HC Deb 07 May 1981 vol 4 cc254-5
3. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further consideration he has now given to the damage caused to race and community relations by marches and demonstrations organised to propagate racial hatred.

17. Mr. Adley

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement of his general policy concerning public marches.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

The object of policy in relation to marches is to strike the right balance between the freedom to demonstrate peacefully under the law and the need to minimise the risk of public disorder. The damage that certain marches may do to community relations is being considered as part of my review of public order legislation.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Home Secretary aware that a clear distinction needs to be made between marches and demonstrations aimed at inciting and provoking race hatred and other types of acceptable demonstrations, marches and carnivals, political or non-political? Is he aware that it is an affront to the traditional liberties of the British people that a blanket ban on marches and demonstrations should have been imposed in the last few months?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that there are dangers at present, particularly in the Metropolitan Police area. I imposed the ban at the request of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I have frequently made it clear to the House that I do not like bans and would much prefer not to impose them. However, where there is a question of public disorder, I believe that it is essential that I should act in the general interest of all the people in the area concerned.

Mr. Adley

Will my right hon. Friend discuss with chief constables the compilation of a list of certain organisations which specialise in professional agitation, such as the National Front or the Anti-Nazi League? Will he consider changing the present arrangements so that those on such a list would in future have to seek specific permission to hold a march under any circumstances, rather than the present arrangement whereby my right hon. Friend is so often called in to cancel such a march?

Mr. Whitelaw

Those matters will be considered in the context of the review of public order legislation. It is important that in the House we should consider all those options. With regard to specific organisations, the House must face the fact that it is easy to change the name of an organisation and thus evade a ban which is put specifically on one organisation. That has been done by many people in the past.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the Secretary of State understand that many of us are deeply worried about the situation into which we are slipping, whereby, by one blanket ban after another, large numbers of people who wish to indulge in perfectly peaceable and normal processions are likely to be prohibited from doing so? Does he recollect that in the past he has said at the Dispatch Box that, legally, he could do nothing other than make a blanket ban? I understand that the Home Office has given some guidance to the press on that matter. Will the Secretary of State now confirm that that is not the meaning of the Public Order Act, that he can have specific bans if he wants and that we must all consider ways of having specific bans so that the fundamental right of processing on the streets is not denied to more people than absolutely necessary?

Mr. Whitelaw

I confirm that. I made a specific arrangement whereby the Labour Party and TUC march on May Day was able to proceed. The result of that march and its peaceful nature was evidence that that action was correct. I am most anxious to make sure that the jobless marches which will come into London at the end of the month will also be able to take place. I am sensitive—and should be as Home Secretary—particularly to marches against the policy of the Government of which I happen to be a member. That is right.

Mr. Jessel

Is not marching a singularly stupid way of expressing an opinion on any subject? Marching is not a rational argument. Why should our cherished freedom of speech imply a freedom to march regardless of the inconvenience to other people?

Mr. Whitelaw

No march can be justified regardless of the freedom of other people. That is one of the important problems we face. It is faced particularly by people who try to conduct business on the route of some of the marches. They must also be considered. As for the idea that marches are not a way of expressing an opinion, as my hon. Friend will have noticed from the questions today, many other people take an opposite view. We can argue that about public order, but many feel that it is a freedom; if they feel that that is so, that freedom must be preserved for them.

Mr. Jay

Has the Home Secretary received any applications for a march from people wishing to demonstrate support for the present Government's policies?

Mr. Whitelaw

I would be delighted to do so, but I am not in the habit of marching.