HC Deb 27 April 1983 vol 41 cc971-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Douglas Hogg.]

11.10 pm
Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I am glad to have this opportunity to speak about the costs of policing demonstrations since my constituency, which takes in the whole of RAF Greenham Common, the atomic weapons research establishment at Aldermaston and the Royal Ordnance factory at Burghfield, is having more than its fair share of protests. It is widely known that last December 30,000 women took part in a demonstration around the perimeter fence at the Greenham Common airbase. Over Easter we were faced with 40,000 supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament staging first a blockade of the Royal Ordnance factory at Burghfield and subsequently a 14-mile human chain stretching along the road from Burghfield via Aldermaston to RAF Greenham Common.

I am told that we are to have one, if not two, demonstrations in May and presumably there will be others up to and perhaps after cruise missiles are stationed at Greenham in December 1983, assuming that those at the intermediate nuclear force talks at Geneva fail to reach an agreement.

For this calendar year, Thames Valley police tell me that the estimated cost of policing all the demonstrations relating to the coming of cruise missiles to Greenham in 1983 is more than £1 million. Unless the Government help out, the whole of that cost will fall on the ratepayers of the Thames Valley police authority area.

That figure applies solely to providing police and has nothing to do with the legal costs of evicting some of the women from the common land on which they have pitched their tents illegally or the cost of clearing up the litter left on the common during the December demonstration, and other incidental expenses. I repeat that we are talking about a sum of more than £1 million as being the likely cost of policing the demonstrations this year.

Because that figure is so massive, I have found myself asking, "Why should those who wish to demonstrate in a way that will require a great deal of police manpower and huge expense expect to do so without contributing one penny piece towards the cost of the police presence?". At the moment the answer is "Because no law exists that says that they should." Anyway it is argued, "Would not such a charge interfere with the rights of each one of us to protest and demonstrate about our protests?"

If I thought that what I intend to suggest would deny the individual or small groups of individuals that right—any of us can think of demonstrations in our constituencies that consist of parents protesting about the closure of a local school or the demonstrations outside the town hall —I would not be raising this subject, but I am talking not about small local demonstrations but about the protest marches organised by national groups that are in possession of considerable funds, groups that plan their demonstrations professionally, produce publicity material, advertise, issue literature and pamphlets and have full-time staff. The CND, for instance, claims an annual income of over £400,000, not counting the £200,000 that it gets from the sale of books. It employs 28 persons. In short, I am talking about organisations which could book a football ground or a conference hall for a protest demonstration if they were so minded, except that if they did so they would have to pay the cost of any police presence at a rate of about £100 per day for every policeman employed.

The annual cost of policing demonstrations is very large and is rising. I cite some examples. The National Front demonstration on Remembrance Day 1979 cost £313,000 and involved 4,497 policemen. The trade union march in March 1980 cost £144,000 and involved 1,814 policemen. The National Front march in Lewisham in April 1980 cost £300,000. The British Movement rally in London on 23 November 1980 cost £209,000 and involved 3,400 police. The women's demonstration at Greenham Common on 12–13 December 1982 cost £57,000 and required the presence of 633 officers.

I am told that the cost of policing the CND demonstration in my constituency on Good Friday this year will be more than £300,000—£43,700 for police pay and £252,000 for overtime, plus additional costs for transport, petrol, catering and signposting. That demonstration required more than 1,000 police to be on duty. As the Thames Valley police authority could not provide all the policemen because the number required was one third of the authority's total strength, it had to ask the Hampshire constabulary and the Metropolitan Police to help out.

I do not wish in any way to suggest that demonstrations have become peculiar to Berkshire. In a report of 7 August 1980 the Select Committee on Home Affairs stated that it had been told that the number of demonstrations in London had quadrupled in the past two decades. Two figures relating to London demonstrations bear that out. In 1979, the estimated gross cost of policing major demonstrations in the capital was £5.75 million. In 1981, the cost of policing major demonstrations, marches and meetings in metropolitan London requiring the presence of 100 or more police officers was £8.85 million, and that figure does not include the cost of the civil disturbances in Brixton and elsewhere. Naturally, I hope that we never reach comparable figures in Berkshire, but I am worried for my constituents and for those living in the Thames Valley police authority area.

In those terms, I ask my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State whether the Home Office will reconsider the view that it expressed in the 1980 review of the Public Order Act 1936 when it stated that the practical difficulties in the way of imposing financial conditions on the organisers of marches and demonstrations were formidable and that the proposal could not profitably be pursued.

I suggest that the Department's stated preference for advance notice of processions on a nationwide basis—a system already operated in 107 local authority areas in England and Wales and three areas in Scotland—could help to remove some of the difficulties. If the law were changed to impose a statutory requirement that processions and demonstrations had to be notified in advance, those organising national demonstrations would have to contact the local authority and the chief constable in the chosen area before their protest could get under way.

If the law were further amended so that those organising a procession or demonstration requiring more than 100 police were required to pay part of the cost of the additional policing and to put down a deposit, the organisation planning the demonstration could decide for itself how big a protest it wished to mount, at least in terms of the cost of the policing required.

Of course, protesters are apt to believe that too many police are used. Only today, I received a letter from the chairman of the Northfield branch of CND in which he told me that, in his opinion, the Good Friday CND demonstration was "over-policed" and therefore so costly. He is writing with hindsight. He knows now that 40,000 demonstrators turned up. He does not know that, when CND talked to the Thames Valley police authority about the demonstration, it said that it expected a minimum of 40,000 demonstrators but could not guarantee that there would not be much more.

What should the chief constable have done? I suggest that his correct course was to have done precisely what he did, which was to have a force that was large enough to cope with 40,000 or more demonstrators and the enormous number of buses — it turned out to be 680 — which brought them to the demonstration. He had to have a force that was large enough to ensure that people who lived locally could go about their lawful business without let of hindrance, could cope with any violence or direct action that might arise and could ensure that the demonstrators could make their protest peacefully.

If CND had been asked to pay a percentage of policing its Good Friday demonstration, as would be the case under my proposal, it must be anybody's guess whether it would have decided to spread the demonstration along 14 miles of road, with all the policing that that required. CND might well have decided to concentrate the demonstration to keep down the cost. The choice would have been CND's. According to the funds that it was willing to spend, it could either have used its reserves to cover the cost of the demonstration or have asked the demonstrators to contribute something towards that cost, much as it did at the campsite and Burghfield where it asked for £1 per head.

There is, of course, another way in which to approach the problem that I have outlined. The demonstration organisers could enter a financial guarantee with the local authority to pay a part of whatever costs arise. However, that would not allow the organisers to have a say in the cost of their proposal and how that cost could be kept to a minimum.

Britain is in the middle of the largest crime wave in its history. Our police forces have a massive task in proving to society that crime does not pay. As we all agree, that means getting the bobby back on the beat and rebuilding confidence in the community. How can that be achieved if large numbers of police are constantly being taken off their regular duties to police demonstrations? Is it fair to the people who expect protection from the local police to discover that their police force is being bussed off to a demonstration in which they have no interest, but for which they will be asked to pay?

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)

Perhaps I can strengthen my hon. Friend's already cogent case by drawing attention to London? Is he aware that more recent figures compiled by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis show that the number of demonstrations requiring the attendance of 100 or more police officers has increased from an average of one a week to one a day in nine years? The number has therefore increased seven times in London rather than the quadrupling that my hon. Friend has mentioned. That has the same consequences for the campaign against crime, which is at a high level.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am very grateful for that intervention as it strengthens considerably the point I was making. As those police officers are drawn off to look after demonstrations, they leave areas under-policed when there is a crime wave and yet the people who will pay for those police officers are the very people who are being denuded of police cover.

The problem is even worse in Thames Valley. The police authority there has the smallest number of police per head of population anywhere in England, even if one includes the recent increase of 43 in its establishment.

I have said, and I repeat, that nothing in my proposals is aimed at depriving individuals or groups of their inalienable right to protest and demonstrate without being asked to pay for any policing that may be needed. All that I am saying is that when more than 100 policemen are needed, the organisers of a demonstration should make a contribution to the cost of policing, in fairness to the people who live locally and who must otherwise pay the bill. I am aware that CND makes a point of discussing its protests with the local authority and the police, and I am equally aware that ad hoc groups do not have such discussions, but if the law required advance notice of protests and demonstrations that problem could be overcome. The increasing cost of demonstrations would not fall entirely on the pockets of those who generally play no part in them, but would fall in part on those who instigate demonstrations, as fair play would demand that it should. I look forward to my hon. and learned Friend's reply.

11.25 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on raising a matter of topical interest and of real concern. His constituency experience enables him to speak with direct and current knowledge about demonstrations and their implications, about the burden that they can place on the police, and therefore on those who pay for the police, and about the disrupting effects that demonstrations can have on the community. I pay warm tribute to the skilful and professional manner in which Thames Valley police and its reinforcements from other forces have coped with the challenge. I also express sincere sympathy for his constituents, whose interests in such matters he has so diligently represented in the House from the outset. Scant consideration has been shown for them by those who have descended upon them from outside and often subjected them to squalor and obstruction.

We must uphold the freedom to demonstrate within the law on the one hand and, on the other, the rights of ordinary citizens to go about their business and pleasure without obstruction or inconvenience. My hon. Friend has made an eloquent and timely speech on behalf of the latter, at whose general and sometimes personal expense, both in money and amenities, the freedom to demonstrate is exercised. But he has not overlooked the profound importance to all of us—and he emphasised it in his closing words — of peaceful assembly and of public protest within the law. They are no less important when, however paradoxically, they are exercised in support of policies that may be thought likely to lead to their removal, if ever they were implemented.

For many years Governments have been reluctant to propose, and Parliaments reluctant to enact, changes in the law that would restrict the freedom to organise and to take part in demonstrations. In 1936 our predecessors, worried by the violence caused by marches by the British Union of Fascists through the east end of London, passed the Public Order Act of that year. However, the regulatory powers of that Act to impose conditions on marches and, in the last resort, to ban them, can be exercised on only one criterion — the apprehension of the police that serious public disorder cannot otherwise be avoided. Similarly, the common law powers of the police in respect of static demonstrations, for example to move or disperse them, are governed by the need to prevent or to deal with breaches of the peace.

In the light of recent events, it is not surprising that some people sometimes believe that those constitutional arrangements tip the balance too much in favour of demonstrators, and too much against the interests of the wider community. The cost of policing demonstrations has featured prominently in this regard. Nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, the policing of demonstrations is a proper duty for the police, as proper as the duties of preventing and detecting crime. Chief officers of police do their best to police demonstrations as economically as possible, and as far as possible without impairing their effectiveness in other areas. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said in response to the protest made to him by the local branch of the CND that one demonstration had been over-policed. What are the police to do when they are told that a minimum of 40,000 people may attend a demonstration? They must have officers there in reserve to meet contingencies, and they would be greatly criticised if they were found wanting in that respect.

There is no denying that in recent years the duty of policing demonstrations has placed an increasing burden on the resources of the police service. That is one of the reasons why we embarked upon the review of the Public Order Act 1936 and related legislation. The review began with the Green Paper in 1980 and its scope was extended following the civil disorders in 1981. The review has been wide-ranging but we hope to announce its conclusions before too long. Tonight's debate highlights some of the most important factors.

As my hon. Friend has noted, the costs of policing demonstrations can be considerable. For example, the chief constable of the Thames Valley police estimates that the total manpower costs of policing the demonstrations over Easter at Greenham common, Burghfield and Aldermaston were about £340,000, of which about £252,000 was attributable to additional costs over the four days. The whole of the cost does not fall upon the ratepayers, as 50 per cent. is reimbursed under the ordinary arrangements for reimbursing police expenditure from central Government funds. That means that 50 per cent. of the cost was able to be passed on. None the less, the net cost to my hon. Friend's ratepayers was considerable.

Secondly, the number of demonstrations has been rising. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) said in an intervention, between 1972 and 1981 the number of demonstrations in London requiring the presence of 100 or more officers rose from 55 to 352. In broad terms, that is an increase in such demonstrations from an average of one a week to one every day.

Thirdly, the impact of such demonstrations upon the freedom of movement and general amenities of the public has increased. It is therefore understandable that requests have been made that the Government consider whether at least the cost to the public occasioned by demonstrations can be properly reduced.

My hon. Friend has asked why those who wish to demonstrate in a way that is costly in police manpower should expect to do so without contributing a penny, to use his phrase, towards the cost of the police attendance. He made it clear that he was not discussing small local demonstrations—for example, parents protesting against the closure of a local school. He had in mind the protest marches and demonstrations, sometimes prolonged, that are organised by national groups that are sometimes possessed of substantial funds. He asked the Government to consider changing the opinion that they expressed in 1980, when they published the Green Paper. We there expressly referred, in paragragh 64, to suggestions that have been made from time to time that financial conditions should be imposed on the organisers of marches and demonstrations; for example, that they should be required to meet some or all of the cost of the policing arrangements or that they might be required to enter into a bond from which they would be expected to meet the cost of any damage resulting from the march. As the foreword to the Green Paper made clear, it was our hope that the paper would lead to a full and informed debate. None the less, the difficulties inherent in the proposals were such that we thought it right to set out our opinion there and then, and we did so in these words: There are obvious theoretical attractions in making those whose activities occasion disorder liable for the cost, and the Government has a good deal of sympathy with the feelings that often lie behind these suggestions. However, the practical difficulties about such proposals seem formidable. First, it can be argued that it is unreasonable to hold the organiser of what is intended to be a peaceful march responsible for the activities of elements who may join the march but over whom he may have no control. Equally … events have shown that responsibility for disorder occasioned by marches can be caused almost wholly by counter-demonstrations seeking to disrupt the march, rather than by those taking part. Ai other times, the blame is more or less equally shared. Then there is the objection of principle that imposing financial restrictions of this sort would in effect be taking away the exercise of a fundamental freedom. The effect of a requirement for a financial guarantee might ultimately be to restrict marches to those on uncontroversial issues and organised by people of considerable financial means. For these reasons, the Government doubts whether these suggestions can profitably be pursued". That was said in 1980. As the context of the Green Paper makes clear, the comments applied equally to static demonstrations and marches. To those difficulties can be added the fact that organisation has to be proved, and that is not an easy matter in every instance.

These suggestions remain under consideration until the review is concluded, as we have stated on a number of occsions since 1980, most recently in my written answer last week to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley). We shall give our final conclusion in the announcement of the review as a whole, and I cannot anticipate that tonight.

My right hon. Friend will naturally want to take into account what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has said tonight together with the increased numbers of demonstrations and their greater impact upon the convenience of the community to which I have referred. Lest my answer last week, however, should wrongly be taken as indicating that the Government has already decided to change its approach to these problems I must make it clear that this is not so. We will be continuing with our review and bringing it to a conclusion but it is fair to say that the practical difficulties to which we referred in 1980 do not seem to have become less formidable since then.

We shall certainly wish to consider, however, as indicated in the Green Paper, my hon. Friend's suggestion that notice should have to be given of demonstrations and processions to local authorities and chief officers of police, although the inclusion of demonstrations raises wider issues of statutory control.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's attraction to the idea of linking an advance notice requirement to a charge on the organisers when the event would require the presence of a specific number— say, 100 — of police officers. But there could be serious, practical difficulties. For example, it could appear to constrain the operational discretion of the police, who might anticipate that only a lesser number of officers would be required but then find on the day that it was necessary to deploy more than 100 men. The arrangement could encourage opponents to a demonstration to attempt to join it, in order to have the charge incurred. That itself would increase the potential for disorder, and so policing and other costs.

Our conclusions will certainly also deal with other measures to improve co-operation between the police and demonstrators, among many other matters.

Lest it be thought that the entire cost of demonstrations falls on the locality involved and that the Government make no contribution, it is important to emphasise the constitutional position.

The Police Act 1964 provides for a partnership between central and local government on policing which is reflected in the arrangements for financing the police service. Police expenditure qualifies for a 50 per cent. specific grant from the Government and is taken into account for the purposes of the rate support grant settlement. So the Government are already sharing the financial burden with the ratepayers of the three counties.

Complete indemnity and reimbursement, for example, for the cost of policing demonstrations with a national significance would upset the balance of our policing arrangements approved by Parliament in much more than financial terms. It would carry the implication that the Home Secretary should have some direct control of the police operation in question. This is something that very few people would find acceptable. Nor is it something that my hon. Friend advocated.

For the Government's part, we hope that the conclusions of our review of public order will, when we announce them, help to improve the legal framework in a complex and controversial area. The police will continue to carry out its duty impartially to maintain the peace and prevent the commission of offences.

But it is only right that the public should be able to know the scale of expense and dislocation falling upon them consequent upon any exercise of the right to demonstrate as it is understood. Demonstrations are intended to influence public opinion, and in a democratic parliamentary society among the things that go to make up public opinion is a healthy sense of proportion and of what is fair and reasonable. To that informing process, which I regard as extremely important, the debate initiated by my hon. Friend has contributed most notably tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to midnight.