HC Deb 05 November 1974 vol 880 cc884-9
Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether, in the light of the disturbances at the port of Holyhead last night, he is satisfied that the security arrangements there and in other cattle ports are adequate; and if he will make a statement.

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

I have been in touch with the chief constables for the areas concerned, upon whom rests the responsibility for operations to maintain public order and to keep the peace. As has been widely reported, there have been attempts, particularly at Holyhead, to prevent the unloading of cattle, and there were disturbances last night, as a result of which 10 people were arrested. Some limited damage was done to police and other property at Holyhead and one or two minor injuries were sustained. I understand that attempts have also been made to obstruct the movement of cattle trains.

The Chief Constable of North Wales has concentrated up to 700 men at Holyhead, including contingents from Cheshire and West Mercia forces. In districts where the police are necessarily spread over a wide area, there are obvious problems in bringing adequate strength to bear at specific points, and I commend the success of the mutual aid arrangements, which have worked well. Plainly, however, there is a threat not only to law and order but also to human safety when large numbers of demonstrators gather in dock areas, and I very much hope that these demonstrations will now cease.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply and the assurances that he has given. Any action leading to violence and danger to life is to be deplored and does not have the support of the farming unions, but is my right hon. Friend aware, although this is not his direct responsibility, that the underlying causes of these demonstrations need the most careful examination? Clear statements of policy on the import of live cattle from Ireland and other matters affecting the beef industry are needed immediately. Will he be good enough to convey this to his right hon. Friends?

Mr. Jenkins

I shall, of course, convey my right hon. Friend's message to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend and the overwhelming majority of Members will agree with me that even if there are grievances, and even assuming that they are legitimate grievances, the way to demonstrate them is not by the means which have been adopted in recent days.

Mr. Wyn Roberts

Does the Home Secretary have reports of disturbances today in other parts of the country, notably in Barry and Glasgow? Does he know who is organising these disturbances? Is there any connection between them? Is there any evidence that men with a history of violence are taking part in these disturbances?

Mr. Jenkins

The answer to the last question is "No, not as far as I am aware." I shall make inquiries following the point raised by the hon. Member. There are four so-called cattle ports: Glasgow, Holyhead, Birkenhead, and Silloth, in Cumbria. At Glasgow today there were 15 pickets at the quayside to meet a boat which had recently arrived. At Barry, I understand that a boat docked at 9 a.m. It was not a boat carrying live cattle, Barry not being a cattle port, but it contained two refrigerated units, and there is a picket of farmers at the dock entrance, where about 300 to 400 people were congregated this morning.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the normally peacable farmers of Wales have been driven to this kind of unprecedented action by the long history of unconcern and complacency shown by the Government in the increasingly desperate Welsh agricultural situation? The protests would stop if the Government did a few things at once—such as raising the ban on the export of livestock, giving a bottom to the price of beef, and giving a cash injection so that people can pay for their hay. Hundreds of thousands of animals will starve this winter unless the Government give immediate assistance to these Welsh farmers. If assistance were given, these protests would cease at once.

Mr. Jenkins

Whatever else the Government have, they do not, as yet, have a long history. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's point about a long history is not appropriately directed. I take seriously the points he makes but he would not expect a substantive reply from me. His points will be taken into account by the Ministry, but I hope that the farmers of Wales will revert to their long history of peaceful behaviour.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a very large number of Members on this side of the House are in full support of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) about the plight of the farmers and the railwaymen at the port of Holyhead? Few of us have any sympathy with Members of Parliament who use the justifiable grievances of people from agricultural areas for cheap political advantage.

Mr. Lane

I am sure we all deprecate violence in any demonstration and hope, as the Home Secretary has said, that these issues can be settled by peaceful discussion and consultation. However, do not all the regrettable disturbances show how right we have been on this side, notably my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), to warn the Government of the crisis in agriculture and to call for action to help the farmers?

May I ask the Home Secretary two questions? First, following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts), will the Home Secretary inform the House in due course of the result of the inquiries he is making about the evidence that troublemakers other than farmers may have been involved? This has been one of the most sinister features of a number of demonstrations in recent years, and I think the House ought to be informed.

Secondly, fending off farmers is yet another novel task laid on our hard-pressed police, who will certainly discharge it with their usual patience and efficiency. But will the Home Secretary give the House an absolute assurance that this Government, like the last Government, will treat the police as a special case and exempt police expenditure from any financial restrictions that may be unavoidable for other local services? The Queen's Speech is regrettably silent on this problem, so will the Minsiter now make it clear that strengthening the police and safeguarding orderly life in this country will be one of the Government's highest priorities?

Mr. Jenkins

I find it almost impossible to imagine a supplementary question which covered under one umbrella a wider range of points. I will look at the question of whether troublemakers are involved. I have as yet no reason to think that is so. Indeed, there is a certain contradiction in the hon. Gentleman saying it proves how right his right hon. Friend was and at the same time saying it was all stirred up by troublemakers who were brought in extraneously. But I shall look at this matter. There is clearly a possibility, but I think no more than a possibility and an unlikely one, that this could be the issue here.

This is another indication of the many strains which are put on the police from a variety of quarters. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my intention, as was indeed stated in the Labour Party Manifesto, is to strengthen the police in the proper discharge of their duties.

Mr. Hooson

I agree with the Home Secretary that one hopes that farmers in Wales, as elsewhere, will return to normal peaceable procedures, but does he appreciate that for a community to resort to this kind of action shows how desperate these people are? Only a minority of the people who attend these meetings indulge in any violence. Does the Home Secretary appreciate that every legitimate means has been used to express the farmers' grievances in the House by right hon. and learned Friends of the Home Secretary and right hon. and hon. Members on this side and that no action has been taken by the Government? It is in these circumstances that the farmers have resorted to this kind of demonstration, bearing in mind that this is the only kind of demonstration that seems to move Governments these days.

Mr. Jenkins

I understand that incidents of this sort do not occur unless strong feelings are involved. I am also aware that strong feelings can be involved on a number of sides in a great number of different issues. I deplore demonstrations of this sort, whatever the instigation and whatever the source from which they come. I therefore hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman, whatever he may feel about the reasons for them, will be as strong in deploring breaches of the peace of this sort as he has been in deploring other breaches of the peace.

Mr. Sillars

Will my right hon. Friend accept from some hon. Members on the Government side that there is a very real difficulty facing the livestock industry at present? Bearing in mind, however, that these pickets have been organised, will he accept that from all quarters of the House no one would want any farmer who has been arrested to be charged under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875? Nor would anyone in the House want deterrrent sentences applied to these people; and, without mentioning the word "Shrewsbury," I hope that my right hon. Friend has taken the point.

Mr. Jenkins

This Private Notice Question leads to a wider range of supplementary question that almost any other Private Notice Question I have experienced. I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I remind both him and the House that prosecutions, if they arise, are a matter for the police, or, in certain cases, for the Director of Public Prosecutions, and not for me.

Mr. Pym

Although none of us believes that demonstrations leading to the kind of scenes we have discussed could be justified, does the Home Secretary accept that the root cause of the matter is the deep despair in the livestock sector? Is it not a fact that the industry no longer has confidence in the Minister of Agriculture, and is that not the root cause of the trouble?

Mr. Jenkins

No, I do not accept that suggestion.