HC Deb 06 July 1981 vol 8 cc21-31
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will report to the House on the violence which occurred on Friday 3 July in Southall, London, and on 4–5 July in Toxteth, Liverpool. The violence in these two places arose in different circumstances.

The disturbance in Southall began when a group of white skinhead youths began smashing shop windows in the Broadway. Word of this soon passed within the local community, and a group of Asian youths gathered near a public house where skinheads were listening to a pop group. The pub was attacked, and the police, in their attempts to keep the two sides apart, were assaulted with petrol bombs, bricks and other missiles. As the police were increasingly reinforced they brought the disorders under control, but 105 officers, two firemen and three ambulancemen were injured. Twenty-five members of the public were treated in hospital. There was damage to property, and 23 arrests were made. There were some further disturbances in Southall on Saturday, but the scale of the violence of the previous evening did not recur.

In Toxteth, in Liverpool, on Friday evening, a group of police officers attempting to arrest a youth whom they believed to have stolen a motor cycle were set upon. The following evening, when police were called to an alleged incident in the area, they were again attacked, on this occasion ferociously, with bricks and other missiles. Reinforcements were called as buildings were set alight, and the police were assaulted with petrol bombs. The area in which the disturbances occurred was cordoned by police and brought under control. Seventy-five police officers were injured, one of them seriously. Fifteen arrests were made.

The worst violence of the weekend occurred last night in Toxteth, and the House will be aware of its main features. The police were faced with concerted violence by white and black youths hurling missiles, including petrol bombs, and setting fire to and looting buildings. The cordons that the police formed to prevent violence spreading to other parts of the city were attacked by having stolen vehicles driven at them. The fire service was unable to bring its equipment into the area to control the buildings that were ablaze. The 92 occupants of an old people's home had to be evacuated. To prevent further violence and damage, the chief constable authorised the use of CS gas. This was effective, and the rioters were rapidly dispersed.

The Merseyside police were reinforced very quickly by officers from the Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Lancashire forces. None the less, the injuries sustained and the destruction of property were serious. One hundred and twenty-eight police officers were injured and forty-seven are still detained in hospital. Five firemen were also injured. Fifty-three arrests have been made.

This weekend, particularly in Liverpool, the police were attacked with an extraordinary ferocity. Violence at such a level must be firmly met if people and property are to be protected. I make it clear that chief officers of police will have my full support in taking positive action when necessary. In the circumstances of Sunday night, the chief constable of Merseyside had no alternative to using CS gas. Distasteful though this was to him and to me, I believe that he was totally right in that decision.

In the light of the new intensity of the violence I have decided that better protective headgear and fire-resistant clothing must be available to the police, and steps will now be taken with police authorities to this end. The working group that I set up after the Brixton disorders will carry these decisions forward.

Throughout the weekend I have been in close touch with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the chief constable of Merseyside. They have both reported to me personally today. As far as the events in Southall are concerned, the commissioner will present a detailed report to me, and Southall will form a part of the study into racist attacks which is currently under way. The chief constable of Merseyside will, of course, be making available to me the report that he presents to his police authority.

The House will wish to pay tribute to the officers of all the police forces involved and to those from the emergency services, both the fire and ambulance services, who sought to carry out their duty in the face of such determined opposition. Violence of this nature cannot be tolerated in a free society. The Government are determined to see that people are protected. For that to succeed, those to whom we entrust this task must have the full support of all community leaders and the whole nation.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I first offer the Opposition's sympathy and support to the police and fire officers and ambulancemen injured in pursuit of their wholly legitimate duties? May I also endorse the Home Secretary's determination to end violence of a character and intensity that cannot and must not be tolerated in a free and democratic society? We on the Opposition Benches utterly condemn the arson, looting and mindless violence of the past three days.

The Home Secretary was told that the violence in Toxteth and Southall arose from different causes, which is an essential fact to remember in the debate which is bound to follow. I accept and endorse that fact, but will he confirm that those two areas share a common feature with Bristol and Brixton; they are decaying central areas of old cities where there is intolerably high unemployment, unacceptably low levels of social services and abysmally inadequate housing? The problems have been compounded by escalating youth unemployment, for which the Government must take a large share of responsibility. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the problems are likely to intensify over the next few weeks, with the enrolment of thousands more young people, as they leave school, in the dole queue?

Will the Government, therefore, now accept their obligations to inner city areas to improve housing, increase employment prospects and end the despair and disillusion that were a major cause of this week's chaos? As even the skinheads who invaded Southall last Saturday are part of the pattern of disadvantage and deprivation, will the Home Secretary look again at the Government's inner city policy? Will he also look again at the funds that the Government provide for housing and social services and at the prospects for employment of both black and white young people who live in those deprived areas?

May I also ask the Home Secretary to accelerate and broaden his inquiry into racial violence to include the whole question of urban deprivation and the product of that deprivation in incidents such as the one at Walthamstow last week, which the police themselves described as murder through racial attacks? It is absolutely essential that the Government, who will have my support and that of the Opposition in tackling the symptoms of these problems, should also attack the causes of the problems. It is essential that that process should begin with an opportunity for the House to debate why incidents of violence and tragedy such as those we have witnessed, uniquely, over the past few days have come about.

I therefore ask the Home Secretary to use his influence and his good offices to ensure that before Parliament rises, first, the inquiry into racial violence, its causes and results will be presented to the House; secondly, that we have an opportunity to debate that report; and, thirdly, that an opportunity will be provided for us to argue, as we intend to argue, that the causes of such incidents are social and economic and that until the social and economic circumstances are changed such incidents are likely to continue?

Mr. Whitelaw

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's last point, I certainly understand the feeling in the House that there should be a debate on these circumstances. I shall of course speak to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy, who is beside me. As Leader of the House, it is his responsibility, but I personally and, I am sure, the Government as a whole would greatly welcome the opportunity for such debate.

As to whether the report of the inquiry into racial violence can be ready for such a debate, I shall of course do my best, but I must point out, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will accept, that the more we broaden the inquiry and the more work it is asked to do, the more difficult it is to bring it to a quick conclusion. I think that that is a reasonable statement. [Interruption.] I did not quite hear what the hon. Member for Feitham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) said, but I understand that it was broadly in sympathy with what I was saying.

On the other extremely important points raised by the right hon. Gentleman, first, I am most grateful to him for the sympathy and support that he gave to the police and to all the emergency services, including both fire and ambulance workers, who performed their duties in very difficult circumstances with great bravery and with very high morale. Many of them have suffered worrying injuries, and I am grateful to the whole House for its sympathy to those people and their families.

On the question of dealing with violence, I am again grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his firm support on the need to deal very firmly with mindless violence in our society. He raised many of the social reasons why such violence should occur. Many different reasons for actions may be put forward relating to the social conditions of our country, but one thing there cannot be. There can never be any reason or any excuse for violence of the sort that we have witnessed. As to the various social reasons put forward by the right hon. Gentleman, it is worth pointing out that the Liverpool inner city partnership will receive £17.6 million in 1981–82, and a further £17·2 million will be available to the Merseyside development corporation. Those are not sums which can be easily written off.

I return firmly to my major point. Of course the House should debate all these matters, but I hope that it will not at any time get into the habit of imagining that there can be any reason or any excuse for mindless violence in a free society.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call first the two hon. Members whose constituencies are directly affected.

Mr. Richard Crawshaw (Liverpool, Toxteth)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and add my appreciation of the police who, on two nights of violence, carried out their duties in an exemplary manner. I am sure that the House will wish to send sympathy to those who were injured and to the many residents who have suffered serious loss of property. If there is any small comfort to be gained, it would appear that this was not a case of racial strife.

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of issue No. 20 of the Granby community association newsletter, published in May this year and headed "The Brixton that Never Was". Apparently, it managed to stop a procession which had been planned with the object of arranging a clash within the constituency. The statement in the community journal reads: Did they want to start trouble between the community and the police or between black and white? Did they want another Brixton? If they did, then Granby certainly didn't. That was issued by the community association covering the area in which the rioting took place at the weekend.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that although there is high unemployment in that area there is high unemployment in other areas? Yet people in other areas do not resort to this kind of violence, which must be stamped out whatever excuses are given.

What I have to say next may not find favour throughout the House. I do not believe that unemployment was the cause of the trouble, nor is it correct to blame it on the housing in that area. The area of the rioting has many thousands of new houses.

I believe that these events came about because, rightly or wrongly, there is a genuine belief not only in the black community but in the white community that in that area the enforcement of law and order is not even-handed. This could be the subject of investigation, so I shall say no more than that. But does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although no element of our community is entitled to more privileges than anyone else, people must never be made to feel that they are being treated less equally than anyone else?

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider removing the police from their "panda" cars and Land-Rovers, where they remain remote from the community that they are patrolling, and get them back on the beat, so that they can get to know the community and, even if it is against police regulations, knock on a door and go in and have a cup of tea with somebody in the area? Only in that way will it be possible to restore trust and confidence between the police and the community.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the sympathy that he expressed and for the support that he has given to the police. The chief constable told me this morning that he was extremely grateful for the helpful way in which the hon. Gentleman approached these problems at a very difficult time for the police in his constituency. I felt that I should say that to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

As for what has been done by the community leaders, I am glad to hear what the hon. Gentleman said and I accept it at once. Many hon. Members may have heard Mr. Wally Brown, a community leader, on the radio this morning. I understand that he, too, has done his very best to help in the difficult situation, and he deserves all possible support and credit for what he has done.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for law and order to be even-handed. There is a great deal of talk about that today. It is important for all of us in the House to assert firmly that all our citizens are entitled to the protection of those who are appointed by us to look after and protect them. However, they need to be supported, but that protection must be even-handed between everyone. It is important that law and order should be equally enforced throughout the community.

As for the hon. Gentleman's last point, chief constables are very anxious to get more officers back on the beat. Perhaps I may make the obvious but nevertheless important point that if it had not been for the policies of this Government, which have enabled 6,000 more police officers to be on the streets in England and Wales, there would not have been the opportunities of doing that.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

I endorse the condemnation by the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) of violence that causes injury to innocent people, including in many circumstances the police themselves. I extend my sympathy to those who have become victims of it because essentially they are victims of mismanagement of affairs by this House. Of course, there are similarities between the events of Toxteth and Southall. I hope that the Home Secretary understands that, but I am grateful to him for drawing a distinction between the events of Toxteth and Southall, because, while there are similarities, which have been described, there are also many dissimilarities.

Does not the Home Secretary agree, as he seemed to suggest in his statement, that these events arose from provocative action by skinheads, some of them members of neo-Fascist racist organisations? Will he undertake to ensure that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis carries out a thorough investigation into those undoubtedly premeditated acts, which brought 300 to 400 skinheads from other parts of London to trigger off the disturbance in my constituency?

Finally, does not the Home Secretary agree, on the basis of all the reports that the Home Office receives, that basically Southall is a peace-loving community, where the representatives of the ethnic minorities—they are not minorities in my constituency—have excellent relationships with the police, and that peace and harmony have existed there for many years? The people of Southall cannot take this sort of action from outsiders who come in and smash up Asian people's property. If the police are not seen to be acting with the alacrity that they should always show—there are aspects of that in this case, and I hope that the commissioner will listen carefully to the community leaders—and if they are not seen to be the protectors of the ethnic minorities, undoubtedly those people will form groups in order to protect themselves.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Member has done a great deal to further good race relations in Southall. That should be said firmly. It is therefore all the more disappointing to him, as it is to all those people who have worked hard to that end, that this trouble should have occurred. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that much has been done by the police in the Southall area to improve those relations. I believe that to be so. There are certain officers who have given a great deal of their time to that end, as he and I know.

As to the problem of people coming in from outside, and the speed of the reaction of the Metropolitan Police, of course the commissioner will look carefully into that aspect. I spoke to him about it this morning and he appreciates that. I accept immediately that good race relations can be disturbed by people from outside. and I believe that that is the case in Southall. The police have to guard against it and have to be seen to be reacting quickly.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. It is clear to me from the exchanges that have taken place that there is the likelihood of a debate before the House rises for the Summer Recess. We cannot debate the matter this afternoon. I therefore propose to allow questions on this subject to run for another quarter of an hour, and then we shall have to move on.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

It would seem that there is a total breakdown of law and order in the Toxteth part of Liverpool, and I think that there is a serious risk of its beginning to spread. Will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary consider declaring a state of emergency if these problems continue? Does he agree that we cannot wait for the results of more reports, of the passing of more Acts of Parliament and more statements? Will he therefore appoint a Minister with special responsibility for the city areas, charged with the task of getting to grips with the increasing discontent and anarchy that are evinced among young people in many parts of the country?

Mr. Whitelaw

There is no question, as I hope I made clear in my statement, of waiting for reports of any sort. I have made clear my support for chief constables to take any action that they believe to be necessary in this difficult situation. I have also made it clear that I am moving at once on the provision of protective headgear and fire-resistant clothing for the police. I doubt whether the appointment of one Minister would be worth while, but we shall certainly work in every way that we can to improve conditions in the area.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

In which town or city does the right hon. Gentleman expect the next pitched battle against the police to be fought?

Mr. Whitelaw

I very much hope that both the right hon. Gentleman and I will do everything that we can to make sure that no other disorders of this sort occur. I believe that to that end neither the right hon. Gentleman nor I should speculate in the way that he suggests I might.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite the terrible injuries that the police are suffering, and despite the verbal brickbats that have been hurled at them by many who should know better, all ranks of the police service are determined to uphold the rule of law, and that they will continue to do so without regard to colour, race, creed, rank, or political interest?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said about protective clothing for the police, and I urge him to move as quickly as possible. Specifically, will he ensure that fireproof equipment is available to police officers, and see whether their training, particularly in the higher commands, can be improved to deal with tactical riot situations? Will he look quickly at the question of improving the powers of the police to stop and search for offensive weapons and liquor those who may be going on to cause disturbances?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I entirely agree with him about the dedication of the police officers concerned, both the commissioner and in particular the chief constable of Merseyside, whose force had two nights of extreme problems. Those officers were determined to fulfil their duties, and throughout their morale remained high. Evidence of that is the fact that many of those who were injured were anxious to get out of hospital and back to help their colleagues in the area. That shows a high dedication and morale.

As to my hon. Friend's other points, of course we shall consider training improvements and fireproofing equipment. The question of the powers of the police is obviously a longer-term and more difficult problem, but of course we shall examine it.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

Upper Parliament Street, which was the scene of the conflagration last night, is on the border of the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) and my own constituency, and many of my constituents were affected last night and the night before by looting and rampaging through the streets. Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that the many people who lost their livelihood in the riots will be given the opportunity of obtaining financial support to re-establish themselves in the area?

Secondly, what action does the right hon. Gentleman intend to take—in view particularly of the statement of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) about the firm resolve to tackle the violence in the area—against those who have circulated in the Toxteth and Edge Hill area a leaflet saying: We defend all those arrested during these events and call for their immediate release and the dropping of all charges against them", bearing in mind that the leaflet was printed and published at 70 Victoria Street, headquarters of the Liverpool Labour Party? The telephone number on the bottom of the leaflet is that of a Labour parliamentary candidate, properly selected and agreed by the national executive of the Labour Party.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman's last point is not a matter for me. Other people have their responsibilities in that regard. Claims for compensation will, as in other areas, be dealt with under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886. This matter will be pursued.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the country will view with great unease continuation of the kind of riot that has been experienced over the weekend, especially under a Conservative Government? Is he also aware that the police are the victims of a campaign of hatred organised by elements that wish to disrupt our society? Will he consider amending the Public Order Act in order to limit the distribution of the sort of leaflets that the Hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) talked about, of which I have seen all too many in the Brixton area?

Mr. Whitelaw

I agree with my hon. Friend that there are those in our society who wish to undermine it. As has been shown in other countries, those who do that make their first target the police. That is why I have spoken of the importance that I attach to the giving by all the leaders of our community, in the House and outside, of the fullest support to our police service.

With regard to the leaflets, we can consider amending the Public Order Act. I think that many of those who may have some responsibility for the leaflets can act in advance of such amendments.

Mr. James A. Dunn (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I join with other hon. Members who have expressed sympathy with the victims of the violence. I hope that they will soon recover. I also express my sympathy with those who have lost property and my admiration for everyone in the emergency services and the personnel at the old people's home who so valiantly stood fast in great difficulty.

Like other hon. Members who have put questions to the Home Secretary, I have just come from Toxteth. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the conflicting reasons given by many responsible people for the civil disorder and public unrest? In the circumstances, does not he accept that the only way to ascertain the truth and give everyone an opportunity to speak of the serious factors involved is to have an independent inquiry at the earliest opportunity to deal with the wildest allegations that can be made? If they are true, they should be dealt with, but politicians cannot do it.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said, particularly about the personnel in the old people's home. They suffered a very unpleasant experience and behaved with considerable fortitude.

I realise that conflicting reasons are given for what happened. That is why I appreciate that it would be valuable to have a debate on all these matters. We already have Lord Scarman's inquiry into certain aspects. We also have the inquiry into racist attacks, which I set up. It is very important that we should be clear in our minds that we shall act. Many inquiries can give views on how we should act, but there are moments when action is crucial, and I believe that this is one of them.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Bristol, North-West)

I wholeheartedly endorse what my right hon. Friend said in praise of the police and their action over the weekend. Will he confirm that they must be properly rewarded for the very important and, alas, sometimes very dangerous job that they do in preserving law and order? Will he take this opportunity to dispel the disquieting rumour, reported in the press over the weekend, that the Government are having second thoughts about implementing in September the Edmund-Davies recommendations on police pay.

Mr. Whitelaw

Under the Edmund-Davies arrangements, police pay is considered annually under a formula by the police negotiating board, which will meet later this month. The situation will be resolved from there.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Is the Home Secretary aware that as soon as I heard about the leaflet supposedly coming from the Labour Party in Liverpool I checked with the party office? It is totally untrue to say that it was issued by the Labour Party. As the Labour Party's organisation chairman I have asked that a copy be sent to us so that the national executive may look at it and investigate.

Is the right hon, Gentleman also aware that to people like me—I lived for nearly 20 years in the Toxteth area—the scenes in Liverpool have been horrific? We have been very distressed. But while giving full support to the police in their efforts to bring the situation under control, is it not clear that we need to go much deeper than saying how disgraceful it is, and condemning the violence? We need to understand the causes of the violence.

There must surely be a correlation between what happened and the fact that there is 40 per cent. unemployment, with youngsters doing absolutely nothing. Their frustration and anger are being expressed against the forces of authority. That is being done by black and white youth together; the matter is not racist, as some hon. Members have suggested. Is it not clear that we need positive, immediate, emergency action to take the youngsters concerned off the streets, with emergency centres to give them employment? The Government should concentrate on doing that, getting rid of the basic causes rather than simply saying "How disgraceful" and "We are upset by what has happened."

Mr. Whitelaw

I said at the start that I would not become involved in the personal argument between the hon Gentleman and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) and others in Liverpool. I think that I was wise to say that, and I stick by it.

As I said earlier, there are all sorts of social causes behind what happened. I have already spoken about the amount of money that the Government are giving to the Liverpool inner-city partnership and the money that is being made available to the Merseyside development corporation. It is a sad reflection that some of the equipment used in the trouble at Toxteth came from work being carried out under some of the schemes to improve the area. I regard that as a sad reflection on the efforts to improve it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of youth unemployment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has made many proposals for training schemes and the youth opportunities programme. We shall continue to develop these.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that whatever the reason, the fact that 300 British policemen can be injured over three days is unacceptable to everyone? Will he bear in mind that many people find it strange that there were only 90 arrests? Is that because the police are concerned about being able to ensure that after arrest they can secure a conviction? Is it not one factor that many people are attracted to the areas concerned when they hear of riotous behaviour and then become embroiled in it? If that is so, is there not sense in amending the Riot Act so that the police may have power to act against anyone attending a riotous assembly?

Mr. Whitelaw

If that would be the result of amending the Riot Act it would be desirable, but I doubt whether that is needed in order to do what my hon. Friend suggests. If it is, I shall consider it.

As regards the number of arrests, in the sort of melees and disorders that were taking place last night such action is very difficult. I shall look into this aspect, too, but there can be no question of the police holding back in any way, which I have heard suggested. If people at the scene should be arrested, they will be arrested.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member from each side.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, although violence of any kind cannot be justified and must be condemned, his only positive initiative today has been to talk in terms of additional precautions and protective clothing for the police, and that he cannot deal with circumstances of this kind unless he is prepared to inquire into their causes?

Although disturbances of this kind may have some connection with the social and economic conditions referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), may I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that if this were just a matter of the high level of unemployment an outbreak of violence of this kind would have happened first in Kirkby, in my constituency, where there is greater social deprivation and a higher level of unemployment?

Will not the right hon. Gentleman accept that there may be something seriously wrong about the relationship of the police with this community, as has been suggested by me and others of my hon. Friends on a number of occasions? Will not he now demand an investigation into the policing of that area? Unless he is prepared to discover the causes he will be dealing only with the symptoms.

Mr. Whitelaw

We already have many other inquiries going on, but of course I will make—

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Mr. Whitelaw

Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to reply positively to his question. I was about to say something to please him, but apparently he is not prepared to allow me to. I was about to say that I shall certainly make an investigation of the sort that the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is important that such investigations should be made, and I shall look into the possibility.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the Liverpool police and the emergency services deserve public praise and congratulation for the way in which they managed against all odds to confine the riots within the Toxteth triangle? Will not he agree also that without the determination arid the courage of those forces the tide of terror, violence and destruction undoubtedly would have spread to the remainder of the city of Liverpool?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I agree entirely with what he said. I am encouraged, as I know the chief constable of Merseyside will be, by the general support from this House for the action which he took in very difficult circumstances to protect as far as he could the public and property in the area and, most important of all, to prevent the disorder spreading, which would have been quite disastrous.