§ Order for consideration, as amended, read.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)
Before we commence the debate, it may be for the convenience of the House if I read the following prepared statement: Hon. Members will have observed from the published selection list that Mr. Speaker has selected the motion for recommittal in the name of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and has grouped with it the new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), amendments (b), (c), (d) and (e) to that new clause and amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11.
As soon as an hon. Member has moved that the Bill be now considered, I shall call upon the hon. Member for Perry Barr to move, as an amendment to that motion, the first part of his motion for recommittal, and on this all the other amendments in that group may be discussed.
If the hon. Member's motion is agreed to, I shall put the main Question, as amended, and then call the hon. Member formally to move the second part of his motion relating to petitions against the Bill, and there will be no further proceedings on the Bill today.
If, however, the hon. Member's motion for recommittal is disagreed to, I shall put the main Question and then call the hon. Member for Edgbaston formally to move her new clause. When that and any amendments to it have been disposed of, the remaining amendments will be taken in the order in which they appear on the Order Paper.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.
§ Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like clarification of your statement. From the way that Mr. Speaker has willed the selection of amendments, it appears that we shall have only one debate. It would have been more convenient for the House to 692 debate the recommittal motion and the important issues arising out of that and have another debate on, in effect, the Second Reading of the new clause and amendments to it.
I do not want to take too much time because, like other hon. Members, I like to get home early on a Thursday, but it seems that I shall be able to make only one speech. If I move the recommittal motion, how do I stand in regard to speaking on the various amendments? It seems that they are all to be linked in the one debate. We need clarification before we start otherwise we may get into a procedural wrangle on private business which, as hon. Members know, is a minefield.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
There are many permutations of the ways in which the amendments could be taken. Mr. Speaker has chosen the way that I outlined. The hon. Member is right when he says that he will be allowed to speak once, but the amendments are before him and he knows what they mean. If he wishes to mention them during his speech, he is entitled to do so. I call on him to move the recommittal motion.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that if the promoters of the Bill are introducing a new clause it has to be referred back automatically to the Committee. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has moved on behalf of the promoters that the Bill be considered. She is hoping later to move a new clause. May we be clear whether the hon. Lady is moving the new clause on behalf of the promoters?
The hon. Lady seems to be in some difficulty. If she is moving the new clause on behalf of the promoters, as it appears, there is no point in going on with the debate, because I understand from our Standing Orders relating to private business that a new clause introduced by the promoters is automatically referred back to the Committee.
§ Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may help if I make perfectly clear that in due course I shall be moving the new clause on my own behalf.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
It is clear that we are considering the recommittal motion, the new clause and the amendments collectively. The promoters are entitled to submit any new clause for the Chair to consider. We have the opportunity to consider it now. May we proceed with the recommittal motion?
§ Mr. Rooker
I beg to move, to leave out "now considered" and to add:re-committed to the Committee of Selection in respect of any new clause relating to notice of street processionsinstead thereof.
§ New clause 1—
§ Notice of street processions—
§ (1) No person shall organise or conduct a procession through any street in a district, unless, at least three days before the procession starts to pass through any street, there has been served on the district council and the chief officer of police a notice stating—
- (a) the route by which, and the date and time on and at which, it is intended that it should pass;
- (b) the nature of the procession to which the notice relates; and
- (c) the name of a person responsible for organising the procession.
§ (2) If any procession passes through any street in a district by a route or at a time which has not been stated in a notice relating to that procession delivered in accordance with subsection (1) above, except in accordance with directions given by the chief officer of police under section 3 of the Public Order Act 1936 or other directions given by the senior police officer, if any, attending the procession, any person organising or conducting the procession shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200.
§ (3) Nothing in this section shall apply to a procession—
- (a) commonly or customarily held by a charity which is registered under section 4 of the Charities Act 1960 or excepted from registration by virtue of subsection (4) of that section; or
- (b) organised or conducted for the purpose of a funeral by a person acting in the normal course of his business where his business is that of a funeral director.
(b) in the following amendments thereto: paragraph (1), after first 'procession' insert
'of more than two hundred persons'.
§ (d) in paragraph (1), leave out 'three days' and insert 'thirty-six hours'.
(e) after paragraph (1), insert
'(1A) If, for a procession falling within subsection (1) above, there appear to an organiser to be specific and important reasons such that it is not reasonable that the period of notice specified in the subsection should be given, such person may apply to a magistrate for an order to the effect that the subsection shall apply with the substitution of such shorter period of time (which shall be not less than three hours) as the magistrate shall think fit.'.
§ Amendment No. 9, in clause 113, page 79, line 10, at beginning insert '(1)'.
Amendment No. 10, in clause 113, page 79, line 13, at end insert—
'(2) Proceedings shall not be instituted for any offence under section (Notice of street processions, of this Act, or for any attempt incitement or conspiracy to commit any such offence, unless the proceedings are instituted by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.'
Amendment No. 11, in clause 115, page 79, line 42, at end insert—
'Section (Notice of street processions).'
§ Mr. Rooker
I have to accept you, rulings, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I do not seek to challenge them, but this is a most unsatisfactory procedure. It does not matter that the Bill is sponsored by a duly elected local authority. The situation that worries my hon. Friends and myself could also arise if a private individual were sponsoring a Bill.
That person could put into the Bill when it was first published a clause that came within the ambit of the long title and the Standing Orders relating to private business. He could then arrange, with a majority in the House, for that clause to be removed following Second Reading so that when the Bill was in Committee the clause would not exist. He could later arrange, with the help of the same majority that took the clause out, for it to be put back when the Bill was further considered thereby circumventing the rights of petitioners.
That is not satisfactory for a democratic establishment. If we are expected to follow that practice on the Bill before us, I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) will have a damned good reason for asking us to do so. I stand to be corrected 695 by the procedural experts, but I have found no reference in "Erskine May" or our Standing Orders to such a situation having arisen before.
The only thing that has changed between the Second Reading of the Bill on 7 February and today is that we now have a new Parliament. The House passed, without objection, a carry-over motion. Before the general election, my hon. Friends and I acceded to that motion. We could merely by shouting "Object" have secured a debate. We were aware of the reasons why Private Bills are normally carried over a general election—the expense of promoters and petitioners, and so on. The Bill has arrived back in a new Parliament.
We discover now that one hon. Member is seeking to put back in the Bill a clause that is exectly the same as that which the House voted to take out. I shall not quibble about three days' or seven days' notice being given of a street procession. The House voted to take out the three-day provision. The original clause provided for seven days' notice to be given. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) said on behalf of the promoters that they would seek in Committee to change that provision to three days, but the House threw out the clause despite that concession. To effect, the House threw out the three-day provision. Now that the Bill has come to the new Parliament the hon. Lady, as she has been very careful to point out tonight, is in her own name, moving to seek to put back the clause which the previous Parliament threw out.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that the hon. Lady will, in due course, have to argue on behalf of the promoters that the clause should be left out, and on her own behalf that it should be put in.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am accustomed, as is the House, to listening to the hon. Lady putting forward hypothetical and contradictory arguments. We hear them almost every day of the week. If she proceeds with what she seeks to do tonight, within the rules of the House, I believe that it will show, even for the hon. Lady, an uncharacteristic, authoritarian and anti-democratic streak in her nature. I choose my words carefully, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady 696 was described in the press this morning as a hard-liner. The press said that that was why she did not get the chairmanship of the 1922 Social Services Back-Bench Committee. But I digress.
My point concerns the petitioners. I know that we are discussing the West Midlands County Council Bill, but there is an important point of principle here. If this matter is allowed to proceed tonight, I am pretty sure that there will be hon. Members—
§ Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), told you that he unreservedly accepted Mr. Speaker's ruling, which I, after only six weeks here, thought was the tradition of this House. The hon. Member then proceeds to abuse my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) and the standing of other hon. Members in this House, because he has no argument to put forward. We are here to discuss the Bill, and not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin according to the hon. Member for Perry Barr.
§ Mr. Rooker
I have made it perfectly clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am not challenging the statement that you made. When the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) pays for his own whisky, instead of it being bought by private building companies, he can lecture me. Until then, I ask the hon. Member to stay in his seat and let me make my speech.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
We are debating the West Midlands Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman please come to the recommittal motion?
§ Mr. Rooker
That is what I want to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to make the point that this matter is not as clear and as straightforward as hon. Members on the Government Benches, who would like it to go through on the nod, would have us believe. There is an important point of 697 principle here on the rights of petitioners on Private Bills.
Why, for example, do we have a whole volume of Standing Orders on private business which, by any stretch of the imagination, is three times the size of the volume of Standing Orders on public business? The reason, basically, is that private interests are affected. The rules lay down that people cannot be ridden over roughshod by hon. Members and promoters of Private Bills, who may have financial resources over and above those of private individuals, and so lose their rights. Under Standing Orders, any Private Bill goes to Committee, and it is the right of any person affected by the terms of that Private Bill to petition this House of Commons. That right has existed over centuries.
The point that I make on the recommittal motion—I should have thought that it was fairly straightforward—is that the House should not tonight proceed to debate the Second Reading of the new clause as presented on the Order Paper, and that we should not debate the amendments tabled to that new clause by myself and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). The House should allow the clause, like all the other clauses in the Bill, to go to Committee. That would mean that petitioners who had interests that were affected could be heard.
Those petitioners cannot be heard at the Bar of the House tonight. There is no other way in which those affected by the Bill, and who originally petitioned against it, can be heard. I should have thought that it was in the spirit of the democratic traditions of this House for those petitioners to be so heard. One of those petitioners was, of course, the Birmingham trades council. I acted as the agent for that body.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course the House would wish to give the hon. Gentleman plenty of latitude, but is it necessary for him to discuss the already agreed procedures of this House at such length? Is he not now obliged to move on to the substance of the matter?
§ Mr. Rooker
Thank you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I was pointing out, one of the petitioners was the Birmingham trades council. I acted as agent and lodged its petition, within the rules of the House. Following the Second Reading of the Bill, and following the vote on the Instruction to take out the clause affecting petitions, I was contacted by the agents for the Bill, Messrs. Sharpe, Pritchard and Company, on 7 February this year. Their letter consisted of three sentences, and I read it for the benefit of hon. Members on both sides of the House:As you are aware, the House of Commons yesterday passed a Motion instructing the Committee on this Bill to leave out clause 39. The Committee must accordingly delete that clause and in consequence the matters raised in the above Petition will not arise. I would therefore be grateful if at your convenience you would now arrange for the Petition to be withdrawnA similar letter was sent to the National Council for Civil Liberties, which had, likewise, gone to the expense, the effort and the time of lodging a petition within the rules and the procedures of the House of Commons.
I did not withdraw the petition on behalf of the Birmingham trades council. I asked the Private Bill Office what would be the consequences of my taking no action. I was told that it would not make any difference. The clause was not in the Bill, it could not be discussed; and the petition could not be heard. It would not make any difference whether I withdrew the petition or not. I chose to leave the petition in the Private Bill Office, and so, I understand, did the National Council for Civil Liberties. I did that because I thought that if at some later date the clause were to come back to the Floor of the House, or in some other way find its way back into the Bill, and I had withdrawn my petition—I lodged it within the rules and procedures of the House—I might unwittingly have deprived those petitioners of the means of having their petition heard.
As I have said, the agents invited me to withdraw the petition. It is clear that the promoters are not proposing to put the clause back. That is clear from what the hon. Lady said. If the promoters were wishing to put the clause back, they would be caught by any one of four Standing Orders between Nos. 175 and 699 183. Standing Orders on private business are quite complicated, but they generally cover the area. The promoters would be caught by automatically having the new clause referred to the Standing Orders Committee, which would, in the normal course of events, so I am advised, refer the matter back to a Committee on the Bill. That would be so, and only so, that the petitioners could be heard.
That is all that we on the Labour Benches are asking. I do not intend to make another speech on the procession clause. I am fed up with making, and I have no doubt that the House is fed up with listening to, the same speech. But there is plenty of meat in the Bill, the clause and the procedures of this House for one to make a reasonable, logical speech in defence of democracy, which is at stake here tonight. That is what is at stake, not the rights of trade unionists or environmentalists in the West Midlands. It is not about the rights of those who have agreed with planning decisions because they live near an accident black spot. It is not those people whose rights are at stake. It is those bodies corporate probably—who operated under the rules of this place to lodge a petition at great expense.
I cannot believe that this House, in 1979, will overturn the rights of petitioners, entrenched in Standing Orders that their petitions can be heard. For that reason, I believe that the new clause ought to be recommitted to the Committee of Selection. I do not want to go over what is in the petition. I did that on 6 February on Second Reading, at great length and I know that my hon. Friends can go over it again and again if need be.
I must draw attention to some of the points in the new clause to which some of us object and to which we have tabled amendments, as we are entitled to do. In a way, I should have preferred—this is a problem which arises because of a quirk of procedure—to have listened to the speech of the hon. Lady before I was called to make my own. That is not your fault, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I make no complaint about it. But we are extremely concerned about the effect of the new clause on the people of the West Midlands.
It is clear so far from the passage of the various county council Bills through 700 the House—this is but one of them—that the issue of the procession clause has been contentious on both sides, but there has been only one vote on it. This is an important point to be made. On all the Bills with a procession clause that have come before the House, there has been only one vote on the issue, and that was on the West Midlands County Council Bill, when the House decided to throw the clause out. All the other votes have been on the Second Reading, on the closure, and so on.
Therefore, morally—this point should be made; I think that moral arguments count for something, even nowadays—we have the majority of the House on our side.
Do I hear the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) say something from a sedentary position? Does he wish to intervene?
§ Mr. Budgen
I apologise. I was following the hon. Gentleman's very bad habit of making a comment from a sedentary position. I agree with him that it is a most undesirable habit. I regret that I caught it from him, and I shall desist from it.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am quickly trying to learn new good habits, and I shall try as hard as I can. Nevertheless, this is private business, so perhaps for a few hours I can revert to my previous self.
The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Edgbaston contains some objectionable features. We on the Opposition Benches would like to have a debate of reasonable length on the issues raised because, if the matter cannot go back to the Committee of Selection, the voices of my hon. Friends and myself—and those of Liberal Members as well, who take the same stand on the issue—will offer the only way by which the petitioners who duly lodged their petitions can be heard. That is the nub of the argument here tonight.
This is a consolidation Bill. I had just referred to the force of the moral argument when my train of thought was disturbed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. That moral argument is extremely strong. The central point—I have said this before but it must be repeated—is that something has changed since the House, by a majority, 701 decided to vote the clause out. The composition of the House has changed.
§ Mr. Rooker
The hon. Lady says "Hear, hear" to that. She may argue that it is good for democracy that, as a result of an election by secret ballot, the composition of the House has changed, but I humbly submit to her that that is no excuse for the overturning of democratic procedures in order to prevent petitioners from having their petitions heard.
I shall be interested to know whether the hon. Lady has discussed the consequences of the procedure that she is using—
§ Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have all listened to the hon. Gentleman for about 24 minutes now. He is fully entitled to make his case, but, having heard him thus far, I suggest that he is now entering into the arguments on the new clause put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight). By all means, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to argue against it when it is debated, but is it not an abuse of the House to go on and on on the present motion?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
We are debating on this motion the substance of the new clause. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to discuss it.
§ Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that there is a feeling that this subject has been debated previously, but there are many new Members in the House who were not here for the previous debate, and we should appreciate a full discussion on the issue.
§ Mr. Rooker
Again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your protection. I note the attitude of hon. Members on the Government Benches. On the original occasion, they did not want a debate. In February, there was a very anti-democratic stance by Conservative Members, and obviously that has not changed since the general election.
702 I should be interested to hear from the hon. Member for Edgbaston what discussions she has had with the petitioners whose rights she is seeking to circumvent. So far as I am aware, she has had no discussions with the secretary of the Birmingham trades council, Sir David Perris, who has made clear that in the 15 or 18 years during which he has been organising processions in Birmingham he has never had the slightest problem with the police about the route or the timing of a procession organised by trade unions in Birmingham. There has never been any such problem.
The only problems encountered in Birmingham, as elsewhere in the country, have been caused by processions and demonstrations which are outside the scope of these Bills because they come within the scope of the Representation of the People Act, the provisions of which are being overriden. That has been the main cause of the problems in Birmingham.
What discussions has the hon. Lady had with the Birmingham trades council and the National Council for Civil Liberties, both of which have been put to some expense—they are not private corporations or profit-making bodies—in organising their petitions, briefing counsel and being ready to appear before a Committee to present their petitions?
If this were a strictly commercial matter, a Bill affecting commercial interests, there would be uproar on the Government Benches if any Opposition Members used a quirk of procedure that prevented any commercial interest from having its petition heard. Government Members would be screaming hell and high water about the overturning of democracy and the rights of petitioners. Yet, as usual, when they are on the other side of the argument they change their tune.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
On the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, that is what they did.
§ Mr. Rooker
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We remember the debates on the hybridity of that Bill to nationalise the aircraft and shipbuilding industries. The Tories showed their true colours then, when commercial interests were involved, but no such interests are involved here.
703 I shall put the matter briefly. I do not intend to debate the clause at length, although I am entitled to, as every hon. Member is. Why is the hon. Lady sticking to the point about three days' notice? It has been made clear that this is a consolidation Bill affecting, I think, seven district councils. Basically, it comes about because of local government reorganisation. There is no early reason why we could not have had in the Bill, say, the maximum time limit in any of those districts—36 hours, 48 hours, or whatever it may be. There is no reason for seven days, or even three days.
The Home Secretary said yesterday that he is reviewing the law affecting demonstrations and processions. We submit—or certainly I submit, and I do not presume to speak for anyone else—that there is need for a requirement of notice where it is practicable to give that notice. No one disputes that. There ought to be the right of peaceful procession. I am not advocating any rights for non-peaceful demonstrations or processions. But I think that it ought to apply to the nation as a whole.
I do not see why, because one happens to live in the West Midlands conurbation, one should have this imposition whereas, as in the example I gave earlier, farmers in Warwick or Leamington disagreeing with what the Government are doing in Brussels—a very unlikely event, I should add—and wanting to take their tractors on to the roads and gum up Warwick or Leamington will not be covered by this requirement of notice. The farmers of Warwick and Leamington can do it in one hour, 24 hours, or whatever they like. There is no three days' notice or seven days' notice for them. It is all right for the farmers and all right for anybody outside the conurbation.
§ Mr. Dudley Smith
I assure the hon. Gentleman that farmers in the Warwick or Leamington area will not be deterred by any legislation if they feel strongly about something. Whichever Government are in power, they will act.
§ Mr. Rooker
There we have it. It is a whale we have caught, not a tiddler. That is what we get from an hon. Member on the Tory Benches when his interests or commercial interests—or, indeed, the interests of his constituents—are affected. I acknowledge the interest of 704 his constituents, but when their rights are affected, or when their livelihood, the way they live and work are affected—one has to be careful what one says in this place—we can forget the law. "Whatever the law, we shall take to the streets"—that is what the hon. Gentleman said.
If it is good enough for his constituents, what about mine? If my constituents turn up for work one day and find the factory closed, with no warning and no negotiation, and they want to march to the head office, to the trade union, to the council headquarters or the headquarters of the factory or company, perhaps a multinational company, if it is nearby, they cannot do it. They are caught by the law.
All I ask the hon. Gentleman to do is to give my constituents the same rights as he obviously wants for his own. I ask him not to be selfish. But the difference between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends and myself is that we are not advocating that anyone should break the law. We are here using our democratic right to make sure that laws passed by this place are realistic, are enforceable and, what is more, get the consent of people outside. As the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) has clearly said, if the law does not have the consent of the Government they will not bother with it. The hon. Gentleman has given the House a choice quote for the coming winter.
§ Mr. Dudley Smith
I merely said—the hon. Gentleman realises this—that no one can stop an individual from taking any line of action if that is what he wishes. I was trying to say that those with independent minds will often adopt peaceful means of demonstrating.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Rooker
In early February I quoted Lord Denning at length. He said that the British people had a common law right to demonstrate peacefully. My constituents wish to avail themselves of that right. Whatever the hon. Gentleman seeks to say between now and the conclusion of the debate, he will not be able to withdraw the implication that was clear in his intervention. When my hon. Friends receive their copies of Hansard, they will be well advised to cut out the hon. Gentleman's intervention for safekeeping during the coming winter.
705 I am seeking to protect the right to join processions and to demonstrate peacefully. I am not asking for provision to be made to enable riotous assemblies to take place in any of our constituencies. It would be stupid to advocate or to seek such a right. Therefore, it is inappropriate for Conservative Members to cast aspersions on my hon. Friends and myself by claiming that we are trying to encourage our constituents to break the law, fill the streets and cause havoc and mayhem. That is not our purpose.
If this measure gets on to the statute book, it is clear that our constituents will be frustrated when it is used for the first time against, for example, an environmental pressure group. Such a group may choose to demonstrate against the siting of one of the Prime Minister's new nuclear power stations. It is obvious that many new power stations will soon be proposed. There will be trouble when one of those power stations is sited in an area covered by a measure of this kind. I cannot envisage such a power station being sited in the West Midlands conurbation, but the right hon. Lady is so fanatically pro-nuclear that it is possible that it will have one. There will be uproar the first time one of the county council measures is used against a pressure group of law-abiding citizens.
There will be a demand to know what the House was doing when it enacted such a Bill. There will be a demand to know how the rights of those who lawfully petitioned against the clause that we are now considering were overcome by the actions of Conservative Members. There will be a demand to know what happened to democracy in June 1979. My hon. Friends and I will have to explain that a Tory Government were in power and that Tory Back Benchers were whipped on private business. It is as plain as a pikestaff that there has been whipping on the Government Benches.
I know to my cost that the former Labour Government would not move one iota from tradition. It sometimes seems that Labour Governments love tradition more than Conservative Governments do. The previous Labour Government Chief Whip said that that Government would not interfere in private business and would not break the rules.
§ Mr. Rooker
I was entitled to ask the previous Government to interfere, but I had to accept their decision. Their attitude was quite right under Standing Orders and the tradition of the House. However, the Government have taken all necessary steps to ensure that their Lobby fodder is present tonight to override the rights of the constituents of my hon. Friends and myself.
I presume that Conservative Members do not wish the rights of petitioners to be heard. Why is that? I invite the hon. Member for Edgbaston to let the House know under what Standing Order she is seeking to override the rights of petitioners. There may be some democrats on the Government Benches who will be interested. I have good reason to believe that a good few Conservative troublemakers were elected on 3 May and that the Governement will have trouble with them. I ask the hon. Lady to tell the House what discusisons she has had with the petitioners. I appeal to her in the spirit of democracy that this place embodies to allow the new clause to be returned.
The hon. Lady probably thinks that she can beat her opponents at any time. If that is so, what is wrong with allowing the new clause to be returned so that the petitioners may be heard? If she is so confident, what is the problem? Is she afraid of the power of argument? Is she afraid of the power of argument of simple trade unionists? Is she afraid of the power of argument of those concerned with civil liberties? Is she worried about that? If so, the hon. Lady and those who support the clause tonight should be ashamed of themselves. If that is their position, they do not deserve the title of hon. Members. If the hon. Lady's troops are present, I do not understand her problem.
Private business does not take up much of the time of the House, but there have been occasions when some private business has been overturned. For example, the Eastbourne Harbour Docks Bill and the Cromarty Harbour Order Confirmation Bill received majority votes for their various parts. However, because in some instances the rights of petitioners had been 707 overriden, because the power of argument was sufficient and because hon. Members used every nook and cranny of procedure, the Bills were not enacted.
I believe that the Bill should be accepted. I think that it should be passed by the House, but without the proposed new clause. There are parts of the Bill that are urgently needed to replace enactments that have failed. There are parts of the Bill with which I agree but some of my hon. Friends may not. For example, there is a clause that overrides Sunday trading laws for the exhibition centre. I happen to agree with that, but some of my hon. Friends may wish in future to argue about the extension of Sunday trading laws. The Bill includes provisions for the depths of graves. There is a mine of material in the Bill.
If the rights of hon. Members are not allowed, if we consider that the rights of petitioners have been overridden and if we smell that the power of argument is so strong that the supporters of the clause will run away from us, we shall exercise every one of the rights available to us.
§ Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
I take the first opportunity afforded to me to give my warmest congratulations to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his elevation to the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman has great gifts, and I am sure that they will be well used in the service of his party and the House. He has great abilities as a speaker and on occasions he even has charm.
However, I am bound to say that there are times when the hon. Gentleman's charm is overtaken by his venom. I am sorry to say that tonight was one of those occasions. I suggest that in his transmogrification to higher things he learns that he will get a little further with more charm and less venom.
The hon. Gentleman must learn to understand that when there is a change of Government it is perfectly legitimate, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree, that changes be made in legislation enacted by a previous Government. We must not believe that, because a previous Parliament passed a measure, this Parliament must follow it up. The hon. Gentleman based part of his argument on the fact that in the pre- 708 vious Parliament his views were noted and agreed.
It may seem reasonable that petitioners should have an opportunity of being heard. Indeed, I strongly support the concept that Members of Parliament should always give an ear to those outside who feel aggrieved. The hon. Gentleman was interested only in any petitions against the Bill that were presented in the previous Session of Parliament. Much of his argument fell to the ground, as he made a plea only on behalf of four groups of people.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
The case depends on the two Parliaments. There is a procedure. I refer to the carry-over motion that enables a Bill to move from one Parliament to the next. That is a rare procedure, available only for Private Bills. It means that there is special treatment for Private Bills. It is difficult to argue that the petitioners to a previous Parliament should be treated differently in this Parliament. If so, there should not have been a carry-over motion. The whole matter should have started again and those involved should have had the opportunity to petition this Parliament.
§ Mrs. Knight
I knew that I was wrong to give way to the hon. Gentleman at this stage. My kind heart overcame the direction of my mind. I am sorry. It will not happen again. The points raised by the hon. Gentleman will be fully covered in my speech.
The hon. Member for Perry Barr made a case for four petitioners: the Birmingham trades council, the West Midlands group of the National Council for Civil Liberties, the No. 3 divisional council of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs—no doubt great significance must be attached to the "No. 3"—and the National Association of Funeral Directors. Those four petitioners, which were referred to in the motion, dealt with matters of public policy. None dealt with alleged damage to local interests or private rights. That is important. The interests of the funeral directors are not affected by the new clause, as funeral processions are exempt. My remarks apply to the other three petitioners.
Originally, there were objections from the boy scouts, the Boys' Brigade, the girl guides and other such bodies. All those objections were withdrawn. Those 709 bodies recognised that there was no curtailment of their rights because, as a matter of courtesy, they already gave notice of their intended processions to the police.
At one point the hon. Gentleman referred—this happened on one of the occasions when venom overcame charm—to newspaper reports. I do not know how this was intended to advance the argument in favour of his motion or against the new clause. He said that he had read in this morning's paper that because of my views I had not been appointed chairman of a 1922 Back Benchers' committee. I have had the great honour to be elected member of the executive committee of the 1922 Committee, which some hon. Members consider more prestigious.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Conservative Party could not change its tune now that it had come into power. It is extraordinary that tonight he is radically changing his tune from his attitude when Labour was in power. He must learn that he cannot seek to change the rules half way through a game just because he is losing.
On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman was adamant that this was a matter for the House to decide. His former actions made it absolutely certain that no petitioners would be heard. When his party could command a majority in the House he said that this was a matter for the House. He must not change his tune now that he is in opposition. What was good when his party was in government—in not allowing petitioners—should be good now that he is a member of the Opposition. He must be consistent. He wants the position to be reversed. He now wants the petitioners to be heard. That argument does not appeal to me. He made his case strongly and forcibly for the other side of the argument when his party was in power. That argument was carried. He must understand that he cannot turn about now and change his mind.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Rooker
I do not accept what the hon. Lady said. I have never said that the rules and procedures of the House have been circumvented. At no time have I advocated that the rights of petitioners should be overridden. It is within the competence of Parliament to make its decisions. It will make one tonight. 710 That is not the point at issue. The point is whether the hon. Lady is, at this point in the procedure, circumventing the rights of those outside, after the previous Parliament made a decision and before the carry-over motion? If she thinks that the carry-over motion would have been carried, she is very much mistaken.
§ Mrs. Knight
In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, I must remind him of exactly what he tabled. I have it here to hand. He deposited the petition of the Birmingham trades council, and tabled the following motion:That notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order 109 clause 39 of the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House and that the remainder of the Bill be referred to the Committee of Selection.In other words the hon. Gentleman was saying that a Committee of the whole House must decide, not the Committee. He now says the exact opposite. That is my point.
§ Mrs. Knight
The House must decide for itself whether the hon. Gentleman is being consistent. The motion to which I referred is on record. The hon. Gentleman now takes the opposite view.
§ Mr. Rooker
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is the House in Committee or at the consideration stage? There is one big difference. Part of the procedure will have been bypassed. I submitted that the matter should be committed to a Committee of the whole House. However, it never got that far.
§ Mrs. Knight
I shall allow hon. Members to decide who is speaking more consistently on this matter.
I shall take up another point made by the hon. Gentleman, the question whether farmers could decide to process with their tractors. One of the difficulties about this question is that there are different rules in different parts of the country. In some parts of the country there are laws such as those that we seek to pass tonight. In other areas the position is different.
We can deal in the West Midlands County Council Bill only with the West Midlands, and that is what we are trying to do. It is no business of ours to refer 711 to things which happen in other parts of the country where the rules are not so clear or laid down in the same way. We are dealing only with this Bill. We are also dealing with city streets, and that is a very different matter from dealing with urban and country roads. Ordinary members of the public encounter great difficulty if they suddenly find that no protection can be given to them by the police when they are on their way to or from work, or going shopping or somewhere else, and the route is totally blocked by the sudden eruption of a procession.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
If it is not necessary in other parts of the country, including London, why should this restriction apply in the West Midlands? It is not good enough for the hon. Lady to say that she is not concerned with other parts of the country. If such restrictions do not exist elsewhere and it is not considered necessary that they should exist, why should such a restriction apply to the West Midlands area?
§ Mrs. Knight
I shall go over this point again. I am sorry that the hon. Member was not, apparently, listening to me. I did not say that I did not care about other parts of the country. What I said was—and this is true—that we are debating this evening the West Midlands County Council Bill. We are not debating legislation concerning other parts of this country. I am sure that the hon. Member will, on reflection, recognise that it is true to say that different conditions obtain in different parts of the country.
Why, for instance, do we have a 30 m.p.h. speed limit on the roads in some areas and a 70 m.p.h. limit in others? On the basis of exactly the same argument as has been put forward, it could equally be said that the speed limit ought to be the same everywhere. The point is that in different parts of the country different rules must apply for the protection of the public, and this is one such part.
This issue has indeed been very well ventilated, and not only in the last Parliament. I would emphasise, in reply to the comment made earlier that we ought to debate the matter fully, that the principle has already been debated pretty fully.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
May I invite the 712 hon. Lady to take the point about different legislation in different parts of the country a little further? It is known that she is an hon. Member who favours capital punishment. Is she telling us that it would be sensible to have a different punishment available for a crime in one part of the country as against another? Although that is putting the point at its most extreme, the same principle is involved in the point that she made.
§ Mrs. Knight
I have a nasty feeling that I should be out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I were to pursue an argument on the rights or wrongs of capital punishment at this time. Surely the hon. Gentleman must appreciate that there are different circumstances on urban roads from those in the city. We have before us a piece of legislation which is not intended to cover the whole country but which deals only with the West Midlands. I submit that that is all that we are entitled to speak about at this time.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
There are urban and rural roads in the West Midlands area, and there are urban roads in the London area, so that the difference between doing it in local legislation and national legislation is not a question of taking account of local circumstances. It is a question whether some things ought to be done by national legislation or by local legislation.
§ Mrs. Knight
I agree with the hon. Gentleman there is a strong case for having a uniform time of notice of street processions, and that there are some aspects of today's circumstances which are not satisfactory. Nevertheless, we cannot possibly deal with all Bills in all places when we are dealing with the West Midlands. We are dealing only with this area, and that is what I am trying to deal with in this speech. I am sure that the hon. Member will appreciate that there are specific difficulties in Birmingham. For example, we have to have special grants in one form or another because of the problems that we face. This is well understood by hon. Members and by members of local authorities.
§ Mrs. Knight
I must give notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not intend to weary the House with a long speech, and 713 interventions make long speeches. I shall therefore give way once more, and this will be the last time.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I am not a West Midlands Member but a London Member. Nevertheless, I have a vote on this matter, as a Member of the House of Commons. Will the hon. Lady enlarge on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), who is also a London Member? What are the specific conditions in the West Midlands in regard to which she thinks that special provisions should apply, provisions for which the London local authorities have not yet applied, and which apparently are not considered by them to be necessary?
§ Mrs. Knight
It is not my business—and it would be presumptuous of me if I were to pretend that it is—to tell the London authorities how they should run things in their own area. I can only speak and act in this debate on this evening on this particular piece of legislation. I hope that hon. Members will not keep dragging in points which are absolutely irrelevant.
§ Mrs. Knight
It is utterly irrelevant. If we were having a debate on matters affecting London, I would listen most carefully. I recommend the hon. Member to do the same when Members are speaking for their own areas, and not to attack them because they are not speaking for his area.
§ Mrs. Knight
The matter has been well ventilated, and I have no intention of rehearsing all the arguments again.
The Bill has a long history. It was deposited in November 1977, and even that was after some two or three years in its preparation. It started in the other House, and it was subjected there to the closest possible scrutiny. This principle was scrutinised more than perhaps any other in the Bill. The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on 7 December 1978, opposed by petitioners, 714 and considered by a Committee which sat from 13 March to 28 March 1979. That Committee went through the Bill and made numerous amendments.
The Bill as deposited contained 182 clauses. As introduced into the second House, it contained 132 clauses. It now contains 122 clauses. We have had this Bill and its contents discussed again and again by Members of this House and Members of another place. Therefore, I submit that the matter has been well ventilated.
I should like briefly to touch on the points which led me to put down my new clause. The question really is whether we are to help the police keep our streets clear and negotiable. That is what the Bill is about. Although the hon. Member for Perry Barr may say that it is not his intention—and I am sure it is not—in seeking to delete the clause, to have riotous processions, how on earth could he stop them becoming riotous? We have seen the sort of mischief which can arise from processions when rival gangs become involved. In Birmingham we have even had paving stones torn up and hurled by rivals in demonstrations. Labour Members who represent parts of Birmingham will well recall the occasion to which I am referring. It was extremely dangerous for the people of the city, and very bad indeed for the traders.
Are we or are we not to recognise the rights of peaceable citizens to go about their business unhampered? That is what we are really discussing. There is no denial of the right to march. If there were in this Bill a denial of the rights of people to express themselves by marching or demonstrating I would oppose it. Nothing in my new clause stops people with genuine reasons making their feelings on any subject known and understood. They are still perfectly able to do so. All they have to do is to give notice that they intend to march. Is that really a denial of human rights? Labour Members indicate that they think it is. They have an odd idea of human rights. Naturally there is a right for people to march or process peaceably, but they do not have the right to overturn the day-to-day life of a city at the drop of a hat. That is what the new clause is about.
715 Anyone who wishes to process can still do so. Is it not a reasonable point to make that organisers of a procession are required to give notice to the people who are to join in that procession? It cannot all happen in a flash of light. The organisers of processions are, therefore, well aware a few days beforehand that there will be a procession. They are perfectly able to give notice to the police in their area of their intention to march, so that the public can be protected.
I do not quite understand what it is that Opposition Members find so offensive in the police ensuring citizens' rights to walk through a city to do their shopping or to go to their place of work. What is so wrong about ensuring the rights of ordinary people? The ordinary citizen has a right to get to his or her place of work without let or hindrance. That is what he Bill is about.
§ Mrs. Knight
I gave notice before the right hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber that I would not give way again. I am sure that he would appreciate my point if he had been here at the start of my speech, let alone the start of the debate.
§ Mr. Howell
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the hon. Lady will withdraw with the usual courtesy when I inform her that I have heard every word of her speech.
§ Mrs. Knight
If that is so, and knowing the right hon. Gentleman's courtesy, I find it surprising that he seeks to ask leave to break a rule which I made earlier. However, because I have respect for the right hon. Gentleman I shall make one last exception and give way to him.
§ Mr. Howell
I am much obliged to the hon. Lady. Although we obviously have some sympathy with her desire to protect people from the undesirable effects of processions, the problem is whether this is the right way in which to deal with it or whether it will create many anomalies. If a football club holds a match and its supporters organise a pro- 716 cession from the railway station to the football ground—or, indeed, the police themselves organise it, as they commonly do in such circumstances—would they be breaking the law if the hon. Lady's clause was passed? For example, would the chief constable be responsible for any damages caused by the failure of the procession, which his policemen had organised, to stay within the law?
§ Mrs. Knight
I am bound to say that the right hon. Gentleman advances a poor case. Of all the terrorism that has been meted out to poor innocent citizens, quite a lot must be put down to football fans going on the rampage. For that reason I must tell the right hon. Member that my clause would, indeed, stop such a procession taking place. When football matches take place—the right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about this, because he is aware that whenever certain football teams cone to the city of Birmingham the police are especially on the qui vive—trouble frequently breaks out.
§ Mrs. Knight
That is the very point I am making. If they organise the procession, they must give notice to the police of their intention. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but a constituent of mine recently wrote a letter to me about a very harrowing experience that she had had on a train bringing football fans down to London via Birmingham. A man was murdered on that train by one of the football fans. Opposition Members should understand that that is not funny. It is not amusing to have insults and violence offered, and difficulties put in the way of peaceable citizens by football fans. The right hon. Gentleman has therefore put a very bad case.
I believe that I am in order to continue now with the amendments which have not yet been moved. May I have your guidance on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
They will not be moved at this stage. The hon. Lady may speak to them and they will then be moved formally later, if required.
§ Mrs. Knight
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall move on to the amendments tabled by 717 various Opposition Members and deal with them as briefly as I can.
Amenedment (b) seems to be aimed at excluding my new clause from applying to processions of fewer than 200 persons. I am not clear whether the words which are to be inserted after the word "district" refer to those taking part in the procession, or whether they include other persons in the street. It is far from clear. There are more than 100 precedents for the principle of this clause, none of which lays down the number of people that must take part before a new clause can operate. This amendment is nonsense.
Fewer than 200 persons can cause considerable disruption if they are so minded. How on earth would the organisers know, prior to the demonstration, whether there would be 200, 201 or any other number? It is well known that those who organise such demonstrations are often like the sorcerer's apprentice, because the procession or demonstration often gets much bigger and more violent than originally intended. How on earth would the organisers know who would come along? If it is not clear that members of the pubic may well be included in the 200, then it is an extremely odd amendment.
There would also be an open opportunity for some trouble-makers—and some people who organise processions are undoubtedly trouble-makers—to come along. Some unscrupulous persons such as that might say "We did not know all these people would come. We did not know that up to 350 people would actually turn up on the day. We intended that there should be only 199 people present, your honour "The troubles which could arise as a result of the amendment do not require a great deal of imagination.
Amendment (d) seeks to leave out "three days" and insert "thirty-six hours". It is true that some local authorities have different periods of notice. I have taken the trouble to check the times involved. None fails to set down the legal period of notice in respect of Sundays or bank holidays, as the amendment would. In any case, 36 hours is not sufficient time for the police to make arrangements to safeguard the public. After all, three days is a very 718 short time. The police are under stress, as I am sure Labour Members on the Front Bench will understand perhaps even more than Labour Back Benchers.
It is not easy suddenly to call on extra men. Leave has to be cancelled and people have to be brought in from holidays and so on. I do not believe that 36 hours is a sufficient time for the police to be able to protect the public, particularly when no condition is laid down in respect of Sundays and bank holidays.
Amendment (e) would allow a magistrate to change the new clause by himself deciding to substitute a shorter time of notice. Had the hon. Member for Perry Barr and his hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) sought advice from the Magistrates' Association on this point, I am sure that they would have had a unanimous protest from the association. I rather fear that they failed to ask for the association's views.
I ask hon. Members to consider the strain that would be imposed on magistrates if they themselves were able to decide whether a certain procession could be absolved from giving the police proper notice. What a terrible responsibility it would be if a magistrate, acting for the best, gave a green light for a procession to go forward, which later caused trouble! As hon. Members know, pressures currently bear down not only on magistrates but also on the courts of this land. I do not believe it is either practicable or fair to place this extra burden on them.
Amendment (e) also gives no opportunity for the district council or police to be notified. It makes no provision for giving effect to such an order, if made. However, one thing which can be said for the amendment is that it is a novel method of varying an Act of Parliament.
It was not my intention to speak at length, but these points are of extreme importance. No doubt we shall hear other arguments later, but I have no doubt that it is right and proper in the interests of the public, chiefly and the police, secondly, that my new clause should be passed.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
I rise to support first the recommittal of the Bill and, secondly, the amendments standing in my name and 719 that of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker).
At the beginning of the debate I said that if the promotors were in any way in support of the new clause it seemed to me that under the Standing Orders the matter ought to go back automatically for recommittal. At that stage, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you obviously felt that you were unable to intervene. Therefore, unless the recommittal motion is carried, it may well be that the petitioners will have a right—as I understand they have—to appeal to the Standing Orders Committee on private business, and there could well be an argument lasting some time before the Bill completes its stages.
It would seem reasonable for the recommittal to take place at this stage so that that possible procedural difficulty could be avoided. In addition, the advantage of recommittal would be that the amendments that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has just attacked, could be considered in a little more detail and a compromise reached.
When the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) originally presented the Bill on behalf of the promoters, he was very willing to try to discuss ways of getting around some of the problems. It seems that the hon. Lady does not want to be conciliatory, or to try to find ways in which individual freedom can be protected. It seems that she prefers to ride roughshod over these considerations.
Another important consideration is how long the Standing Orders Committee will take to consider the rights of petitioners. Perhaps that does not concern the hon. Lady, since she seems to think that if she carries the Bill tonight it will be the end of the matter. I can assure her that if there is not a recommittal of the Bill the petitioners may well want to raise the matter with the Standing Orders Committee, because in my view they have been denied a basic right, which is to present a petition in respect of anything that remains in the Bill, In so far as there appears to be collusion, in that the hon. Lady has acted in two capacities—her own, in moving the new clause, and on behalf of the promoters—I would 720 have thought that there was a strong case for recommittal.
I now turn to the amendments. In amendment (b), which seeks to limit the new clause to processions of more than 200 people, I accept that we may not have got the wording perfectly clear and that there could be some negotiation about the wording, but the basic point is that this is a cumbersome procedure for people who want to organise small demonstrations, particularly where those small demonstrations relate to local matters or matters that have a considerable immediacy.
There has been a lot of discussion about what happens after a road accident, especially when a local community has been pressing for some time that a zebra or pelican crossing should be installed. Under those circumstances, the local community may want to take some action pretty quickly. Very often that action is to stop traffic altogether, simply by walking backwards and forwards across the road. It is often the police themselves who say to the people "We believe that you have a strong case. Why not go in procession to the council offices and stress that something should be done about this particular black spot?" It does not go down very well to tell those people "Ah, but you must give three days' notice, and when all the heat has gone out of the matter you can hold your procession". What those people want is to be able to do something immediately, and very often the police recognise that.
Are we saying that if the police believe that people have a good case they will forget about the three days' notice but, on the other hand, if they do not particularly agree with a local demonstration they will enforce the law? If that is what is being said, it is a very bad law. Therefore, there is a very good argument for saying that small processions ought to be exempt.
If 200 people walk down the street, they take about the same space as three double decker buses. Do we need a large number of policemen to escort three double-decker buses down the street? Of course not. Therefore, if small demonstrations were exempt it would immediately remove from the Bill the problem of 721 those demonstrations which have immediacy and which cause little or no problems for the police. I would have thought that one or other of the two forms of the amendment—either amendment (b) or amendment (c)—would have been acceptable to the promoters.
I come to amendment (d), which would reduce the period of notice from three days to 36 hours. We are well aware that in the West Midlands there are varying provisions, although I understand that in Birmingham there is no requirement to give notice. However, in some of the other boroughs that make up the West Midlands there are requirements to give various periods of notice. Since this is supposed to be a consolidation measure, the strongest argument seems to be to have a common period of notice. I believe that in Coventry there is a requirement to give 36 hours' notice, but it is odd that when people recently checked with Coventry council they were assured "We do not bother with that any longer. There is no need to give notice at all" However, a requirement of 36 hours throughout the West Midlands seems to be a reasonable compromise. On the other hand, it does not give the police what they require—plenty of notice. If they are to lose their time off, they will certainly want some notice of it.
However, neither does the three days give sufficient notice. We want reasonable people to give as much notice as possible and, of course, reasonable people do. The Bill is trying to make them into unreasonable people. People will say "If we have to give the police only three days' notice, we shall give them only the minimum notice" One can see that attitude developing. However, if we left it on the custom and practice basis that has developed in Birmingham over the years—most reasonable people give much more than three days' notice—that would be a much better way to proceed. I ask the House to consider very carefully reducing the period of notice from three days to 36 hours.
I turn to the provision for magistrates. I admit that this is a device. We all know that at the time of Suez many people throughout the country immediately went out and demonstrated. We also know that at the time of the Cuba missile crisis many people demonstrated 722 in the streets. It is one of the fundamental rights of this country that on occasions of either national or international importance, people have a right to demonstrate immediately. They do not have to give three day's notice. If they had to do that for those sorts of demonstrations, it would be pretty pointless, because the reason for the demonstrations would have passed.
We have to try to find some way in which one can provide an exemption to people when there is a major issue—an international crisis or a major issue in this country. They are the issues about which people want action immediately.
It is suggested that there should be someone who can make a judgment whether the demonstration needs to take place quickly or whether three days' notice should be given. Magistrates are sufficiently respectable and impartial to make that judgment—and make it impartially. If the hon. Member for Edgbaston is interested in preserving freedom, she could suggest someone else who might act as arbitrator and decide whether something is of sufficient significance and importance to waive the three-day rule that she proposes.
Therefore, I hope that on the ground of simple justice to the petitioners and also on the purely procedural point of the right to go to the Standing Orders Committee if the petitioners' wishes are not upheld, at least to present their petition, the recommittal motion will be carried. If it is not, I hope that the House will defeat the new clause, or at least consider the amendments in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr and myself.
§ Mr. David Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley)
I rise to make my maiden speech. I have to admit that it is a very long time since I bowled a maiden over.
I come here knowing that I share a name that is hallowed in this House—that of a great parliamentarian. I wish that I could emulate him, but I am sure that I shall be unable to do so. He was on the opposite Benches. He was Nye, and I am Dai.
I am the blue Bevan, and I am putting the thesis of the blue arguments because, frankly, when I listened to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), with his interjections, and 723 the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), I was surprised that they were speaking for a Birmingham and a West Midlands of which I know nothing. I was surprised by their protests and representations. I speak for the people of Yardley, which was called Ger-lie and which existed for a thousand years before the Domesday Book. Those people of Ger-lie and Yardley, that clearing in the forest as it originally was, want me to put their points of view, and I shall put them.
They are people who possibly might ban all marches altogether when they see and sense that freedom becomes liberty and then becomes licence and offends the rest of society. They are people who would not split hairs about 36 hours or three days, but who might wipe everything out when it impinges on the individual and on society.
I speak as a member of the Birmingham city council for 15 years and of the West Midlands county council, the promoting authority, for five years. I hope that I know the feelings of those people of the West Midlands who ask that the amendments of Opposition Members be totally rejected and that those of my hon. Friends are included and embraced within the spirit and the letter of the Bill.
I have served on the police authority in Birmingham, and I have also led a march around Birmingham with the previous Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak—who has been replaced, happily, by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham,. Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). However, even the former Member for Selly Oak gave, with me, three days' notice of our intention—I think that we gave a little more notice than that—before that march took place, peaceably and happily.
I bear in mind other marches and demonstrations in Birmingham. I bear in mind the time when the police had to give way and the Saltley gas works were closed down by a massive demonstration and march. Authority was thwarted then, when the forces of law and order were subverted and defeated. The then leader of the West Midlands county council placed a miner's helmet in his office as his emblem. The present leader, who is in this Chamber today as an observer, replaced that immediately he took over with a policeman's helmet and, I hope, rectified the balance.
724 I remember, as will the right hon. Member for Small Heath, the massive march and demonstration in Digbeth about two years ago. My father's old ter—in Digbeth institute, now the civic church—he was a Congregational minis-hall, was currently booked by the National Front. A massive march and demonstration caused £1 million worth of costs and damage, until the police isolated the source of ammunition—all the cobblestones and bricks from a building site. Dangerous things took place. There was a danger to life and limb.
There comes a time when the people say "That is quite enough. We must take action". I remember the situation in Ladywood, as will may right hon. and hon. Members. Dangerous things took place there. Extremists of both factions marched and counter-marched, and counter-marched again. Property was damaged. Life and limb were in danger. The cost to the taxpayer and ratepayer in the provisioning of the police rose and rose, such that the taxpayers in my constituency of Yardley can hardly afford to meet the bill.
We have noticed, especially since the war, the erosion of democracy and liberty. We have seen more of our laws nodded through the Privy Council rather than debated on the Floor of this honourable House. We have noticed legislation—whether it be on drinking and driving, or on driving and parking, or on all sorts of matters—being enacted which has deprived us of that innate liberty which all of us as Britons thought we enjoyed. Why is it so wrong to amend the laws in the defence of society rather than amend the laws against the individual? It is a perfectly right and proper thing to do.
It is traditional to give statistics. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) in whom I detected a Scottish accent, was debating the affairs of the West Midlands and deciding what we wanted. I shall tell him what is the right and might of Birmingham and the West Midlands, and why the Bill should be supported. Birmingham has a population of 1,600,000, a gross rate expenditure of over £261 million and a rateable value of £106 million. The population in the 725 West Midlands is 2¾ million, the gross expenditure is £208 million and the rateable value is £380 million. These are people, these are figures and these matters must be properly debated and passed through the House. I ask that we support these amendments.
While the events were occurring in Nazi Germany there were arguments about liberty and democracy. I have heard the argument that:When they came to arrest the JewsI did not protestWhen they arrested the CatholicsI did not protestBecause I was neither Jewish or CatholicAnd then they came and arrested meAnd there was nobody left to protestI know that argument. Hon. Gentlemen on the Labour Benches are right to believe that those arguments are innate, but we are discussing how to defend society in a proper and reasonable manner.
I say to the right hon. Member for Small Heath that there have been regrettable happenings in the football demontrations, be they processions or not. It has cost vast amounts of money and the ratepayers of Yardley bitterly resent paying those sums. If the right hon. Member has not seen the bus seats cut open, I shall willingly show them to him in Tyburn Road. He must realise that we need measures to deal with these problems.
On behalf of the people of Yardley I ask not only for the three-day notice amendment but, if necessary, to surrender the right when it becomes licence instead of liberty. I call for the return of capital punishment in this country and I shall vote for it at the appropriate time—the law in Scotland is different—and also for the return of corporal punishment and stiffer sentences, properly administered. I noted that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) strictured us on what we should do. However, we are Midlanders and know what we want.
I accept the innocuous and minor amendment and ask the House to promise the West Midlands that we shall do everything possible to support the Bill, as amended.
§ Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan) 726 on the delivery of his maiden speech. Yardley has always produced interesting hon. Members, and from the Labour Benches we pay tribute to his predecessor, our colleague—
§ Mr. Howell
We are grateful that the hon. Gentleman has intervened to pay that tribute. It is well deserved. Mr. Syd Tierney was held in great esteem by the House.
I know of the hon. Gentleman's father in his role as a Congregational minister, and, as he knows, I have attended meetings in his church. I also know other members of the hon. Gentleman's family. I hope that he will not mind my saying that many of us were inhibited by the fact that he was making a maiden speech. We were not able to interrupt as we would have liked and deal with some of his aggressive points, not least his proposal that organisers of marches who have not given notice should be subject to corporal or capital punishment, or probably both.
Most of us share the fear and concern of many people about the results of marches and some counter-marches. We are all anxious to protect people from the worst excesses of improper behaviour and we recognise that the police often have a difficult job and that they need as much support as possible. However, we must ask ourselves whether the West Midlands county council is right to seek unilaterally this sort of legislation or whether it would be better for the Home Office to bring forward national legislation, having consulted the local authority associations and achieved a sensible degree of uniformity around the country. Most important of all, we must ask ourselves whether these proposals would actually work and whether they have been well thought through.
It is because we do not think they are well thought through, and we do not think that they will work in practice, or that proper consideration has been given to a national approach, that many of us find it impossible, judging by what we 727 have heard today from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) to support something that might make matters worse than ever.
Earlier, in an interjection I mentioned the question of football supporters. Of course nobody in the country has spent more time than I in trying to deal with the abuses and misbehaviour of some football supporters. The hon. Lady raised the matter of the killing of a person on a train, which I raised yesterday on the Front Bench, but I cannot go into it now because there is a criminal charge pending. Obviously we are all very concerned about that. However, this Bill has nothing to do with train journeys and the hon. Lady's response to me is therefore totally irrelevant.
§ Mrs. Knight
Is the right hon. Member not seized of the fact that he was the one who raised the question of football supporters? In reply, I was simply trying to make the point—quite successfully I thought—that football supporters of all groups were those from whom the public needed and deserved protection.
§ Mr. Howell
In spite of all the working party recommendations that I have produced, the hon. Lady must recognise that we are dealing with a tiny minority. Most football supporters in this country—in fact, 99 per cent. of them—are decent, law-abiding citizens. Has the hon. Lady considered the fact that when they get off trains and coaches they are often organised in processions to go to the football ground? What happens if someone organises them into a procession—often these processions are of official supporters of clubs—and they are set upon by people lying in wait for them as they move in an orderly manner from the railway station to the football ground? That is why the police, or stewards from the football club itself, escort them to the ground on many occasions.
I put this question to the hon. Lady: are these football supporters who are organised into a procession protected under this Bill, or are the organisers, who might be the police themselves, liable for any disorder that occurs in that procession? The hon. Lady has not tried to answer this question. I wish she would, because it could be a matter of considerable importance.
§ Mrs. Knight
The matter has been clearly outlined by the right hon. Gentleman, who said a few moments ago that the police knew that these events were to take place and gave protection.
§ Mrs. Knight
The police are well aware that a match is taking place, and frequently notice is given. Where protection is required, there is no question but that notice is given to the police. The police know the date and time of a match, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) is well aware of that fact. It is no secret from the police, and the police take action on that information. But if football supporters or anybody else take it on themselves to organise a procession from which violence may result they must give notice, in common with everybody else.
§ Mr. Howell
I am grateful for that explanation, but I am afraid that it does not help. The truth is that it is only when the supporters have got off the train and the situation is assessed in the light of potential and probable trouble that those concerned are organised into a procession. This sometimes happens at five minutes' notice. Even though there may be a little truth in what the hon. Lady says, in that the date of the match is known and the police, hypothetically, could give notice to themselves or to their local authority, what happens in the third round of the Cup when, unexpectedly, a draw takes place on a Saturday afternoon at 4.45 p.m. and the match is due to be replayed on the Monday at 7 p.m.? In such circumstances it is almost impossible to give notice in the statutory time available. This renders this proposal absurd.
I would rather see the flexibility in the hands of the police, so that notice has to be given and so that the police themselves will be left to decide what is a reasonable time. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) that most sensible people want to give as much notice as they can, but the police often find themselves in difficulties. Surely the police welcome flexibility.
There may be occasions when the police in the West Midlands will have to cope with six first division football matches in 729 their area. On that day the police would take the view that they could not also cope with a march by the National Front or anybody else. Therefore, those concerned will be persuaded to stage their procession on another day. There may be other Saturdays when that is not the position.
§ Mr. Howell
I know that the police have requested this provision. I am trying to point out the dangers. I have the highest regard for the West Midlands police.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
The hon. Lady has just said that the police asked for this rule. Do I understand that she is now promoting this clause on behalf of the police? If that is her view, she is in breach of Standing Orders, which point out that if the promoters of a Bill wish to introduce a new clause, the Bill in question must be recommitted.
§ Mr. Howell
I am not sure on whose behalf the hon. Lady is promoting this provision. I assume that it is the West Midlands county council, which includes the police authority.
I wish now to deal with another danger, which has not been thought through. The hon. Member for Yardley drew a parallel with Nazi Germany when it eventually became necessary for some people to demonstrate because, one by one, they were being picked off and eliminated. The hon. Gentleman said that in those circumstances there was not only a right but a positive duty for people to protest. I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman in that view. There are times when people believe that they have not only a right but a duty to protest. These will be spontaneous eruptions, as it were, on the body politic when decent people take the view "We cannot tolerate this situation any longer. We must stand up and be counted."
The result of the clause will be demonstrations without leaders. If people wish to demonstrate spontaneously on a matter about which they feel strongly, nothing will stop them doing so. If it is an offence to demonstrate without giving three days' notice, demonstrations will be organised 730 in a leaderless manner. That will be more damaging and dangerous to the police.
For many years I served on the Birmingham watch committee, and every policeman I have known has wanted to have a commonsense arrangement with the organisers of demonstrations and meetings. It is in the interests of the police and also in the interests of harmony within the local community to do so.
Do we really wish to have leaderless spontaneous demonstrations? We do not, and that is the second major reason why I am against the proposals.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)
I have personal experience of the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) is making. In my constituency I took part in a non-political march protesting against the attempted closure of the Duchess of York hospital in Manchester. The march was led by inexperienced, non-political people. A certain political element entered into that march for its own purposes and attempted to divert it from the route that had been agreed to another route that would have caused great inconvenience to traffic. It was only because a Conservative Member was with me on the march that we, with our experience, were able to prevent that happening. My right hon. Friend is making an extremely valid point.
§ Mr. Howell
That is a third point that I now come to, which concerns the provisions that hold the organisers responsible for everything that happens during the march, even though they could not possibly be responsible for some of the occurrences, diversions and deviations that take place.
It is ludicrous to be able to say to the organisers of a march "If your march causes trouble, even though it happens against your strongest advice, and even though you have done everything possible to avoid it, it is still your fault". That is how I read the clause, and it is no good Conservative Members shaking their heads.
A penalty of £200 can be imposed on organisers if they fail to keep the marchers in line. They would need the wisdom of Solomon and the discipline of 731 a field marshal on some occasions if they were to guarantee to keep every one of their supporters in line. If marchers step out of line and cause trouble, they should be dealt with by the police, taken before the courts and made to answer for the troubles they have created. I am in favour of that, but it is absurd to place that responsibility upon the organisers.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) asked, what is to be done about people who try to cash in on marches, to take them over, to pervert the original purpose of the march in the pursuit of extremist politics? That situation often arises. What does one say to the leaders of the respectable and reasonable march when that occurs? Are they to be made responsible when Left-wing factions try to cash in?
§ Mr. Budgen
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain his statement that the organiser or conductor as so defined would be held responsible for all that happened during a march? Subsection (2) states that if an organiser fails to give notice in the prescribed form, he is guilty of a criminal offence. That does not mean that he is responsible for all that happens during a march. As we are dealing with the details of the Bill, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not use such loose expressions.
§ Mr. Howell
I am not a barrister, like the hon. Gentleman. Surely any court applying subsection (1)(a), (b) and (c) to the considerations in subsection (2) would hold that any deviation from the route or any difficulties created, whether at the behest of or against the advice of the organiser, would be the responsibility of the organiser. That is my reading of it.
I hope that the Minister—who is a silk—will convince the House that if there is a diversion—a change in the direction of the route of the march because of un foreseen circumstances such as those that we have just been discussing—the leaders of the march will not be held responsible. I am sure that all hon. Members will receive that information gladly. However, it is not the impression that we have received hitherto.
I came here today not intending to speak but merely to listen. However, the more I look at the Bill and apply my knowledge of sport and football, and what 732 goes on Saturday afternoons around the country, and the more I begin to think through the Bill and to understand where it will take us—not only in football but in the area of great emotional occasions of leaderless marches or demonstrations—I believe that it is a bad Bill. We have no business in giving it support this evening.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)
It will be helpful to the House if I intervene at this stage to give the Government's view on the matters raised in the debate. However, before doing so, I have two great pleasures ahead of me. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan) on his maiden speech. Those hon. Members who are not from the West Midlands have learned to expect from colleagues who are from that part of the country the most vigorous and forthright expression of views on behalf of their constituents, an expression that is based on deep feeling and understanding of those views. In my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley the House has acquired a distinguished proponent of that tradition. I congratulate him on starting his career in so forthright and vigorous a manner.
It is also a pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) on his debut from the Opposition Front Bench. I feel like one debutante congratulating another—only slightly later in the season. I do so having been involved in debates with him in the last Parliament and with great pleasure.
The question of the national requirement for notice of processions has been raised. During last week's debate on the Cheshire County Council Bill I stated clearly that it was the Government's intention to re-examine the Public Order Act 1936 to consider whether any changes would be useful and desirable. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary confirmed that yesterday in his statement to the House on the Southall disturbances. One of the matters that will fall to be considered will be whether there should be a national requirement for advance notice of processions.
However, before turning to the points that have been raised on the new clause, I should like to follow up the exchange in the House yesterday after my right 733 hon. Friend's statement between the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. My right hon. Friend said that he would consider whether it would be right for the Government to advise the House that it would be better if the provisions in local Bills currently before us were not to include proposals for an advance notice requirement and that such proposals should await the review of the Public Order Act 1936, which is now under way.
Although the time available since yesterday has been relatively short my right hon. Friend has given careful consideration to the position that the Government should take. It is clear that it might be thought preferable to have a clearcut position either with or without a national notice requirement. But that would be true only if we were starting from a position in which what was being proposed locally in the series of Bills coming before the House were wholly new and unprecedented and if there were not strong arguments, on their merits, for particular local provisions.
That is not the situation. We are dealing with proposals to re-enact, with some modifications, useful existing provisions. We are therefore starting not from scratch but from an existing pattern in the law. Bills before the House propose some modifications, but they are designed largely to ensure that the provisions throughout a local authority or police area should be consistent. They fill in gaps that would otherwise exist and build, on the basis of experience, some minor changes into the period for advance notice.
The chief officers of police concerned have found the local provisions useful in the past. The provisions have not caused difficulty to those who wish to march and I consider that they are useful for the future. I should therefore tell the House that it would not, in the Government's view, be right to deny local authorities such provisions simply on the basis that the Government are reviewing the general law of the land in relation to such matters.
If as a result of the review, the House decides that there should be an advance notice requirement in the general law, amending legislation could bring local legislation into line. My right hon. 734 Friend believes it right that, in the meantime, Parliament should consider and decide the proposed requirements in local Bills on their merits.
In respect of the Bill before the House, the Government are definitely in favour of the proposed notice requirement. The arguments are in part general and in part relate to the particular needs of the West Midlands.
Taking the general view first, I believe that there are three practical arguments for a reasonable notice requirement. First, if a march or procession is expected to be large or to provoke a significant counter demonstration, the police may need to make arrangements for the diversion of traffic. Obviously the more time that they are given for that, the more satisfactory the arrangements are likely to be.
Secondly, if a march is likely to create public order problems and consideration is given to the use of the powers to ban processions which exist under the Public Order Act 1936, the procedures involved take time, and notice is valuable in that respect.
Thirdly, where a march is likely to require a larger number of police officers to control it than a chief constable could have available from his own force he will need to obtain assistance from one or more forces. That again takes time to organise.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The Minister is making a serious and important statement on behalf of the Government. I should like to ask him two questions. He has said that the Government endorse the proposal for notice in the Bill before us because they believe that it is acceptable for ad hoc arrangements to be made pending the possibility of general legislation by the Government.
Is the hon. and learned Gentleman therefore saying in advance that the Government will endorse every one of the proposals in the Bills coming before the House, or that each Bill will be judged by the Government on what they believe to be the merits and that it is possible that they will come to different decisions on different Bills?
Secondly, is the Minister aware that we had an outrageous National Front march through my constituency for which an enormous number of police were brought 735 in by the chief constable of Greater Manchester and that no tightening up of the law, in the way envisaged by the Bill before us and by the Greater Manchester Bill was necessary for Chief Constable Anderton to take the precautions that he thought right? The tightening of the law which is being advocated in a number of Bills was not necessary in order to enable Chief Constable Anderton to do what he did in my constituency.
§ Mr. Brittan
The Government will consider each Bill on its merits. One matter that will be taken into account is whether there were previous comparable provisions affecting the whole or a large part of the area concerned.
As to the example given of the march referred to, I understand that it has never been part of the case of the promoters of this Bill that there will always be trouble in the absence of the provisions of this Bill. All that we say is that the provisions of the Bill make it less likely that there will be trouble because notice will be given and that, therefore, they are a useful adjunct to the powers which already exist.
It has, in some cases, been put forward on the part of those who oppose these powers that there is a major question involved, but I think it is fair to say that those who favour the powers are not putting the case as high as that. They are merely presenting it as a useful addition to the present position.
§ Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)
As I understood his words the hon. and learned Gentleman was saying, as representing the Government, that he was in favour of the kind of provision that exists in this Bill. He will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) when he was Home Secretary, said on 6 FebruaryI have taken my view about the metropolis for which I am responsible and for the country as a whole, but I do not believe that there is a need for what is proposed here."—[Official Report, 6 February 1979; Vol. 962, c. 340.]As the hon. and learned Gentleman and his right hon. Friend are responsible for the metropolis, can he now say what his view is about the metropolis?
§ Mr. Brittan
No, I cannot say that because I think that that is something 736 that ought to be considered in the review generally. What I have said is that we are faced with a local Bill on which the House has to form a view in relation to the locality. I am saying that if one is faced with a situation in which there are strong arguments for it, and in which it is substantially replacing the existing requirement relating to much of the area concerned, one is entitled to say that it is right that the House should form a view on that without in any way prejudging the view that will be formed by the House after the general review of the Public Order Act.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Before he was twice interrupted the hon. and learned Gentleman was advancing a series of general arguments in favour of the proposition that there should be a notice clause in this Bill. Not one of the three arguments that he advanced was in any way peculiar to the West Midlands. How can he then say that he is not prejudging the outcome of the review that he is supposed to be undertaking? How will he be able to stand at that Dispatch Box, in some months' time, and say that he has now decided that the general arguments that he had found so compelling in the case of the West Midlands are invalidated by the strength of the arguments against them which he has now had the opportunity to consider?
§ Mr. Brittan
One of the reasons why I have not put forward arguments in relation to the West Midlands is that I have been interrupted three times before getting to them. There are strong arguments in favour of this provision. If there were no strong arguments in favour anywhere at all the Government would not be taking the position that they do.
In the general review we shall consider not only those arguments but any disadvantages that there may be. We shall also consider the situation with regard to the country as a whole. I am not in any way prejudging the review, because it is quite conceivable that looking at the country as a whole, different considerations will prevail. Alternatively, the arguments that I say are cogent, but of a general character in relation to the West Midlands, will not be met by countervailing and even stronger arguments.
737 I do not think that any useful purpose is served in trying to extract some general prejudgment from the arguments that I have put forward. I can assure the House that there is no such thing, and that 1 am speaking on the West Midlands County Council Bill. I welcome the opportunity of making that clear, if there was any illusion on that score.
§ Mr. Brittan
I ought to come on to the local arguments. It is important to stress, as I have in a sense already anticipated, that the local authority is not seeking, as is sometimes represented, new and unprecedented powers. That is extremely relevant to some of the points that we have just been debating.
In the West Midlands there have been powers requiring 48 hours' notice of processions in the former county boroughs of Dudley, Walsall, Warley, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton since at least 1969. There have been powers requiring 24 hours' notice in Coventry since 1920.
To our knowledge, none of those provisions has caused difficulties for would-be demonstrators of the kind that have been envisaged in the hypothetical situations which have been suggested.
§ Mr. William Wilson (Coventry, South-East)
Will the Minister give way for a moment? He referred to Coventry.
§ Mr. Brittan
No, I have given way several times and I am anxious not to detain the House over long.
The House should therefore know that in essence what is proposed is to extend to Birmingham and Solihull powers which already exist in much of the West Midlands, and to extend the notice requirement from what is now normally two days to three. That does not strike me as a massive incursion into civil liberties. Moreover, in providing exemptions for charitable and funeral processions and, in another amendment, providing for the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions to proceedings, the promoters have introduced safeguards not present in the original local legislation.
The powers are therefore precedented, and, perhaps more important, while their existence in much of the West Midlands has not caused problems for demonstra- 738 tors, their absence in Birmingham has in recent years caused significant problems for the police and the community.
Let me give the House two examples. During the evening of 15 August 1977, considedable disorder resulted from a demonstration against a by-election meeting held at Boulton Road school, Handsworth. The meeting had been organised on behalf of the National Front candidate for the vacant parliamentary seat of Ladywood. During a demonstration against the meeting, other candidates in the by-election strongly opposed to the National Front candidate urged their supporters to march round the school, and the police had to keep pace with them inside the school grounds in order to prevent the demonstrators scaling the railings. Numerous missiles were thrown and fencing was torn down.
On the second circuit of the school by the demonstrators, the police had to form a cordon to block the progress of the marchers. After the National Front meeting had finished, the demonstrators marched along Soho Road to Thornhill Road, where missiles were hurled at police officers and at the police station.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
That was indeed a shocking occurrence, but it has nothing to do with the Bill. That meeting was well known several days in advance. The notice would have been given by the very same people creating the disorder, and the disorder would have continued. This Bill would not have stopped that shocking occurrence at all.
§ Mr. Brittan
The right hon. Gentleman knows more about Birmingham than 1 shall ever know, but I cannot see how he can nevertheless say with quite such confidence that this provision would not have—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will allow me to finish the sentence, I may at least be able to give them an inkling, even if I cannot persuade them. I was saying that I could not understand how the right hon. Gentleman could so confidently argue that this provision would not have succeeded in preventing some at least of the disturbances.
Although, no doubt, the police, knowing of the meeting, were in a position to make some kind of preparations, the preparations that one makes for that and for a demonstration are different from 739 the preparations that one makes for a march. Therefore, although one is necessarily speculating, it is entirely reasonable speculation to say that, had there been a notice provision, the police would have been able to take precautions of the kind that they were simply in no position to take.
§ Mr. Brittan
No, I think that I will not, because, whereas the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) knows something about what went on in Birmingham, I have no reason to believe that the hon. Member who now seeks to intervene has any such knowledge.
§ Mr. John Sever (Birmingham, Ladywood)
I apologise for not having been here for the bulk of the debate, but I should like the hon. and learned Gentleman to accept that his reference to the candidates who encouraged their supporters to turn up during the Ladywood by-election campaign to protest against the National Front meeting to which he referred should not be taken as including the Labour candidate or his supporters. In fact, because I was a candidate at that time, I gave a press statement and asked people not to go to the meeting or to the area around the school. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that.
§ Mr. Brittan
I welcome the opportunity of doing so. I failed to do so only because I did not want to go on at great length. I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said and I welcome the opportunity to make that clear.
I turn to another example. On 18 February 1978 there was a major demonstration against a private meeting being held by the Young National Front in Digbeth civic hall, Birmingham.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
Order. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) has been in this place long enough to know the rules about sedentary observations.
§ Mr. Brittan
About 250 National Front supporters attended the meeting. There were about 3,000 counter-demonstrators. There was a sudden march by the counter-demonstrators and a splinter group of extremist elements broke away and tried to force their way, without success, through the police cordon. Stones, bricks, paving stones, bottles and other missiles were hurled at the police and protective shields had to be used. Even so, a number of police officers were injured and one constable suffered a fractured skull. Overall, about 2,500—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It appears that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow is rather hard of hearing.
§ Mr. Brittan
About 2,500 police officers had to be deployed to preserve the peace, 58 of whom were injured. I cannot prove that notice of what was to happen in the way of a march would have prevented what occurred. However, notice would have given the police a chance to make proper preparations for a form of protest quite different in kind from that which they had reason to suspect. I do not put it any higher than that. If there is a chance that the disorder and injury that occurred on the occasion to which I have referred could be prevented in future by an innocuous notice provision, I suggest that that is an opportunity of which the House should avail itself.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman see that the arguments he has just advanced are arguments that would be relevant if we were discussing the proposition to have a national system of notification? What he needs to satisfy the House of, if it is possible—I do not believe it is—is that there is something about those incidents in the Birmingham area which is peculiar to the Birmingham area, and that is what he cannot satisfy the House about. Those incidents could have happened in London. If what he says—the desirability of notice—was desirable in Birmingham, it would also be desirable in London.
§ Mr. Brittan
It may be desirable in London, but that is not what we are 741 debating. In the West Midlands area there is a wide degree of notice provisions in existing local legislation. Therefore, we are not embarking on new and unchartered territory. That is fundamental.
The Government have made it clear that different considerations would arise if we were considering embarking on new and uncharted territory for the nation. In those circumstances there it would be necessary to have a full review. However, broadly comparable provisions have existed in the West Midlands area. We are entitled to ask whether they should continue. We are also entitled to ask whether it is reasonable to reach the conclusion that such provisions would be useful in part of the area not so covered. I pray in aid the two examples I have given for that purpose and for no other.
The lesson of the two examples is not that people should not be allowed to demonstrate—
§ Mr. Brittan
However, there needs to be a balance between the rights of those who wish to demonstrate freely and without restraint and the rights of those who have to live in sensitive areas who fear injury to themselves and damage to their property. It does not matter tuppence whether it is the National Front or the Socialist Workers Party which is marching. Surely we can understand the feeling of the police, the local residents and their elected representatives in areas where there are special problems. They have a right to know in advance whether a march is planned, so that appropriate action may be taken to ensure that the peace is preserved. It is for those reasons that the Government view with favour the new clause that is proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight).
§ Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Stechford)
Is the Minister saying that the police did not know about those two demonstrations in Birmingham?
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Brittan
The police did not know about the marchers. There is a difference between a demonstration and a march.
742 I shall deal briefly with two of the amendments proposed in relation to the new clause. The first is the proposal for a waiver of the notice requirement. That is amendment (e). It represents an attempt to overcome the problem of the spontaneous demonstration. Examples were given of perfectly legitimate reasons for wishing to demonstrate in a way for which it would not be possible to give three days' notice or anything of that kind. I view with sympathy the attempt to provide a waiver requirement. It causes problems. I do not think that it is in any way objectionable in principle. There may be occasions when a demonstration is likely to be so limited and peaceful that it can be accommodated without any special policing arrangements and therefore a shorter period of notice should be acceptable. Again, there may be circumstances where it is preferable for a procession to go ahead in spite of the fact that the requisite notice cannot be given, when the alternative is some less organised and possibly violent form of demonstration.
I do not in any way oppose a waiver provision as a matter of principle. I am afraid that there are objections to the form of the amendment in the names of the hon. Members for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). It is for that reason that I must advise the House to reject them.
The position as I see it is that if one is concerned to prevent disruption and disorder, the police are the people who have the experience and knowledge to know the probable consequences of a particular march. It cannot be right that there should be no provision for the police or the council to be notified that an application is to be made to a magistrate for the waiver of a notice requirement. On what basis, in the absence of such notice, will the magistrate be expected to reach a considered decision? He will have the evidence of the organiser of the demonstration, but there is no requirement for him to have any other advice about the possible inconvenience, disruption or disorder that the march may cause, other than what is told by the organiser.
If there is to be a waiver provision of this kind, it is essential that the police should be given notice of any application 743 to the magistrates' court before it can reach the statute book in a safe form.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
I am pleased to see that Government Front Bench Members have some sympathy for the waiver clause. The procedure on the Bill at this stage does not enable us to alter the words. Will the Minister recommend to Government supporters that they recommit the Bill to the Committee so that the question of the waiver clause may be sorted out? If the Minister will not do that, as this Bill is in disagreement with that passed in the House of Lords, and therefore must go back to the House of Lords, at that stage will he seek to incorporate a waiver clause to meet our criticisms and legitimate points, which he accepts?
§ Mr. Brittan
It is not for me to seek to alter the Bill. All I can do is to express my view at the stage at which I am called to speak. I have sympathy with the proposition for a waiver clause, if it can be properly produced. I do not think that the present one is, and I cannot support it. I do not feel that I can go further than that. I think that I dealt with that point clearly and fairly.
I refer to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Small Heath about the responsibility of anybody involved in the conduct and organisation of a procession. There is confusion about the word "responsibility". There is no question of responsibility in the sense that a person must pay for anything that happens as a result of a breach of the law that will be imposed by the new clause. The person in breach of the law is liable to penalties. One envisages fines. To meet the criticism that an individual might be responsible under the criminal law for a procession which got out of hand or changed beyond his control, the promoters of the Bill put forward amendment No. 11 to meet the point.
This will meet that point and ensure that there is, in effect, a due diligence provision, so that somebody in that position would not meet with the consequences that the right hon. Gentleman feared.
I apologise for speaking at such length and I commend the new clause to the House.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
I thank the Minister for his kind personal remark and also follow him in congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan)—who is not with us at the moment—on his maiden speech. It is clear that we shall never be in any doubt as to the hon. Gentleman's opinions. Those will always be crystal clear. We shall look forward to his future participation in debate—all the more if we can see a little more of the hon. Gentleman after he has participated, and not only when he is participating.
One of the most significant things about the debate has been the length of time taken by the Minister, on which I do not criticise him at all. The subject matter deserved that a Government representative should speak at that length. But what it indicates is that this matter is not private legislation. It is not of the nature of private legislation. That is why it should be dealt with by Ministers.
Usually, in the course of considering private legislation, the Front Benches either do not participate at all or participate only very much in passing. But on this occasion it was necessary for the Minister to put his backing behind the clause. The true position is that the Government are putting their weight behind the clause because that is the only way that it can pass. It is not just that the Government have given their arguments in the Minister's speech, supporting the clause, but that they are arranging for Members to be present during the votes later on in order to try to ensure that the matter will pass. That is not a breach of the rules of the House—if it were, the Chair would not be permitting it—but it is an abuse of the rules of the House. We should properly separate the procedures appropriate to private legislation from those appropriate to public legislation.
§ Mr. Brittan
It might help the hon. Gentleman—I know that he would wish to be fair—if I took the opportunity to make quite clear that the Government have not asked their supporters to vote in a particular direction, other than I have said.
§ Mr. Cunningham
None of us was born yesterday, and we all know that a nod is as good as a wink. We have been 745 here long enough to know precisely what is happening tonight, and it bears a closer resemblance to what I have described than to what the Minister has said.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The Minister has taken it upon himself to make that intervention, I think it only right for me to say that in my company two Conservative Members, quite openly and not seeking to conceal anything in discussing this matter among themselves, said "We have got to be here to vote."
§ Mr. Cunningham
I said that we were none of us born yesterday. That is the real evidence on these occasions, as against protestations. We all know what is happening here tonight.
There have been occasions when, if I had closed my eyes, I would have thought that I was participating in a discussion in the West Midlands county council. It is necessary to remind some Conservative Members that this is not West Midlands county council. This is the national legislature. We are concerned with making the criminal law of this country—and this is, in effect, part of the criminal law of this country—on a national basis.
There is no question but that—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said—everyone on the Labour Benches recognises the enormous nuisance and danger, and damage to property and to persons, which can and do arise from processions and marches. That is not in dispute at all between us. But I would commend to Conservative Members, some of whom have spoken in an extremely critical way, the views expressed by no less a person than Lord Denning—as was mentioned in passing by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)—in the course of a hearing in the Court of Appeal in 1976 in what was known as the Hubbard and Pitt case, which happened to arise out of a case in my own constituency.
The point at issue was the right of the public to demonstrate upon the highway. The remarks made by Lord Denning, which have been previously quoted in part when considering this or a similar clause before, bear some repetition. Lord Denning—not a raging Socialist—said: 746Here we have to consider the right to demonstrate and the right to protest on matters of public concern. These are rights which it is in the public interest that individuals should possess; and, indeed, that they should exercise without impediment so long as no wrongful act is done.I am not implying that there are Conservative Members, certainly not the Minister, who disagree with this. The point I am making is that this is the context in which we are considering the proposition. It is a very important and fundamental one. The right about which we are talking is as fundamental as Lord Denning said. Let me continue. He said:It is often the only means"—the right of demonstration—by which grievances can be brought to the knowledge of those in authority—at any rate with such impact as to gain a remedy. Our history is full of warnings against suppression of these rights. Most notable was the demonstration at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, in 1819and so on. 1 shall not weary the House with the whole quotation, but later Lord Denning says that any tampering with those rights, which he regards as a fundamental part of the common law of England for everyone, is something which should be done with very great care.
What is involved here tonight is not an eradication of those rights. I am not suggesting that at all. But it is a tampering, or tidying up of the tampering that has previously been done in some parts of the country. It is that important. Therefore, it should be done with care.
When the House of Commons is proposing to pass legislation relevant to this, one would think that it would do so by its most rigorous methods of scrutiny. It so happens that, wrongly in my view, this is built into a Private Bill. In fact, the rules of the House relating to private business, as my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr said, are extremely rigorous. They say that the propositions brought before the House, promoted by outside interests, not only ought to be subject to the normal scrutiny in this place, but, because they affect private interests, ought to be subject to the petitioning procedure.
My hon. Friend made a valid point when he said that if the practice being adopted tonight became habitual, the 747 normal rights of petitioners against provisions in Private Bills would be entirely nullified. I turn away from this kind of subject matter and think of what we would normally think of as a Private Bill. Let us suppose one has a Bill to entitle British Rail to build a new railway line. Let us suppose that British Rail knows that it is a highly contentious thing and that there will be dozens of petitions from a number of local authorities against it. Therefore, British Rail does not put in into the original Bill, or puts it in and gets it knocked out. The Bill then goes to the Opposed Private Bill Committee, without that clause in, and is not subject to the normal procedures. It subsequently comes back here and the offending clause is then added. In that case, not by a breach of the rules but by an abuse of the rules, one has removed the provisions which the rules on private business provide for the protection of private interests.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Cunningham
Indeed. Of course, the Minister could say "Ah, that consideration should not apply, because we are talking not about a bit of railway line but about something very general." He cannot have it both ways. If we are talking about something which comes within the criminal law and is very general, it should be in private legislation and it does not belong here. It should be subject to the normal procedures of Committee stage, and so on, before this House.
§ Mr. Mikardo
If this subterfuge is to be used to alter the whole of our procedures with regard to Private Bills, and to remove any protection from potential petitioners, there is only one protection that the House can have against the continuance of this Bill and that is to ensure that no Private Bills ever go through unopposed. That would give the Leader of the House a problem, finding time for the Chairman of Ways and Means, and would ensure that the sort of three-line Whip that the Government side have tonight would have to be imposed two or three times a week.
§ Mr. Cunningham
I have no doubt that hon. Members on the Government Benches will take account of that gentle reminder from my hon. Friend. To those Government Members who are in support of the principle in the clause, I say that they can be in support of the principle of the clause but not in support of the manner in which it is being processed through the House.
There was an occasion in the last Parliament, which we remember with great pain, when a Conservative Member made use—I believe perfectly legitimately—of the rules of this House on hybridity to hold up a major part of Government legislation. It is sometimes necessary for hon. Members to say "I approve the substance of this provision, but this is an abuse of parliamentary procedure."
If Members on the Government Back Benches are not prepared to do that, the powers of this House will be inevitably limited over the years. I beg them to consider that it is perfectly possible for them to say tonight "We support this provision. We want it to go ahead. But do not let us erode the rights of petitioners by failing to put it to the Opposed Private Bill Committee, which is the normal way of dealing with such matters." Government Back Benchers could therefore, vote for the clause and for the committal motion.
On the substance of the matter, I repeat that this subject matter is not appropriate to private legislation. In all the examples that he gave, the Minister was not able to give any reasons why it is necessary to have notice in Birmingham but not to have notice in London, to have notice of a certain length in Birmingham but not in Glasgow, and so on. There is no need or justification for that.
If there was not a prospect of the Government's embarking on a general review of this sector of policy, one might say "Let us leave the law as it stands, with some tidying up in the meanwhile, and in the coming by and by in a few years' time we shall get round to reviewing the whole procedure." But that is not so. The Government have already said that they will embark upon a review of this subject matter, and, therefore, surely it is not the right moment to allow a provision of this kind to go through.
It would be possible for the promoters of the Bill—not the Minister—to say that 749 they would have no objection to the clause going to an Opposed Private Bill Committee. The promoters of the Bill could take that on themselves. I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), whom I do not see in the Chamber at present, can say that on behalf of the promoters. If she cannot, I ask Government Back Benchers—perhaps I may be entitled to make this request to them—not necessarily to follow whatever indications have been given to them. They should stand up for the change which they want to make in the law, and should also stand up for doing it by the proper and rigorous procedures of this House and not by an abuse of those procedures.
§ Mr. Budgen
Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) was saying. He is a libertarian. He is arguing for the right to demonstrate and to process. He believes, in a way that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) does not believe, that the right to process and demonstrate can be exercised in a way that is almost unconstrained and is perhaps almost without a background of order, without which the liberties which we all treasure are valueless.
It seemed to me, however, that the discussion processed a little further than that. All of us on the Conservative Benches wish to preserve those liberties. When I think of some of the disorders and problems that have arisen in my constituency in the northern part of the area of the West Midlands county council, I am glad that we have in this country the right to process and to demonstrate. As the hon. Member for Perry Barr has said, it is an essential way of allowing the lid of the kettle to come off, and in the long term it saves a great deal of trouble for the police and those in authority who have the duty to keep the general order of our country.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Small Heath has left the Chamber. I have some affection for him. I opposed him at the 1970 general election. He rightly raised the serious issue as to whether this is the sort of legislation that should be put forward by Private Bill.
§ Mr. Silverman
It is not only the question of legislation by Private Bill, but, in this particular way, of even avoiding the processes and safeguards of a Private Bill.
§ Mr. Budgen
Perhaps I may deal primarily with the first point—should it be done by a Private Bill?—and not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, get embroiled in the procedural issue.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) raised the whole issue of whether the liberties of the subject were being, as he put it, either eradicated or tampered with. Quite plainly, if the House were of the view that the fundamental liberties of the subject in the West Midlands were being eradicated, it would be no matter for a Private Bill. If, for the sake of argument, the promoters had said that the period of notice was to be, say, 14 days—which by a roundabout route would have eradicated the fundamental liberty of the subject in processing and demonstrating—the House should have rightly said "This is a liberty of the subject which is being taken away from the people of the West Midlands. That is not a matter for the private discretion of the West Midlands county council. Let it be chucked out."
However, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury does not say that. He says "By this Bill, the liberty is not being eradicated, but it is tampered with." I put it slightly differently. I say that the liberty is preserved but, for proper West Midlands reasons, it is being arranged that that liberty should be exercised under certain proper conditions. Surely that is not an unreasonable proposition.
My hon. and learned Friend the Minister gave chapter and verse of some of the problems that have befallen the West Midlands in recent years. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan), in his most forceful maiden speech, gave details of the incident at Saltley. I suggest that the West Midlands county council is entitled to say "These are special circumstances which pertain in the West Midlands. We do not wish to deny citizens of this country living in the West Midlands the right to process and to demonstrate, but we say that there are special circumstances in 751 the West Midlands which make it necessary to prescribe conditions under which that fundamental right is being preserved."
I hope that the House will take the view that, for instance, the period of three days' notice is reasonable. It enables the police if necessary to call on outside police forces, divert the traffic and make provision for preserving the life and health of those who are processing. For the sake of argument, if an extreme Left-wing organisation wishes to process, as it is perfectly entitled to do, it may be necessary to preserve it from the attacks of the National Front, or vice-versa. That is all made possible by laying down conditions under which these liberties are properly to be exercised.
The House must carefully consider the arguments put forward by the Opposition, and particularly by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and the right hon. Member for Small Heath, but it should take the view that these provisions have been well and carefully thought out. With respect, they have been better thought out than some of the objections of the right hon. Member for Small Heath. His argument about a football crowd was not a good one.
These provisions do not provide for criminal sanctions against the whole football crowd, shall we say, coming off the train at New Street or Wolverhampton. They provide only for criminal sanctions against the person who organises or conducts the procession. No criminal liability would arise in the example that the right hon. Gentleman gave to show that the Bill was ill-thought out.
My hon. and learned Friend the Minister demolished the right hon. Gentleman's argument about general responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman was almost saying that in the event of damage the persons who had organised or conducted the procession would be responsible and under a legal obligation to compensate those who had suffered damage. The Bill contains no such provision.
The House should consider the Bill with care because we are dealing with a most important liberty of the subject. That liberty is essential in righting grievances and expressing political views. We are the products of the political process 752 and should be extremely wary of infringing political rights of others.
I believe that the special circumstances of the West Midlands entitle that county council to ask not for eradication but merely for a method of laying down those conditions of good order for notice and prearrangement to allow these essential liberties to be exercised in a way that preserves the health, sometimes the life and sometimes the property of the citizens of the West Midlands. It is not an improper Bill for the West Midlands county council to present. It is a proper and necessary measure for good order in a part of the kingdom.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Beith
It was on a motion that I moved and which received strong support from these Benches that this clause was struck out of the West Midlands Bill initially. Tonight's debate has brought new dimensions to the argument. It goes beyond the question of the liberty of the subject, to which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen referred. The arguments were brought out particularly by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, Birmingham (Mr. Rooker) in his forceful moving of the recommital motion.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has posed a threat tonight to the whole private business procedure. She threatens those who, in future, would bring forward Private Bills and those who would petition against them. The natural response of many hon. Members to that is that if this happens there is no point in letting Private Bills go through on the nod.
There is an even more important danger than that. This Bill is before us tonight because of the carry-over motion for Private Bills. At the end of the previous Parliament the House passed a motion that Private Bills should come back in this Parliament at the stage they had previously reached and be resumed. Public business is never given that right in the House of Commons. The constraint of the length of a Parliament is a protection of individual rights against the power of the Executive. That protection is that the Government must get their business through within the limits of the Parliament, and when that Parliament comes to an end there are no further 753 opportunities and everything must start again from scratch.
Hon. Members have traditionally allowed the carry-over motion to go forward, never thinking that it would be used as a means to remove the rights of petitioners to deal with the individual grievances they may have against parts of Private Bills. Listening to the debate tonight, my reaction is that we should never again allow a carry-over motion to go through the House. We must never contemplate a situation in which such a motion is used as a means of stopping petitioners from going to the appropriate Committee to raise grievances against the contents of Bills. That would be a disservice to the promoters of Bills, because recently they have looked to the House to minimise the expense, inconvenience and difficulty which they face in the arduous process of getting legislation through the House.
The hon. Member for Edgbaston has been rather cautious in the way in which she has referred to the clause, lest she should appear to infringe Standing Orders designed to prevent this from happening. She has had to distinguish between putting the clause forward in her own name and acting on behalf of the promoters of the Bill.
The second thing about these proceedings that has been rather surprising is the attitude of the Government. We have had a statement from the Minister that has cast a new light upon the concept of review of policy. In all my past experience, reviews of policy by Government are usually devices by which nobody is supposed to do anything for some time. I am sure that the Minister can remember many occasions on which hon. Members attempting to get something done have been told that nothing must be done because the Government were reviewing the policy and anything done in the meantime would prejudice that review.
Tonight we have had a statement from the Government on general principles which makes the outcome of the review absolutely certain. The principles that have been advanced by the Government are not peculiar to the West Midlands. They have advanced a series of arguments in favour of proposals of notice of this kind and no arguments against them. 754 That shows a clear indication that they accept the arguments in favour. When the Government come to their review perhaps they will devise some reason why some parts of the country might be exempted from the provisions from which they seem to be in favour. I have never heard a general policy review so clearly prejudged as it was in the Front Bench statement tonight, because the arguments given were of a general character. When I listened to the Home Secretary yesterday it seemed clear that he intended to engage in a wide-ranging review. Now it seems that we must place a very different interpretation upon the exchanges that took place then.
The arguments in favour of the Bill have all rested upon the belief that provisions for notice will in some way relieve the public of the apprehension that they rightly have that some demonstrations and some processions may lead to a threat to their liberties. Of course there must be restrictions upon the liberties of those who want to protest, in order to ensure the liberties of people who go about their business peacefully. At no stage of these proceedings has anyone managed to convince me that the clause that the hon. Lady seeks to introduce will do anything of the kind.
§ Mr. Budgen
The Minister dealt with three points—namely, the traffic consideration, the risk to other people in the streets and the need to get police from other areas. All those points support such notice.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Gentleman merely strengthens my case. Each one of the matters that he puts forward points to a general argument. That general argument argues for a change of law throughout the country. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was missing from the Chamber a few moments ago when his hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) said that in his constituency farmers must retain the liberty to take their tractors on the streets.
§ Mr. Budgen
The argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) was advancing was the total libertarian argument of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). My hon. Friend was saying that in an ideal world he would 755 like that liberty to be exercisable immediately and with complete spontaneity.
§ Mr. Budgen
Those of us who are more realistic are of the view that, while that liberty ideally should be exercised immediately in order to preserve other liberties, certain limitations have to be put upon it.
§ Mr. Beith
I have often seen among the commentaries of the Jehovah's Witnesses remote interpretations of the scripture. I have rarely heard an interpretation as remote as that just given by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West in interpreting the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington. If the interpretation were true, I would expect to find the latter hon. Gentleman in the Lobby with me later, but he said something very different. He said that, notwithstanding the provisions of the law as it now is, or as it might be under the present provisions, the farmers in his constituency would exercise their right to take their tractors into the streets. In doing so, the hon. Gentleman furthered my argument that people who intend to take the law into their own hands, or indeed to ignore it, will not give notice of processions—or perhaps they will give such notice, but they will not give notice of the abuses which they intend will follow when they engage in those processions.
To tell people who already do so that they must give a specific period of notice will not make much difference to thugs, bullies and political extremists who are prepared to disregard anything that we put on our statute book. These provisions will not prevent dangerous and ill-meaning people from behaving extremely badly on the streets of our cities.
§ Mr. Budgen
We know that when thugs, bullies and extremists demonstrate those characteristics, they are likely to be guilty of other criminal offences. We are dealing with people who do not fall into that category but who, none the less, organise or conduct processions and demonstrations. They have to be subject to these provisions which we believe will enable that liberty to be exercised in a more orderly way.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Gentleman is arguing himself into a most fascinating position, but he is going a long way from his hon. Friend's argument. Some people who organise processions are troublemakers, and that is part of the burden of my argument, but the idea that the notice requirement should be placed on reasonable people is an absurdity.
It has been pointed out that 80 per cent. of those who organise demonstrations are happy to give notice to the police of their intention to do so, and already do. Indeed, it is to their convenience that they should do so. But there is a certain kind of procession that will be unreasonably limited by the obligation to take that step. Various examples have been quoted in the course of these debates. For example, we have heard of the spontaneous reaction against a decision that leads a group of people to walk through the streets to the place where that decision was made. We all know of the spontaneous response of people to bad news and to good news. What happens when an heir to the throne is born? That is an occasion for genuine celebration and people want to go into the streets to express their feelings. Why should they be denied the opportunity to celebrate in that way because they have not given three days' notice. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.
§ Mr. Budgen
The hon. Gentleman argues for the exercise of total liberty in an ideal world, but when our liberties impinge on the liberties of others, we may have to constrain them in some way. This is the classic argument between liberty and order.
§ Mr. Beith
I am well aware of the need to constrain in some instances, but the hon. Gentleman is putting the argument on a general footing—a footing from which some of his hon. Friends have been trying to escape. That is part of my case. What we should now be considering is a piece of general legislation, not something that is peculiar to the West Midlands. The philosophical argument which the hon. Gentleman has just advanced is in no way peculiar to the West Midlands.
757 John Stuart Mill's arguments do not end at the West Midlands county boundary. I am happy to say that they extend a good deal further than that.
The hon. Member is failing to recognise that when we restrict liberty in order to protect wider liberties we do so with great caution and with some reasonable hope that we shall increase the total protection as a result. I have no such hope about these proposals, because those who are both willing and able, through the nature of the procession they are organising, to give notice will do so. Those who are not able to do so because their procession is genuinely spontaneous and well meaning, should not be expected to do so. Those who are unwilling to do so because their intentions are improper and because they wish to bring about a disturbance of the peace will not give notice even if they are required to do so.
We have to bear in mind that there are many large demonstrations about which it is unnecesary for the police to be given notice because everyone knows about them. If someone is planning to organise a demonstration or procession involving 2,000 or 5,000 people, no one can kid me that that is something about which the police in the West Midlands will not become quickly aware. The very act of calling such a procession clearly requires information to get around quickly. Most people who arganised such a demonstration would tell the police that they intended to do so. I am not sure that they would tell the district council, but they would certainly tell the police.
If there is a case for some restriction of the right to procession along these lines—and I am doubtful about that because I do not think that it can be shown that it would prevent the sort of disorders described by the Minister—we must surely look at a whole range of examples from all over the country and decide whether, for example, all urban areas need something of this kind or, whether at the very least, areas with heavy concentrations of population require it. We should consider why, if it is required, we should distinguish between urban centres of the West Midlands—towns like Warwick and Leamington—as one hon. Member tried so clearly to do. We have to consider whether there is a case at all. 758 I cannot see that it is right for us to import such a principle into our legislation by a series of quite different measures in county council Bills.
The House has been confronted with a great many local authority Bills at one go because an attempt is being made to get some degree of conformity between them. They are not consolidation measures in the strict sense, but they are part of an attempt to achieve some harmony between the private legislation of the major local authorities. But several of these Bills will not contain any such provision, and if the provision is written into some of the other Bills radical differences will remain.
This does not seem to be a sensible basis upon which to make a law on so fundamental a subject. It does not seem to me to be a sensible way of embarking upon a review of the whole subject such as the Home Secretary described from the Dispatch Box yesterday. Hon. Members should bear both those considerations in mind, as well as remembering that if they put this provision back into the Bill tonight they will be depriving those affected of their time-honoured rights to petition to the Committee for their rights to be protected.
§ Mr. Silverman
I can have no objection to a Tory Government, recently elected, putting Tory policies into operation. I may not like those policies, but I cannot object to them. I have no objection to a Tory majority endeavouring to change even the course of a Private Bill. But I object to what I can only describe as the shabby method by which an attempt is being made to deprive the petitioners of rights they would normally have under a Bill such as this.
To say the least, this procedure is most doubtful. Mr. Speaker has ruled that it is in order, and of course I accept that. But it is unnecessary because, even if the amendment in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) were accepted, there would still be an automatic Tory majority upon the eventual Private Bill Committee, at any rate by the casting vote of the Chairman, and the legislation would get through.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.