HC Deb 19 January 1984 vol 52 cc502-35

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

7.13 pm
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

I beg to move, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

The House will be aware that, resulting from the Local Government Act 1972, existing legislation in Nottinghamshire will cease to have effect by the end of 1986.

The Bill was deposited in November 1981 and subjected to scrutiny by Committees in another place. It was debated in the House in October 1982 and carried over to the following Session and read a Second time in April 1983. Further procedures carried the Bill through to the present Session. It was considered by a Select Committee of this House in July and allowed with amendments.

The Nottinghamshire county council is controlled by the party of Her Majesty's Opposition, but, as the Bill has the support of the Conservative minority on the shire council, it is appropriate that the Bill, as amended, is presented by the Conservative party. To the best of my knowledge it has the full bi-party support of the shire members of the House. I therefore request with confidence that the Bill be considered and that we proceed to Third Reading.

7.15 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I oppose consideration at this stage, as I have opposed all the proceedings on the Bill, because of the council's insistence on including controversial provisons which should be the subject of national legislation.

The House is aware of the so-called "jumbo" Bills which have been promoted by a series of county councils. In promoting such Bills, the object of county councils was supposedly to consolidate or re-arrange provisions which existed until 1974 and to transfer those powers to the new local authorities, which have existed since 1974.

In some ways it is rather odd that it has taken almost 10 years since the boundaries were changed for the Bills to be introduced. Hon. Members will recall that they started life as jumbo Bills because a series of national provisions were included in local Acts. Because of the slow progress of the Bills through the House, the Government introduced miscellaneous powers legislation for local government and many clauses were removed. Since then the Bills have been in a slimmer form, or have been slimmed down as they have progressed through the two Houses.

Although the promoter has withdrawn many clauses because they were overtaken by the recent local government miscellaneous provisons legislation, other provisions have been removed as a result of petitions. The Bill contains a variety of measures which its promoter has decided to include which do not involve local democracy or decision-making and amount to national provisions. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate the procession clause, which is clause 6. Other clauses deal with massage parlours and other matters which stretch across the country and cannot be said to be Nottinghamshire issues.

Rather than have a proliferation of local Acts, with different powers and provisions, it would be more logical for the Government to introduce national legislation. It is unfortunate that the promoter has not been prepared to narrow the Bill to cover local matters involving Nottinghamshire. The council has included clauses stretching far wider than local Nottinghamshire issues. It is more logical that national legislation should be enacted on the wider issues, thereby enabling those who move from one area to another to be assured that the law will be the same.

When dealing with processions, some counties have decided that no provisions are required, but in other counties different periods of notice must be given. The Bill includes provisions on street touting and hawking as well as provisions in some respects to restrict the sale of newspapers. Political motivations have been involved in restricting the sale of problematical newspapers. However, after pressure in Committee, the promoter agreed to remove that provision.

County Bills can be justified only when they include purely local matters. Many local matters are dealt with in the Bill, and there is justification for a county Bill that deals with cemeteries, bridges, and other specific matters. I see no logic in dealing on a piecemeal basis with public order, massage parlours, touting in the street, taking photographs or other such issues.

The promoter could have saved itself much time by removing from the Bill the topics which should be dealt with on a national basis. Hon. Members will recall that the Bill commenced two years ago, and a carry-over motion was put into effect the summer before last to enable the Bill to be debated further.

I said on that occasion that the Bill would make far better progress if the promoter dropped the procession clause. At that time the Bill was moving through the House in tandem with the Hampshire Bill. The promoters of the Hampshire Bill accepted that processions should not be dealt with in a local Bill and they agreed to drop the clause. As a result, the Hampshire Bill became law almost 12 months ago. However, Nottinghamshire insisted that it wanted to insert a local provision for what was basically a national issue, and it pressed on with the procession clause. As a result, we are having to take up the time of the House once more to discuss the issue. It would have been possible to come to an agreement at least 12 months earlier.

The Government have issued a Green Paper which will enable discussion to take place on processions. Proposals have been made for national legislation, and over the years there have been clear signs that at some stage the Government will have to introduce such legislation. What is the point of having a local provision if the Government are considering national legislation? If the Government do not produce national legislation, how can Nottinghamshire justify inserting in its Bill a local provision which is at variance with what would appear to be the Government's thinking? The promoter should be prepared to give a clear undertaking that it will remove clause 6 and reconsider the other provisions that amount to national legislation—for example, street hawking, touting and massage parlours.

The promoter must show good reasons why such provisions should be included in a local Bill as opposed to national legislation. It is undesirable that people should find, when they move from one part of the country to another, that different local provisions apply. If local provisions are to be justified, it is necessary to show that Nottinghamshire, for example, is unique. The proposed legislation of Hampshire and Nottinghamshire started to proceed at exactly the same pace through the House. There was a time when most "national" clauses were in both Bills. As the Hampshire Bill proceeded, it was decided to drop several of its national provisions. As a result, it made considerably quicker progress through the House than the Nottinghamshire Bill.

I do not suppose that any Conservative Members who are present to represent Nottinghamshire can show ways in which Nottinghamshire can claim uniqueness. I doubt whether they can show that there are problems in Nottinghamshire that are different from those of Kent, for example. They may be able to argue that there are problems in Nottinghamshire that are different from those in Cornwall, although I doubt that very much. Several similar clauses were put into a Cornwall Bill, but they did not appear in the corresponding Devon Bill.

Gradually, there was a realisation that there had to be some logic and that in a Nottinghamshire Bill only matters particular and peculiar to Nottinghamshire could be included within it. There is nothing in the procession clause, for example, that relates to specific problems that are experienced by Nottinghamshire. I shall be interested to hear Conservative Members explain why they feel that there are problems that require to be dealt with in local legislation. Bearing in mind the type and size of the towns and cities within the county, there are few problems within it which do not exist in other similar areas, which have decided they do not need similar clauses in their Bills.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

My hon. Friend is suggesting that Nottinghamshire is not faced with specific problems. Several authorities in the general area of Nottinghamshire have removed procession clauses from their Bills — for example, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. It seems that the majority of authorities in the general area do not need procession clauses.

Mr. Bennett

I am suggesting that the promoter must show at this stage that there are specific and peculiar problems in Nottinghamshire which require specific and peculiar legislation for that area as opposed to the whole of the country. I submit that the council has been unable to establish that case in respect of the general clauses throughout the whole of the proceedings, and I do not think that there is any evidence that it wants to do so. Common clauses were produced in consultation with the Government from the jumbo Bill and jumbo clauses. Those clauses were included in all the jumbo Bills throughout the country in a common form, and that seemed to be a contradiction in terms. How can common clauses feature in local Bills? They cease to have any local relevance when that occurs.

After a long period of discussion in the House, it appeared that the Government realised that the Bills would not be enacted within a reasonable time if they included the common clauses. As a result they produced local government miscellaneous provisions legislation, which incorporated many of the common clauses. That took the form of national legislation. When that happened, most of the local Bills began to make rather more rapid progress. That happened in Committee, and not necessarily on the Floor of the House. The local authorities were saved a considerable amount of expenditure in terms of printing, meeting objectors and Committee proceedings. In addition, authorities which were represented by counsel in discussions with the Home Office on common clauses had their legal costs reduced. If it was necessary and logical to remove so many clauses which were considered to constitute potential national legislation, why is it necessary to continue to enact local powers in favour of national provisions?

It is for the promoter to tell us why part IV needs to be in its present specific form. Why does part III need to take its present form? What are the particular and peculiar problems of Nottinghamshire that make those parts necessary? It appears that powers have been taken historically to enable urgent repairs to be undertaken in respect of water, gas and electricity supplies, but why are they necessary in local Bills? There is an obvious public need for repairs to water systems and gas and electricity apparatus. These are not problems that are peculiar to Nottinghamshire, for they apply throughout the country. For some reason the public health section remains in the general Bill instead of being dealt with in national legislation.

I hope that Conservative Members will be able to tell us why it is necessary to implement national areas of legislation in a local Bill. When we have heard their statements of explanation we can move on to consider the amendments.

7.29 pm
Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I support the proposal of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) that we move on to consider Third Reading. I do so because the Bill has been around for a long time.

I shall address myself to the principle of the Bill and not to its contents. On Tuesday, the Opposition were whipped by one of the strongest three-line Whips that we have experienced for a long time. It was imposed on the rate-capping Bill. We heard various speeches, including a notable speech from the Conservative Benches about setting the people free. It has been argued that local government knows what is best for its own area. If we believed that on Tuesday, I should like to know what happened yesterday. I am amazed at the number of Members of Parliament representing Nottinghamshire who have served in local government. Some hon. Members are still members of the county council. I should like to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) who cannot be here because he is in the Committee considering the Trade Union Bill. Before he came to the House, he was a distinguished member of the county council. Nearly all the Members who represent Nottinghamshire used to be on the county council or borough or district councils.

There are eight Labour party members and one Conservative from my area, Mansfield, on the county council. Six of the eight Labour members are miners or retired miners, one used to be an official of the National and Local Government Officers Association, and the other is a retired teacher. Among the eight are the chairman and vice-chairman of the police committee and the vice-chairman of the county council, Mr. Bill Morris, soon to be the leader of the council, I think. I challenge anyone to tell me of someone who knows more about Mansfield or Nottinghamshire than Bill Morris. What he does not know about the area is not worth knowing.

Then there is Dennis Pettitt, the leader of the county council and a Labour party member. I should like to quote part of a letter from him; I have to advise you that the Full Labour Group here have debated this subject on four occasions and each time has come to the conclusion that the '24 hour clause' should be included in the bill. It may well be that the councils … take a different view but I would remind you that local government is about local decision making and we are suffering enough already from centralism by the present Government. When I get harangued by people in the Labour Party to conform to the London norm, or any body elses norm, then I cannot help but feel apprehension about the direction in which my Party is going. The very essence of our argument with Patrick Jenkin is that local people should be left to make their own decisions in the light of their own circumstances and not to have to kow-tow to either parliamentarians or Whitehall mandarins. I concur with many of those sentiments because unfortunately many people think that the world ends at Watford. It does not. There is a Labour party beyond Watford, thank goodness.

One of the four discussions referred to in the letter took place when I met my county councillors. I asked them to go back to the county council and ensure that the Bill was absolutely necessary. I can understand my colleagues who say that they do not agree with it. I may not agree wilh it. However, it is not my decision but that of the county council. The county council has made its decision; it thinks that this Bill is necessary for Nottinghamshire. Who are we to disagree? Nottinghamshire county council is made up predominantly of our members, most of them from an industrial background. I respect their judgment for Nottinghamshire, and I think that we should allow them to get on with the Bill.

7.33 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I do not know what my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) did in respect of some of the issues that were raised during the course of the 1974–79 Labour Government, but there were occasions when we whipped up a considerable amount of support in the Labour part) to try to prevent the inclusion of similar clauses in regard to processions and demonstrations. We are not here to try to tell Nottinghamshire county council not to do local things. Our main purpose is to ask the council to do something that is against the Tory Government.

Perhaps someone can refresh my memory, but during the period of the 1974–79 Labour Government on all the occasions when these issues were debated I cannot recall one when a Labour Member suggested that we were acting unusually and not giving the local people a chance to make their own decisions because we were trying to prevent the inclusion of procession clauses in legislation. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) could remind me of any occasion when that happened. I thought that it was all one-way traffic on this side of the House. We did not always get what we wanted, but I thought that all Labour Members were speaking with the same voice.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I assure my hon. Friend that I cannot recall anyone on this side of the House speaking in favour of such a clause. If my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) is fortunate enough to catch the eye of the Chair, he will be giving a list of all the local Labour party organisations in Nottinghamshire who not only objected to the clause but took the trouble to petition against it.

Mr. Skinner

That bears out what I thought. The National Council for Civil Liberties group in the House, spearheaded by my hon. Friend, has made an effort on this over the years. In regard to the party itself as distinct from the people on the local authority, there has never been a resolution other than to call upon Labour Members of Parliament to get rid of these clauses. Our attention has never been drawn to any branch of the Labour party saying that it was good to have clauses on street processions or that because the provisons helped the police it was anxious to have them.

I have never had a chance to talk to the leader of the group to which my right hon. Friend referred. I do not know whether I could change his mind but I should like to try. I should like to have a word with the rest of the group and tell them that strenuous efforts have been made by some of my hon. Friends to get local authorities to remove these clauses and that in many cases they have succeeded. Only on a few occasions has the issue gone against us. Naturally many Tory authorities want to include these provisions.

It is not a local versus a national issue. At the beginning this was probably wanted by the officers of Nottinghamshire county council. It has not adopted something unique to Nottingham. It has just accepted what the Tory Government wanted it to do.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

Does the hon. Member not accept that these powers exist already and that it is not a question of introducing new Tory powers?

Mr. Skinner

The point is that after 1974, when reorganisation took place, much consolidation had to be effected. That is why all this legislation was introduced. We are only trying to use the opportunity that is available to us to prevent this being carried through in Nottinghamshire.

Mr. Ottaway

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the power has been in existence in the city of Nottingham since 1929?

Mr. Skinner

We are arguing not that point but the fact that the Bill presents us with an opportunity, even at this late stage, to try to stop the clause being included. With many other local authorities, starting with the west midlands, with which we kicked off during the Labour Government of 1974–79, we have been successful in getting such clauses taken out. The National Council for Civil Liberties has been at the forefront in assisting Labour council members, who were on certain occasions by far the majority, to achieve that. That has been a success story.

I hope that the Nottinghamshire county council will, if it has the opportunity—I suppose that the Tories have hustled the vote in tonight to make sure that they get this thing through—[HON. MEMBERS Oh."] We know that these hon. Members are not in the Chamber, but they are in the woodwork. We know that the Government on any occasion always keep more than 100 of their Members in the House to ensure that a closure motion can be moved and carried through successfully. There may only be a few hon. Members in the Chamber but there will be many Tory Ministers who are on call, perhaps just outside the Palace in their flats in Westminster within earshot of the Division bells who will come and vote accordingly.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that tonight we are dealing with a measure presented by a Labour authority, with all-party support, which makes his statement rather hollow?

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Councillor Skinner, a member of the Nottinghamshire county council, also supports the Bill?

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I presume that he means my brother, but although he is a member of the Labour group in the Nottinghamshire county council, he has been one of those, albeit a minority until now, arguing to get this provision deleted. One of the reasons why they have had several meetings on the matter is that from time to time Councillor Skinner has been one of the persons responsible for sparking off a further debate, because he was not happy about the provision being included. The sad thing is that until now he has not been able to get a majority inside the Labour group to support him. One or two of his colleagues agree with him.

Having worked in local government many years ago, I know what happens when these Bills are drawn up. They are drawn up not by the elected representatives but by the officers and the people who work for them down here, and made presentable. We know exactly what happens. It would be ludicrous to think that somebody who was working in the pits or a factory four or five days a week would be able to draw up such a Bill. It is presented to the councillors by the officers and in some cases the Bill may initially be seen only by a few people on a particular committee. Unless one is exceptionally aware of these matters one does not notice them. That is why some of us have been trying to make sure that the Nottinghamshire county council Labour group councillors are made aware of the circumstances. Councillor Skinner has been made aware of the circumstances, and that is why he and a majority of the group feel that this clause should be amended.

That does not mean that we in Parliament have to accept a Labour decision by the Nottinghamshire county council. I am prepared to argue the case—perhaps I am wrong—that if we had a survey among Labour party members in Nottinghamshire council about street processions we should almost certainly get a majority against inclusion of the clause. The tragedy is that many of them do not know exactly what has taken place. The press do not pick these things up because they are more concerned about trivial matters. Labour party activists will suddenly realise that a Bill has been sent down here by Nottinghamshire county council, drawn up by the officers, which is unacceptable to them. That is another reason why it would be a good idea to delay the Bill, so that, as we have sparked off some interest among the Labour party members, they could make their colleagues on the council aware of their feelings on this matter.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Earlier this evening I had hoped that I would persuade some Conservative Members to explain to me what is unique about Nottinghamshire as opposed to some of the surrounding areas, such as Derbyshire, and why it is necessary to have some of the clauses in a Nottinghamshire Bill, particularly the procession clause, when they are not in a Derbyshire Bill. My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience of this area, and perhaps he will explain why one can move from peaceful Derbyshire into the more difficult area of Nottinghamshire where a different set of laws are necessary?

Mr. Skinner

Looking at the characteristics of the counties, it could be argued that there are few remarkable differences. It is true that Derbyshire with its peak district is very hilly and mountainous—as far as we have mountains in the British Isles—but Nottinghamshire is relatively flat. However, there are many things that bind them together. If we remove ourselves from the geographical difference, there has always been the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfield. That is spread over the boundary and although Nottinghamshire has more pits than Derbyshire—probably by about two to one—there are still many miners in both counties and especially in the areas that are more thickly populated. The parts where most of the population is resident, apart from Derby itself, are still part of the mining area. Right along the border between the industrialised areas of Nottinghamshire and those areas of Derbyshire excluding the West and High Peak divisions, there are many similar characteristics, and the same is true of the population. There is not much difference in total population.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Can my hon. Friend explain why miners who are in dispute in Derbyshire and who want to go to another pit to persuade other people to take part in the same dispute are able to do so in Derbyshire without giving any notice, but as soon as they get to the frontier between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire they have to give notice before going on to a pit in Nottinghamshire, if the clause goes through? Surely this is an artificial boundary?

Mr. Skinner

It is an artificial boundary, and it will be a strange state of affairs for a national union engaged in a struggle with Mr. MacGregor to have to adopt different tactics because some of them work in Derbyshire and live in Nottinghamshire while others do the opposite. I would relish my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish giving me the opportunity to give further and differing examples for as long as he can, but it would be inappropriate to imagine that miners would get terribly excited about this clause. Perhaps that is one of the things that prompted the Labour group to say, "Our miners in Nottinghamshire will not take any notice anyway." I can imagine someone in the Labour group saying that when it got through. He would say, "Well, what does it really mean?" The reply would be, "Well, it means that they have to give notice," to which the reply would be, "Us? Notice?" That is the sort of thing that may have allowed the decision to get through more easily. I do not think that the miners would get too worked up about the issue.

However, the issue does not apply only to miners. It applies to everyone. It applies to people who are concerned about civil liberties. There are many issues about which spontaneous demonstrations are necessary to alert the rest of the population to them. It is true that they can have the opposite effect, but the point of being able to hold demonstrations in a free country is that people who are not fully aware of the circumstances of a case can be made aware of them.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Apart from spontaneous demonstrations, there are also national demonstrations which take place throughout the country. My hon. Friend will remember, for example, the people's march for jobs. Some of the people who marched to London came from Scotland. How would they have known, at any given point, whether they were passing through a local authority where they had to give notice? What happened when the people's march for jobs came through such an area?

Mr. Skinner

I suppose that it had to give notice. That march was arranged several weeks in advance. The itinerary for such marches has to be drawn cp a considerable time beforehand, so I do not imagine that that would present much difficulty. We do not argue that all demonstrations will be affected. We are not naive enough to think that. The point is that on the many occasions when demonstrations are necessary this provision will be a hindrance.

Let me give an example. There was the Cuba incident in 1962. I remember the tremendous excitement at that time. Within hours—certainly, not more than two or three days—what seemed to be a relatively trivial matter suddenly became one which alerted the whole nation. People watched television for the latest snippets of news as the embargo that had been placed around Cuba looked as though it would take us to Armageddon. As a result, spontaneous demonstrations took place up and down the country, and in many instances they would have run foul of this clause. There have been other similar demonstrations in recent times. Many of them take place in London, especially when something happens in another country whose nationals in this country want to take part in a demonstration here.

Then there are industrial disputes. Let us forget the pits for a moment. There may be an industrial dispute such as the one that took place in Nottingham not long ago involving—I think—the Nottingham Evening Post. The managing director—Bailey Forman, I think his name was—took it upon himself to act in a way that was not dissimilar to the way Eddie Shah has been acting in Stockport. As a result there were spontaneous demonstrations. Some people might have called them pickets, and on occasion they did look like pickets, but it was a demonstration, too.

We do not want to upset unduly the people of Nottingham—certainly not our Labour colleagues—but we hold a different view on the matter. We believe that we have the people inside the Labour party on our side. We can use the precedents when the Labour Government were in power, when we often had 200 to 300 Labour Members in the Chamber because we needed to get legislation through and because of the lack of a majority—almost—we mustered substantial votes to prevent clauses of this nature being accepted.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

I should have thought that it might be necessary to give at least 24 hours' notice to one's own supporters to organise anything worthy of being called a demonstration or procession. Surely it is not possible to get more than half a dozen people together within a few hours. To make it worthy of being called a procession, and of being noticed in the streets, one would need at least 24 hours to get the supporters together. So surely it is not unreasonable for similar notice to be given to the authority?

Mr. Skinner

That is not quite true. Not too long ago—three months, at the outside—I was in the Chamber with many other Labour Members when someone said, "You should go to Trafalgar square, because there is a demonstration going on." I reckon to know about demonstrations—usually a few days in advance. The police do not need to tell me. I keep my eyes and ears open. I said, "I have not heard about that one." It was a spontaneous demonstration. I went up Whitehall, and it was not long before I saw them with their candles and crosses. By and large, they were people from the church, objecting to cruise missiles. As I got nearer to Trafalgar square, I saw thousands of them. What astonished me and many other Labour Members was how this group of people had managed to occupy Trafalgar square in such a short time.

Mr. Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman says that the march was spontaneous, yet those thousands of people all had candles in their pockets.

Mr. Skinner

That is the most amazing part about it. I asked one of the organisers, "How long has this been going on?"—or words to that effect—and he said, "We have done it all on the telephone in the past 24 hours."

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

It might help my hon. Friend if I remind him that, if he is talking about the demonstration that I think he is, it was held on the occasion of the cruise missiles being brought into this country, so if the demonstrators had had any more notice than the hon. Member is suggesting it would have been a most amazing leak.

Mr. Skinner

As I say, it was not inThe Guardian. I had read the papers.

Without any question, there were 20 or 30 Labour Members of Parliament in Trafalgar square. There were none from the Government Benches and none of the Social Democrats or the Liberals, those great defenders of freedom who are missing tonight. This is the sort of issue that they will be telling their constituents about no doubt. Those taking part in the demonstration were carrying candles and crosses and somehow or other, as a result of their telephone calls—[Interruption.] I am being absolutely serious. This is no laughing matter. These people did not regard it as a laughing matter either. Many of them were from the clergy or representing the church and they were very serious in wanting to demonstrate against cruise missiles coming into this country. It was a powerful performance, one that it would have done a lot of people in this place a lot of good to have witnessed. The demonstrators sat down at the top of Whitehall, demonstrating in that peaceful way and singing songs. I am not saying that it is my usual way of demonstrating because I was brought up in the pits, but they put on a splendid performance and one which could not have taken place in many areas where this particular clause exists, as I understand it.

That is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish has been so persistent. He was not a victim of the boundary changes. He actually has a seat with a much better majority. He has managed to persuade others to come in on this campaign on so many occasions and has argued the cause of freedom.

Someone on the Government side of the House mentioned freedom not so long ago. The Prime Minister continually tells us about freedom and so do the other members of her Cabinet. They tell us that the last two elections have been about releasing the freedoms of the individual, and yet here we are, being restricted once again, in 1984, by means of another measure in which the state is going to be able to use its power to stop spontaneous demonstrations of this kind. How on earth can these two things be reconciled? We hear about the freedom and liberty of the individual yet every so often we see on the Order Paper another of these county council Bills or something of the sort that includes this requirement to give prior notice of processions and demonstrations.

Somebody mentioned Derbyshire. Yes, we managed to get it out of the Bill for Derbyshire. Certain negotiations had to take place. As with the Nottinghamshire county council, the Labour group on the Derbyshire council had a massive majority in the 1981 elections. It was a splendid year. It was one of those years that some people described as "a bad year for Labour". But we can all remember the way in which Labour managed to win control in large areas of the country, picking up county councils here, there and everywhere, Although Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire had been Labour-controlled before, we secured massive majorities. So is it not strange that here we are in the next county, Derbyshire, managing to have the clause deleted? The Labour party has a majority of something like 57 to 27 and I think it is about the same in Nottinghamshire. There is not a gnat's whisker between them.

They have somehow or other been beguiled—this is what I think has happened—by the officers—the chief constable probably—into thinking that this does not really matter and that they are only doing what everyone else has done, when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish knows only too well, as a result of his and others' efforts—the National Council for Civil Liberties among others—we have managed to have it removed on so many occasions.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I hesitate to say this, but although I am very pleased to hear my hon. Friend developing this argument about the procession clause, I remind him at this stage that we are still on the question whether this Bill should be considered. We have to be a little careful not to go too far into the debate that will follow on the actual amendment. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we have to be careful to keep to the question of consideration. That is why I was seeking to catch his eye.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend has been promoted. He has been given a job on the Front Bench and I think that he is making a bid for the future. Here am I, giving him a hand out, chucking a shovelful on for him and, just as I am beginning to develop the argument in a cogent fashion, making comparisons between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and discussing the question of delay, as it applies to them both, and further consideration, he, in this esoteric manner, starts acting like—dare I say it?—a member of the Chairmen's panel. There are about 20 people on it and there is no doubt—I do not want to diverge from this Bill—that, from the way in which he has managed to look at the fine print of these Bills over the past few years, he is probably suited for that job. However, I am not going to put that mantle on him at the present time.

I really came into this debate because over the years we have been anxious for our people to understand that it is not a good idea for a Labour authority to include these measures in such Bills when most of the authorities, though not all, have been persuaded to delete them. The question of further consideration is important because I would dearly love to be able to get this message across to the Labour group so that it can have a fresh look at the matter. That is why I do not want to develop any aggro of any kind tonight. It is a question of trying to build a few bridges in order to ensure that in the end they do not act in a local, parochial fashion.

I am not suggesting that to the leader of the Nottinghamshire county council group. We are saying to him that there are occasions, when one is in a national party and acting on behalf of one's class, when class issues supersede all parochial boundaries. That is why we would like to see the matter further considered so that there is another opportunity to look at it. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has given us this opportunity, which we would not have had without his blocking motion, to try to get the Nottinghamshire county council to reconsider.

With those few words, taking into account the fact that my hon. Friend has some further arguments to develop on the clauses and amendments, I am loth but prepared to sit down.

8.9 pm

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

I join my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) in asking that the Bill should be further considered.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) said that this was essentially a local decision of the Nottinghamshire county council, a Labour-controlled authority, and that we should respect such local decisions. From my limited experience of some 15 months as a member of a county council, I agree that there is a great deal of weight in the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover that in a number of cases such proposals arise from the initiative of officers of authorities who seek to tidy up or extend legislation or introduce new legislation which is perhaps not fully considered at the time. Having served on the Committee which considered this Bill for two days in July, I know that that was the case because one of the clauses that we debated could not, in my estimation, have issued from a political decision of the Labour group.

Mr. Concannon

If my hon. Friend reads my speech tomorrow, he will see that I do not necessarily agree with the county council. Having debated the principle all day on Tuesday, we should not do so again today. About three quarters of my constituents are miners, and some of them are long-serving councillors. To suggest that those councils will be beguiled by their officers is to tell county councils in my area something that I would not dream of saying.

Mr. Nellist

To answer in the fraternal spirit in which my right hon. Friend's advice was given, I would not impute such motives to Labour members of Nottinghamshire county council. I should just like to mention some of the organisations which have objected to parts of the Bill, to demonstrate that the balance of the arguments in the area merits further consideration. Those bodies include the Nottinghamshire Association of Trade Union Councils, Nottingham district trades council, Worksop district trades council, the National Union of Public Employees social services branch in Nottingham, the NUPE divisional council in Nottingham, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff No. 1 branch, Nottingham and the regional executive of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. They are just some of the aggregate trade union bodies which take representation from union organisations of miners and others—trades councils frequently take representations from hundreds of trade union organisations.

Other objectors to parts of the Bill include the local Labour parties in Beeston, Park and Lenton, Newark and district trades council, Stapleford and Beeston trades council, Mansfield district trades council, Retford and district trades council, the Nottinghamshire administrative, professional and clerical branch of NUPE and the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs at Nottingham university. I have given only half of the list. It shows that many organisations in the area are not yet convinced of the need for the Bill. That is why it should not be considered further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover mentioned the issue of processions, which is just one of the arguments. In Committee it was found that more than 100 councils enjoy the power of clauses which are similar to several in the Bill. Some of them were adopted as long ago as the late 19th century. They have been re-enacted as and when necessary until as recently as two years ago. That being so, a minority of local authorities enjoy such powers, as there are about 400 in all. The Bill will therefore have national repercussions as it attempts to establish provisions which would make a mockery of county boundaries. For example, a person who moved five yards from Derbyshire, west Yorkshire or south Yorkshire into Nottinghamshire would be subjected to a different set of rules.

Much of what the Bill provides is unnecessary. There is no strength in the argument that, because powers have always existed, they should remain. That would lead to messy legislation. Like any ordinary working person, I have difficulty in understanding most Acts of Parliament. There is no point in retaining clauses which cannot be shown to fulfil a need. The Committee heard several examples of provisions that have been on local statute books since the early 1920s. When questioned, counsel for the council was unable to convince us that it was neessary for such provisions to remain in force as it could not be proved that they were used frequently. The provision relating to processions was just one example. The burden of proof of the necessity of such provisions lies with Conservative Members.

The Committee also heard that 80 per cent. of people obey provisions relating to processions without knowing it as to organise a demonstration or march it is essential to notify supporters of that cause well in advance. The Committee asked those who were appealing on behalf of Nottinghamshire county council what happened in the 20 per cent. of cases when notice was not given. They were unable to tell us how many prosecutions had been made, as the provision had not been used. I therefore see no need for a provision which could be used to block the exercise of basic freedoms such as the right of assembly and the right of demonstration. If Conservative Members are unable to demonstrate cases when such provisions should remain in force, I see no reason why the House could agree to their being retained simply because they have always existed.

8.17 pm
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

I, too, served on the Committee. I understand the case advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), but I believe that the Bill should be considered further and not proceed now, although I realise that on Tuesday we were asking for local freedom and that local government be allowed to make its own decisions. Having served on a local council for many years, I fully support and understand my right hon. Friend's point of view.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

There is a fundamental problem with the argument about this being a local matter. If the Bill were being considered in Nottingham, that council would have the right to change it. However, Nottinghamshire county council is asking for national legislation which will apply locally. It will therefore not have the opportunity to repeal the Bill if it finds that the measure works badly. The council will have to return it to the House for us to alter it.

Mr. Pike

I agree with my hon. Friend. However, one of the principal features of Tuesday's debate was that we discussed changing a democratic system and the standing of local government within our democracy. Although I regret that the rate-capping Bill received a Second Reading, because of its constitutional nature I regard it as important enough to be debated in Committee on the Floor of the House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, if the clause is passed it cannot be changed at local level thereafter, but will have to be returned to the parliamentary system and amended at some future stage. Such a decision by a local authority is wrong if it affects civil liberties, as this one does. People have a democratic right to demonstrate and to march. That has been well established and recognised for many years, and it would be wrong to take any steps under local byelaws which would infringe citizens' rights to protest. Hon. Members should think carefully before passing legislation that removes such rights.

In Committee hon. Members were not overwhelmingly convinced by Nottingham county council of the need for this clause. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) said, many petitioners supported the case against the inclusion of the clause, and a weak case was made for retaining it. I accept that it is a matter of opinion and that those who support the retention of the clause would take the view opposite to mine.

The Committee divided 2–2 on that clause and on the Chairman's casting vote it was retained. That means that a clause that affects people's right to demonstrate—a basic democratic right—was carried on a casting vote. If the Committee had had a different Chairman, it is likely that a different decision would have been reached.

By chance, another clause was picked out which infringes people's rights to sell newspapers in certain parts of the county. A unanimous decision was reached on that matter, which the promoter accepted. The council amended the Bill having taken note of that unanimous decision. It is important that byelaws which make basic changes and affect people's fundamental rights should not be passed in this way, but are included in national legislation.

8.23 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

In my constituency, the Bill as drafted, which allows for 24 hours' notice, would be regarded as an unfortunate precedent. My constituents feel that 72 hours are only reasonable for major demonstrations, simply because of the workload imposed on the police force and the inconvenience which the demonstration may cause to citizens. Therefore, even 24 hours' notice may often be inadequate.

8.24 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on a good speech, on the diligent way in which he has watched successive private Bills come forward, on the diligent homework that he has done on them, on the way in which he has alerted hon. Members to the procession laws, and on his success in preventing Bills from containing procession clauses.

I was surprised that when the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) introduced the Bill he did not mention that contentious issue. We shall debate the procession clauses in detail on the amendment. I am surprised that he did not mention it, because it might have helped the debate along. The only Member who supports this clause is my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon). It cannot have been a surprise to hon. Members to learn that it would be the key issue in the debate.

Mr. Concannon

My hon. Friend said that I supported this contentious issue. I was careful to say that it was not my opinion. My opinion does not matter. Nottinghamshire county council has considered this matter and decided upon it four times. I am being consistent. If the Labour party chooses to say that local councils are the best judges, I shall be as consistent on Thursday as I was on Tuesday.

Mr. Dubs

I understand what my right hon. Friend says. If I did not make it clear I apologise to him, but what I meant to say was that he was supporting the Bill because it was the decision of a local authority, not because he supported the provision. The main point of principle is whether the House should challenge the decision of a local authority as embodied in a clause in such a Bill.

I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South did not refer to the point that has been the subject of all the speeches in the debate so far, given that the promoter of the Bill produced a helpful statement so that the House could understand the basis of the Bill. Most of that statement dealt with the point that has been the subject of the debate.

If an hon. Member presents a private Bill on behalf of a local authority, he should cover, if only briefly, the main point which the promoter, in its wisdom, expected would be our concern. The House would expect the hon. Member presenting the Bill to justify it, rather than simply say, "Let us leave it to the good sense of the local authority to decide what is best in that area."

Conservative Members look distinctly gloomy tonight, and we have had only two short speeches from them—[Interruption.] My comments seem to have cheered them up a little. There is no sense in sitting in the House looking gloomy and not making a contribution to the debate. The rest of us can be persuaded only by their arguments.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield said that there was a case for leaving decisions to the local authority. He believes—as do many Labour Members—that that was a main part of the argument on the Rates Bill, which the House debated passionately on Tues day evening. That is fair as far as it goes, but there is a difference between the existing powers of a local authority over the quality of its services and expenditure being challenged by Government legislation, and the fact that local authorities will no longer be able to do what they have done until now.

The position has become anomalous. There have been attempts in many local authority Bills to include a provision which should be part of national legislation and be the responsibility of the Home Office. The Government made the case for that. In April 1980 they introduced a Green Paper entitled "Review of the Public Order Act 1936, and related legislation", which in part deals with this matter.

My main argument for saying that we should not proceed further now with the Nottinghamshire County Council Bill is that the Government have not only introduced a Green Paper but have said that there will soon be a White Paper, followed by legislation. If the Government believe that the matter is so important that it must go through all those stages, it is odd, to say the least, that the House should give the go-ahead to local government Bills which seek to pre-empt the decision for which the Government are going through a fairly extensive process of consultatiion.

Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. If the Government are right to take on a responsibility for public order legislation—I agree that they are right, although I do not agree with many of the points in the Green Paper—they cannot also say, "While we are waiting, let us go ahead and give these powers to the authorities. Why not? Some authorities have had the powers for some time in any case, and some of the powers have been consolidated. If some authorities have powers and others do not, and there are differences of opinion between different parts of the country, what does it matter?"

Mr. Buttertill

We all accept that the Government have responsibilities in the matter, but local circumstances may vary considerably. For instance, there is an influx into Bournemouth every summer of an additional 500,000 people. That imposes a considerable load on the police force. It may be necessary for special local circumstances to be reflected in a local Act.

Mr. Dubs

That may be the case, although I am reluctant to accept the argument in the terms in which the hon. Gentleman has expressed it. In any case, such a conclusion should be the outcome of consultations by the Government on public order legislation, rather than a way in which the House pre-empts such action by the Government. If enough people made representations to the Government that there should be different public order legislation in different parts of the country, the Government would wish to take that into account. It may well be that the White Paper will endorse the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there are significant differences between local authorities which would justify different approaches. The Government may eventually decide to leave the matter to the local authorities. However, such a state of affairs should be the result of a deliberate decision by the Government rather than the result of measures passed by the House while waiting for the Government to announce further proposals.

Mr. Nellist

It may be true that half a million people go to Bournemouth for their holidays, but I doubt whether they all go on the same day. In any case, it would be more helpful if Conservative Members would apply their diligence, with facts and figures, to finding out why this extra legislation is needed in Nottingham. We are not discussing Bournemouth.

Mr. Dubs

My hon. Friend has anticipated my next point. If the approach to public order legislation is to be different in different parts of the country, the onus is on local people to make the case for the differences. l am not satisfied that an influx of visitors into a seaside resort would of itself justify a different approach to public order legislation, even though it may put a special burden on the police.

As my hon. Friend said, we are discussing Nottinghamshire. No case has been made for making Nottinghamshire different from some surrounding counties. The sponsor or the promoter of the Bill should have explained why Nottinghamshire requires this provision. That case has not been made. The House should therefore not proceed with the Bill until the Government come forward with further proposals for public order legislation and we have a chance to consider them in some detail.

The points made in the Green Paper can properly be debated on amendment No. 1. However, I should like to make one more general proposition. It arises from the report on public order by the Home Affairs Select Committee. I have served on the Home Affairs Select Committee, but I was not a member of it when it produced the report, and I do not agree with many of the conclusions in the report. However, the Select Committee made the interesting point that a requirement to give notice before a march in itself provides some sort of legal approval for the march. Under our law there is at the moment no formal right to march, but a requirement to seek permission for a march constitutes a sort of consent to the march. Although in various local authority Bills, including the Nottinghamshire one, there is no formal endorsement of a right to march, the implication must be there.

Many marches are contentious. The previous Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw as he now is, sometimes banned marches in the London area, and he was probably right to do so. However, if a local authority told a body such as the National Front to give notice of a march, and the police therefore knew that the march was to take place, that would give the march some credibility in the eyes of the law.

Conservative Members are shaking their heads. They may not agree with that interpretation, but it is a possible one. I shall quote from paragraph 36 of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee: Although under British law there is no statutory right of public assembly or procession, common law, and a variety of statutes, recognise that marches are lawful, provided they do not interfere with the use of the highway by others, or constitute a nuisance to occupiers of property adjoining the highways, or violate a statute regulating the use of the highway. Moreover, the United Kingdom is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 11 of which guarantees the right of peaceful assembly. The NCCL pressed upon us the need for a statutory right to march, assemble and demonstrate. No case has been made out for such a wide measure, but we realise that a statutory notice requirement would in effect recognise a limited right to march. In other words, legal standing is confirmed for a march by the requirement and acceptance of notice. That is a point of principle and it should be discussed in the context of a national approach to public order rather than be slipped in by way of a local authority Bill. This is one of a succession of local authority Bills which represent an attempt either to consolidate or to extend the law of public order before the Government have had a chance to put forward proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked a few moments ago, why should Derbyshire not need such a provision if Nottinghamshire does?

We are talking about democratic rights and the freedoms of this country. Unless there is proper and adequate debate of any measure which limits our freedoms, the House is doing the country a disservice. In discussing local authority Bills, many hon. Members have expressed concern. We do not think that such legislation is appropriate. If we had been discussing a new public order Act the Chamber would have been full for much of the debate and many hon. Members would have wished to speak. Because we are doing it on the side, the matter will not receive much public attention and we may establish some dangerous precedents without proper parliamentary debate.

In support of that contention I refer once more to the statement by the Bill's promoter. The council justifies the procession clause by mentioning other local authorities which have a similar provision. However, the more local authorities that have such clauses in their Bills, the easier it is for subsequent promoters to say, "They have almost all got it. Why do we not all have it?" When the Government introduce legislation they will be forced—if they are open-minded about the issue and decide against that course — to contradict the whole pattern of parliamentary debate and the whole method of approving legislation. Therefore, they will be placed in a difficult position.

We are talking, not about something trivial, but about a criminal offence and a fine of .200. I should have thought that it was dangerous in principle to say that what is all right on one side of the county boundary is not all right on the other side of it. Our criminal law requires rather more respect than that. The normal local authority byelaws may differ from one part of the country to another, but that is all right because they deal with local situations which do not have exact parallels in other areas. However, that is not the case with processions. Processions are processions, and the same considerations will apply when people wish to march or demonstrate, particularly if it is to be a spontaneous event.

I conclude my remarks by mentioning something that Lord Denning said in the case of Kent v. Metropolitan Police Commissioner, which was heard in the Court of Appeal. I believe that the report was published on 15 May 1981. The report states: Before the Act there was the common law. His Lordship said in Hubbard v. Pitt ([1976] QB 142,178) that like the right of free speech, the right to demonstrate and to protest on matters of public concern were rights which it was in the public interest that individuals should possess and exercise so long as no wrongful act was done; it was often the only way by which grievances could be brought to the knowledge of those in authority. The right 'to meet together, to go in procession, to demonstrate and to protest on matters of public concern' was an undoubted right of Englishmen. Something quite important was said there, and I should be fearful if the House sought to limit that right.

I regret that the Bill's sponsor and Nottinghamshire county council did not decide to drop the clause. If they had done so we would not have had to try to establish, in a long debate, such difficulties of principle. There would not have been a problem and Conservative Members would not have looked so gloomy. They would have been home by now, because we would not have needed this debate.

In the face of known parliamentary opposition, it is regrettable that a local authority should have decided on such a course instead of waiting for the Government to put forward their proposals and legislation and see where it stood on such an important matter. Our democratic rights and freedoms are involved, and they should not be dismissed lightly, even if hon. Members want to go home and are fed up with debating the issue. The issue is important to the people of this country and we should not dismiss it lightly.

Question put, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

The House divided: Ayes 101, Noes 42.

Division No. 131] [8.44 pm
Alexander, Richard Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Lang, Ian
Bellingham, Henry Lightbown, David
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Lilley, Peter
Butterfill, John Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Carlisle, John (N Luton) McCrea, Rev William
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) McCurley, Mrs Anna
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Macfarlane, Neil
Clarke Kenneth (Rushcliffe) MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Major, John
Coombs, Simon Malins, Humfrey
Cope, John Malone, Gerald
Cormack, Patrick Mather, Carol
Couchman, James Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Currie, Mrs Edwina Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Moore, John
Eggar, Tim Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Evennett, David Moynihan, Hon C.
Farr, John Murphy, Christopher
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Neubert, Michael
Fookes, Miss Janet Newton, Tony
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Nicholls, Patrick
Forth, Eric Norris, Steven
Fox, Marcus Paisley, Rev Ian
Freeman, Roger Parris, Matthew
Gale, Roger Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Garel-Jones, Tristan Pollock, Alexander
Gow, Ian Rhodes James, Robert
Gregory, Conal Rifkind, Malcolm
Gummer, John Selwyn Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Rost, Peter
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Ryder, Richard
Hanley, Jeremy Sackville, Hon Thomas
Hargreaves, Kenneth Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Harris, David Silvester, Fred
Hayes, J. Soames, Hon Nicholas
Haynes, Frank Spence, John
Hayward, Robert Spencer, D.
Heathcoat-Amory, David Stern, Michael
Henderson, Barry Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Hirst, Michael Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Holt, Richard Stradling Thomas, J.
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Thorne, Neil (Ilford S) Winterton, Nicholas
Trippier, David Wolfson, Mark
van Straubenzee, Sir W. Wood, Timothy
Viggers, Peter Yeo, Tim
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Wardle, C (Bexhill) Tellers for the Ayes:
Watts, John Mr. Richard Ottaway and
Wells, John (Maidstone) Mr. Michael Knowles
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Barnett, Guy Lamond, James
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Leighton, Ronald
Bermingham, Gerald McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) McWilliam, John
Clarke, Thomas Mikardo, Ian
Clay, Robert Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Nellist, David
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Prescott, John
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Richardson, Ms Jo
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Rogers, Allan
Dewar, Donald Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Douglas, Dick Skinner, Dennis
Alfred Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Eadie, Alex Snape, Peter
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Fatchett, Derek Weetch, Ken
Fisher, Mark Wigley, Dafydd
Hamilton, W. W, (Central Fife)
Harman, Ms Harriet Tellers for the Noes:
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Mr. Peter Pike and
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Mr. Tony Lloyd.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered accordingly.

  1. Clause 6
    1. cc521-35
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