HC Deb 11 April 1975 vol 889 cc1648-94

1.44 p.m.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I beg to move, That this House regrets Her Majesty's Government's lack of support for the rule of law. I wish to call attention to threats to the rule of law. In a sense, this subject is the most important of those which we debate in the House in time of peace, although one would not think so by the attendance in the House today.

The rule of law is the foundation stone upon which our civilisation rests. It is the structure which makes all the laws we pass here meaningful to the working of our society and the happiness of our people. It is so fundamental that we take it too much for granted. We learn about it, feel that it will always be there, and move on to deal with the minutiae and details of legislation, or, as perhaps more truly explains the turn-out in the House today, we move off to do other work in our constituencies. However, we do wrong to take it for granted. It may not always be there. Even now it is being eaten away by certain forces, and hacked away by others, while we stand carelessly by and wait for its destruction.

Let me define my terms and the limits within which I shall confine my argument. Much has been written about the concept of the rule of law. It has many meanings. I shall not weary the House with a potted lecture on the subject or references to the great philosophers and jurisprudents who define it. In my view, the rule of law means the system of law and order in our country, based as it is upon laws passed by a democratically-elected Government, enforced by impartial courts and voluntarily respected by law-abiding citizens.

I place emphasis upon the words "parliamentary democracy", "impartial courts" and "voluntarily respected". I do so to distinguish it from the rule of law which undoubtedly may be said to exist in a totalitarian State, but a State which has no democracy and no impartial courts, and which has a respect for the law which is achieved through fear. Paradoxically, the disintegration of our system may, and if we are not vigilant and alive will, lead through anarchy to the imposition of that other rule of law. That would not be the kind of rule of law which the British people want. The threats to the rule of law of which I speak are threats to the rule of law as we in this country know it and revere it.

Hon Members will notice that my motion does not allege that. Her Majesty's Government have broken the law. Governments, through their majority in Parliament, make laws, and, as long as the due processes are followed, what is produced is, whether it is good or bad, the law. My attack on this Government is that while they are the body which must uphold the rule of law, too often the laws which they have passed or are passing are destructive of the hallowed traditions of that rule of law. They break down respect for law. They are partial to Labour Party political interests. They encourage unlawful behaviour by the people, which destroys the spirit of the rule of law. When I say, further, that they offend the constitution, I mean the constitutional behaviour of which a former distinguished Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, spoke when he said, Constitutional behaviour is not the same thing as keeping within the strict letter of legality. Any constitutional lawyer will tell you that. The strict letter of the law requires the Royal Assent to every Act of Parliament. But any constitutional lawyer will tell you that the withholding of the Royal Assent would not nowadays be constitutional. Constitutionalism demands the acceptance of certain conventions and practices which demand more than obedience to the law as such, and are demanded by national experience, loyalty and respect shown by one group to another, or to individuals, or to the country as a whole, and justified by utility. Hitherto the British people have been great exponents of constitutionality, examples of which they are apt to call by rather homely names, like fair play, sportsmanship etcetra. It is at the heart of the British way of life, and if it were lost, I believe the rule of law would fly out of the window with it. Too many Ministers are too frightened to offend their party supporters by defending what they may know to be right. How many men or women ar there of real courage in the governing party who will quite properly ask, as did the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) in the debate on the Clay Cross Councillors Bill, If they were not Labour councillors, would the Bill be going through today? or say, like the Secretary of State for Education, who stood out against a deputation from his constituency on behalf of the Shrewsbury pickets, As a matter of principle, I am not prepared to meet any delegation dealing with this matter. These two men broke the law. They were sentenced by the court and they made an appeal which failed. I fully support the Home Secretary's decision not to interfere. I believe it is absolutely essential at the present time to uphold the rule of law and order, and I deplore the attitude of so many of my fellow trade unionists who seem to be intent upon creating the impression that these two men are some kind of working class heroes. It is not only the evil doers in the Government whom I condemn. It is also those good men who do not stand up, who do nothing, for, as Burke said, All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. My theme, then, is this. Her Majesty's Government produce laws that offend the rule of law as we know it. They produce an attitude that is contemptuous of due process. They too seldom speak out in defence of the rule of law and sometimes they even speak out in attack on the rule of law. I go further and charge that the reason why there is this concept for the rule of law is that the Labour Party is over-dominated and controlled by those who advance a political creed whose interest it is to destroy the rule of law.

Let me deal first with the controllers of the Labour Party, for that will help to explain why that party does not uphold the rule of law. There are large numbers of hon. Members who are sponsored by trade unions. Some unions, presumably, have greater influence over hon. Members than have others. Some unions are more powerful than others. Some have a greater say at the Labour Party conference than others. Some make a greater contribution to Labour Party funds than others. Some unions, namely, the most powerful, those with the greatest financial muscle, and yet others that can bring industry grinding to a halt, are dominated by Communists or Communist sympathisers.

I can cite examples. Last year, the Transport and General Workers' Union gave £150,000 to the Labour Party and had 18 sponsored members. It produces 1 million votes at the Labour Party conference and had 10 out of 39 members of its national executive either card-carrying Communists or Communist sympathisers. The Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers had 17 sponsored members and gave £134,000 to the Labour Party. It produced 985,000 votes at the Labour Party conference and had seven out of 13 members of its national executive Communists or Communist sympathisers.

The National Union of Mineworkers, with 19 sponsored Members, contributes £40,000 to the Labour Party and had 271,000 votes at the Labour Party Conference, and it had 14 out of 29 members of its national executive Communists or sympathisers. The Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs had five sponsored Members and 151,000 votes at the Labour Party Conference and contributed £23,000 to the Labour Party, and had 15 out of 23 members of its national executive Communists or sympathisers.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I thought that the hon. Member believed in democracy. These people are democratically elected.

Mr. Lawrence

They are democratically elected, but the power that they exercise is out of all proportion to their numbers in the country and it is exercised at key points in the unions. It is exercised by virtue of their union's contributions to the Labour Party and, in view of the number of sponsored Members of Parliament, their opinions must to some extent be reflected in the House when the House decides matters arising out of questions of the rule of law.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

Would the hon. Gentleman give one specific instance in which this so-called dominance has been reflected in one breach of the rule of law in relation to sponsored Members of Parliament?

Mr. Lawrence

Yes, I certainly shall. That will be the gravaman of my speech.

We know that the unions are strong in the Labour Party and that Communists are strong in the unions. There are thus two questions to answer. First, what do the Communists want with the unions? Secondly, how great is their actual power in the Labour Party? As a Conservative Member I find it not exactly easy to answer, and I may be accused of bias if I try. So let me say in their own words what the Communist want and, in the words of others who know better than I, what their power is.

We can do no better than start with Lenin who in 1922 wrote: In 50 years —that is 1972— armies will no longer have much meaning for we shall have sufficiently corrupted our enemies before the conflict breaks out, so that the military apparatus at their disposal cannot be used in the hour of need. I wonder what Lenin would have thought of our rule of law. More recently, Mr. Mick McGahey, then the Vice-President of the National Union of Mineworkers and President of the Scottish mineworkers wrote in the Morning Star: There are undoubtedly many miners who, so beset by financial worries, simply want a wage increase and see no political implications in what they are doing … But there are many miners now whose thinking transcends short-term economic gains, who have recognised the futility of trying to control the capitalist system from the middle by staying on it. It is the system the Government follow which concerns us. We shall therefore break stage 3 and we shall do all we can to bring the Government down. But these are incidents on the road, not the end of the road itself. Describing his approach, he said, I came to realise that we did not just want changes of Government but changes in society. The only party I could see advocating change was the Communist Party. Capitalism is an antiquated system that should be consigned to the dustbin of society and a new society created. That is an approach that appals some moderates in both the unions and the Labour Party, and Mr. Tom Jackson, the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers, said, I have seen statements coming from Executive members at the mineworkers who say, 'Look first we'll destroy stage 3 and then we'll destroy the Government and then well go on to the revolution'. I believe once it is commonly known that the fight is not about wages but about revolution the trade union leaders concerned will find there is nobody working behind them". Unfortunately, that was not so. The moderate Mr. Jackson could not stop the drive of the Left wing extremists in the National Union of Mineworkers and as a result stage 3 was destroyed and with it the Government. Are we to assume that those who brought that about are not anxious that we should go on to the next stage, revolution?

It is not just trade union moderates who are apprehensive, worried or perhaps even scared stiff—and I hope they are—of the influence of these people. It was in 1966 that the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the Communists had at their disposal an efficient and disciplined industrial apparatus. He told us: No major strike takes place anywhere in this country in any sector of industry in which the apparatus failed to show itself. Full time officers of the party —that is, the British Communist Party which numbers about 30,000— were ready to operate in any situation where industrial troubles were developing". We have the authority of the industrial organiser of the Communist Party in Britain—and to some extent this answers the Minister's interjection—for saying what is the power of the Communists over the Labour Party.

Mr. Bert Ramelson said of the Communist Party that it: could float an idea early in the year and it can become official Labour Party policy by the autumn. That may have been boasting. However. there are few hon. Members who have had greater experience of Government or of the Labour Party than Lord George-Brown. He said in The Times of 9th December 1972: We have been taken over. And we have been taken over by a collection of people who call themselves activists. We call them, equally politely, extremists. But they are for the most part people who don't believe in our way of life or in our social democratic outlook. Frankly I think they are just believers in destroying what exists … In each case the constituency party consists of half a dozen of the extremists who have moved in. And these fellows have now captured control of the Labour movement at every level; constituency parties, trade union branches, executives of the trade unions, the General Council of the TUC, the Labour Party National Executive and the Shadow Cabinet. That is not me speaking, that is someone who knows far more about the workings of the Labour Party in Government and Opposition than I.

Have we not cause to be concerned about the influence that Communists and fellow-travellers have upon the Labour Party and upon the Government? Is it absolutely absurd to conclude that, if that is the influence they have and if we know that they want to destroy society, some of the explanations for some of the activities of the Government which are destructive of society are to be found in the activities of these people?

I come now to talk, as I was invited to by the Minister, about the effect that that influence has upon the rule of law. I can cite a recent example of failure to speak up. I have given examples of the Secretary of State and others, and there are many, but unfortunately not enough hon. Gentlemen who will speak up. Where was the speaking up when the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress allowed the former head of the KGB to visit this country, causing the widest possible offence to vast groups here? Where was the speaking up and the condemnation from the Government on that occasion? I know that it would not be easy to stop, but what we needed were some words. They were few and far between from the Government.

As a second category of threats to the rule of law I come to verbal attacks by Ministers on that rule. There is the evidence of the Secretary of State for Industry who in 1972 praised the imprisoned dockers. They had been imprisoned according to the due processes of law. It hardly bestows great respect upon the system if those who are leaders of the country—although the right hon. Gentleman was not then a Minister—praise such people in such terms.

Then there was the Secretary of State for Employment who at the time of May Day 1973 officially supported the national strike against the Conservative Government's prices law. That was a law passed by Parliament. It ought to have been respected. Perhaps in due course another Government could say that they would repeal it. Officially to support a strike in those circumstances is a form of attack upon the rule of law. To go on to say, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that the judges were stretching the law to suit reactionary attitudes, to describe, as I heard the right hon. Gentleman describe in this House, the judge in the Industrial Relations Court as "trigger happy", is to pour scorn upon the system which upholds the rule of law.

Mr. Weitzman

Why not?

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. and learned Member has spent the best years of his life serving the rule of law. How can it be right for the leaders of our nation to criticise judges who cannot answer back in circumstances when they were only doing their duty? How can it be right for the hon. and learned Gentleman to imply that that is no attack upon the law? When the nation's leaders start criticising the judiciary, is it any wonder that their followers have no respect for the rule of law?

There is a third category of attack upon legislation—the attack on the Industrial Relations Act. The logic behind the Conservative Government's Industrial Relations Act was to a large extent shared by the Labour movement in the mid-1960s. The Donovan Commission produced a report which formed the basis of legislation which the Labour Party in Government were to introduce.

The Labour Government did not introduce it, but only because the unions, which are the power in the party, said, "No, we will not have it." Then a Conservative Government came into power and began implementing much the same sort of legislation. They might have reasonably expected some support from the Labour Party, or, at least, perhaps not the sort of attack from the Labour Party that was launched upon that legislation. But of course the Labour Party found no difficulty in turning itself upon its head and it opposed with demoniacal fervour the legislation which a few months earlier it would have been perfectly happy to introduce.

Mr. Weitzman

Is the hon. Gentleman now supporting the Industrial Relations Act? Does he want it back again? Is his party prepared to reintroduce it?

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that that is not a serious intervention. I am not describing the value of the policy in the light of all that has happened. There was nothing wrong with the basis of that legislation. The Labour Party would do well to remember that it saw little wrong with it when it suited it. That is not the point I am making. The hon. and learned Gentleman should not try to distract me from the point, which I believe he appre- ciates. It is that the law is the law. It can be altered in due course by another Government but campaigns can scarcely be mounted against the law by a party which later comes to the House and asks, "What threat to the rule of law?"

There was not just a verbal attack, not just marching in the streets. We know that the essence of that Act was to secure the registration of unions. If they registered, certain tax concessions were granted. It is difficult to imagine that something like the following did not happen when the Labour Party mounted its attack on the Industrial Relations Act. No doubt certain unions approached certain members of the Labour Party and asked, "If the Labour Party get back into power what will happen to the money we are losing because tax concessions are not being given to us?". It is not too farfetched to suppose that somewhere at some time some highly-placed person or other in the Labour Party replied, "If we get back into power we will give you back the money which you lose by not registering". What the unions who did not register were saying was, "We will adopt this course of action knowing full well the penalties we suffer by doing so but we want the penalties waived as soon as you get back into power". Therefore, it was no surprise when a promise was made in the Labour Party manifesto to pay back the £10 million. It was no surprise when, in due course, legislation appeared before the House. It was no surprise when that legislation was passed.

But what possible justification is there, within the structure of the rule of law, for a potential Government to say to the unions "Support us in our attack on the Industrial Relations Act. Get us back into power and we shall give you back your money"? That savours of the sort of squalid deals that we have heard that President Nixon made in the United States with certain companies. Can we believe that no private assurances were given? I do not think that we have heard it publicly denied that no such assurances were given.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

In case anyone ever reads the hon. Gentleman's speech, may I make a public denial now. No assurance was ever contained in a Labour Party manifesto. An assurance was produced after we came into power last March as a result of discussions within the Government. There was no pre-election pledge to any trade union in respect of the £10 million repayment.

Mr. Lawrence

I accept that denial from the Minister. I accept that as far as he knows that is absolutely and completely true. I do not dispute that. However, it makes it even the more strange that the Government felt bound to introduce legislation when there was no pledge in the Labour Party's manifesto and when they were not committed to introduce it. Of course, that is not the point that I wish to make. My point is that what happened was an encouragement. It was an interference with the process of law and it was an encouragement t,.; future law breakers.

I turn to another example—namely, Clay Cross. This is a subject that will be well known to Labour Members. They will have cause to remember it all the days of their political lives. I shall briefly review the circumstances because, like all these causes célèbres, people tend to forget exactly what happened.

The Housing Finance Act placed a duty on local councils to determine fair rents and to make progressive increases towards fair rents by implementing increases of up to £1 a week for the first year and then subsequent increases in subsequent years. When the fair rent was ascertained, councils were to repay any excess and to make rebates to tenants from rents with reference to their "needs and resources". The effect of non-implementation of the Act was to save most tenants from having to pay an increase of £1 a week and some from increases of much less than that. It also meant that 160 tenants in Clay Cross would have to pay more rent than they would otherwise have been required to pay through loss of the rebate which was open to them under the Act.

In September 1972 the Clay Cross Council resolved not to implement the Act. It instructed its officers to take no steps to put the Act into operation. The councillors' argument was that they had been elected on the express promise not to carry out the requirements of the Act. The council's clerk, the chief officers and the Minister warned the councillors of the consequences of defying the Act. In November 1972 the Department of the Environment notified Clay Cross and other councils of orders declaring them to be in default. They were given 16 days in which to instruct their officers to make provisional assessment of a fair rent for every council house and to prepare a scheme of rent allowances for private tenants. They refused to take that action.

The Minister was faced with four courses and he decided to introduce an order for an extraordinary audit. The district auditor was ordered to make the audit and he duly arrived in Clay Cross and began his work. The Clay Cross auditor considered the facts and heard the councillors' submissions. He decided that a loss of just under £7,000 had been incurred by their negligence and misconduct and he surcharged them. He said that there had been a deliberate flouting of the law in furtherance of their political views. In due course the councillors appealed to the High Court. The court held that the decision of the councillors constituted "negligence or misconduct" within the meaning of the Act, and that no matter how sincerely the councillors believed in the course that they had followed, no matter how strong were their feelings of moral obligation and no matter whether it was a matter of policy or politics, the inescapable fact was that the councillors had deliberately broken the law. It was, found that the deficiency found by the district auditor did not result from any failure by the Minister, who was under no obligation to appoint a housing commissioner. It was found that the loss arose from the councillors' decision to break the law.

In October 1973 the Labour Party Conference passed Resolution No. 191 on a show of hands. Labour Members will recall that a large part of the conference is constituted by the large and powerful unions. They have powerful influence and representation on the executive. The resolution read: This conference deplores the lack of initiative shown by the National Executive Committee in failing to defend the Clay Cross Council in its fight against the Housing Finance Act. Conference urges the National Executive Committee to take all positive steps to defend the interests of the councils and to intensify the national struggle against this iniquitous legislation. Conference further agrees that upon the election of a Labour Government, all penalties, financial or otherwise, should be removed retrospectively from councillors who have courageously refused to implement the Housing Finance Act. The national executive, which included seven members of the present Government, resolved that the conference decision should be fulfilled. The Minister has said that no prior assurances were given as regards the £10 million, but that hardly applied to the Housing Finance Act and to the Clay Cross councillors.

In answer to a request from myself the Prime Minister was good enough to send me a transcript of what the Leader of the House said at the Labour Party Conference on 3rd October 1973. The right hon. Gentleman said: let me say at once that Clay Cross is something rather special. It really is. I think everybody in Britain, in the Labour movement and outside, is full of sympathy and admiration for the stand that David Skinner and his colleagues have taken. It is an area of high unemployment, low wages. It is an area with very many problems. It is not true to say that the NEC has done nothing. It has given a great deal of advice to them, and it has also given a promise that the next Labour Government will remove all the disqualifications from them. But I believe that we have now got to go further than this in the case of Clay Cross, and so the NEC on Friday passed a resolution which says this: 'that this NEC shall consider ways and means of assisting councillors in their financial difficulties arising out of their refusal to implement the Housing Finance Act, and this will be done immediately after the conference.' But we want to go further than that, and I am going to recommend conference to accept Agenda Motion No. 191 with Amendments B and C which the mover and seconder have accepted, but not D. He could have said: "We will do all we can to help. Of course, we have given certain undertakings but we cannot go any further than that. We cannot say anything which might encourage people to break the law. You will have to bear with me. We cannot possibly accept this conference motion."

Is that what he said? No. He said: I am going to recommend conference to accept Agenda Motion No. 191. … We make this recommendation on this understanding. First that it refers to Clay Cross. I think conference will understand well why I am saying that. Secondly, that you leave it to us when the time comes to see how this can be implemented. We believe a way can be found of implementing it. Finally, I have got to say that the acceptance of this motion must not be taken by anybody to be an encouragement to any Labour Councillors anywhere to act unlawfully. We have gone as far in this as we possibly can. I believe everybody in the conference will understand it …". What on earth could that speech possibly mean other than, "Do not start rioting in the streets. Let us have no violence. Do not break the law in that way. We shall see that you are all right when we get back into power. Just carry on refusing to implement the Housing Finance Act, and we shall see that you are all right when we get back".

The right hon. Gentleman did not actually say that, of course. But if he had been saying, as is often alleged, that there was no incitement there to carry on breaking the Housing Finance Act, why did he not say so? Why did not he say, "I must tell you that it is unlawful and that we cannot condone the continued breaking of the Act"? He said no such thing.

In due course, the Clay Cross councillors appealed. The case was again looked into to see whether they were law breakers. Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, sitting with two other very distinguished judges, dismissed the appeal. I quote from the report of the judgment which appeared in The Times: It lay ill in the mouth of the councillors to say that the Minister had acted unlawfully. Each of them had deliberately broken the solemn promise which he had given when accepting office. Each had flagrantly defied the law. Each was determined still to continue to defy it, yet they complained that the Minister had acted unlawfully. If he had done so, the Court would not hesitate to say so. It would not tolerate the abuse of power by the executive arm of government. But there was none. The councillors by their conduct had presented a grave problem to all concerned in the good government of the country. The Minister could take action to see that the law was obeyed. He was the one to decide which of several courses was the best to take. So long as he acted in good faith his decision was not to be questioned. In two towns in Wales a Housing Commissioner had been appointed, but in Clay Cross the Minister directed an extraordinary audit. In every case it was for him to decide. If he had thought that if he directed an extraordinary audit the councillors would be disqualified there was nothing wrong in that. The men were not fit to be councillors. The sooner they were disqualified the better. If the only means of doing it was by an extraordinary audit, it was a lawful means to a legitimate end. … The attack made by the councillors on the Minister was entirely without foundation. The statement of claim disclosed no reasonable cause of action. The proceedings were vexatious. The councillors were seeking, by one shift or another, to escape the consequences of their own wrong-doing. The time had come when they must be told quite firmly that the law must be obeyed. Their disobedience could not be tolerated. They were disqualified. They must stand down. Others must be elected in their place—others who would fulfil the duties which these eleven had failed to do. His Lordship trusted that there were good men to be found in Clay Cross ready to take over. Those are the facts. In due course, this Government assumed office and began drafting a Bill. It is perfectly true that the Bill does not let off the Clay Cross councillors from the £7,000 liability. That is the deficit for which they have been surcharged up to the time at which the auditor went in and made his surcharge. But this is the sop which this Government have given to law and order. They have let off the Clay Cross councillors in respect of every item which should be surcharged after the auditor went in, and the sum of money involved is very substantial. The Government are also letting off the Clay Cross councilors from three and a half years of their disqualification. That is the Bill, and currently it is in Committee.

Let no one say that that is not interfering with the process of the law. The situation is not the same as it was in the Poplar days, in 1927, when Lansbury said, "I do not agree with this law. I will break it, and I will suffer the consequences and go to prison." This is the case of the Clay Cross councillors, who have many mouths in the Labour Party and in this House, saying, "We will break the law and our supporters, if not we ourselves, will want the consequences of our breaking the law to be swept to one side when Labour return to power." That is what is happening.

I say nothing, not because it is sub judice but because the Attorney-General is in the middle of giving his explanation in Committee, about whether he was right to give his advice and whether he stuck to it. I say nothing about that out of respect for the Attorney-General, although on Second Reading the Opposition asked for his resignation—indeed, I asked for the resignation of the Solicitor-General and of the Lord Chancellor as well. After all, the Law Officers are appointed to uphold the law against pressures on the Government. Those Law Officers cannot continue in office when the law is being threatened, attacked or hacked away.

What happened was that an undertaking was given by a Minister to the Labour Party Conference as a result of which a number of councils carried on breaking the Housing Finance Act. Now they are to be let off. The only one which will not be completely let off is Clay Cross. The Clay Cross councillors will not be let off in respect of £7,000. However, there is to be a whip-round in the Labour Party. But the cost of all this letting off is about £1.5 million. If justice is justice, there should be a whip-round for that in the Labour Party. It should not be taken away from ratepayers in areas outside Clay Cross. In my view, it should not even be taken away from the council house tenants, because they were egged on by the Labour Party. If they had not been egged on, they would have set the money aside. But they were, and I cannot blame them. In justice, the Labour Party should pay, because this is a piece of Labour legislation which wrecks the rule of law.

I come to another matter where it is very difficult to say that the influence of the extreme Left in the Labour Party is not being shown. I refer to the case of the Shrewsbury pickets. Immediately I come to the rescue of the Minister of State and his Government. They have not given way to the Shrewsbury pickets' scream—

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

Not yet.

Mr. Lawrence

—and all praise to them. Nothing that I say is intended to convey the impression that at no stage will this Government uphold the rule of law. That would be unfair and wrong. At some stages they are doing so, and no doubt we shall hear from the Minister exactly what those stages are. My criticism is that at every stage a Government should uphold the rule of law, and not just here and there.

In the case of the Shrewsbury pickets, again I hope that the House will forgive me if I take up a little time in order to explain the facts, because again the myth is growing that these are working-class heroes who should be let off if they break the law because they were doing it in the name of society and good trade unionism.

The truth is that in North Wales, Shrewsbury and Telford a number of incidents of unlawful picketing occurred on eleven dates. It was unlawful picketing because it was not peaceful and because it involved violence to people, violence and damage to property and the intimidation of workers in order to compel them to stop working.

The two men, Tomlinson and Warren—the former being a shop steward with the Transport and General Workers' Union and chairman of the Wrexham Strike Action Committee, and the latter, Warren, being a shop steward with the UCATT and a member of the North Wales and Chester Strike Committee—attended a strike action committee meeting in Chester in August 1972 which decided to hire six coaches. On 6th September, the coaches took 250 or more pickets from various starting points, first to Oswestry and then on.

There was nothing wrong in that. As long as their picketing was to be peaceful, it was lawful. But was it peaceful?

On the first site overrun by the pickets, stones were thrown, windows were broken and equipment was overturned. Men in trenches were stoned, a bricklayer was hit on the head with a paint tin, a road roller driver was pulled from his machine and an iron bar was pushed into its engine. A lorry driver was made to leave the site and was threatened with a steel rod. The foreman had to fetch a gun to frighten the pickets off. The damage was in excess of £300.

At the second site the damage was over £500. A dumper and roller were overturned, kerb stones were shattered with a sledgehammer, two pickets put sand into the fuel tank of a chipping machine and its operator was threatened until he left the job.

On two other sites there was intimidation by shouting and threats. At one of them the pickets executed a pincer movement. They came on to the site shouting, "Kill the lump". Warren told the manager that it was a revolution, not a strike and "All lump bastards should be out of the trade". He addressed a meeting in the canteen and said "You can work if you want but you will be carried home in a pine box", meaning a coffin. At the other site pickets ran over the site shouting, "Kill the bastards; get the bastards off". Warren said that they were taking the industry over, and Warren was one of the pickets who was trying to overturn a shed.

At another site machinery was overturned, the canteen hut was stoned, invaded and smashed up. A compressor was tipped down a slope, narrowly missing a workman. Tomlin was seen attempting to force the door with a shovel.

At another site pickets entered like "a mad swarm", windows were smashed walls demolished and sand was put into machine fuel tanks. A 500-gallon fuel tank tap was turned on and workers were threatened. One man was hit on the forehead by a stone and the gash required stitches. Another had paint poured over him. Another, refusing to come down from scaffolding, was pulled from the ladder, hit on the back of the head and had to spend a week in hospital with concussion. Witnesses said that Tomlinson threatened them, ordered them off scaffolding and threw bricks at windows. The chief inspector, interviewing him afterwards, said that he made no reply to an allegation that he had admitted clobbering a brickie. Warren was identified as the leader of a group of pickets who were shouting, waving sticks and stoning men on the site.

Similar activities happened on the other sites and they were organised and planned by these two men. In summary, the case that was put against them was that at each site visited there was a display of violence, varying in degree, and intimidation. From the evidence of what occurred it could be inferred that there was a prior agreement, a conspiracy, to intimidate. There was evidence of the events leading up to the visit of the pickets to Shrewsbury and Telford and, in particular, evidence of the meeting of a strike action committee.

The defence—and witnesses were called—was that there was no talk of violence, force or intimidation at Oswestry; and that the meeting at Chester had been democratic and informal and had concluded that they should revisit Shrewsbury in greater numbers because there had been a report in the Press of the formation of an anti-picket force on building sites. All discussions were about peaceful and lawful picketing. There was no intention in the minds of the organisers to do anything unlawful. What happened on the sites "just happened" or "just broke out". Evidence to the contrary of Tomlinson's and Warren's involvement was denied.

That issue was put to the jury of 12 good men and true, and the jury rejected the men's case. There was an appeal against conviction, which was quashed. I will not weary the House with the way in which appeals are quashed when the various technicalities required are shown to have been fulfilled.

When it came to sentencing Tomlinson at the trial, the trial judge said: I am satisfied that you, with Warren, were the most militant of those leading the pickets. There is no excuse for your conduct whatsoever. … You were violent: you did damage and you threatened violence. Your conduct was quite inexcusable and there are no mitigating factors I can find. In sentencing Warren, the trial judge said: I take no account of any previous convictions you have. —he had one or two small ones— I am satisfied you were the leader and prime mover in the invasion of the sites. You took part in violence and violence is far too prevalent in this country today. There are many who think, and apparently you are one of them, that if they are thwarted in any shape or form they can impose their views upon the citizens of this country by indulging in violence, and do so with impunity. You are no martyr. I regard you as arrogant, vicious and prepared to impose your views upon others by violence if need be. You have the power of speech and the power of leadership which you apparently used to ill purpose. You thought you could flout the law. You were wrong. The Court of Appeal found no ground for interfering with those sentences.

It is clear that the jury found these men to have behaved like thugs. The law would be an ass indeed if it provided for no way in which people who behaved in that way on 11 different sites, on each of them on more than 30 separate occasions, could be convicted and appropriately punished.

I understand that perhaps these men were carried away with emotion and the rightness of their cause. That is not a reason—and has never been a reason—for breaking the law. It is not a reason now for hon. Gentlemen on the Government benches or supporters of the Shrewsbury pickets in the country to try to stop the law's operation. The law has operated, and it has been seen to have operated fairly. The law must in all circumstances be followed to its conclusion.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I realise that the hon. Gentleman is short of supporters on his bench but he seems to be rehearsing a large number of facts. I am trying to ascertain his object. He seems to be saying that the Home Secretary should do exactly what the Home Secretary has clone, namely, not exercise the prerogative of mercy. What is the hon. Gentleman complaining about?

Mr. Lawrence

I am not entirely surprised that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) does not understand the objects about which I am speaking, because he has only just walked into the Chamber. I am far advanced into my speech beyond the statement of my objects. My reason for referring to the Shrewsbury pickets is that there is substantial pressure from the Government benches and from the country and trade unions at large to free the pickets. All hon. Members have received letters from trade union representatives saying "Let the Shrewsbury pickets out. Interfere with the due process of law." Had the hon. Gentleman been here he would have heard that I am congratulating the Government on this occasion for so far holding firm on the rule of law.

Mr. Bowden

Apropos of what was said by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), did not many hon. Members on the Government side of the House take part in marches and lead groups into the House protesting against the imprisonment of the Shrewsbury pickets and demanding that the Home Secretary should release them? They are the guilty men.

Mr. Lawrence

I am most grateful for that most lucid interjection by my hon. Friend which fills in some of the detail I have not used.

Mr. Weitzman

Where in our constitution or our political life do we prevent people from making representations, howeved wrong, however misguided? People are entitled to make representations. The representations can be accepted or refused. The hon. Gentleman is saying that it is wrong for a Member of Parliament or a member of the public or a trade union to make representations.

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. That is not what I am saying, as he knows. Of course it is right for representations to be made, and it will be right if the Government stand firm and refuse to interfere with the rule of law as they interfered with the rule of law on other occasions about which I have spoken.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

As someone who has been present since the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which seems to be a very long one, may I ask him whether he can explain the reason for the delay over the serious matters he has described in such detail which took place on the sites when the people he has described were accompanied by a considerable number of police who had been told in great detail of the activities which were to take place on that day? Can he explain why there was such a delay between the events of that day, charges being brought and a court hearing taking place? Can he express an opinion on the propriety of prominent politicians commenting in public on such events at the Conservative Party annual conference? Does he not agree that all this—the delay in bringing the charges and the commenting of politicians on the events—lends substance to the suspicion that there were political motives behind the levelling of charges?

Mr. Lawrence

The answer to each of the hon. Gentleman's last three questions is "No". The men were tried by a jury. No doubt all those matters were brought to the attention of members of the jury, who would have had them at the forefront of their minds.

I am not arguing about the merits of the matter. I do not know all the details of the merits. I was not present at the hearing and I played no part in it. My point is different. Regardless of the merits—though, in passing, I observe that the jury found on the merits and that courts subsequently reconsidered the nature of the case—the law was properly enforced and the law should not be interfered with. So long as the Government refuse, which so far they have creditably done, to interfere with the law, so long will they be behaving responsibly.

Incidentally, it will be a test of the influence and power of extremists on the Labour Party and the Government whether in due course they relent. It will be a test, too, of the strength of will and integrity of the Home Secretary, which is never in doubt. But we shall have to wait and see. I raise the matter because there is great pressure on hon. Members to break the rule of law in this respect.

I turn to a matter which is less contentious from a party political point of view, but it generates much heat. It has been ventilated already this week and I shall not therefore spend long over it. The referendum is a totally alien institution to our constitutional doctrines.

Mr. English

It is European.

Mr. Lawrence

The people who most want a referendum to be held are the anti-Marketeers, who want us to leave the EEC. The anti-Marketeers and the pro-referendum people range themselves against the CBI, NFU. our partners in Europe, the Commonwealth, the United States, the Conservatives, half the Labour Party and Labour Government and the Liberals, but are on the side of the Russians, who want us out of the EEC, the Communist Party of Great Britain, which wants us out, the National Front, which wants us out, and the extreme Left wing in some of the unions—

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Luton, West) rose

Mr. Lawrence

That fact may be explainable, and I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to explain it.

Mr. Sedgemore

Did the hon. Gentleman hear the radio report this morning that the Chinese Government wanted the United Kingdom to stay in the Common Market and, accordingly, had reported the Common Market debate which took place in the House this week but left out all the anti-Market speeches?

Mr. Lawrence

I am—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going into great detail on the referendum. This is not a continuation of yesterday's debate. I have a fair idea of what he will refer to—the question of exemption from legal penalties, and so on—but I see no need for him to argue about who is ranged on one side or the other on the question of the referendum.

Mr. Lawrence

I defer to your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although it is not my fault that there is an argument. I have allowed questions to be put to me—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has gone into great detail on the question of the referendum.

Mr. Lawrence

I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I answer the intervention of the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore)? I am no great expert on Chinese matters, and I am not a defender of their system, but one explanation of China's support could be that, as Russia favours our leaving the EEC, they naturally take the opposite view. An explanation which I favour is that the Chinese have become friendly with Britain because of the great personality and charm of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath).

Mr. English

The hon. Gentleman has Sir Oswald Mosley on his side, too.

Mr. Lawrence

There are certain odd individuals on both sides, which militates against my point, but not substantially because it is a question of the power blocs. The extremists in the unions are in favour of our leaving the EEC and they are also pro-referendum.

Many of us think that the referendum, apart from being a ridiculous charade, is a very dangerous interference with the fabric of our constitution, because once we have broken into the fabric people will go on asking for the holding of referenda whenever it suits them and Governments will not resist the request. So we go down the slippery slope.

The referendum is such a novel introduction into our procedures, and it has been suggested so many times, that I wonder whether the Government genuinely believe that a referendum is a good thing. We have heard much this week about the reasons for it. The general belief among Opposition Members is that the Government propose to hold a referendum, against their will, to patch up the rift between the Right wing and Left wing of the Labour Party. Yesterday we heard some stirring words from the Leader of the House about how apt and appropriate a referendum was. But earlier leading members of the Government had spoken strongly against a referendum. In May 1970 the Prime Minister said, I think it is right that Parliament should take the decision. He said of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup, who was then Prime Minister, The Prime Minister said that I oppose a referendum, and I agree. In 1969 a Ten-Minute Bill was introduced which proposed a referendum on the EEC and among those who voted against it were a number of the Government.

Why has there been a change in the Government's attitude? Is it because of the great merits and attraction of a referendum? I think the answer is "No". A referendum is what the extremists in the unions, with power in the Labour Party, want because it will enable us—hopefully they think, hopelessly I think—to come out—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will have to show how he relates his detailed comments on the referendum—a matter of which the House has disposed—to the question of support for the rule of law.

Mr. Lawrence

I shall endeavour to do that shortly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My theme is that there has been an attack on the rule of law and that the reason for it is pressure from extremists. I am giving another example of pressure from extremists which brought about a change in the Government's attitude and which interferes with constitutionality as I defined it in quoting the Lord Chancellor, which is part of the fabric of the rule of law. You will be pleased, Sir Myer, to hear that I do not want to take up all the time because other hon. Members wish to speak. You will be pleased to know that your observation has brought me to the end of my observations on the referendum.

I have discussed some examples of how this Government have shown varying degrees of contempt for the concept of the rule of law and I have advanced some reasons for that. I look forward to hearing speeches which show where I am wrong—we can all be shown that—or where I am right. We on this side quite understand the difficulties of Labour Members in speaking out too loudly in favour of the rule of the law but only if they do is there a chance for the rule of law as we know it to survive.

There is great lawlessness in our society at present, as is shown by the increasing amount of crime and the growing number of cases before our courts. We can see the breakdown of discipline in our schools and at football matches. There is less respect for other people's property and freedom. Respectable farmers and fishermen are coming near to breaking, if they do not actually break, our laws. We see the growth of demonstrations often leading to violence and assault on the police.

We may, if we are not careful, see a growth of the hitherto law-abiding citizen's refusal to pay his rates and taxes. We can see the increasing disrespect in which our public institutions are held. We can see on the decline the regard in which Parliament and its members may once have been held, and, with that decline, a greater contempt for the work we do and the laws we pass.

This lawlessness is spreading from the top, from us here in Parliament. We are the leaders. If we do not set an example of respect for the rule of law, why should we expect others to show it? Above ordinary Members, at the top, are the Government. It is for the Government in all they do to uphold the rule of law. Doubtless because they are no longer their own masters and their leadership is weak and flabby this Labour Government have begun to destroy respect for the rule of law. But from that destruction will follow the destruction of our society as we know it. That is my indictment and the reason for my motion.

2.53 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney. North and Stoke Newington)

I have listened with great interest and considerable patience to the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who spoke for well over an hour. I compliment him on the enormous amount of work that he put into his speech, but I got the impression that he suffers from considerable hysteria with his talk about Reds under the bed, Communists, and all sorts of terrible things in the Labour Party. In time, as the years advance, I am sure that he will learn considerably better than that.

I hope that the convictions and arguments that he has expressed are not held by the majority of his party. He talks about Communists. We have reason to believe that there may be a certain Fascist element among the Tories, even a National Socialist element. People who are National Socialists now were formerly Tories.

The hon. Member's mistake when he talks about the rule of law is that he does not seem to recognise that although we all have to obey the law it is open to anyone to put forward any argument or make any representation. Even a Member of Parliament is entitled to do so. To suggest that because Members of Parliament or unions or deputations have put forward certain views they are encouraging breaches of the law is absurd, on the face of it.

The hon. Member gave a lot of elaborate figures about Communists in trade unions. He is presumably a democrat, even though a Tory. He surely recognises that it is the right of people to elect anyone in their union, whatever his political views. Why does he protest about that? He may not like Communists; I do not like them, either. He may not like their views; nor do I. That does not mean that a Communist should not be allowed to state his views and have them considered. We in the Labour Party have a proud tradition of containing not only moderates but also extremists. However, we are able to see different sides of the case and argue them out—unlike the rather sterile Tory Party.

In his condemnation of this Government for having, as he put it, encouraged breaches of the rule of law, the hon. Member mentioned only two specific instances—the Shrewsbury pickets and Clay Cross. I do not know what his complaint is about the Shrewsbury pickets. Is he denying the right of Members of Parliament, deputations or trade unions to put forward their views? The fact remains that the Home Secretary has clearly said, "I shall exercise the Royal Prerogative only in certain circumstances. If new evidence is brought forward which justifies me, I shall do so, but otherwise I uphold the decision of the court." So what is the complaint about the Shrewsbury pickets? The hon. Member spent a long time detailing what had happened to these pickets, dealing with the trials and the judgment of the court. But in the end his argument did not have a leg to stand on.

His case about Clay Cross was a repetition of what he has said in Committee. I am afraid that I must trouble the House with a repetition of what I said in Committee in answer to him. Clearly, his arguments are utterly wrong. In Committee he tried to suggest that the Housing Finance (Special Provisions) Bill constituted a threat to the rule of law. Quite the contrary. In that case, the judgment of the courts about the surcharge on the Clay Cross councillors is being upheld. The hon. Member called it a sop, but the judgment and therefore the rule of law is being upheld in that case. The judgment on the rule of law was not and is not interfered with in the Bill. The Government are dealing in difficult circumstances with councillors who may be surcharged further.

The hon. Gentleman told us about the Housing Finance Act 1972—a pernicious piece of legislation, which was bitterly resisted by many local councillors. I remind him that at the last moment Section 62 (4) was brought in. That deals with application to the Secretary of State. I gave an instance in Committee, and I repeat it now, of the London borough of Camden. The council made an application to the Secretary of State under that section and was kept waiting for some time. It then got a decision. After that it applied to have the decision revised. It was again kept waiting. Time passed, and there was default regarding the service of notice. The result, as in other cases, was that the council was in default. Now, 400 councillors may have to meet a surcharge of £1½ million. The conduct of local affairs over a long period would be disrupted unless some action were taken. The Tory Government—

Mr. Lawrence rose

Mr. Weitzman

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has taken all this time, and other hon. Members wish to speak.

The Tory Government, faced with the same dilemma, would have had to act in the same way. The hon. Gentleman, even in his long speech, has not mentioned that if there was a breach of the rule of law by the Labour Government there was equally a breach of the rule of law by Tory Governments.

There are ample precedents, whatever the hon. Gentleman may say in criticism of them. They were quoted on Second Reading of the Housing Finance Bill, and in Committee. The Poplar case is a typical example of a precedent in 1927, when there was a clear decision by the House of Lords that 97 councillors were in default and could have gone to prison. Yet the Tory Government removed that default.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I am anxious that the record should be accurate. I wonder when the hon. and learned Gentleman last read the case of Roberts v. Hopworth, to which he is referring. I read it this morning. In that case the district auditor expressly disclaimed that there was any suggestion of negligence or misconduct. Furthermore, it was accented from start to finish that the councillors concerned had exercised their discretion bona fide believing that the law authorised what they did.

Mr. Weitzman

I read the case two days ago, but it is still within my recollection. The point was clearly made by the Attorney-General when he quoted from it. I should not quote it otherwise, but I shall do so. My right hon. and learned Friend quoted the words of Mr. Chamberlain: In any case, it is not going to be any satisfaction to the injured ratepayers that 97 persons should go to prison, because, for the most part, the sums in question are not small sums, but they are very large, and the ratepayers would not be one penny better off if the penalty were exacted. If there were any question of a judge in a lower court having doubts, we would be bound by the judgment of the House of Lords which was clear in regard to the matter. Therefore, on that judgment the councillors were in default. With respect, the hon. and learned Gentleman's interjection was completely idle.

There is, in addition, the Merthyr case, and the precedents are there. One may pick faults, but they are there. Never during my happy enjoyment of membership of this House have I heard any member of the Tory Party say how disgraceful it was of the Secretary of State for Wales to interfere in the Merthyr case or to condemn the Tory Government for a breach of the rule of law.

The suggestion has been made that the removal of disqualification would be a breach of the law. In my view, that clearly is not so. The disqualification is not retrospective. The Clay Cross councillors will have served a period of disqualification until legislation removes it. Why is it wrong to do that?

On Second Reading I said that the court would take account of mitigating circumstances. The Clay Cross councillors were not criminals. They were elected to serve their constituents and they took a strong, hostile attitude to an Act of Parliament which they considered unjust. They were wrong in law. They have suffered the penalty of liability to a surcharge and a period of disqualification. That is their punishment for disobeying the law. Having regard to their sincerity and the belief that they were acting in the interests of those who they represented. I believe that it is right that the penalty should be mitigated, and mitigated in the way proposed in the Housing Finance (Special Provisions) Bill. There was no question of personal benefit on the part of the Clay Cross councillors.

When talking of the rule of law, surely we must remember that Parliament is supreme. It makes the law. It can do or undo any law. Of course we must respect the rule of law as it exists and see that it is obeyed.

The issue about what has been called the Clay Cross Bill was put succinctly by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General in these words: The issue is a different and more complex one. It is rather how we apply the rule of law, and how we apply it with fairness and compassion, and yet without weakening its strength, to circumstances in which many responsible citizens have without doubt acted unlawfully—not, I believe for their personal benefit, but rather under the pressure of opinions deeply and sincerely held, and in the deep and sincere belief that the law which they were called to administer was a bad law and an unfair law … bad and unfair in particular … because the long-established power of local authorities to fix rents for their tenants was removed from them all—good and bad councils alike—and handed to an unaccountable body."—[Official Report, 24th March 1975; Vol. 889, c. 154.] The motion is entirely misconceived and should be rejected. This Government, as indeed the Labour Party, are just as ready to uphold the rule of law as any previous Government and all their actions have shown that to be so.

3.7 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) on having brought the motion before the House. All of us, whatever our views, must deplore the very poor attendance this afternoon. There may be some excuse, in that a great number of hon. Members may have thought it unlikely that this motion would be reached and that it was more likely that the important motion on public health would have taken up the whole day.

This is always the difficulty that hon. Members face. On a Friday we are invariably expected to be in our constituencies, fulfilling a wide range of constituency engagements. As, on occasion, these have been booked well in advance, it is difficult for us to break our engagements and be in the House.

I listened with great care to the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), because he is a senior Member of the House and widely respected on both sides. When he accused my hon. Friend the Member for Burton of being Reds-under-the-bed-minded in the light of what he presented, the hon. and learned Gentleman was unfair. What my hon. Friend was saying throughout much of his speech was that it has been shown over the past few years, particularly during the years that I have had the honour of being a Member of the House, that far too many hon. Members on the Government side have not been prepared to uphold the law in what they say and what they do.

I wonder whether the hon. and learned Gentleman was present in the House to hear the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Walden) in the debate on our membership of the European Economic Community. I shall quote some words spoken by the hon. Gentleman because they refer directly to the theme of the motion and of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton. The hon. Member for Ladywood said: I will say something else which will not be the least popular but which needs to be said. If we are to be told about the value of parliamentary sovereignty, let me ask some of my hon. Friends this: if the will of Parliament is now so vital to them, if parliamentary sovereignty matters so much to them that they cannot bear to see it abridged by any regulation, why was it that instead of campaigning to change the law, which is proper, so many of our party when in Opposition wished to, and did, defy the law. … Some of us who really believe in parliamentary sovereignty, against all its challenges, have felt lonely people in the Labour Party in recent years."—[Official Report, 8th April 1975; Vol. 889, c. 1038.] That is the view of a moderate Member on the benches upon which the hon. and learned Gentleman sits, but I have to tell him that many of his hon. Friends would be far happier in what they say and the beliefs they hold if they were in the Communist Party rather than the Labour Party. It takes great courage and honesty to damn one's own colleagues in the way the hon. Member for Lady-wood did in that speech, but what he said was true, and had to be said.

There is no doubt that over the past 30 years—I hope that at least all of us here today will regret it—respect for the law and for the upholding of the law has fallen considerably, and Members of Parliament—those who are here now and those who have been Members since the war—must take a substantial share of the responsibility for that. On too many occasions we have pressed through legislation which has not been sufficiently though out, and we have done so without appreciating what its long-term effects would be upon the people.

I am not a member of the legal profession, but I am sure that the many hon. and learned Members on both sides of the House will agree when I say that the legal profession as a whole has had enormous difficulty in absorbing the constant changes in the law and the number of Acts which we have pumped through during the past 10 or 15 years.

However, the essence of the matter is that once Bills are passed and become the law of the land no one has the right to decide which of them he will obey and which he will not obey. There can be no justification for any Member of Parliament or citizen saying that because he regards a law as a political law he will choose not to observe or obey it. Yet that attitude and approach—that what are called political laws need not be obeyed—has been nurtured and in many cases openly supported by hon Members on the Government benches.

What is in some ways even more tragic is that many groups and organisations as well as individual citizens have seen ethers who have been powerful enough to take action which, even if it did not break the law, certainly bent it and went against the spirit of the law, succeed in their objectives. We have seen Governments give way. Indeed, we have seen Governments destroyed.

In these circumstances, other groups of people who felt that they had a genuine case or a real grievance, after trying to have their case heard or their grievance remedied—perhaps through the House or through their local council—but having failed in that effort, themselves now say, "What else can we do except take action which is really outside the law?"

We have had an example of that in the past few weeks, in the action of the fishermen who blocked many of our ports, including one in my own county of Sussex. As a group, the fishermen are independent, sturdy-minded and law-abiding citizens, but they reached a point at which they felt so desperately about their case, feeling that they could not get a hearing from the Government and could not get the action they needed from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that they decided to take action which was without doubt outside the law.

I have the utmost sympathy with the fishermen's case but I condemn the action they took, which was outside the law. Once we start on this dangerous path it will have no ending. There can be no justification for any group, whether it be an organised trade union, the miners, groups of ratepayers, fishermen, students or squatters, to break the law. If they do so they must take the consequences and they should be condemned by every hon. Member and by the Government.

It is tragic that some political groups have a vested interest in undermining the law. Those groups know that they will never succeed in gaining power in this House through the ballot box, and they therefore seek to create conditions of chaos and anarchy in which they hope that their political point of view will thrive and succeed. The sad thing is that when a group decides to take the law into its own hands or to act irresponsibly it is so often the innocent law-abiding citizens who suffer.

Let me give an example. If a group of squatters moves into a property belonging to a local authority because that property is empty for a period, waiting to be renovated, repaired or redecorated, those squatters are inevitably affecting the housing position of people on the housing list in that local authority area. Those people will have waited patiently and obeyed the law but see their chance of being rehoused delayed by this irresponsible and illegal action.

I was utterly disgusted at recent statements by student leaders who said that they intended to hold a nation-wide campaign to encourage squatting—in effect, to encourage law-breaking—and thereby harm innocent law-abiding citizens who are due to be rehoused by local authorities.

I turn to the question of the operation of the law by the courts and the sentences and fines imposed. Time and time again there is real anger by the public when a court imposes a fine or a short sentence which is completely unrelated to the vicious crime committed. The Government should look at the way in which the courts have acted—not that they can in any way interfere with the courts—and consider whether they should introduce legislation which sets down more firmly the penalties, prison sentences and fines for certain crimes. Time and time again people who commit crimes of violence and robbery get off with a fine or a very short prison sentence. The law protects the young, the old and the defenceless, and failure to uphold the law by any hon. Member and by the public can lead only to anarchy and the law of the jungle.

3.19 p.m.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Luton, West)

I rise to speak as a pillar of the British Establishment. Since I came down from university about 13 years ago I have been a civil servant, working for Conservative and Labour Governments, a barrister, and now a Member of Parliament. I suppose I can therefore modestly say that the whole of my adult life has been given over to seeking to uphold the fabric of our society, its values and its principles.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) showed a degree of political and philosophical illiteracy that was alarming even for a Conservative. His basic mistake was to associate the values and principles of the Conservative Party with the values and principles of the British people. Nothing could be further from the truth. From his speech—he gave examples of it time and time again—he seemed to resent free speech, to have a contempt for civil liberties and to deny the rights of Members of Parliament and the people to seek to change our society.

As a member of the National Council for Civil Libertes, I would, any day of the week, assert the rights of every person in this country to seek to change the values of our society. We live in a time when people are questioning the law and its institutions. Sometimes we confuse the fact that they question those institutions with questioning the rule of law itself. Deference in our society is breaking down, and it is only natural that people should question both the law and its institutions as well as all the other institutions of the British Establishment.

People have a right to question the values and prejudices of those who both make and administer the law. They have a right to ask whether it is true that most of the judges come from a narrow background and a small class. They have a right to ask whether it is correct that most of the juldges should, as a matter of fact, support one political party. They have a right to ask whether it is correct that the magistrates should be chosen on an open and blatant political basis.

If the people who administer the law come from a narrow background and a small class, it is inevitable that people will question some of their decisions. It is right that they should do so. Only recently we have seen a learned judge attack barristers for having the temerity to put their clients' case. People have a right to ask, "If that is what the judge says what am I expected to think about the rule of law?" If we get a better standard from those who administer the law, they can expect people to respect it that much more.

I stand here to uphold the rule of law. Only this morning I received from one of my constituents a copy of a letter which he had written to the borough treasurer of Luton. I shall not give the name of the constituent, because I have not been able to contact him to ask his permission.

He says: In settlement of the above,"— that is his rate demand— I enclose a cheque for £64.30 which represents an increase of 25 per cent. less 2½ per cent. discount on the 1974–75 figure of £52.76. He goes on to say that he is not paying the rest of his rates. I am not sure why he sent me a copy of the letter, or whether he knew that I was going to participate in the debate. I certainly did not know when I opened the letter this morning.

I shall not make that constituent a martyr. I deplore the fact that a constituent of mine writes to me and tells me that he will not pay his rates. I am not impressed by his further comment that I am an ordinary family man and law-abiding citizen. That citizen is now openly flouting the law. I would have had more respect for him if he had stated in his letter which of the services of Luton he would like to see taken away. Would it be education? Would he like to see garbage piling up in the streets, or to see the hospitals close down and the sick dying?

There is a movement in this country for people not to pay their rates, and there are people in authority supporting that movement. If we get that sort of attitude towards public expenditure, the services of our towns and cities will break down. We shall have anarchy and social unrest. I condemn it in the strongest possible way.

Mr. Percival

I should like the hon. Member's comment on this point: at the moment we are putting through Parliament a Bill relieving councillors who openly defied the law of the consequences of so doing. Does it surprise the hon. Member that his constituent now seeks to flout the authority of councillors?

Mr. Sedgemore

I intend to refer to the Clay Cross case when I deal with the more philosophical aspects of the problem.

It so happened that it was also this morning—this appears to be law-breaking day in Luton—that I had a letter from the Luton and District Chamber of Trade

Addressed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it has a paragraph that looks innocuous enough but is not. It says: The continued disregard of minority interests will inevitably lead to a break down in co-operation between Government and governed. That does not sound all that bad, but what lies behind it? I know what lies behind it. It is the threat that if the Government do not meet the wishes of the Luton and District Chamber of Trade and do not do what small businesses want them to do, those concerned will not fill in their income tax forms or their VAT forms and will openly flout and break the law.

What Opposition Members must realise is that the biggest and one of the most dangerous movements in this country, and in most other Western countries, for breaking the law is the Poujardeist movement, which has dangerous and serious Fascist elements. I would name some of these people, and I include the President of the Luton and District Chamber of Trade. The hon. Member for Burton could have made a speech identical to his. I deplore that form of moth-eaten McCarthyism, which can only encourage people to rise up and break the law and disregard the values and principles of our society.

I move from the problems of Luton and the mean-minded attitudes of the Luton and District Chamber of Trade to the general philosophical issue.

Mr. Lawrence rose

Mr. Sedgemore

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Member spoke for an hour and 20 minutes, and some of my hon. Friends wish to speak.

Mr. Lawrence rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) is upholding the rule of the House.

Mr. Sedgemore

From the speeches of Opposition Members I got the impression that there were some people who thought that the human conscience could be legislated out of existence. Some believe that with a piece of legislation Jesus Christ would not have done or said what he did. Some believe that most of the great movements for progress could have been stopped by legislation and that it would have been desirable to have stopped those movements for progress and change.

Nobody can say that breaking the law is simple, or an easy business, or that it should be encouraged from these benches. What can be said—Opposition Members do not seem to realise it—is that ultimately conscience is more important than the rule of law; that in the last resort people must do what their consciences dictate and be prepared to take the consequences.

I come to the subject of the Housing Finance Act. I am a lawyer and I voted in the Wandsworth Council not to implement the Housing Finance Act. It was not a decision that I took lightly. Every law that has ever been passed or ever will be passed puts an obligation on the individual to weigh what he considers to be the merits and demerits, to weigh the value of the society that basically depends upon people keeping the law. On almost every occasion he will inevitably come to the conclusion that he must obey the law. But there will certainly come times, as there should have come times in Nazi Germany, when a citizen must say, "I shall not obey this law. It affronts my conscience, human dignity and the human spirit." No legislation will get rid of that.

Mr. Bowden

That was in a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Mr. Sedgemore

That is the authoritarianism, the totalitarianism which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) supported in his speech.

Mr. Bowden

It is outrageous of the hon. Gentleman to relate democratic Government in this country, where hon. Members are elected by their constituents, with a régime like Hitler's Nazi Germany or Stalin's Communist Russia. There is no comparison whatever, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Mr. Sedgemore

We have to look at the law and say to ourselves that if, in the last resort, we cannot do what the law demands, we must break it. I can see nothing wrong with that. But we must be prepared to take the consequences. It is no good deciding to break the law and then saying, "Please do not do anything to me, let me off because basically I am a law-abiding citizen." If a person decides to break the law after a close examination of his political, social or moral beliefs, I can see nothing wrong with that decision.

Let me turn now to the Housing Finance Act. Rightly or wrongly—Conservative Members, together with some of my hon. Friends, will say wrongly—I came to the conclusion that it was a class-conscious piece of legislation, to implement which would have meant that I had to welsh or renege on the promises I had made to the electorate. It was a piece of legislation which would have made me do something that contradicted all of my political beliefs. I therefore voted that the Act should not be implemented.

I was perfectly prepared to take the consequences of that decision. Whether we live in a form of democracy, Hitler's Nazi Germany or Stalin's hated Soviet Russia, I do not see how it can be argued that no matter what laws are passed and no matter how offensive they are to the human spirit, no one has a moral right to break them, in any circumstances.

What is the law? Ultimately it is an expression of moral beliefs. The law is a form of morality, and an important one at that. But it is not the only one. If a person is asking himself whether he should pay his rates I do not believe that he has a good argument for breaking the law. His only reason for doing so is some cheap personal financial gain. If some small business man in Luton is considering refusing to fill in his VAT forms because the Chancellor will not reduce VAT from 8 per cent. to 6 per cent. I believe he has no right to take such action, because it is for some small, cheap and nasty personal gain, as opposed to the general public interest.

Hon. Members may say that my point on the Housing Finance Act was too narrow, and was not really that sort of issue. I would have respected that view if they had said that I had taken the wrong decision on the wrong issue. But if a person takes a certain view on the wider issue, in the last resort this House must assert the primacy of conscience over the rule of law.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is most unusual for the Chair to intervene on a Friday to ask for brief speeches, but I hope that hon. Members will allow the Minister some time in which to reply.

3.33 p.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I will be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had no intention of speaking but some comments of the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) must not be left unchallenged. Rarely have we heard a more blatant case of double standards, rarely a more class-conscious argument accusing others of class-consciousness.

Although I did not hear the whole of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), I know that he was linking his remarks with the methods of the Communists. One of the things which ought to be noted in this country is how the Communists, who are perfectly free to pursue their political ideologies here as long as they do so openly and decently, are those who always most blatantly engage in double standards.

The issue about which the hon. Gentleman was speaking does not concern the merits of the Housing Finance Act, although I cannot refrain from making a comment on it, by way of illustrating what I say about double standards. The hon. Gentleman is like so many of his right hon. and hon. Friends who pretend to stand for equality or as near as we can get to it. There is the great and noble battlecry of Karl Marx, From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends feel just as passionately about that as anyone else. Anyone who can subscribe to that view and yet describes the Housing Finance Act in the terms used by the hon. Member for Luton, West is causing an affront to human dignity and human decency. I just do not understand that approach. To adopt it one must have double intellectual standards of a degree that defy my comprehension. The Housing Finance Act called upon council tenants who could afford it to pay a little more so as to enable those who could not afford to pay the full amount to be relieved of part of the burden— From each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs. How in the world anyone who professes to have any kind of intellectual honesty could call that a class-conscious Bill totally escapes me.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that we can ignore the laws which we do not like. This country must wake up to the fact that those are the laws that we must not ignore. It is very easy to comply with the laws with which we agree. The laws that we must bring ourselves to obey are those that we do not like.

Of course, we must use every possible democratic means to overthrow a Government which is making laws that we do not like. That is something close to the heart of all of my right hon. and hon. Friends. At the moment we are having to sit and watch a Government passing one law after another which not only destroy the chances of this country but which are so bad in quality as to be oppressive and to undermine the rule of law.

The hon. Gentleman says that there are times when a conscience is more important than anything else. Did it not occur to him, when facing the decision that he mentioned, that he made a solemn declaration when he assumed office to perform the duties of his office? Is he not aware that the only authority of a local authority is that given to it by statute, and that the duty of every local councillor is to carry out the statutes which give him the obligations and the authority of his position? That is what he solemnly declared to uphold. If he felt as he did, he had one clear course—namely, to resign. But to continue as a person with authority and to give himself the luxury of saying "I do not like that law. I do not want to resign. It is perfectly true that if I resign I could be true to all my obligations but I shall stick here and defy the law" is the very denial of all that he was purporting to say.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman spoke because it is an illustration of the double standards with which we have to deal in public life today. I hope that the public will take note of it.

3.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

We are engaged upon a debate upon the rule of law which is based on a somewhat sparsely worded motion tabled by the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). I am bound to say that he made up for that sparsity with his speech. There was a time when I thought that he was in danger of talking out his own motion. I listened to his words carefully and there were times when I had difficulty in following his logic. At no stage did he answer the question that I asked him at the beginning—namely, where in the course of all his attacks upon the Government could he produce one iota of evidence that we had ever undermined the rule of law.

I propose to deal with all the hon. Gentleman's specific attempts to try to answer that question. I think it will be found at the end of the day by any fair-minded person that all that happened in today's speech from the hon. Gentleman was a party political harangue which had no substance in fact and which was totally unjust in most of its accusations.

This is not the first time that we have discussed this subject in the past 12 months. I seem to be here regularly on Fridays to reply to Private Members' motions from the Opposition designed to prove what is unprovable, namely, that this Government have undermined the rule of law.

In one of my speeches last year, I set out the philosophic basis on which I approached this matter. I repeat it shortly today. I take the view that the rule of law is the basis of a civilised society. I uphold that rule with all that I do. Equally, I understand that in a democratic society law must be based upon the consent of those to whom it applies and that we must therefore have in our minds when we legislate what will be the effect upon the people, quite apart from our right as a Government and as a Parliament to legislate as we wish. Unless we knit together our society in a basic assent to what we do in legislation, clearly we are in danger of undermining the rule of law.

On the last occasion that we discussed this matter, I made the charge that if there had been a Government in recent times who had abused that consent and had undermined the rule of law in the way now suggested, it was the last Conservative Government. What has hap- pened in the period since this Government came to office is that we have managed to reduce the temper of the times considerably. There is now no longer the same kind of threat to our institutions which was clearly manifest in the final days of that Conservative Government.

There was one moment in the course of his speech today when the hon. Member for Burton suggested that the trade unions had managed to bring about the death of that Government. That Government was disposed of by the British electorate in a free ballot. It was the British people who passed judgment upon four years of Conservatism, and their judgment, like my own, was that the Conservative Government had come nearer to a breakdown in law and order by the actions that they pursued than any Government in recent times.

It is hypocrisy for any hon. Member who supported that Government now to accuse us of undermining law and order.

Mr. Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)

Is the Minister seriously contesting that the strike by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1974 was not a political strike against the Government and against the law that Parliament had passed by a majority? If it was a political strike, how can the hon. Gentleman say that it was the fault of then Government that we were teetering on the brink of anarchy?

Mr. Lyon

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the strike was unlawful, why did not the Government of the day take steps to pursue through the courts any remedies which he says were available to them? What the coal miners did was in pursuit of a normal industrial dispute. They were in conflict with the National Coal Board and in conflict with the Government because the Government were behind the NCB. But they were pursuing a normal industrial dispute, and in modern times no Government have sought to say that for a man to withdraw his labour is unlawful or undermines the rule of law. Therefore, even if the hon. Gentleman were to suggest, as I have no doubt he does, that some of the miners' leaders were motivated by their political dislike of the Government, the fact remains that this was a normal industrial dispute in which the miners had a case. Let it be remembered, too, that it was a case which was upheld by a committee appointed by the Prime Minister of that Government to make a fair adjudication of it. That committee said that the miners' case was entirely substantiated, and it was out of that finding that the settlement arose.

Let us get away from the party harangue of the February election last year and move to the specific charges made by the hon. Member for Burton.

Mr. Alison rose

Mr. Lyon

I am sorry, I cannot give way again. As a result of the lengthy speech made by the hon. Member for Burton there is little time left for me to reply to what he said.

Mr. Alison rose

Mr. Lyon

I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once. I do not propose to give way again.

Mr. Alison rose

Mr. Lyon

With respect, I have answered the point put by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Burton went on to suggest that the Labour Party was in the grip of extreme members of trade unions who were themselves either Communists or fellow travellers. The statistics which he read out did not exactly prove his case. In no case was a trade union executive dominated by Communists, even on his wide definition of the term. What the hon. Gentleman has overlooked is that, although trade unions which are affiliated to the Labour Party are entitled to send members to the party conference, the members they send are all members of the Labour Party. If there are Communist members of their trade unions those members are not eligible to be members of the Labour Party conference. The decisions which the hon. Gentleman criticised were taken by the party conference attended only by Labour Party members, and the Clay Cross decision was taken not on a card vote but on a show of hands. Thus, all who showed their hands were members of the Labour Party and not card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Therefore the hon. Gentleman's basic tenet is false.

The hon. Gentleman went further and said that Members of Parliament who are sponsored by trade unions must be under the influence of their trade unions. During the period in which Members of Parliament have been sponsored by trade unions that charge has been made more than once, and it has never been proved. Indeed, the independence of many of my colleagues who have been sponsored by trade unions now and in the past shows that they have never been told to vote or act in the House is a way which was inconsistent with their consciences.

As they are sponsored members of trade unions there are many times when their view on an issue is identical with that of the union. It would be strange if that were not so. I am a member of the Labour Party and there are many occasions when I find myself thinking about issues in the same way as are most other members of the Labour Party. That does not mean that the independence of these Members of Parliament is overridden by the financial subvention they may receive as sponsored members, any more than Opposition Members who are directors of companies are necessarily affected by that connection. Some of my hon. Friends may suspect otherwise, but I do not charge any Opposition Member with that. I hope that the hon. Member for Burton, on reflection, will think that it is an unjust charge to make against my hon. Friends.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about attacks by Ministers upon the judiciary and decisions of the courts. He put forward only two examples. The first was concerned with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry at a time when he was not a Minister in the Government and when all he was saying was that he understood and supported the motives of gentlemen who had decided to risk going to prison when they were involved in a dock strike in London.

The hon. Gentleman then turned to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment in relation to Mr. Justice Donaldson which have been quoted in all the debates we have had on law and order but which do not indicate any undermining of the law. It would be a strange democratic society if the judiciary were entirely immune from criticism. The way in which the judiciary acts must be a proper topic for public discussion. I do not think that any member of the judiciary would object to that. The objection is that it was considered that the tone and words used went beyond the level of normal, reasonable criticism of a judicial act. We all have our views about the proper level of taste in public discussion, but it cannot be said to undermine the rule of law that one's view about the proper standard of criticism involves certain words and that other people take a different view. That can only be a matter of taste. It can hardly be an undermining of the rule of law.

Mr. Percival

I challenge the hon. Gentleman on the question whether it is merely a matter of taste. If authorities criticise the courts, it is an invitation to others to disregard their authority, too. However, the hon. Gentleman has a lot to say and therefore I shall not pursue that matter. Does he personally think that the remarks of the Secretary of State about Mr. Justice Donaldson were acceptable and proper?

Mr. Lyon

I am responsible for the way in which I couch my criticism of the judiciary, which I criticise from time to time, and my right hon. Friend is responsible for his way. There was nothing in what he said which undermined respect for the law. What he was saying was that he disagreed strongly with the decision of a particular judge in a particular case which was not then current. In those circumstances, I defend his right to make such criticism as he made.

We have been attacked because when we were in opposition we supported strongly the opposition to the Industrial Relations Act. I cannot understand why that should be an undermining of the rule of law when it was something which we were sent to this place to do, any more than I would regard as an undermining of the rule of law the somewhat hysterical outburst of the Opposition about the present Government's Industry Bill. It must be the right of any hon. Member properly to criticise any legislation with which he disagrees. That is what we did on the Industrial Relations Act. No one has been able to prove that the Labour Party or the trade unions acted in any way unlawfully in their opposition to it. Many trade unions refused to register under the Act, but the Act gave them the right not to register. Therefore, they were not acting unlawfully.

The question of the £10 million repayment to the trade unions has been well argued in the House. There was no suggestion prior to the February 1974 election that we would repay that amount of tax, but when we took office and considered the problem which had arisen for the unions it was considered just that it should be repaid. The basic reason for it was that the Conservative Government claimed that they never intended to take the money from the trade unions in the first place and, because of the action of the unions in not registering, it was an inadvertent result of the non-registration. Therefore, it did not seem to us unjust that the unions should get back £10 million worth of tax, which would come out of their pension funds in any event, which it was never intended should be taken from them.

We have been criticised on the question of support for the Shrewsbury pickets. I do not know how that matter is relevant to the motion, which attacks the Government for their alleged lack of support for the rule of law. It is clear that the Home Secretary, who has responsibility for recommending the exercise of the Royal Prerogative, is not disposed to shorten the sentences or to quash the convictions of the Shrewsbury pickets. Many people take a different view and have sought to exercise pressure on the Home Secretary to make him take a different view. That is their democratic right and no one that I have seen in the representations that I have to consider on my right hon. Friend's behalf has ever acted unlawfully in making those representations.

It remains true that we are unconvinced, but even if we were convinced and did so act, is it to be said that when the power exists to use the Royal Prerogative and it is lawfully open to the Home Secretary to do so, he will be acting unlawfully if he exercises it? If so, then the precedent that the TUC has been putting forward is of great significance to hon. Members opposite. That relates to the actions of a Home Secretary in 1937, who in almost identical circumstances used the Royal Prerogative to shorten sentences. Perhaps the hon. Member should consider that aspect of his party's history.

Why the referendum has come into this debate I do not know. Ten Western nations have as part of their constitution the provision that a referendum should be available in certain circumstances and 39 American States who all uphold the English common law use referenda at certain times. Why this Government should not put forward at this time a suggestion that, on this crucial and unique occasion, the decision should be made by the British people in a referendum, and why that suggestion should be attacked as undermining the rule of law, I have no idea.

It so happens that I am not keen on having referenda and have in the past opposed their use—but only because it seems to me the wrong way in which to decide these issues. But so far as the British people have been given the opportunity to consider whether they want a referendum and have said overwhelmingly that they do, and since there is now a clear desire in the country that this matter should be settled once and for all by the British people, I am happy to see that referendum come about. But I cannot for the life of me see why, if it does, it will undermine the rule of law.

Mr. Lawrence rose

Mr. Lyon

No, I have only three minutes, and the hon. Gentleman had half an hour—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. The hon. Member had 69 minutes.

Mr. Lyon

I was going to say that he had half an hour on the Clay Cross councillors, to whom I now turn.

The hon. Gentleman read at great length bits about the Clay Cross coun- cillors. Of course, in my judgment, those councillors acted wrongly in failing to administer the law laid down by Parliament, but if we are talking about their moral right to resist the law if they want to do so, no one brought up on the story of John Hampden can deny to anyone whose conscience strongly urges upon him resistance to law, even if passed by a democratic Government, the moral right to do so as long as he takes the consequences—and that is what those councillors decided to do.

The consequences still exist for them. They still have to pay back the considerable sum which they have been surcharged and they have still suffered the consequences in relation to standing for councils. I did not and still do not support what they did, but I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) that in considering the moral obloquy which should fall on their heads as a result of what they did, one has to take into account the fact that they thought they were doing it on behalf of the people who elected them.

Whether they were right to take that view is not for us to judge but for their electorate, and the result of their stand was that their electorate re-elected them to the council after they had been surcharged. In those circumstances, it is difficult to say that their attitude is the same as an attitude of self-interested acquisition of money or power by the undermining of law.

But I come back to my central thesis. I do not accept what they did and nor do the Government—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.