HC Deb 17 November 1977 vol 939 cc752-5
15. Mr. Silvester

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proposals he has to regulate the procedure to be followed on public marches.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I am considering arrangements for control of processions and meetings as part of my examination of the Public Order Act 1936 and other relevant law.

Mr. Silvester

Will the Home Secretary, in his review, consider that it is necessary that there should be advance warning of public marches and that chief constables should have power to control the routes? Does he not feel that it should lie within his responsibility, rather than with the chief constable, to decide on an absolute ban of a party political march

Mr. Rees

Certainly one of the matters to consider is advance knowledge, and that I am considering. The control of the route is in the hands of the chief constable or the Commissioner.

On the hon. Gentleman's last comment, I ask him to beware. At the moment my rôle in this matter is extremely limited. The initiation comes from the Commissioner or the chief constable on the grounds of public order and whether the police estimate that they can keep public order. If that is changed and the decision is taken by me on straight political grounds on the basis of whether I approve of the views of the people in the marches, we should, in my view, be moving in the wrong direction. The direction to look at in considering this aspect is, I suggest, in the area of race relations. But I do not want the power. There would be no question of taking advice from anybody. It would be a question of whether the march should take place as the Home Secretary says that it should not because he does not like the views of the people marching. I should not want that power.

Mr. Bidwell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country has a longstanding tradition of peaceful demonstration and peaceful processions in our High Streets which should not be impaired, but that the central provocation at the moment is the efforts made by a handful of people who base themselves on the barbarities of the German Nazis and seek to stimulate race hatred in this country? Does not that call for the activating of that part of the Race Relations Act which seeks to outlaw the stimulation of race hatred?

Mr. Rees

That part of the legislation which was passed earlier this year and came into force on 13th June has been activated. I want to gain evidence of how that legislation is working and to see whether this is the right way forward. That part of the legislation has been activated and I think that that is the direction in which to think, especially in this review.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Would not the enthusiasm of those who seek to express their political convictions in this way be somewhat diminished if they had to make a contribution roughly proportional to the cost of the additional police who have to be allocated to their portection?

Mr. Rees

That raises a much wider issue in all parts of the country, namely, the question of additional police required for various matters. It is a dangerous thought—not a dangerous one, but one at which we should look carefully—because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) said, we have a tradition of marching on the basis of a political view. I suggest that people have a right to do that. It is a traditional way in which views are expressed.

Mr. Rose

My right hon. Friend is refusing to accept political responsibility, but does he not accept the overriding right of ethnic minorities not to be insulted, harassed and made objects of incitement to violence as against the question of free speech? On the question of the Manchester march, does my right hon. Friend agree that the cost to the public was £250,000, that he kept the march secret, and that in doing so he acted in conjunction with the Chief Constable of Manchester?

Mr. Rees

I assure my hon. Friend, on the last part of his supplementary question, that I certainly did not keep the march secret, because it is none of my business to do the job of a chief constable. If the Home Secretary did so, he would be overstepping the mark. The Chief Constable of Manchester decided to act in that way. I went up to see him afterwards. In my view, it was the right thing to do because otherwise the trouble would have been far worse. But it illustrates the nature of the problem of decision-making by the police in this respect.

Of course, on the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, it is implicit that the new communities here—the immigrant communities, or the people who are born here but whose parents came from abroad—have a right to live here without being abused. That is, I suggest, what we are talking about.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Mr. Christopher Price. Question No. 16.

Mr. Christopher Price

As the Member for Lewisham, West, I had hoped, Mr. Speaker, to ask a supplementary question on Question No. 15. However, I pass to Question No. 16.