting the larger hall to the National Front. They issued a reasoned statement giving their views why the Conway Hall should be used for an expression of views whether or not they agreed with them. This was a matter for the authorities concerned with the running of the hall.

The responsibility of the police was to try to the best of their ability to ensure that clashes and confrontations did not take place. They were present in a fair degree of force to endeavour to prevent this from happening. They were not in the event wholly successful, but on what I have heard so far I do not myself believe that the blame in any way rests with them.

Mr. Beith

Does the Home Secretary recognise that both of the organisations or groups involved on Saturday contained within their numbers people who have no sympathy for free speech and who are actually dedicated to provoking confrontation with police, in the belief that this will alienate people from the forces of law and order?

Does the Home Secretary recognise that the number of demonstrations with which the Metropolitan Police have had to contend is placing an intolerable bur-en upon them and that ways must be sought to ease the burden? Does he recognise that there seems to be a desire on the part of some people to place the police in what might appear to be a guilty position and that this means that the tactics they employ must be carefully considered and when, as in a situation such as this, the police might have been in error in some respect, the tactics need to be investigated carefully?

Mr. Jenkins

I certainly recognise that many of those who are most anxious to demonstrate and to proclaim their own rights to free speech, and to something going a great deal further than that, have little respect for free speech in, and for the freedom of, others. However, it is one thing to recognise that and another to be able to deny them their rights, even according to their perverted lights, without completely changing the basis upon which free speech and the right to protest have existed for a very long time in this country.

I recognise also that this places a considerable burden upon the police. I thought at one stage that the hon. Member was implying that there was some guilt on the police in this respect.

Mr. Beith

Not necessarily.

Mr. Jenkins

I do not want to prejudge any issues in that way. I am prepared to consider looking at the point, and I can tell the House that the Commissioner of Police informed me this morning that he would welcome an independent public inquiry into everything which took place.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Without challenging my right hon. Friend's remarks about some of the demonstrators, may I suggest to him that those remarks certainly did not apply to the Liberation contingent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Those who know other groups know this to be true, and that will stand in the inquiry. As an observer and participant in many demonstrations over the years, I have been impressed, in broad terms and with only occasional individual exceptions, by the exemplary way in which the police have handled situations.

Does my right hon. Friend know that there was at one time thought to be a riot group amongst the mounted police who were particularly rough with demonstrators? Does he agree with my observation that in recent years the mounted police have either not been present or have been used very much in reserve, usually as a fourth line of defence? Does he agree that on this occasion the mounted police were used as a second line of defence with what turned out to be an inadequate cordon of foot police? Will he comment on who is responsible for that change of policy? Very briefly, will he tell me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] This is a brief but nevertheless important point. Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether, in connection with the charges which are likely to be made, the names and addresses of those wearing black shirts were taken, a clearly identifiable association with a political organisation? Will he say whether this will be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, as was the case at Kilburn the previous weekend?

Mr. Jenkins

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has already told me that he has asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate whether any of those attending on Saturday were wearing uniforms within the meaning of the Act.

I note the general tribute which my hon. Friend paid to the police. He asked me in dealing with this incident to do precisely what I do not think it would be right to do, and that is, with charges pending, to attempt a detailed analysis of exactly what took place. What is without question is that the police, as a result of no initial action of their own, were placed in great difficulties on Saturday afternoon. I believe that the House would greatly regret if in present circumstances we did anything collectively to undermine the morale or the ability for cool, self- confident judgment of those who have to make very difficult decisions.

Mr. Carlisle

I fully accept everything that the Home Secretary said about the importance of free speech and the freedom to demonstrate. Does he not agree, however, that it will be intolerable if the streets of our cities are to be turned into pitched battle grounds by Left-wing extremist groups? [Interruption.] Is it not clear from the experience of recent years that the organisers of these demonstrations must have realised the likelihood of what occurred, at least accepted the likelihood of what occurred, and are therefore wholly responsible for what occurred?

Mr. Jenkins

Of course I agree with the hon. and learned Member that what took place on Saturday is intolerable. What we must consider is how, within the limits of the law, and on the basis of our respect for freedom of speech, we may best prevent repetitions of it.

It is not, of course, the case, even if it were held to be right under, I think, Section 3 of the Public Order Act 1936 to forbid processions in a particular place or area for a particular time—and those powers are very closely circumscribed—that we could automatically prevent attempts at processions from taking place or ensure that the consequences were less bad than those we saw on Saturday.

Mr. Bidwell

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that if there is any validity in his own view that there should be extra machinery for inquiry into allegations of police malpractices—a view to which he and his predecessors subscribe—then this must be an event which begs for such an investigation if only to clear up doubts on all sides and in the interests of all the participants in last Saturday's events? [HON. MEMBERS: "Declare your interest."]. My right hon. Friend's statement about the purposes of the National Front-organised march was not entirely correct. It was basically directed towards opposing the measures concerning the Immigration Act 1971, which he has humanely changed. That was the main reason for the provocation, apart from other racist Fascist statements. Will my right hon. Friend consider strengthening Section 6 of the Race Relations Act 1965 in order to ban Fascist racist demonstrations of this kind?

Mr. Jenkins

My hon. Friend should appreciate that what is primarily at issue when demonstrations leading to violence of this sort take place, and demonstrations likely to cause a confrontation, is not the cause for which people are demonstrating, whether that may be right or wrong, but the way in which those people behave and the consequences there may be in terms of public order, loss of life and injury.

On the earlier part of the question, I do not think that this is a matter which touches in any way upon the procedure for the investigation of individual complaints against the police, which is a quite different matter. If there be a case for looking into this, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has told me that he would welcome the fullest and most independent inquiry in order to clear up the matter, to show what occurred and to make it more difficult for people to cause breaches of the peace of this sort in the future.

Mr. Heath

I join the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) in expressing sympathy to the relatives of the student who died. I strongly support the Home Secretary in what he said about the police and welcome, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, the Commissioner's desire to have a full inquiry into the matter.

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer one question which seems to be at the heart of the matter? Anyone who saw that there was to be a meeting and, as the advertisement said, a counter-demonstration by these two bodies in one hall, and in the area surrounding the hall, must have recognised that there would be a high risk of violence breaking out, and that the police, doing their best to keep the factions apart, would have an intolerable burden placed upon them. Is there no way by which such a confrontation can be prevented in the future? I find it difficult to believe—the right hon. Gentleman may have information about this—that if the matter had been put to the Conway Hall authorities in that way they would not have agreed that two meetings of this kind should not take place at the same time. I believe they would have acted upon that advice.

Alternatively, if the Commissioner of Police had asked the right hon. Gentleman to use such powers as he has to prevent this coming about, whilst I agree that an attempt to prevent a march might also have led to difficulty, would it not have been less than the danger of confrontation of these two bodies in a hall and in such a small space outside? If the right hon. Gentleman requires further powers to prevent such an event in future, could he tell the House so, after consideration? I believe that another such situation would be intolerable, and we should take the powers to prevent it.

Mr. Jenkins

Those responsible for the hall were aware of the problem. They did not take action to cancel the bookings—I think that statements about this have been published—although, short of this, I believe that they wrote responsibly to both organisations, and that they made attempts which were unsuccessful, but which proved not to be central to the issue, to padlock off the one part of the hall from the other. The police arranged different routes of approach.

But I do not think that the mere denial of the small hall would necessarily have made a crucial difference, if the procession had been anxious to proceed to Red Lion Square, and to another part of it, and there to hold an open air meeting, as it did, in the vicinity of the other meeting.

The position under the Public Order Act is that the initiative is with a chief officer of police. He has traditionally always exercised it extremely sparingly and with extreme caution. Such marches and counter-marches have taken place under preceding administrations of both political colours. As the right hon. Gentleman appreciates, if people are determined to create public disorder, the mere banning of the march, saying that it will not take place, may—I emphasise "may"—create greater rather than less public disorder. But I shall certainly examine the matter, bearing in mind the need to preserve free speech, of which I think it has been generally accepted that a right to demonstrate peacefully is part.

I shall examine the matter in that context, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that if one were to make a substantial change here it would involve the Commissioner of Police, and indirectly me, taking upon ourselves—and it would involve our successors taking upon themselves—a responsibility for announcing exactly what is a proper meeting, exactly what is a demonstration which can be permitted, which the authorities in this country have never done, and which would be very difficult to interpret in accordance with both free speech and public order.