HC Deb 21 January 1980 vol 977 cc101-15


  1. (1)
    1. (a) No person shall organise or conduct a procession through any street in a district unless there has been served on the chief officer of police at any police station in the district through which the procession is intended to pass, a notice stating the route by which and the date and time on and at which it is intended that it should pass
    2. (b) Notice under paragraph (a) above shall be served at a time not less than 72 hours before the procession starts to pass through any street or as soon as reasonably practicable after that time.
  2. (2) If any procession passes through any street in a district by a route or at a time which has not been stated in a notice relating to that procession delivered in accordance with subsection (1) above, except in accordance with directions given by the chief officer of police under section 3 of the Public Order 102 Act 1936 or other directions given by the senior police officer, if any, attending the procession, any person organising or conducting the procession shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200.M
  3. (3) Nothing in this section shall apply to a procession:
    1. a) commonly or customarily held; or
    2. (b) organised or conducted for the purpose of a funeral by a person acting in the normal course of his business where his business is that of a funeral director.
  4. (4) For the furtherance of co-operation between the organisers of processions and the police, the Chief Constable shall issue a code of practice giving guidance to the organisers of processions on any matters which he deems to be relevant, and in particular drawing attention to:
    1. (a ) the desirability of notifying the police as early as possible when a procession is planned and publicised; and
    2. (b) the need to make arrangements for stewarding and to agree the route with the police.
  5. (5) Proceedings shall not be instituted for any offence under this section unless the proceedings are instituted by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.—[Mrs. Knight.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7 pm

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The measure, which is a very important one for the West Midlands area, has been much delayed in its passage to the statute book because it foundered on the question of street processions. The promoters of the Bill, with recent recollections of some very stormy and difficult periods in the city of Birmingham following street processions that got out of hand, were most anxious to protect uninvolved citizens and tradesmen from getting caught up in such street processions and demonstrations. The promoters were perfectly properly bent on safeguarding the right of ordinary people to walk or drive around the West Midlands without let or fear.

Other hon. Members in this House, equally properly and with great sincerity, were anxious to ensure that any restrictions that might be imposed by the Bill did not in any way curtail freedom of speech or freedom to demonstrate, which are, after all, among our basic freedoms.

The clause is the result of a great deal of work behind the scenes, and I pay tribute to the spirit that has motivated hon. Members who had concern about the former clause. I believe that the new clause meets all the concerns that have been expressed and that it will be acceptable to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

We believe that by laying down clear guidelines about what is to happen when street processions are planned, the police will be enabled to protect the people. At the same time, within the ambit of the clause we feel that there is protection for those who wish to express their feelings in a demonstration.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)

I appreciate that there has been a considerable amount of endeavour behind the drafting of the new clause, with the aim of preventing any feeling that there could be interference with civil liberties. Although it appears to be reasonable on the face of it—and is no doubt fairly reasonable—there must still surely be cases sometimes when an explosive position suddenly builds up in a factory or in a workplace, when local trade union officials may feel the necessity to lead the work force in that factory or workplace.

I will give an illustration of what I have in mind. The Minister of State probably knows well the little market town of Alston. Suppose that, without any of the normal consultation that ought to take place, the management suddenly announces the closure of a foundry. In a small market town of that sort, where about 120 jobs are involved, that would involve relatively massive unemployment. I have in mind the sort of case where, without consultation, a firm decides to make a sudden announcement about closure. Such an announcement would cause instant anger not only within the plant but within the town, so that people would demand an immediate demonstration against the closure.

If an explosive position of that sort were to create a walk-out of the work force, and a parade through the small town were organised, it would surely be completely unreasonable to have a prosecution, albeit that the demonstration would be in contravention of the law. I ask the Minister of State to consider that illustration.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

As I understand the new clause, provided that someone at the start of the demonstration has telephoned the police, he has given all the notice that is required.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I feel that we ought to have on record from the Minister precisely what would happen in the circumstances that I have outlined. The regional secretary of a trade union might decide, because of the circumstances, to telephone the chief constable, expressing his regret that, although 72 hours' notice ought to be given, he could only give 12, 15, 18 or 24 hours' notice. I suggest that it would be completely unreasonable in such circumstances to have a prosecution.

Mrs. Knight

Perhaps I may direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to the last subsection of the clause. I take his point that proceedings ought not to be instituted in cases of this kind. He will see that the wording is that Proceedings shall not be instituted for any offence under this section unless the proceedings are instituted by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I believe that that is a sufficient safeguard. The other hon. Members who signed the motion felt that the wording might alleviate the sort of concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed.

Mr. Brown

It might allay the fears of Conservative Members and the fears of some of my hon. Friends, but it does not entirely allay mine. We ought to be clear that within the context of the Bill there is no possibility—I put it no higher than that—of the civil rights of individuals and groups of individuals being put at risk. Clearly, we ought to avoid any question of interference with civil rights.

Several other measures of this type have come before the House. As far as I am aware at present, the Trades Union Congress is not happy with this proposition, which it regards as a possible infringement of people's civil rights. I put it no higher than that.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The measure has been around for a long time, and the background to the clause dealing with notice of street processions is the reason for that.

The original clause was debated in the House on 6 February 1979, and the original clause about street processions was removed from the Bill on an instruction that I moved. That clause required seven days' notice to be given. In the course of the debate, the promoters of the Bill offered to reduce it to three days' notice. Many difficulties were referred to in the debate, from political demonstrations to funerals, from one extreme to the other. The delay in the progress of the Bill since then has been due to the attempts which have been made to overcome those difficulties.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), who have devoted a great deal of time to the discussions and who have achieved something worth while in the new clause that the hon. Lady has put before us tonight. It is not perfect but it is a reasonable outcome. It reduces the period of notice and it also makes clear provision for spontaneous demonstrations—demonstrations at very short notice—which have concerned many of us. It does so by indicating that in such cases the notice can be given as soon as reasonably practicable after that time. I think that that is a considerable improvement. I am very glad that the promoters have agreed to make that part of the new clause.

We have to view the clause against the background of existing provisions in some boroughs in the West Midlands.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

The hon. Gentleman has hit on the point. He is suggesting that the spontaneous demonstration would be covered by subsection (1)(b), but it would not be covered, because the notice must be given, under subsection (1)(b), as soon as reasonably practicable after that time. I suggest that there would be no time for a notice. A spontaneous demonstration would have happened before the chief constable could be informed.

Mr. Beith

It is clear from the discussion so far that in the case of an organised demonstration in immediate reaction to a piece of news or an event, it would be possible for whoever was organising it simply to make a telephone call to the police to say "This is what we propose to do. The procession is moving off very shortly", and to give that degree of information to the authorities. That would be a helpful thing to do. Indeed, most trade unionists and most organisers of spontaneous demonstrations do precisely that and would want to do it.

It has been our contention throughout these proceedings that much of what was in the original clause is unnecessary, because responsible law-abiding citizens who want to organise demonstrations in pursuit of the democratic process will give maximum notice anyway. It is only those who have no desire to fall within normal democratic procedures who give rise to the problems that led people to bring forward this clause in the first place. Those who have no time for our democratic procedures and civil rights, those who wish to abuse the opportunities afforded to them, will not abide by the clause any more than they abide by existing law. Not only will the responsible citizen want to abide by these provisions; it will be a great deal easier for him to do so than it would have been under the original proposals.

I would rather that even this degree of control was unnecessary and that we did not feel it necessary to have it in a Bill of this kind. When I was interrupted, I was saying that we must view it against the context of at least some boroughs in which there are existing provisions about notice of street processions. Against that background, this is not a bad compromise. Although this does not represent the civil rights of a perfect world, it is a reasonable outcome to the long negotiations and much preferable to what was in the Bill when it was first brought before us.

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

My contribution will be very short.

I was fortunate to be chosen to serve on the Committee which considered the Merseyside County Council Bill, when we examined many of these points in considerable detail. Two of them are perhaps relevant to the discussion tonight.

At is has been reworded, the clause certainly seems to offer both sides, if "sides" be the relevant term, the best of both words. One has to remember that civil rights also apply to ordinary citizens going about their daily jobs and that one also has to plan into the whole of the processional factors the county council's provision of police cover. Certainly in fairly explosive events, it is only right that ordinary working people, such as policemen and policewomen, should be able to contemplate what time they will have at home and what time they will be required to work.

Therefore, in this case, it seems to me that the clause has provided answers which both allow those who intend to process to do so and yet give a reasonable amount of notice to the authorities and some protection to the ordinary citizen.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) that one must have some misgivings about the clause. It is particularly fortunate that at least the Tyne and Wear county council has agreed not to put in its Bill such a clause. I think that that would have been the ideal position concerning this Bill. However, since the promoters were so keen to have something in it, a compromise had to be reached. I suggest that most of my hon. Friend's fears are met in this compromise.

First, notice has to be given at a police station. That makes it as easy as possible for notice to be served. Then there is the phrase in subsection (1)(b): or as soon as reasonably practicable after that time. I think that that was intended to allow the spontaneous demonstration to which my hon. Friend referred. I hope that in practice it allows that.

We have to take into account the existing situation in the West Midlands. Some of the local authorities there that have now been merged into the West Midlands county council, or are in its area, already have a requirement for a certain amount of notice to be given. That situation does not exist in many other areas. Therefore, taking all those circumstances into account, this appears to be a workable compromise.

7.15 pm

We ought to stress subsection (4), in which we are suggesting that there ought to be a code of practice, because this is an area in which a leaflet offering guidance to those who would like to organise demonstrations could be very useful indeed. What we want to be aiming for is voluntary co-operation so that both sides are satisfied that the general public and the police are not unreasonably put out and yet the demonstrators or protestors have the maximum opportunity to voice their views.

I stress that there has been some evidence that the West Midlands has, in a way, been used as a guinea pig for the jumbo Bills—as some have referred to these big local authority Bills—and that other local authorities have simply tried to follow behind the West Midlands. This compromise clause was specially designed to take into account the arguments put forward by the representatives of the West Midlands. I would not want anyone to think that they ought to be following this in other parts of the country, because if others want to try to follow this I think that they ought to wait for national legislation. If they want to deal with it by individual Bills, they must accept that different circumstances apply in different parts of the country and that there ought to be very different Bills for different parts of the country.

The best example has been set by West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, and South Yorkshire, which have not bothered to put a clause of this sort into a Bill. However, I suggest, very gently, that if others come forward assuming that they can accept this compromise, they may run into the same sort of difficulties as have occurred with this Bill.

Therefore, I hope that the House will accept the clause fairly speedily tonight and that it will work out as a workable compromise between the two arguments that have been put forward.

Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)

I had the task initially of attempting to pilot a Bill similar to this one through the House. It came to grief mainly on the clause relating to street processions. Some hon. Members who are now in the Government have had the same experience. In the interim, as has been mentioned, hon. Members on both sides of the House have endeavoured to arrive at something which would be workable and seen to be reasonable. I think that this new clause achieves that aim.

It should not be forgotten that the need for those Bills came about through the formation of metropolitan councils. Because of the differing practices within the district councils which came under their umbrella, it was essential—and it still is essential—for the metropolitan county councils to try to get some commonality in practice within the regions for which they were responsible.

I can appreciate the misgivings of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West(Mr. Brown) about the clause. However, I should tell him that in Coventry we have had provision for a much more extensive notice. For many years we have had this provision relating to street processions. It has never been necessary to invoke it, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has said, it was only necessary to pick up the telephone to let the police know that a procession would be taking place. We were able to manage on that basis.

In the circumstances outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West, I think that his trade union experience will tell him that there is hardly likely to be such spontaneity that there is an immediate upheaval and an immediate procession and no time at all to get to a telephone. I am sure that experience will show him that, if it is felt that there should be a procession, it can be taken almost for granted that there will be a meeting at which the procession will be agreed. It will then take a certain time to form the procession, and in the intervening period it is reasonable for someone to make a telephone call.

In a small market town, surely the police will be even closer to the people than in a great metropolis like Birmingham, good though the police in Birmingham are, and will appreciate much more quickly the reason for the spontaneity and, therefore, take that into account.

The new clause uses the words as soon as reasonably practicable after that time. Even if it went beyond that point and the DPP was involved, I believe that the circumstances are reasonably although not totally covered and that the clause can be accepted.

Mr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

In the local authority in which I serve as a councillor, I had the opportunity to go through the Bill and I also had the opportunity to see it debated at local authority level in the constituency that I represent.

First, I should like the name of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) to be associated with the excellent work done by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). It was a joint effort and, to be frank, I hope that it will be seen as a good and acceptable compromise on both sides of the House.

I am particularly pleased that, within the confines of the clause, the possibility of the police being given sufficient notice is a safeguard on all sides. From experience, I imagine that a good time to hold a procession that would gain public sympathy and support is on a Saturday afternoon when there are people in the market place, the Bull Ring and the various avenues of trade in the West Midlands. If there was a telephone call at 2.30 pm to say that a procession would take place at 3 pm this coming Saturday, with all the football matches and, therefore, commitments of the police, there would be problems, first, to safeguard the procession and, secondly, to safeguard the public.

The clause is an excellent compromise. In the long term, the code of practice is the key to good relations between those who make the protest or wish to hold a procession and the police authorities, and in that spirit I warmly welcome the clause.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

We have had seven speeches in 23 minutes, and I intend to maintain par for the course.

The new clause is an acceptable compromise. I do not intend to have any fudging of the issue. My qualification is that I am satisfied with it for the West Midlands. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) and agree that there would be no point in another local authority with different rules trying to transplant the proposal in that precise form into its Bill. We must look at each Bill on its merits.

I do not wish to introduce any acrimony, but in the previous debate the hon. Member for Warwick and Learning-ton (Mr. Smith) advocated that farmers in Leamington and Warwick should break the law, but tonight he has found time to be absent from the House.

I do not intend any criticism of the hon. Member for Dudley, West (Mr. Blackburn), who was a member of the local authority that dealt with the Bill, but I have a message for our colleagues in local government. Those who serve on local authorities at county, district or regional level do not have the machinery, time or expertise to protect the civil rights of our citizens. Otherwise, the House would not have had to have four separate sittings on the Bill with regard to this central issue and to reach this compromise.

The Bill was considered by all the councils in the West Midlands without the issue being raised by any councillor, Labour, Conservative or Liberal, and none of the trade unions picked it up. It would have fallen completely through the safety net of the system had it not been for my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North. I say to my colleagues in local government "Do not believe what chief officers or others tell you. Do not take what they say at face value. They are servants and not masters."

In this case the county council officers have shown a degree of arrogance that surprises even me. Their belligerence and arrogance have caused the delay and have caused many of us to read the Bill and table 60 amendments, most of which have been withdrawn. In the process we found other matters that are unacceptable, and, once the clause has had a Second Reading, we should like to see a few other minor changes.

I repeat my message to councillors: "Do not believe the clerks and bureaucrats in local government. This time we can prove that they sold you the pass and did not do their job correctly".

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

It is not appropriate for me to give or not give messages to local authorities, least of all in the West Midlands. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in congratulating those involved in producing the new clause, which has rightly been described as a compromise. I looked long and hard at the Amendment Paper to see whether it was right that the three signatories had joined together to put their names to the new clause, and when I read it I could see how that could come about.

During the previous discussion in the House of the proposed inclusion of a notice of street processions provision, I indicated the Government's view that there was a clear case in favour of such a requirement in the West Midlands. I am therefore genuinely glad to see that, during the intervening period, it has been possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) to reach agreement on the form of such a provision with those who previously opposed it.

The case for a requirement of advanced notice in the West Midlands is no less strong than before, although no hon. Member in the House tonight would wish to take time in rehearsing the arguments. I welcome the new clause and urge hon. Members to support it.

It raises such questions as that considered by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown). The provision that notice should be given 72 hours before the start of the procession or as soon as is reasonably practicable is a new formulation to deal with the problem of a procession which people want to start but which they have not made up their minds to start when it would have been possible to give the full 72 hours' notice that would otherwise be provided by the clause.

As the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) pointed out, the circumstances in which a truly spontaneous procession would arise are not, perhaps, quite as widespread as one might at first think. It is necessary to organise a procession and usually necessary to agree that it should take place. Therefore, I think that it will be possible in all cases to give some notice. The question will then be whether notice has been given as soon as reasonably practicable". Under the Bill as it will stand if the new clause is approved, the determination of whether notice has been reasonable would not arise unless the DPP chose to bring a prosecution. That would be a brake on any imprudent prosecution.

7.30 pm

When a prosecution was brought, a court would have to decide whether, in all the circumstances, notice had been given as soon as was reasonably practicable. No doubt the court would take into account when the decision to hold the procession was made, what was to be the nature of the procession and how soon after the decision was taken it was proposed to implement it. In the light of those circumstances, magistrates would consider whether notice had been given as soon as was reasonably practicable.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

I am reassured by the way in which the Minister is responding, but I should like to put a hypothetical point to him. Let us suppose that a plant meeting takes place during a lunch break and it is decided that half an hour after lunch a demonstration will be held. A works convener is a busy man anyway and in those circumstances would be even busier making last-minute arrangements. Let us suppose that he overlooked the need to telephone the police station. Would he be taken to court? I hope not, because we do not want to make any more martyrs. Can the Minister give us an assurance on that point?

Mr. Brittan

It will be up to the DPP to consider whether it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution. If there is no trouble on a procession and it is clear that the failure to give notice has been the result of genuine inadvertence rather than a deliberate act, the DPP may consider that it would not be desirable to bring a prosecution. However, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that if no notice had been given an offence would have been committed.

I do not think that it is unreasonable that someone who thinks it appropriate to advise his colleagues and organise a procession in the streets should give a high priority to notifying the police so that the appropriate arrangements can be made to ensure that the procession is conducted with the minimum disturbance.

The balance is not unreasonable, though I cannot pretend that the new clause is wholly free from difficulty. Of course, it cannot be. It is in the nature of a compromise that there must be a balance, and I believe that the difficulties can be reasonably comprehended within the new clause. Of course, there would be scope for argument in a particular case about whether notice was reasonably practicable.

The idea of a code of practice is excellent, and I can see why it has been included in the new clause. Whether in the context of such legislation it is best or necessary to include a requirement for a code, or whether it would be sufficient merely to promulgate it, is a matter on which there is room for two views. Nevertheless, I understand that the chief constable of the West Midlands is content with the provision, and I do not wish to press any doubts about the wisdom of including it in the new clause.

Several hon. Members have raised the question of the relationship of the new clause to other local Bills that may seek to deal with this matter. There are grounds for debating the provisions of the new clause, and even in its present form it may not be regarded as suitable by every local authority that wishes to have a notice of procession provision in local legislation.

However, I believe that it is desirable that some measure of uniformity should be achieved wherever the inclusion of such requirements in local legislation is felt to be necessary. No doubt local authorities will wish to look at the new clause when considering how they wish to formulate any proposals that they intend to put before the House.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)


Mr. Brittan

May I anticipate the point that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) may be wishing to make in the intervention at which he is hinting and make clear that the question whether there should be a national provision of notice of processions is obviously one of the most important points being considered by the Government in their general review of public order legislation?

I wish to make clear that the inclusion of such provisions in the Bill before us and my indication of the Government's support for them must not be regarded as prejudging the outcome of that review. We are still in the middle of it and wish to consider the matter further.

Mr. George Cunningham

I am most grateful for the Minister's remarks, which are relevant to some of the objections that some of us expressed on previous occasions.

Will the Government bear in mind in their review that the only way in which we can have proper consistency on this matter in England and Wales is to have the subject covered not in private legislation but in public general legislation and that, on the whole, people feel that on such a matter, touching civil liberties, there should not be a different position existing in Birmingham from that in London, Sheffield or anywhere else?

Mr. Brittan

There is no doubt that if the matter is to be dealt with as a result of the review of public order legislation, and if there were to be fresh legislation, the operation of that legislation would have to be nationwide.

As to the doubts about the desirability of individual local provision at the moment, we are not starting with tabula rasa—with no such legislation and with local authorities coming forward with ideas. Most of the proposals involve, at least in some parts, the local authorities concerned taking over or adapting existing provisions. That is a relevant consideration.

With those thoughts, I wish to join in the congratulations to those who have been able to bring about the compromise which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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