HC Deb 07 February 1979 vol 962 cc390-5
31. Mr. Younger

asked the Lord Advocate how many reports he has received since 1 January 1979 regarding alleged criminal offences by strike pickets; and on how many he intends to authorise prosecution.

32. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

asked the Lord Advocate how many incidents involving breaches of the law, in relation to picketing, have been reported to the Crown Office; and how many incidents involving alleged intimidation, in relation to picketing, have been reported to the Crown Office.

35. Mr. Buchanan

asked the Lord Advocate if it is possible to have lawful intimidation on the picket line in Scotland; and if he will make a statement.

36. Mr. Rifkind

asked the Lord Advocate whether he will make a statement on the law of Scotland with regard to picketing.

The Lord Advocate

I refer to a statement on the law of picketing in Scotland which I made on 31 January 1979 in answer to a written question by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter), where I stated that peaceful and orderly picketing in furtherance of a trade dispute, whether primary or secondary, is not a criminal offence in Scotland. But if what is done in the course of picketing involves a criminal element, such as assault, threats of assault, intimidation, extortion, or breach of the peace, then it constitutes a criminal offence and is accordingly unlawful. Intimidation covers threats of violence or other acts intended to induce a person through fear to act or not to act as he is lawfully entitled to do. Since 1 January 1979 I have received seven reports of alleged offences in connection with picketing, including three where there were allegations of intimidation. Criminal proceedings have been instructed in five of the seven cases. In one of these five the accused pleaded guilty and was fined £15.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call first those Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Younger

We are grateful to the Lord Advocate for making that statement on this serious matter. Is he aware that it has been admitted by Mr. Alex Kitson that, in many cases, his pickets were demanding money for the crossing of a picket line? Does he agree that that amounts to extortion? Will he give an assurance that he will seriously consider prosecuting any such cases that are brought to his notice?

The Lord Advocate

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has put what Mr. Kitson said fairly. However, I shall respond to his wider question. As some of the cases where I have instructed proceedings involve extortion, these matters are sub judice and I had better make no comment on them.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman prepared to condemn intimidation unequivocally, and is he aware that if he does issue such a condemnation it will be warmly welcomed throughout Scotland?

The Lord Advocate

I am happy to respond to that invitation. I do condemn intimidation, whether by threat of violence or otherwise, as an indefensible inroad into personal freedom. I am sure that all responsible trade unionists would agree with that. But personal freedom includes freedom to withdraw one's labour and to make lawful protest against injustice.

Mr. Rifkind

Does the Lord Advocate agree that neither in his written reply to the hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter), nor in his reply today, has he made any reference to any concept of lawful intimidation? Does he agree that this extraordinary aberration invented by the Attorney-General has no place in the law of Scotland?

The Lord Advocate

The idea of lawful intimidation originated not with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General but with the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), who is not present. It is not terminology which I myself would choose.

Mr. Fairbairn

Answer the question.

The Lord Advocate

I shall come to that. Intimidation in the sense in which I used it in my original answer would not be lawful. However, some threats, such as to take someone to court to enforce one's legal rights, may be lawful.

Mr. Dewar

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that all Labour Members take every case of extortion and intimidation extremely seriously, but that even more alarming are the persistent efforts by the Opposition to scaremonger on these issues? Does he agree that the suggestion by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) that there had been an admission by Mr. Alex Kitson that extortion took place in many cases is exactly the kind of exaggeration and scaremongering which cannot possibly be justified, and that no such admission has or could be made because it would not be justified?

The Lord Advocate

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The criminal law of Scotland provides strong sanctions against illegal picketing, which can attract heavy penalties. The figures which I gave in my principal reply show that the Opposition have greatly exaggerated the extent of the problem—no doubt for party political reasons.

Mr. David Steel

Does the Lord Advocate agree that there is every distinction in the world between the right of an individual to try to persuade his fellow employees to withdraw their labour and the right of gangs of people, who are not connected with any particular place of work, to roam the country organising pickets? Since the law does not draw such a distinction at the moment, is not there a case for changing the law?

The Lord Advocate

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's first observation, but I do not agree with his latter comment. If he looks at section 7 of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, he will see that intimidation by numbers is expressly covered.

Mr. Fairbairn

Contrary to the Lord Advocate's last reply, does he not think that the small number of prosecutions is an indication not of the absence of intimidation but of its success? Will he encourage chief constables to make sure that policemen go to picket lines to ensure that not only vocal but silent intimidation is prosecuted?

The Lord Advocate

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman, as so often, has got the wrong end of the stick. The fact of the matter is that, out of seven cases reported to me, prosecutions have been instructed in five. That is a high proportion. I think that the significant figure is not the number of prosecutions—I am prepared to go some distance with the hon. and learned Gentleman that that indicates that there has been a failure. But the extent of the problem, the scale of the problem, is indicated in that, despite the fact that I made an early announcement, as soon as this period of industrial strife began, instructing chief constables to report at once any incidents reported to them and asking the general public, indeed, to report any such incidents, only seven incidents have been reported.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that today's edition of the Daily Telegraph contains a very interesting letter from a representative of the Chief Constables' Association, which is extremely upset about the type of propaganda that has come from the Opposition Benches, suggesting that the police have not done their job during the various disputes that have taken place? Is it not time that we stopped having this sort of exaggeration from Opposition Members and recognised the fact that during these disputes there has been very little trouble and very little violence? We ought to be pleased about that instead of attacking it.

The Lord Advocate

I regret that I have not seen today's edition of the Daily Telegraph, but I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), does the Lord Advocate agree that the Law Society report on picketing, published the other day, showed a need for a change in the law to clarify the situation? On the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made about only seven cases and five prosecutions, does he accept that the business community and the public have no worries about the impartiality or justice of the Lord Advocate, or of the courts or the police, but that what they are concerned about is what may happen to them simply by reporting an incident and having the matter coming to court? Does the Lord Advocate agree that the problem in Scotland is certainly a great deal worse than is shown by the seven cases which have been reported?

The Lord Advocate

I am bound to say that the hon. Gentleman himself reported a certain allegation to me in connection with Bellshill. That was proved to be entirely without foundation. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

I should not have thought that the case for changing the law had been made out. Recent decisions of the Court of Appeal in England suggest that there may be a civil law remedy against, for example, excessive zeal in secondary picketing. I think that recent experience, particularly of the ill-fated Industrial Relations Act, has proved that it is better to deal with these matters by means other than legislation.