HC Deb 11 June 1981 vol 6 cc531-5
3. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many bans on marches have been made in each of the last 10 years.

Mr. Whitelaw

In England and Wales, three orders were made in 1974, one in 1977, three in 1978 and six in 1980. Eleven orders have been made this year. No orders were made in other years.

Mr. Bennett

I am sure that the Home Secretary will accept that that shows a disturbing increase in the number of bans. Does he accept that those bans have become necessary because of the failure of the police to prosecute those people who have been preaching racial hatred during demonstrations? Does the Home Secretary agree that in future there should be only selected bans against those who believe in violence and preach racial hatred?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am not in favour of bans. Chief constables ask for bans only in cases where they believe that serious public disorder is likely to occur. It is only on such occasions that I could give approval to bans. I cannot go along with the hon. Gentleman in his reasons for some of the disturbances. There are extremist organisations in all parts of the political spectrum which cause trouble, not least by fighting with each other. That is one of the difficulties that we face.

Mr. Butcher

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the city of Coventry is in danger of becoming a playground for extremist groups of the Left and Right, who are seeking to make mischief out of the race issue? Will he liaise with the chief constable of the West Midlands and assure him that the majority of the citizens of Coventry would welcome a three-month ban on demonstrations so that local people are given a chance to solve their problems in a calm atmosphere?

Mr. Whitelaw

There have been disturbing signs of disorder in the West Midlands. I spoke to the chief constable of the West Midlands about that last night. He would have to approach me if, on grounds of serious public disorder, he wished to have a ban on marches. He would prefer the marches to continue, provided that that is possible without serious public disorder. He would approach me only if he thought it was necessary to do so. It must lie in his hands and he will consult the local councils in the area.

Mr. Hattersley

I revert to my hon. Friend's original question. Does the Home Secretary understand that some marches are a serious threat to law and order and public safety, but many others are not? Is the Home Secretary aware that the Opposition believe that there is a need for legislation that will prevent the individual undesirable march but allow the admirable march to continue? That is the distinction that we want to make.

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand that. That is one of the matters that will be considered when we review the Public Order Act. I have undertaken to make proposals to deal with that. We must consider them carefully. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me that we must be extremely careful, if we believe in freedom of expression, that we are not seeking to ban the marches that we do not like and, at the same time, allow those that we like to continue. It is important that we are impartial in that matter.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. This matter comes up again.

4. Mr. Newens

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will review his powers to impose blanket bans on marches and demonstrations.

10. Mr. Leighton

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his policy of barring marches threatening a breach of the peace.

Mr. Whitelaw

The only ground on which my consent may be sought to a ban on marches is the likelihood of serious public disorder. The scope and application of the present powers are being considered in the course of the Government's review of the Public Order Act 1936 and related legislation. I shall make a fuller statement on the completion of that review.

Mr. Newens

Does the Home Secretary recognise that the use of blanket bans may prevent entirely innocent and separate groups of people from exercising their cherished democratic rights to demonstrate merely to deal with a group that might be considered a threat to public order? Does the Home Secretary agree that in those circumstances we must recognise that we are giving to Fascists and other like-minded groups the possibility of preventing people who may not be involved in politics to exercise their rights to demonstrate? Will the Minister go for something that is far more selective in dealing with this difficult problem?

Mr. Whitelaw

I accept entirely the need to be selective wherever possible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will also accept that in areas such as the Metropolitan Police area the problem of being selective is that a march then moves slightly, but only very slighty, into an area where there is no ban. That is a special problem facing London and other large conurbations. Apart from that, I agree that we should be selective wherever possible. In the first instance, that is a matter for the chief constable. There is a danger of banning marches that are innocent and should be allowed. I accept that and I shall always try to follow a policy on that basis.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Will my right hon. Friend, in deciding which marches and demonstrations should be banned, continue to give the fullest weight to the fears felt by members of the public, the risk of physical injury to the public and to the police, the cost to local and central government and the damage that is so frequently done to private and public property?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for what he says. He will be aware that under present legislation a decision by a chief constable to apply for a ban must be based on fear of serious public disorder, as must my response to any proposals put to me by a chief constable. That is the factor that both the chief constable and I have to consider.

Mr. Leighton

Will the Home Secretary accept that the vast majority of the people of Newham welcomed and appreciated his action in prohibiting a National Front march in the borough recently? Will he further accept that, as a result of a recent racialist killing, about which he has received a deputation, the feeling is so high, especially among the Asian population, that any future National Front march in the borough would be opposed on the streets by the Asian community, apart from anyone else? Such a march should be prevented.

Is it possible, however, that the right hon. Gentleman can use a less blunt instrument? Is it not absurd that the Fulham carnival, designed to raise funds for charity, was banned? Will the right hon. Gentleman take advice from local authorities about which marches are provocative? Will he consider using the Race Relations Act to prevent Fascist marches?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said at the start of his question. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, in considering the situation, should, and does, take into account the views of local boroughs. I should make clear that there were exceptional circumstances at the time of the last ban in the Metropolitan Police area. The commissioner believed that a wider ban was necessary on that occasion. He has no wish to see it happen in the future. Nor have I.

I accept that casualties included innocent carnivals such as the Fulham carnival. I regret that, although there is no doubt that the ban reduced tension in the Metropolitan area at that time, which was extremely important. I would not go back on that decision for one moment.

Mr. Neil Thorne

Will my right hon. Friend undertake to give special consideration to processions attended by children under 14 who wish to participate in May Day celebrations and the like and who do not understand the banning of this type of procession, many of which have been taking place for hundreds of years?

Mr. Whitelaw

I accept what my hon. Friend says. I appreciate that the ban that had to be imposed in the Metropolitan area in difficult circumstances had some consequences, which I deplore. I hope very much that it does not have to happen again.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Has not the Home Secretary told deputations that it is possible specifically to ban a single march? Why does he not ban marches by self-professed racialist organisations since racial incitement is a crime? Even if such marches proceed through a non-immigrant area, is not the fact that the march will be reported on television and in the press an affront to, and dangerous for, immigrants throughout the country?

Mr. Whitelaw

These are matters that chief constables, and in London the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, have to consider most carefully in making their applications to me. I come back to the point that, in general terms, we have to look at all marches that may give rise to serious public disorder. That is the criterion under present legislation. If we wish to change the legislation, Parliament has the opportunity to do so.

5. Mr. Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has made any assessment of the cost saved to the ratepayer and taxpayer in the recent prohibition of marches and demonstrations in the Metropolitan area.

Mr. Whitelaw

No, Sir.

Mr. Chapman

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that the cost of policing demonstrations and marches in London last year worked out at an average of over £500,000 a month. Will my right hon. Friend accept that an increasing number of my constituents believe that it would not be a denial of a basic freedom if he had the power to limit the numbers and to restrict the venues—[Interruption]—of such marches and demonstrations, if only in deference to the hard-pressed London ratepayer?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is clear from the reaction in the House that these are controversial areas that will have to be considered when we look into the Public Order Act. At the moment, the chief constables and I have to address ourselves purely to the matter of serious public disorder. I must add, in fairness to my hon. Friend, that those who undertake marches should appreciate the cost that frequently arises in terms of police time and, also, the loss of police effectiveness in many areas from which police have to be moved to look after the marches.

Mr. Heffer

Will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that democracy is a costly business? Will not he further agree that it would be simple for a dictatorial regime to cut costs but that such a situation would be unacceptable in this country? Has not the selective concept of marches already been accepted, as shown by the fact that the right hon. Gentleman agreed personally to the Labour Party and trade union march on 1 May and also the people's march, which was perfectly peaceful, successful and friendly and accepted by all as first class for democracy in this country?

Mr. Whitelaw

I accept all those arguments. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am strongly opposed to banning marches unless this becomes absolutely essential. These rights exist in the interests of democracy and freedom of expression. How all of us in a democrecy and a free country exercise those rights should depend to some extent on what we inflict or may inflict on other members of the community.