HC Deb 03 April 1980 vol 982 cc659-68 10.55 am
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement. The chief constable of Avon and Somerset has informed me that serious disorder occurred yesterday even-Mg in part of the St. Paul's area of Bristol. The trouble started when police officers visited a club to execute a search warrant in connection with suspected drink and drug offences. A hostile crowd gathered outside the club and threw stones at the police, who were obliged to call for reinforcements.

Police reinforcements arrived, but were heavily outnumbered by the crowd, which had grown to between 200 and 300 and which pelted the police with bricks, stones and bottles. A running fight developed, in which a number of police cars were overturned and set alight.

The chief constable, who had taken personal charge of the operation, decided temporarily to withdraw his officers from the area pending the arrival of further reinforcements. As soon as reinforcements were available, the police moved in with riot shields and secured the area. Order was restored by midnight. The police are continuing to patrol the district to prevent further trouble. During the course of the evening considerable damage was done to shops and other premises. A bank was set on fire. Looting took place.

Some 21 police officers and nine members of the public were injured, none seriously. Twenty-one arrests have been made so far, mainly for looting. It is not yet possible to assess the extent of the damage to property. The chief constable has announced that he is making full inquiries into the incident and I have asked him to report to me urgently. He is in close touch with the local community relations council.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Home Secretary aware that we welcome a preliminary statement at this stage? In view of the recess, it would have been wrong to leave the matter for 10 days, although I understand the problems of collating information at this early stage. We note the police inquiry. Will the Home Secretary ensure that in some appropriate fashion the investigation and its results are reported to the House? Does he not agree that whatever we say—it is appropriate that hon. Members should discuss the issue—it is in Bristol that the local problem will be solved?

My recollection is that there is a good record of community relations in Bristol. It is appropriate that hon. Members representing Bristol constituencies are present. I spoke at a late hour last night to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North-East (Mr. Palmer), who offers his apologies to the House but feels that it would be better for him to be in the area today. He is talking with people in the St. Paul's area.

It is much too early to make a judgement on the event. I observe, without criticism, that it is difficult for a force to react with extra policemen if it is not organised to deal with untypical situations of this kind. It is vital that there should never be "no-go" areas in this country. The Opposition regret all the injuries reported.

On the question of the proper responsibilities of the House, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is time we talked more about the problem of race relations and less about immigration and swamping? Whatever else may be a problem in Bristol, it is not that there are a large number of black British or immigrants in that part of the world. The House must return to the problem of the inner cities and the urban programme, and the replacement of section 11 of the Local Government Act 1966. To cut expenditure in these fields is folly. We shall wish to return to the particular problem of West Indian youth in education and, growingly, in the prisons. The Select Committee report of a year or two ago is a good basis. We shall consider the further report on Bristol when the Home Secretary is able to make it to the House.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. In view of the impending recess I was particularly anxious to make this statement at the earliest possible moment. I am sure that the House will understand if all the facts are not available to me. I shall, of course, be prepared to report to the House later. In addition to asking for an urgent report from the chief constable, I have decided to ask the Minister of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison)—to go down to Bristol. He will be there tomorrow. He will be able to see all those concerned and to make an assessment on the spot. I believe that that is the quickest way to get reactions in the area.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the good record in community relations in Bristol. It so happens that my other Minister of State—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Brittan)—was recently in Bristol. He found this situation to exist, as did one of my senior officials, who also went to Bristol recently to carry out a study. It was with some regret, and with some surprise, locally and nationally, that this episode occurred. The right hon. Gentleman referred to West Indian youths. He has had that responsibility. I have it today. I fully accept what he says about the need to deal with it.

Mr. David Steel

The whole House must have been shocked to learn of yesterday's serious disturbances, but in view of the inquiries that the Home Secretary has set in train it would be silly to comment on the immediate causes of the disturbances and on some of the press reports.

On the underlying features, the right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Hunt report in 1967 warned the House of the risks of the alienation, particularly among young blacks in the deprived city centres, the areas of high unemployment and poor housing. Is the Home Secretary aware that when I was in Liverpool a year ago I was shocked to find that that alienation exists between young blacks and the police on the streets of that city?

Will the right hon. Gentleman study the success of the experiments where the police have been living in the communities and taking part in community work? Will he try, as the Minister responsible for both the police and community relations, to see that those successful experiments become part of general national policy? I echo what the Opposition spokesman said, namely, that the whole Government, not just the Home Secretary, must be aware that the sharp effects of their economic policy will be felt in those areas.

Mr. Whitelaw

I made a slight error in my previous reply. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has reminded me that he is going to Bristol today. He will see the circumstances on the ground as soon as he can.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the community relations work of the police. I can tell him that the police officer in the area of Bristol involved has been active on the community relations council. He has been one of the most respected members of the council and has done a great deal of the sort of work that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Waldegrave

We in Bristol are grateful for the speed with which my right hon. Friend has come to the House to make a statement. The incidents mostly started in my constituency and spread to the constituency of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), who has asked me to point out that he is now on his way to Bristol.

Everyone concerned, as I have been, with race relations in Bristol would like to emphasise that the disturbances were not a race riot in the simplistic sense of those words. It was not a matter of one community attacking another. It is a difficult policing problem, similar to that which the Metropolitan Police have to face from time to time in South London.

I regret the slight implication in the remarks of the leader of the Liberal Party that he was trying to make a party point out of the matter. The area of Bristol concerned is a housing action area into which great resources have been put, although more resources must undoubtedly be provided. Simplistic statements in a complex situation will not help those of us in Bristol who will have to rebuild community relations and trust between the police and the West Indian community.

I do not want to prejudge the issue, but may I ask whether my right hon. Friend would be willing to call a public inquiry when he has in due course received information from the chief constable?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As we have seen elsewhere, there is, after such incidents, an important job of rebuilding trust between the local communities and the police. Police action in any community depends on support from that community, and trust must be rebuilt at the earliest opportunity. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the resources that have been put into the Bristol area.

As to the possibility of a further inquiry, I have indicated that I shall receive a full and urgent report from the chief constable. I have heard my hon. Friend's comments and I shall listen carefully to what Bristol Members have to say. When we have considered ail that, we shall decide what further action might be appropriate.

Mr. Benn

May I join in thanking the Home Secretary for making a prompt statement, but ask whether he is aware that our concern is all the greater because Bristol has such a fine record, not only in community relations but on law and order generally?

I reinforce what the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) said about the need for a public inquiry to bring out all the evidence and all that lies behind the circumstances. Clearly it was not a race riot, as has been made clear, and, as we know from other parts of the United Kingdom, violence is not necessarily confined to areas where there are immigrant communities. It is important that relations between the police and all the communities should be brought out and considered.

It is not fair to ask the police to carry a burden that arises, in part, from rising unemployment, social deprivation and other circumstances in our urban areas and which affect our communities as a whole, not only the ethnic communities.

May I reinforce the need for an inquiry in which all the evidence can be brought out and with terms of reference that are wide enough to enable recommendations to be made covering a wide range of problems?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I profoundly agree that all the evidence suggests that it was not in any sense a race riot. It is correct to say that.

On the question of a full and public inquiry, of course I shall consider carefully what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but I believe that it is right first to receive the reports and messages that he and other hon. Members from the area will wish to give me. In asking for a public inquiry, the right hon. Gentleman has given a clear indication of some of the difficulties involved in deciding exactly what is required. He has called for a wide inquiry. I believe that it is right to get the initial reactions first, and then to decide what is best. I certainly do not rule out anything of that nature later.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Was the right hon. Gentleman surprised by these events? If not, why not?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, I was surprised, because I was told that community relations in this part of Bristol were good. Bristol Members, who should know, as they represent the city, were also surprised. If they were surprised, why should I not have been? I was surprised. I deeply regret what happened, and I hope that we shall do all that we can to ensure that such incidents do not occur again.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

As one who hopes that this is an isolated case, but who fears, on evidence, that it may be the first of many, may I ask my right hon. Friend urgently to consider extending the inter-departmental discussions on violence on public transport into the wider question of violence arising in areas of deprivation and racial difficulties?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if one thing is demonstrated in Bristol, it is the necessity to have in urban areas where there is tension a reserve force, or some form of special patrol group, which can be moved into action swiftly to deal with riots and arson?

Mr. Whitelaw

In all matters concerned with public order it is right to consider what further action should be taken. On the wider front of public order as a whole, I have promised to publish a Green Paper shortly, and that will be done. I am also discussing, and having a conference with those concerned, violence on the London underground and on railways generally. I am prepared to consider what further discussions we should have on those broader problems.

On the question of the police position and their tactics, we must wait to hear the report from the chief constable and must place great weight on his operational judgment. He is the man on the spot. It is important to add that he was able quickly to call on reinforcements from surrounding forces. That has been an important part of police co-operation, which I greatly welcome.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. To be fair to those with Adjournment debates, I propose to call three more hon. Members from each side of the House before moving on.

Sir Ronald Bell

Is it not the case that when there is an area in a town that can be identified as an area of immigrant or coloured population—and such areas are increasing in number—this sort of incident is particularly likely to arise? In the light of some of the remarks made in the past 12 hours, will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is in this country only one law and that it should be enforced by the police equally against all citizens, who should conform with it and not request special consideration or mitigations of the general law?

Mr. Whitelaw

Of course it is true that every citizen of this country is subject to the law equally. It is important to state that. As for the position of the police, I think that the House will agree that, in view of the casualties that they suffered during the course of the evening, it is clear that individual police officers showed both courage and considerable coolness in ensuring that order was restored without serious injury or loss of life.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Will the Home Secretary take an early opportunity to make a further statement to the House about the general relations between the police and the immigrant communities in the deprived city areas? It is a most important and urgent matter.

Because insurance policies often exclude liability for riot, and the procedure for claiming compensation from the police authority is restricted, in terms of time scale, will the Home Secretary—the final arbiter in these matters, under the regulations—consider giving directions to the police authority in question, and perhaps in other cases, to extend the time in which claims for compensation can be made, and also to permit costs to be awarded to those seeking to make such claims?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I am grateful to him because he gave me notice of his question, which is of a detailed nature. It is a matter about which he has a specialist knowledge. I understand that in the first instance all claims are naturally against the police authority. I shall consider the other points that he raised on that subject.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I appreciate the need for constant work to improve relations between the police and the various communities in these areas. That work will continue, and I shall give it every possible support.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

In the interests of maintaining good community relations throughout the country, will my right hon. Friend make an urgent appeal to the BBC and the ITV to the effect that if they intend to flood today's programmes with interviews with extremist and militant so-called leaders of the immigrant communities, they should also interview representatives of the great majority of immigrants who deplore violence and vandalism as much as anybody else?

Mr. Whitelaw

I appreciate my hon. Friend's remarks. I take this opportunity to welcome him back to the House. I have not had the chance to do so before.

I hope that in all their programmes the television companies will be careful to pursue a proper balance between those whom they may wish to interview on this issue. In that connection, if they wish to ask me any questions about the matter I shall be available to answer them.

Mr. Tilley

Is the Home Secretary aware that social unrest is increasing in many of the inner cities, largely because of the despair felt by black and white youngsters about their chances of finding a decent job? It is an impossible task to simply ask the police to hold down that position.

Government action is needed. Will the Government take what has happened at Bristol as a warning that unless they reverse the cuts in the inner city programme they are taking a risk that in all our cities, including London, we shall have a British action replay of the American inner city tragedy?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks. What he is putting forward goes far wider than my particular responsibilities. I am aware of the importance of employment in all these areas.

Mr. Brotherton

Did my right hon Friend hear a broadcast this morning by the chief constable, in which he admitted that for some hours last night there was a "no go" area for the police in Bristol? Will he assure the public that steps will be taken to ensure that such "no go" areas never occur again?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have already said that I wish to await a full report from the chief constable on all the circumstances of the evening. We must place great weight on the operational judgment of the chief constable. He was the man on the spot. He had to cope with the position as it was. It is important to say that he did so without loss of life or serious injury. That must go some way towards justifying his action at the time.

Mr. Faulds

Is it not important that the comments of the hon. Members who represent Bristol should be heard from the House? Do not the reports point to the fact that this situation was not one of racial confrontation, because the firemen in the area were not attacked, nor were the whites, but that it seems to have blown up, unfortunately, from the police-black community attitudes.

Finally, may I ask the Home Secretary—I do not know the answer, which is why I am asking him—where the chief constable served before he went to Avon, because he has only recently arrived in the area?

Mr. Whitelaw

I agree that the chief constable has recently arrived in the area. Suddenly, off the cuff, I cannot remember where he served previously. When I cannot remember something, the only answer is to say so. I do not think that it is important, because I have every confidence in him. Equally, I know that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) knows the chief constable. He has already spoken, and I think that I can quote him as saying that he had considerable confidence in the chief constable.

From all that we have heard on the radio, it would appear that what the hon. Gentleman has said is right. It is early to jump to too many conclusions.

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