HC Deb 19 February 1980 vol 979 cc238-59
The Attorney-General(Sir Michael Havers)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the criminal law on picketing.

The recent events outside the private steel firms have renewed public anxiety about the law on picketing and intimidation. I must emphasise that the law on picketing does not, in any real way, change the criminal law and in no way diminishes the rules that govern public order.

The criminal law of the land applies to pickets as it does to anybody else. Let there be no illusion that the immunity provided under the civil law enables pickets to break the criminal law.

Peaceful picketing in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute is lawful so long as it is the honest belief of those involved that their action will advance the interests of those in dispute. This does not mean that the freedom to picket is a licence to obstruct or intimidate. The law permits picketing solely for the purpose of peacefully obtaining or communicating information or of peacefully persuading another person to work or not to work.

The immunity from civil proceedings given by section 15 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 does not extend to any wrongful act such as violence, threats of violence or similar intimidation—whether by excessive numbers of pickets or otherwise, or molestation amounting to a civil wrong. In those circumstances it may be open to the employer, on his own behalf or on that of his work force, to take action in the civil courts. In addition, the criminal law is perfectly clear. Each of us has the right to go about his daily work or pleasure free from interference by anybody else. Each one of us is free, as an individual, to come and go as he pleases to his home or to his place of work.

The law specifically protects our enjoyment of those rights. If anyone tries to deter us from exercising those rights by the use of violence or intimidation. or obstruction, he is breaking the law and may be punished.

The freedom to picket does not confer or imply any right to stop vehicles; still less do pickets have the right to stop people going about their lawful business. Pickets have no right to link arms or otherwise prevent access to the place that they are picketing. This is not a new situation. The present law was made clear by my predecessor on 25 January last year, in column 706 of the Official Report and by my noble and learned friend Lord Rawlinson in 1972, when he was Attorney-General.

If pickets by sheer numbers seek to stop people going to work or delivering or collecting goods they are not protected by the law, since their purpose is to obstruct rather than persuade. Are large numbers really necessary in the name of lawful, peaceful persuasion? They are more likely to lead to unlawful assembly, or even an affray.

So far as excessive numbers are concerned, the courts have recognised that the police may limit the number of pickets in any one place where they have reasonable cause to fear disorder. In my view, this includes, in the appropriate case, not only asking some of those present to leave but also preventing others from joining the pickets.

The enforcement of the law is, and must remain, a matter for the police and the courts. I recognise the difficult task that chief officers of the police have in deciding how order can best be maintained so as to ensure that ordinary people can exercise their own rights.

It is the function of the law to protect the rights of people—employers and employees—to go about their daily business, to work or not to work, and to make their own decisions whether to exercise those rights. If we let go of that principle we risk abandoning the rule of law and risk surrender to the rule of violence.

I hope that by stating the main principles of the law, with which the Lord Advocate agrees, I have removed the doubts and encouraged all those concerned, whether pickets or others, to respect and uphold the law. I am sure that the great majority in this country will support this.

Mr. Archer

The House will be grateful to the Attorney-General for his statement of the present law, but, for the avoidance of misunderstanding in the country, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make clear that what he said purports to be a statement of the law and is not concerned in any way with changing it?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it is a matter for chief constables and others concerned with law enforcement to ensure that the criminal law is administered, bearing in mind, as they do, that emotive situations are not always improved by introducing criminal sanctions?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman impress on his right hon. and hon. Friends that their task is not made easier by inflammatory pronouncements by politicians? Will he confirm that there is a well recognised tradition that Ministers of the Crown, including Law Officers and Lords Chancellor, do not seek to instruct chief constables in the way that they should carry out their duty.

The Attorney-General

The statement that I made set out the law as it is today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to chief constables. I think that all hon. Members have great admiration for the way in which the police have dealt with the problems facing them. It is the duty of chief constables to administer the law. The man on the spot is best able to judge what action he must take. I agree that no help is ever given to any situation by inflammatory statements. We on the Government side would also like to see a little support for the upholding of the law from the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Does my right hon. and learned Friend have the least doubt that if the pickets who have been responsible for violent and alarming disturbances of the peace outside factory gates had not been members of a trade union but ordinary members of the public they would have been arrested and exposed to the risk of a sentence of imprisonment? Does he agree that there is not only no immunity in law but that there should be no immunity in practice to trade unionists or others who cause an unlawful assembly, an affray, or a riot?

The Attorney-General

As I said in my statement, the criminal law applies to all, whether he be a picket or anyone else. In every case, in my view, it must be for the senior police officer on the spot, bearing in mind the number of people there and the pressures facing him, to make the difficult decision about what action to take.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Does the Attorney-General agree that his statement amounts to an assertion that the present criminal law on picketing is adequate to deal with the situation? If that is what his statement means, how do the Government propose to ensure that the law is administered in this country? Will they have particular regard, in that context, to those people joining picket lines who are not members of trade unions but who are there purely and solely for the purpose of trouble making?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the problems always is that Rent-a-Mob, or those who simply want to have a beat-up, sometimes join picket lines. When those who have been arrested in the past appear in court, one may find that this is the case. I made the statement to remove some doubts that appear to exist about the criminal law. I can tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be meeting the representatives of chief police officers tomorrow, at their request. My right hon. Friend will hear their views on their problems in enforcing the law. It is not for me to comment on that.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Will my right hon. and learned Friend keep an open mind on the recommendations of Sir David McNee on amending the Public Order Act 1936, in which he suggests that mass picketing, as at Grunwick and other places, might be considered in connection with such amendments?

The Attorney-General

I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is undertaking a review of the Act. He is considering a consultative document on the complex issue.

Mr. Allen McKay

Does the Attorney-General agree that sometimes the media bear a responsibility for inflaming a situation by giving the wrong interpretation of incidents? In mitigation, will he consider a report in the Morning Telegraph today in which Geroge Moores, the chairman of the South Yorkshire police authority, states that the incidents that occurred at Hadfields were not intimidation, and that the chief constable of that area carried out the law to its full intent?

The Attorney-General

I have not seen a copy of the newspaper referred to by the hon. Gentleman. There are occasions—not only in this aspect but with IRA parades, and so on—where the television cameras appear to see things that others do not see, sometimes for reasons that can only do harm. It is something that should be borne in mind when watching television programmes.

Sir Paul Bryan

Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House the position under the law of an individual or organisation that actively organises disorder by assembling pickets by the busload and directing them in such overwhelming numbers to a site that disorder is bound to follow?

The Attorney-General

That is a problem to he dealt with by police at the site. If they consider that there are enough, or too many, pickets they can stop the buses. The position of those who organise the pickets must depend each day on the circumstances. It may be that when the busloads were organised there were only half a dozen pickets at the site. If the busloads are organised and sent to a site where there are hundreds of pickets, a different situation arises.

It may be a matter of conspiring to incite, but each case would have to stand upon its own merits.

Mr. Urwin

The Attorney-General's statement has been precipitated by the secondary picketing in the steel industry. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not feel that it would have been more to the benefit of the whole country if a statement had been made by one of his ministerial colleagues? An early intervention by the Government in the steel industry pay dispute would have removed the cause of secondary picketing.

The Attorney-General

The Law Officers owe a duty to the House to express a view on the law. Clearly there is some doubt in various areas about the law. If one looks at the newspapers over the past few days one finds that that is amply demonstrated.

I thought that it would be helpful to the House and to the public if a clear, simple exposition was given of the law as it relates to secondary picketing.

Mr. Mellor

My right hon. and learned Friend's statement made it clear that much of what has happened over the past few years on the picket lines has always been unlawful, and that the law has not been enforced. Is it not the case that there has been disorder outside football grounds that has been dealt with by the police with the normal weight of the criminal law, while the same sort of disorder outside factories has been tolerated? Should not the criminal law be applied equally to both cases?

The Attorney-General

The law has been clear for a number of years. I pay tribute to the TUC for the guidelines that it laid down last year, which were similar to those that I have set out today. My regret is that those guidelines are no longer being observed by trade unionists, although they are perfectly clear. On individual cases, it is rather like comparing the sentences between two cases. Unless one knows all the facts, it is difficult to take a firm view.

Mr. Anderson

As the Attorney-General says that the law has been clear for a number of years, what, with all respect to him, is the purpose of today's announcement? It neither adds to nor detracts from one's knowledge of the existing law. Does it not rest essentially on the fact that a decision whether to prosecute in an individual case rests upon the judgment of a chief constable on the question whether it will cause more or less aggravation in a complex situation?

The Attorney-General

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman, having read the newspapers, would agree that there is no apparent agreement on the interpretation of the criminal law. I felt that it was useful to make the position clear.

Mr. Mates

In congratulating my right hon. and learned Friend on his lucid statement of the law as it stands, may I ask him to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that a full copy of his statement is put into the hands of every chief constable in the land as soon as possible? Does he not agree that far from exerting pressure on chief constables during this confused time it is important that they should all be absolutely clear about their rights and duties under the law, so that it can be enforced firmly and impartially?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that it will form part of a Home Office circular.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for making the law clear by repeating what I said last year. I agree that each case has to be judged on its merits. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House what are the special doubts, to which he has referred several times, that led him to make the statement?

The Attorney-General

The newspapers often influence the view of the public, and if one reads them it appears, for example, that lorries may be stopped by the pickets from entering works. They express a view that an excessive number of pickets is not contrary to the law and cannot be interfered with by the police. Those are two typical examples of the way in which the law is misinterpreted. The criminal law is sufficient to cover the various offences that have been demonstrated by the pickets over a number of years.

Sir Bernard Braine

If the criminal law is adequate, why are some chief officers of police expressing doubt and anxiety, and saying that the law should be strengthened? Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that his statement will remove those fears? To put the position in perspective, bearing in mind the widespread anxiety across the country, will he say why chief police officers are to be seen by the Home Secretary tomorrow—after this statement—and why they were not seen before?

The Attorney-General

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no power to require chief constables or chief officers to see him. It is at the request of the association that the meeting takes place tomorrow.

My hon. Friend has proved my point by demonstrating the doubts expressed by police officers. That is why I have put into a clear and unmistakable form what the criminal law is on picketing.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Attorney-General realise that what he intends to do will exacerbate on a grand scale the existing position? Does he know that on the 1 o'clock television news Mr. David Basnett gave his opinion on behalf of the general council, and that he described Government proposals as a re-run, in slow motion, of the Industrial Relations Act 1971? He pleaded with the Government to arrive at a consensus because, he said, it would result in the gaoling of trade unionists, with all the ills that would flow from that.

The Attorney-General

If ever one wanted proof that my statement was necessary, the hon. Gentleman's question is proof.

Mr. Kershaw

May I bring my right hon. and learned Friend back to the issue? What Britain finds intolerable is that what the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) calls "legal intimidation" is getting away with it? Will he remind his colleagues that something must be done about that?

The Attorney-General

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I assure him that there is no need to remind my colleagues about that.

Mr. Heffer

In view what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, is it not clear that most of the contributions from the Government Benches have been criticisms of the police? The right hon. and learned Gentleman explained what the law is now. Will he take into consideration the fact that when workers are involved in an industrial dispute they hope to win that dispute? The attitude of solidarity between workers, especially workers in other industries, to help their fellow workers is a fundamental feeling. I have the greatest sympathy with workers who are involved in disputes. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends would be much better engaged in settling disputes rather than displaying the attitude that we have been witnessing?

The Attorney-General

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman subscribed to the guidelines on picketing that were issued by the TUC a year ago.

Mr. Heifer

Of course I did.

The Attorney-General

If he did—he assures the House that he did—it is a great shame that he is not vociferous in saying that the guidelines should be followed at the various sites that are being picketed.

Mr. Amery

In view of newspaper reports this morning, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that his statement fully supports and in no way differs from the speech made during the weekend by the Lord Chancellor?

The Attorney-General

Perhaps my statement was more detailed. However, there is nothing that contradicts in any way what my right hon. and noble Friend said.

Mr. Stallard

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman read reports in today's newspapers that some chief police officers are advocating the use of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) 1978 Act against pickets in industrial disputes? Will he assure the House that the Government have no intention of extending that Act into the industrial world?

The Attorney-General

I have seen no such report, and I have heard no mention of it.

Mr. Moate

As the Lord Chancellor has said that what happened at Had-field's clearly involved breaches of the criminal law, and as certain trade union leaders have stated their intention of doing to Sheerness Steel what was done to Hadfield's, surely it must be right for chief constables to feel that they have the power, clearly established on a proper legal basis, to prevent excessive numbers gathering to create further breaches of the criminal law? Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that chief constables have the power to prevent excessive numbers gathering and to ensure that such events do not recur?

The Attorney-General

One of the matters about which there are some doubt was an excessive number of pickets. I hope that my statement will resolve these doubts and make the police aware of the powers that they have in those circumstances.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

As the law is so simple, and as it has been expressed as such by three successive Attorneys-General, would it not be better if people stopped demanding tougher penalties and tougher laws and allowed the police to administer on the spot the law as it now is?

The Attorney-General

The demand for tougher penalties and tougher action has arisen because people did not realise how effective the criminal law is. That was one of the purposes of my statement.

Mr. Stokes

My right hon. and learned Friend has assured us that chief constables know what the law is. Is he aware that what worries the public is whether chief constables have the means to enforce the law? In view of the disgraceful violence of last week, why, for instance, were the special patrol groups not used?

The Attorney-General

As I understand it—this was definitely the position in South Yorkshire—the resources were quite adequate to deal with the situation.

Mr. Leighton

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that there is a clear distinction between picketing, where numbers are restricted, and demonstrations, which are something quite separate and legitimate?

The Attorney-General

Too often picketing has turned into a demonstration. That is where the problem arises. A picket that is sufficient peacefully to persuade and to communicate does not need 1,000 or even 100 people. In my view it is a demonstration when we end up with 500 or 1,000 people.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that while the police have an outstanding reputation for impartiality the law places them in serious difficulties? Does he accept that the power and abuse of the closed shop enables pickets to intimidate those who seek to carry on their proper business and to undertake their work? Will he, together with his right hon. Friends, consider further amendments to the law on the closed shop as well as on picketing?

The Attorney-General

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that we must never underestimate the difficulties that the police have, especially in situations such as those to which reference has been made. Those situations have been unlike some of the demonstrations and parades with which they have to deal.

The closed shop or the loss of the union card arises only in circumstances in which the person who is threatening the loss of the card is not able to enforce its loss. If the rules of the union permit the loss of the card, that would be a course that could be taken. If the rules do not permit the card to be withdrawn, the person who suffers its loss in such circumstances will have his remedy in the courts.

Mr. English

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was rather plaintive in his answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), the former Solicitor-General. The right hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to think that he should have more political support on both sides of the House. Does he not think that as a junior Minister he should stop trying to steal the thunder of the Secretaries of State for the Home Department and Employment, who are willing to be properly cross-questioned before Select Committees? Does he agree that he should stop issuing statements on the Floor of the House when he knows that he cannot be properly cross-questioned on them? Does he not think that he should cease to be the only Minister, apart from his deputy, who refuses to allow Select Committees to cross-question him on his statements?

The Attorney-General

The way in which the hon. Gentleman manages to find every opportunity, whether relevant or not to the matter that we are discussing, to get at me about that is almost a miracle.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was kind to the hon. Gentleman. His intervention was not relevant, but I thought that I would let him complete his statement.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

If my right hon. and learned Friend is correct and the police have powers to limit the number of pickets, would it not be helpful if the police and trade union leaders were to meet, when they expected difficulty, to agree among themselves on the number of pickets that should be sent to a dispute? Would it not assist if trade union leaders and the police were to come to such agreements? That would demonstrate whether the trade unions want to make an impact through peaceful picketing or through demonstrations.

The Attorney-General

Anything that will enforce and promote peaceful picketing is desirable. If responsible trade union officials with senior officers of police can between them decide what is a peaceful number that is not excessive, that will encourage peaceful picketing and make breaches of the peace less likely.

Mr. Cryer

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that his statement makes clear that the law is entirely adequate to deal with the existing position? Does he agree that the law will never solve industrial disputes and that bitterness in the dispute is being generated by the Government? The Government are making militants out of moderates. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the basis of the dispute is the criminal neglect by the Secretary of State for Industry and the Prime Minister, and the rest of her cronies, in not bringing the steel dispute to an amicable and decent conclusion, which could be done in moments if the Government would show some sense?

The Attorney-General

It is rather sad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. The questions before it had been devoted to the matter about which I was speaking. The hon. Gentleman's question has nothing to do with that.

Mr. Cryer

Yes, it has.

The Attorney-General

I am seeking to explain to the House my view of the criminal law on picketing. The solving of industrial disputes does not have a bearing on the powers of the police and the duties of those who picket.

Mr. John H. Osborn

Most members of the public would regard what happened outside Hadfield's as a demonstration and not a peaceful picket. Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain the extent to which the leaders of trade unions can recruit members of unions other than those involved in the dispute and pay them and be within the law?

The Attorney-General

As one looks at the guide—I come back to that because it has so much in common with the criminal law—one finds that it is laid down, as I recollect it, that one trade union in a dispute should not be involved with another union that comes to its aid without the union in dispute seeking that aid. When the situation goes far beyond that—where assistance is provided not at the request of the trade union concerned, and against its wishes—that is another matter, which will have to be considered when we look, for example, at the issue of excessive numbers.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the House thanks him for making his statement even though it repeats the law as it stands? Are he and his right hon. Friends aware that it is unfair to put the police in the position in which they now find themselves? The police are having to bear the brunt of a policy that could be overcome overnight if only the Government would test out the trade unions by allowing the British Steel Corporation to add a further 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. to its offer. The Government should at least give it a trial.

The Attorney-General

Once again we are diverted from the important point. Some people think that it is unfair to put the police in to deal with violent demonstrations. However, that is their job, and they undertake it. They are there to enforce the law and to protect the ordinary citizen. Perhaps, on occasions, they have a very dangerous job and on other occasions and more often they have jobs that they find distasteful, but they carry them out and have done so over the years, to the great admiration of the British people.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's clarification of the law and the support that the Prime Minister gave earlier to the police, but may I tell him that it is a great deal easier to define the law in this place than it is to enforce it on the picket line? Will he recognise that, far too often, caught between their duty to uphold the right of pickets lawfully to picket and the public to go about their business in peace, the police are placed in an impossible position?

The Attorney-General

I believe that I have made it clear—I hope I did—that the police are in a particularly difficult position. That position has been clearly expressed by my hon. Friend. The police recognise that position and no doubt it will be a matter for discussion with my right hon. Friend at the meeting tomorrow. Ultimately the duty of the police is to enforce and uphold the law. That they have done in the most difficult situations, and they have gained the admiration of us all.

Mr. Faulds

Is it not a fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made his statement this afternoon not to clarify the bewilderment of the press, which is not an unusual condition, nor to correct press reportage in its muddledness, which is not an unusual situation, but to placate the hard-liners in the Cabinet and the bemused backwoodsmen on the Tory Benches?

The Attorney-General

No, Sir.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his statement and the subsequent questions have been helpful to ordinary trade union members who are deeply concerned at the conditions in which they find themselves particularly where they are exposed to the unsolicited involvement of other trades unions in their dispute? It was necessary that a statement of this sort should be made so that the views of this House could go out to the country.

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I think that he is right. There are too many barrack-room lawyers talking about the issues. It is easy for someone who has no knowledge of the law to accept what he is told by someone who is trying to persuade him to break the law without his realising it.

Mr. Homewood

Will the Attorney-General take the opportunity of clarifying to his right hon. and hon. Friends and the public in general that what he said this afternoon applies to the police and their attitude to the Hadfield's pickets, and that the Hadfield's pickets were not secondary pickets? They were pickets who had been legitimately called out by their trade union.

The Attorney-General

It was quite clearly secondary picketing as we define it, but that is not the point. Whatever the form of picketing, the same rules apply, under the law, to the behaviour of the pickets.

Mr. Latham

Did my right hon. and learned Friend hear the "Today" programme, broadcast yesterday? Mr. Alan Goodson, chief constable of Leicestershire and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said in that programme that while of course the police would do their duty, picketing was an extremely difficult area for them to be involved in. Will the Attorney-General therefore confirm that when the police are involved in dealing with mass picketing they will receive the full support of Her Majesty's Ministers? Hopefully, they will receive the support of the Opposition leaders as well.

The Attorney-General

I can give that assurance. I can go further, and say that the police have received that backing throughout the dispute.

Mr. Harry Ewing

Will the Attorney-General accept that we are interested in and support the view that there should be no tension between the police and pickets, or, indeed, between the police and any other section of the community, but that we are not sure that a parliamentary statement in response to press stories is the best way of easing tension? The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that his statement had the support of his noble Friend the Lord Advocate. Will he make it abundantly clear that he is not changing Scottish law and that it is not the job of the police in Scotland to prosecute? Prosecution there is the job of the procurators fiscal. In order to avoid any doubt that may prevail in the minds of people in Scotland tonight, will the Attorney-General clear up that point?

The Attorney-General

As I recollect, I have not spoken in terms of who prosecutes; I have spoken of the obligations of the police. Of course, a different situation prevails in Scotland. In this country if there is a serious affray the Director of Public Prosecutions will almost certainly take the case over. My statement was seen by the Lord Advocate and he agreed to it. That is why I said what I did.

Mr. Cormack

As there has been a general welcome for the clarification given to the House by my right hon. and learned Friend, will he consider inviting the leaders and general secretaries of all the trade unions to a special meeting so that he may explain the law to them?

The Attorney-General

It is a tempting prospect, but it is not one for me to undertake.

Mr. John Evans

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm to the House that he has not had one request from chief constables in Great Britain to clarify or restate the law relating to criminal activity on picket lines? Will he reject the criticisms of his hon. Friends that the constabulary of this country is not carrying out its duty and will he point out to his hon. Friends that though there have been one or two arrests and subsequent prosecutions for criminal activity on picket lines, the overwhelming majority of pickets are peaceful and law-abiding citizens?

The Attorney-General

There are many occasions on which a small picket carries out its function properly. It is able to communicate and peacefully persuade. Quite often faced with a small picket, lorry drivers and others intending to go into a works will stop and discuss the matter and then make up their minds whether they wish to go on. It is only when there is massive picketing, with all the shouting, jeering and everything else, that the atmosphere changes. It is in those circumstances that the criminal law begins to play its part. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are any number of pickets whose activities never hit the headlines, but they achieve their purpose. Those who meet them are able to communicate with them and make up their minds what to do.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this dilemma conceals a much more fundamental contradiction? Can any recognisable system of the rule of law long endure when significant and influential leaders of economic society are widely encouraged to behave on the basis that the wealth of particular groups in the country can be enhanced by destroying the wealth of society as a whole?

The Attorney-General

That is a wider political matter. I am concerned with the actual enforcement of the law.

Mr. Maclennan

Does the Attorney-General accept that the House would much prefer to hear from him a statement of what the law is rather than hear—with growing frequency—statements from chief constables throughout the country on what they think the law should be?

The Attorney-General

There is no doubt—thinking particularly of the written evidence given by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis—that it is a sensible thing for those concerned in administering the law that if they have ideas that they think might improve the law they should express them. This is how the law develops. Similarly, if the hon. Member feels strongly that the law is in some way inadequate he will no doubt make use of his membership of this House to express his views. Chief constables have the same right as anyone else to express their views.

Sir Frederic Bennett

I agree that my right hon. and learned Friend's statement will do a great deal to restore lost confidence among the public, and to restore the public's confidence in the fact that the law is adequate as it stands, but does he realise that that restored confidence can soon be eroded if scenes which took place at Hadfield's are repeated elsewhere and if no penalties are visited upon those who commit the offences?

The Attorney-General

Any law which is so frequently broken without any punishment being inflicted upon those who break it becomes a bad law, which is unenforceable. That is one of the reasons why I have made the statement, not only to clarify the law but to seek the support of all members of the public, pickets as well, to uphold the law in the future.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Is the Attorney-General aware that the only doubt introduced by his statement was in relation to his assertion that there was no criminal immunity under the 1974 Act and that that was in contradiction to the view of the Law Lords in the case of Hunt v. Broome? Perhaps I can put the argument in a practical form. If a person attends outside someone else's place of work in order peacefully to picket, and does no more than that, is such a person in breach of the criminal law now, and will he be in breach of the criminal law if clause 14 of the Employment Bill is passed?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman misquotes me. I used my words with some care. I said that I must emphasise that the law on picketing does not in any real way change the criminal law. So far as I can see, the only way in which the immunities given in the existing law on picketing changes the criminal law is that it permits an obstruction of the highway. That is not a serious obstruction. The law permits one to stand on the pavement or in the road outside the place of work where ordinarily one would not be permitted to do so because the highway is meant for passing and repassing. That, I think, is the limit. It is only to that extent that the immunity would be removed if clause 14 became effective.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. If those hon. Members who have been rising will be brief, I shall do my best to call them all.

Mr. Adley

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen early-day motion No. 428? If he has not, will he please look at it? It has been tabled by six Labour Members. Does he agree that perhaps one of the most useful things which the House could do today would be to send a message to the police from both sides of the House stating that we support them in the difficult job that they are trying to do? When my right hon. and learned Friend has had a look at that early-day motion, will he perhaps seek support for it from both Front Benches?

The Attorney-General

I have not seen it, but I have seen a report in the press about it. I hope that, as a result of my statement and the debate that we have had, there will be an indication that there is widespread support in the House for the police. There certainly is on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas

In view of some of the interventions of the Attorney-General's hon. Friends, and some of the wilder press stories today, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make it absolutely plain that it would be constitutionally obnoxious, and a disaster for industrial relations, if his statement were to be taken as encouraging chief constables to crack down on those exercising the right to picket?

The Attorney-General

If the hon. and learned Gentleman had listened, as I am sure he did, with care to what I said, he would have realised that I made no such suggestion either in my statement or in the answers that I have given.

Mr. Gummer

Does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the rule of law depends on the support of all of us, and that the position of the police becomes intolerable unless they have the support of all hon. Members? Is it not surprising that we have not had a public statement of support for the police in this difficult situation from the Leader of the Opposition and his Front Bench?

The Attorney-General

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I would go a little further and add not only support for the police but condemnation of illegal picketing.

Mr. Marlow

Is it legal, intimidatory or lawful intimidation to take down the personal details and particulars of a lorry driver with a view to withdrawing his union card, thereby throwing him out of work? Furthermore, what advice would my right hon. and learned Friend give to a lorry driver who does not want to stop at a picket line and the picket does not get out of the way?

The Attorney-General

Each of those events must be decided upon the facts of the case. If the union rules permit it, if the union has called the driver out and if it permits his card to be withdrawn, unfortunately, under the present law, that card can be withdrawn. If the rules do not permit it and the card is withdrawn, a driver will have a civil remedy in the courts.

Mr. Budgen

As my right hon. and learned Friend asserts that the criminal law has frequently been broken recently by people on picket lines, has he any information that the chief constables are giving priority to the collection of evidence so that those who break the law in this way may be prosecuted?

The Attorney-General

I have no knowledge of that. It is not within the usual scope of my knowledge. But no doubt it is one of the matters that my right hon. Friend will be discussing at his meeting tomorrow with leaders of the police forces.

Mr. Michael Brown

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether it is a criminal offence for a union to extort money from someone in return for allowing him to cross the picket line in order to carry on his business? That is a threat. While I recognise that the law is as it stands, surely we must concern ourselves with the threats that are being used in connection with the closed shop.

The Attorney-General

If money is extorted in order to allow someone to do something which in law he is absolutely entitled to do, that would be illegal extortion.

Mr. James Callaghan

No doubt the Attorney-General recognises that any criticism which has emerged of the failure to administer the law in this difficult area has not come from the Opposition Benches. If there has been any, it has been implicitly by the Lord Chancellor, who has appeared to criticise the police service, and it has come more expressly from some of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's hon. Friends. There is no disposition on the Labour Benches to criticise the actions of the police, who have support in this difficult area, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), who represents the Police Federation, said. If the police have shown restraint, as they have done, is it not because they recognise the difficulty of trying to administer the law where large bodies of men who, rightly or wrongly, feel indignant about the situation gather together to express their views about it? My own attitude on this matter has been made quite clear on a number of occasions both last week and this week.

As a result of all this discussion, has not the Attorney-General come to the conclusion that if the rule of law is being placed in some jeopardy, and if the police service is being placed in an impossible position, there is a responsibility upon the Government not just to deal with the symptoms of picketing but to deal with the fundamental issue, namely, how the steel strike is to be resolved? Is there not a responsibility upon the Government to intervene in this matter now and to bring the two sides together in order to solve the fundamental issue instead of scratching about on the question of picketing?

The Attorney-General

The right hon. Gentleman talks about support for the police. The police would have been helped much more if he and his colleagues had emphasised even once—and, much better, more often—what the duties and obligations placed upon pickets were so that the police could lend their weight to those who wished to picket peacefully and discourage those who wanted to break the law. The right hon. Gentleman said that the rule of law is placed in jeopardy and that it is the responsibility of the Government to change that. As I understand it, he is really saying that we must surrender.

Mr. Callaghan

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has quoted many times from the TUC guide. Is he not aware of the support that has been given to it by Labour Members, when it was negotiated, at a time when some of his right hon. Friends were pouring scorn on it a year ago, when we entered into the agreement? Is he not aware of paragraphs 13, 14, 17 and 18 in the guide, which we ourselves negotiated with the trade unions, some of which he has repeated this afternoon?

We want full support for the code. Indeed, last night I called for it myself, not for the first time, to anybody who happened to be watching or listening. Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that this is part of a much wider contract with the trade unions? If the trade unions are to be invited to give their full support to this matter, they should not be shown the door of No. 10 Downing Street and shut outside on all the other economic and financial issues. Is not the Prime Minister failing to show a proper sense of responsibility in this matter?

The Attorney-General

That was a rather belated political intervention by the Leader of the Opposition. The proposals formed part of a White Paper or joint statement issued in February last year. It contained a number of useful aids to peaceful picketing. I have no recollection that we poured scorn on it. [Interruption.]. The right hon. Gentleman made two interventions. Now he seeks to make a third from a seated position.

I find interesting, but absolutely unacceptable, the fact that, while we have the present troubles, none of the support that the Opposition were prepared to give to their joint paper last year is repeated now.