HC Deb 25 May 1979 vol 967 cc1390-405
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Before I call the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) to speak on the events in Southall on 22 and 23 April last, may I remind the House that following the demonstrations and violence many people were charged with various offences. Some of these cases have still to be heard and are, therefore, sub judice. It is, of course, in order to discuss the general issues arising out of the events in Southall, but reference must not be made to individual cases which are still pending.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to ventilate this matter today—the last day of the Session before the Whitsun Recess and the Euro-election period.

I shall try to conform to your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may be a little difficult in one regard, because the death of a person arising out of those events has very much attended the whole atmosphere of what we are about to discuss. During my remarks, I certainly shall not suggest how the young man met his death because it has not yet been proved, although many people have formed opinions about how it occurred, but I begin by thanking the Chair for giving me the opportunity of referring to events in the Southall part of the Ealing constituency on 22 and 23 April.

It may be a surprise to some hon. Members that I couple the two dates, but it will come as no surprise to local participants. However, it is on the events of 23 April that I should like the House to concentrate its attention, because it was on that evening that a young man who came to demonstrate against the whole idea of the National Front meeting in the old Southall town hall met his death. I warned that those events would lead to violence on all sides. They led to mass arrests and to injuries to many others, including police officers, which were both severe and minor.

I believe that the national interest and the national attention paid to these events are due to wider considerations. There are three basic reasons for public concern about what happened in Southall on 23 April. The most important is the need to sustain and promote racial harmony in this country, a cause to which all hon. Members are committed, as are all decent people from varying philosophical and principled positions.

Secondly, there is the need to protect communities such as Southall against threats to their stability, particularly second and third generations of people originating from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent. Their fathers and mothers came here from the middle 1950s and onwards and have helped the British economy and themselves, for the most part at the request of British em- ployers What is not generally understood in the country as a whole is that this development, which I have often described as "the presence of the babies of the babies", means more and more that any suggestion, from whatever quarter, that brown and black people do not really belong here is bound to be increasingly resisted by those most affected—by the brown and black Britishers themselves and by an increasing number of young white people of good will who wish to fight for a British future which guarantees the civil rights of all, regardless of racial or ethnic origin.

The third main point is that most British people, looking at the world scene, realise that in the global struggle for racial harmony our country above all the nations in the world must get it right internally. All eyes are upon us. So far we have had some successes, but in view of the events of 23 April I do not believe that we have made a very good fist of it.

Above all, we have not yet dealt effectively with those whose stock-in-trade, for barren political reasons, is to stimulate race hatred. I find it necessary to say this by way of preamble. At the Labour Party conference in Blackpool two years ago, I sought in a short speech to spell out what I thought we needed. I welcome the Minister of State, Home Office to the Front Bench. I think that this is his first major duty since he became Minister of State, and I congratulate him on his appointment. He should not be put off by the venue and auspices of that speech to which I have alluded. I ask him to look at it. It will not overtax him, because it was very short and to the point.

I pointed out that it was ludicrous to set up the expensive paraphernalia of the Commission for Racial Equality; and all the ramifications of the Race Relations Act 1970 may not realistically be able to deal with the stimulation of race hatred such as that put forward by the National Front and the other more obscure Fascist, racist organisations.

Of course, it must be borne in mind that during the election the National Front fielded a candidate whom I reckoned to be only a token candidate because he lived miles from the constituency. The House must address its mind to that fact in trying to determine whether it was a genuine local election meeting.

I refer to Sunday 22 April. Arrangements were made for a march from Southall to the Ealing part of my Division to go past Ealing town hall, where petitions were handed in calling upon the local authority not to allow the National Front to meet in Southall town hall. I appreciate that this took place at the eleventh hour. That march became something of a shambles. I think that the organisers and the police imagined that it might be a defusing element. It was certainly from the police that I received the information that it was to come about. I took part in it, tried to lead it and to keep it moving. But the fact that it was a bit of a shambles had, I believe, some bearing on the subsequent events.

I refer to the march as a shambles because I believe that all those at the front, including members of the local authority and officials of the Southall Indian Workers Association, would agree that elements in that supposedly peaceful anti-National Front march helped to spoil an effective, peaceful demonstration by dragging their feet, halting the march and in some respects provoking the police during its early stages.

Some arrests and charges were made that day, therefore largely defeating its intentions. I am critical of those elements. I cannot tell exactly who those people were because when one is at the front of a march getting information from the police—not from the stewards, which is desirable—one does not always know whether it is right. Certainly those of us at the front could not have halted or dragged our feet more often than we did. We believe that at one stage some deliberate attempt was made to prevent that march from proceeding. The fact that there were arrests did not help the situation the following day. They were a prelude to what was to come. Most of us knew that the situation was likely to be inflammatory the following day.

It must be remembered that all this took place during the general election campaign, and the fact that there were seven candidates was bound to have considerable effect.

It is wrong for anyone to assume that the tragedy of 23 April—it cannot be called by any other name—was caused by outside elements seeking to capitalise politically, regardless of who got hurt in the process. If that is the picture of anyone outside the Southall area who did not observe the events, it is entirely false. They might well have aggravated the situation in some respects, but it did not help when a man with a loudspeaker continually bellowed abuse at the police lined up outside Southall town hall. I witnessed that because, in a sense, I was trapped in the centre of Southall, my Labour Party campaign headquarters being close by.

The gentleman with the loudspeaker was alluding to the ugly events at Leicester a few days previously, when many policemen and others were badly injured. Later, and within my hearing, a rumour was circulating in the police ranks that a policeman had been stabbed at Southall. I have never been a policeman, but I should imagine that such a story would tend to unnerve people.

I believe that the events in Southall were due to a considerable amount of misjudgment. There was a measure of misjudgment on the part of the previous Home Secretary, and I shall refer to an exchange of correspondence that I had with the former Home Secretary. I am a little handicapped because he is not present today. He told me that he would be in his constituency in Leeds.

I was so disturbed when I heard of the decision of the National Front—in my own language—to pick off Southall that I wrote to the Home Secretary in longhand and in a personal sense. Therefore, I shall not quote the letter exactly, but I simply refer to the contents of it.

I headed my letter "National Front Planned Meeting—Southall Town Hall, Monday Evening April 23rd". I wrote the letter on 16 April, seven days prior to the event. In my letter I pointed out that considerable community feeling was developing to prevent the provocative decision of the National Front to hold a public meeting at the small old Town Hall at Southall a few yards from my campaign headquarters at the Regional Office of the Transport and General Workers Union. The Indian Workers' Association and the Ealing Community Relations Council would, I thought, call for resistance. In fact, it turned out that they wanted to have a demonstration which would be basically—I should say absolutely, from the point of view of the people who associate with the Community Relations Council—a peaceful demonstration to show the detestation of the local people for racists and the National Front and all they stand for. I also referred to other elements that were interested in the general election itself that I thought would try to make a meal of what was inevitably to come.

Southall Labour councillors, including Councillor Elliott, the Ealing borough minority Labour group leader, were trying to do everything they could to prevent the National Front meeting and were offering an alternative venue at the Ealing end of the constituency.

I told the former Home Secretary in my letter that I thought both property and staff would suffer damage. I asked him if he would help by contacting the Commissioner, perhaps to advise him to press the London borough of Ealing chiefs not to offer Southall town hall, which is not suitable for a public meeting of any size, let alone this one. It is a very small place. I believe that the seating capacity is 80, and even then it would be crowded.

I warned the Home Secretary that I thought both staff and policemen, among others, were bound to suffer injury because of the sheer impossibility of the situation. I wrote: The National Front has had no footing in Southall for a very long time. I said that they would bring strangers, and that no doubt counter-demonstrators would also bring strangers. I pointed out that the National Front candidate was a mere token and said that I understood that the booking for the meeting was only provisional at that time. Therefore, there was still time to think about it.

I do not know what my right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary did or did not do; he must have been very busy in Leeds at that time. But on 23 April he sent a letter to me by special message. One of my handicaps was that I was a mere parliamentary candidate—one of seven—and therefore the media were not constrained to use anything I said about events in Southall. However, it did not stop the Press Association tele- phoning the following morning to tell me about the tragic death of a young man from East London, Blair Peach.

The former Home Secretary said that he appreciated my concern about the matter and that he had taken advice about the powers, if any, that a local authority may have to offer an alternative meeting room to a candidate during a general election. He then went on to say: My understanding however is that paragraph 3 of Schedule 7 to the Representation of the People Act 1949 provides that each local authority shall prepare for their area lists of meeting rooms which candidates in any constituency are entitled to use for public meetings in furtherance of their candidature. These lists are kept by the electoral registration officer and are made available to a candidate or his election agent. If, as I assume, Southall Town Hall is on this list then each candidate at the election has an entitlement to use it, providing reasonable notice is given and, for example, the use does not conflict with a prior letting agreement. The Act does not appear to empower the local authority to refuse use of a meeting room on public order grounds. I emphasise those words because they are words that must continue to be heeded and discussed.

The Home Secretary's letter continued: as you know, the powers under the Public Order Act 1936 to ban marches do not extend to meetings". He said that he had taken steps to ensure that the Commissioner was aware of my concern. He went on: The policing arrangements for this meeting will be an operational matter for the Commissioner and I have no power to intervene or give directions. I am in no doubt though that appropriate measures will be taken to preserve public order and prevent breaches of the peace. That last sentence is laughable in the light of the events that followed.

I also questioned seriously the inability of the Conservative-controlled council on this occasion, in the two ways in which I have so described it. I watched that meeting assemble. I have no hesitation in declaring it as a farce, from a public meeting point of view—a tragic farce, to which no one should ever be exposed again. It would be no more than justice if all the Tory councillors concerned were surcharged for the whole extravagant police presence, which cost many thousands of pounds, and they would be lucky that added to that Bill were not several more deaths, damage to council property and injury to staff.

One of my major concerns was the personal safety of the black man from Trinidad who chaperones my normal local surgeries. But the police saw to that. They saw that he would be protected. I know the thug-like quality of the National Front membership because I have been on the receiving end of it in my time.

Why do I call the meeting a farce under the Representation of the People Act? No meeting staged first by the wrongful decision of the borough council and then chaperoned and virtually stewarded by half of London's police throwing a half-mile deep cordon around the centre of Southall, shepherding white morons of the National Front from eight miles away, can ever pretend to be a proper local election meeting by any stretch of the imagination.

Did not the chairman of the Inner London Education Authority correctly assess his situation when he refused to let premises, election or no election, to the National Front and the race haters? Did not the borough of Brent boldly, and courageously, too, also refuse to let to the race haters, who base themselves on the bestial doctrines of the German Nazis? Brent was prepared to test the law, and it was so tested when a National Front-inspired injunction failed against Brent very recently, since these events.

Were these matters ever carefully assessed by the more sober-minded of the Conservative majority on the Ealing borough council, or did they not give a tuppenny damn that the provocation was to be confined to the people of Southall? Are they not the guilty ones?

Of course, we have argued about this time and again, and one appreciates that as a substance of argument one could quote Voltaire. His famous saying was that he may not agree with what someone says but he would defend to the death that person's right to say it. It was something along those lines. But we, Parliament, since 1965 and section 6 of the first Act then, and the subsequent 1968 Act and the Race Relations Act 1976, have had a section of law which seeks to outlaw free speech in this regard in the crudest sense. The question of free speech has always been a matter of balance as to how far one can go. If it were not so, we would not have the law of slander or of libel, or laws preventing people from engaging in insulting behaviour. That is why these very words have been written into our enactments.

What about the police command itself? Do those who are assigned to the field of good race relations—there are now many of them—ever want to see a repeat performance in Southall? Of course they do not.

I am aware that all these matters are not easy. I have served for over 10 years on the Select Committee on immigration and race relations. I imagine that that Select Committee will be set up again in the not-too-distant future. I was in the Red Lion Square events of 1974. I am aware also that the police are inevitably conducting their own inquiry into their part in the Southall events. I have been trying to help them in that inquiry, in the narrow sense. I know that they, too, will eventually have to submit themselves to the independent complaints board. But that hearing will not be held in public and it will be mainly an inquiry into individual behaviour and not into what was in the heads of the police command on that day.

I submit that all that will be insufficent finally to answer the questions that I have posed, let alone the thousand and one questions that many others have been raising locally and in the press in general about the sad happenings in Southall, particularly on Monday 23 April.

Two days later I was speaking in the adjacent constituency of Hayes and Harlington. Naturally, I referred to Southall. I remember saying that if I had had a son or daughter in the police on duty that day, I should have been as much in fear as every Asian parent was in fear that day.

Therefore, we do not want merely an inquiry into the police behaviour and command plans for 23 April and beyond—and I say "beyond" because later there was a highly successful well-attended march for peace and harmony after the death of Blair Peach. The demand was bound to be raised that there should be a public inquiry if the truth was ultimately to be discovered. It is not surprising that relatives and all concerned want the most detailed public scrutiny. We have so demanded it. Opposition Members demand it. We have 147 signatures so far asking for a public judicial inquiry.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) is present today. I welcome his presence. He has not yet made his maiden speech. He is aware that the Conservative-controlled local authority accepted part of an amendment which calls for a public inquiry to be set up by the Home Secretary. I invite Conservative Members to put their signatures to my motion, which is also led by my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). The reason why the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch appears in the lead on that motion is that Blair Peach was one of his constituents and his family are his constituents.

I do not expect the hon. Member for Ealing, North to agree entirely with what I have said, but I welcome his presence today. It indicates his continuing concern about this matter. It will continue to be a running discussion in the localities which he and I serve in the House.

I have described the special meeting and the early-day motion. In the lead, too, incidentally, is the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), and most of the Liberal Members have signed the motion. One Member of Plaid Cymru has signed it. I have not had time to approach the others.

The widow and family of the young man who died are resident in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. Ultimately, whatever the apportionment of blame for his death, Blair Peach, together with young Kevin Gately, who died in 1974 in the Red Lion Square events, will be regarded by history as a martyr and a young courageous campaigner against Facism and racism. Their major crimes were that they loved humanity. Both young men reminded me so much of my involvement in earlier years.

I do not think that the House can do anything other than carry out what is suggested in my early-day motion and ask the Home Secretary to arrange this inquiry, at which every facet of infor- mation can come forth openly in public and he properly examined.

1.27 p.m.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Perhaps I may have the indulgence of the House for a few moments. Blair Peach was a constituent of mine and I represent his family in this matter.

Blair Peach's family are very concerned about the inquest which is taking such a long time. It began by being told that the police would be examining the facts and presenting a report to the coroner within one month. That month has now gone and the police have asked for three further months, although the coroner has given them only two months. Nevertheless, by the time that this inquest gets under way, it will have been four months before anything is heard about the matter.

The family, quite rightly, are distressed about this delay. They want assurances that there is no attempt to delay this matter to the point at which it will be lost. The family want to know that everyone concerned in the investigation will pursue the matter urgently and will be in a position for the inquest to take place properly, so that the other things that flow therefrom, including the public inquiry—which I support—may take place.

Will the Minister assure the House today that no delay will be manifest in the work of the police in order that the inquest may take place and the distressed family of Blair Peach can at least have the satisfaction of hearing the result of it?

1.29 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I first assure the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) that there is no attempt or desire to cause delay, and all inquiries are proceeding as fast as possible.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) for his reference to myself and for raising the subject of the disturbances that occurred in his constituency on 23 April and the question of what our reaction should be. That subject is properly a matter of concern to him and to his constituents, but, as he himself has made quite clear, the issues raised are of great importance to all Members of this House and to the public at large. Therefore, although today cannot be the occasion for a wide-ranging debate on public order in general and on race relations, there are some general issues to which I should like to address myself.

The hon. Member for Southall has spoken of the importance of racial harmony, and I agree with him. I should like to make it clear at the outset that, in my view and in that of the Government, a continuing improvement in race relations is a central and essential policy. British citizens, whatever their race or colour or creed, are equal before the law and should be treated as such. Moreover, many members of all the ethnic minority communities in our country make a significant and valuable contribution to our national life. They can be fully assured that our policies will be based on a firm belief in the need for equal opportunities and rights for all our citizens, and that includes the right to expect equal protection from the law.

The maintenance of public order must also be a central concern of any Government, and the events at Southall involved a breakdown of public order. There were vicious attacks on the police, and the hon. Member for Southall referred to the abuse hurled against them. Those events and the loss of life were deeply shocking.

In that context I believe that the views of the National Front are odious and divisive. The Government have no sympathy with them, nor, it would appear, has the electorate. Similarly, I am opposed to the Socialist Workers' Party and others who seek to exploit racial tension to provoke confrontation and violence. Having made that clear, we must consider the problems posed to public order at Southall and the implications that they have for consideration of public order issues in the future.

The disorders at Southall were by far the most serious of a number of disturbances that took place during the general election campaign as a result of demonstrations against National Front meetings. The previous week there had been demonstrations against meetings in Battersea, Islington and Leicester that required a significant police presence and gave rise to disorder. The most serious disturbances, however, were at Southall on 23 April. Those disturbances were foreshadowed the previous day when a march was organised by those opposed to the National Front. The march began in Southall and followed a five-mile route past the town hall, finishing just past Ealing town hall.

That march itself was not without incident. On a number of occasions the march stopped and demonstrators sat down in the road. Nevertheless, the police managed to shepherd the march along its way and, although there were 19 arrests, there was no serious disorder.

Sadly, the following day events took a different turn. Some 3,000 demonstrators are estimated to have taken part in the demonstration and a similar number of police officers were deployed. Ninety-seven police officers were injured, 21 requiring hospital treatment. A number of the demonstrators were also injured and one sustained an injury from which he subsequently died. A total of 345 persons were arrested.

In these circumstances, it is right that we should ask ourselves whether all the necessary steps are being taken to inquire into what occurred and learn lessons for the future. As the hon. Member for Southall has indicated, various inquiries are already being undertaken. The Commissioner has undertaken to send to the Home Secretary, as police authority for the Metropolitan police district, a full report on the disturbances and the police handling of them. That is currently being prepared. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has received and considered that report, it is his intention to make a statement to the House.

The Commissioner has also designated a senior officer, Commander Cass, to inquire into the circumstances of the death of one of the demonstrators, Mr. Blair Peach, with a view to reporting to the coroner and to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Commissioner has given a public undertaking that that investigation will be pursued with vigour and unswerving determination to establish the truth. The hon. Member for Southall will agree that that must be the priority, even if it inevitably involves a certain degree of delay.

There are also, as the House will be aware, many cases arising out of the disturbances currently before the courts.

In addition, a number of allegations of excessive force have been made against the police. We ask a good deal of our police in requiring them to exercise restraint at all times, even when provoked and assaulted. But we do require that of them, and allegations should be pursued. The Commissioner has therefore appointed a senior officer to investigate such allegations in accordance with procedures set up by the Police Acts of 1964 and 1976. Any that involve allegations of criminal offences will be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. All the others will fall to be reviewed by the independent Police Complaints Board. If, having reviewed the complaints, the board judges there are aspects of the affair which should be drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention, it is open to it to do so, and I have no doubt that it will if that is necessary or appropriate. The investigations that are in hand are substantial, and I believe that they are of the right kind.

The hon. Member for Southall has argued that the local council was wrong to grant the National Front candidate permission to use Southall town hall for an election meeting. He has described representations that were made to stop that taking place. I cannot answer for the council and do not seek to do so, nor do I want to comment on an interpretation of law. That is for the courts. But one point is clear—that the law as it stands does not permit local authorities to discriminate in the allocation of rooms for election meetings on the ground that the views likely to be expressed are offensive to others.

One may find the views of the National Front or the Socialist Workers' Party deeply offensive, but the law does not empower meeting halls at election times to be refused to candidates of either party on that ground or even on grounds of public order. What is or is not a bona fide meeting can be determined only by the courts. There has not been an adjudication on the merits of that issue that would have enabled the council to say that it was not in law bound to let the hall to the National Front.

I said at the start of my speech that I thought it right to take this opportunity to present one or two general reflections and I shall conclude by doing that. The responsibilities and duties of the police at Southall were clear. They were not to deny the right of the National Front to hold a meeting if the law gave it that right. Many people seem not to realise that basic and fundamental limitation in what the police could or should have done.

Th police role was to use their best efforts to preserve public order, to prevent breaches of the peace and to enforce the law. A misunderstanding of what the law allows can lead to a misconception of the role of the police, and that is very dangerous. It can fix falsely in some people's minds that, in some way, the police are there to protect the National Front and to oppose those who seek to demonstrate against it. Nothing could be further from the truth or more contrary to the interests of the police, and I am glad to have the chance to underline that fact.

We place on the police the onerous task of helping us to strike the balance between order and freedom of expression which we, as parliamentarians, have sought to enshrine in the law. At Southall, those who wished to demonstrate against the National Front had the right of peaceful assembly and public protest. That is also an important and basic principle, but that right does not carry with it the right to break the law that governs public behaviour.

In the interests of the community as a whole, there is no entitlement in law to obstruct the highway and still less to bombard the police with bricks, bottles and flares. Disturbances of the sort that happened in Southall do not, in the words of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), promote even those causes that they are intended to assist and they are deeply offensive to the great majority of our people.

The steps now being taken and the various inquiries that are under way are the right and proper course to establish the facts of what occurred and to deal with the allegations and complaints. The hon. Member for Southall called for a judicial inquiry. My right hon. Friend will wish to consider that request in the light of the Commissioner's report. However, I am sure that the hon. Member, in calling for that inquiry, accepts that the inquiries in hand must be allowed fully to proceed and that action in the courts and the effective complaints procedure must be fully supported.

Looking to the future, we need to ensure that in considering the events at Southall we reflect on how to strike the balance that seeks to accommodate the exercise of the right of protest within a framework that enables ordinary people to go about their business without fear of injury to themselves or damage to their property. The vast majority of the people of Southall were not involved in the meeting or the demonstration, and we must not overlook the rights of the majority.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southall feels that we are approaching these issues in the right spirit. It is our aim, as it is his, to achieve healthier race relations and the establishing of the facts by the proper procedures and to support the police and all others involved in the maintenance of public order.

I know that responsible members of the ethnic communities want to see order maintained and must surely want to support and work with the police to that end. My right hon. Friend has already indicated in reply to a question from the hon. Member for Islington, Central (Mr. Grant) that he intends to consider whether any changes in the law on public order would be useful and desirable.

The important point that I should emphasise is that all of us should lend our support to the determined efforts of the police and others to build up co-operation with the ethnic communities in Southall and elsewhere. None of us wants that work to be undermined as a result of either hasty judgment or of a misconception of the role of the police and the law in this area. If the debate has enabled that fact to be clarified, it will have served a truly useful purpose.