HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc691-3
39. Mr. Adley

asked the Attorney-General how many charges of riotous assemly have been considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions in the most recent convenient period.

The Attorney-General

Riot is not an offence which has to be reported to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but chief officers of police may refer cases to him if they need advice or assistance. So far as the records show, no such references were made in 1979, 1982, 1983 or so far this year. In 1980 four cases were referred, resulting in 11, 12, 10 and 21 persons, respectively, being charged with riot. In 1981, five cases were referred, resulting in 15 persons being charged with riot in one case.

Mr. Adley

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of my constituents find it hard to give credence to the fact that the riotous behaviour, organised violence, intimidation and threats to workers that they see on their television screens every night does not give rise to many prosecutions for breaking the criminal law, and, indeed, for contravening the law of riotous assembly, the understanding of which is clear to all? What can my right hon. and learned Friend say to my constituents about the apparent leniency being shown to those people?

The Attorney-General

The decision whether to prosecute, and for what offence, must be a matter for the chief constable or the police authority concerned. I do not think that my hon. Friend can know the facts. Let us consider two places. In Rotherham, which contains Orgreave, 251 cases are outstanding, 124 persons have been charged with unlawful assembly and 26 with riot. In Mansfield, 54 persons have been charged with riot. Therefore, that offence is being used quite widely in the area.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Is not the meaning of the old offence of riotous assembly far from clear, and is not a thoroughgoing review of such offences needed before the law can be properly applied in a way that is understandable to all?

The Attorney-General

As the hon. and learned Gentleman will know, the law of riot creates some grave evidential problems, but, as I said at my previous Question Time, I am particularly interested in the recommendations of the Law Commission to produce three types of unlawful assembly which will be triable either way and, therefore, if consented to by the defence, could be dealt with quickly. That matter should be considered carefully.

Mr. Hickmet

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many people in Britain are concerned about the organised efforts of riotous assembly at the moment? Is not one of the problems arising out of the present miners' dispute that if charges of riotous assembly or affray are brought against individuals a great delay will take place, as those are indictable offences, which will have to be tried by jury, and consequently a great period of frustration will occur?

The Attorney-General

That is right. The delays can be quite considerable. There are several alternative offences which could and often are charged. There are various assaults, criminal damage, and, if necessary, the Explosive Substances Act can be used. The alternatives that are available in a number of cases have been properly used.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Because the law of riotous assembly is so unclear, as the Attorney-General agreed, would it not be a good idea for those cases that go to the DPP to be looked at by the learned Attorney-General himself?

The Attorney-General

Of those that have been referred to the Attorney-General so far—I think there are six—none includes riot. It is entirely a matter of discretion for the chief constable or for the county prosecuting solicitor to decide whether to consult the Director of Public Prosecutions. If they are referred, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Attorney-General is usually consulted. I hope that that would follow in this case.

Mr. Stokes

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that night after night ordinary people who are not lawyers see on the box most disgraceful acts being committed? What is happening to those rioters? Our present legal system may be somewhat antiquated, but is it not able to deal with mob rule such as we have today?

The Attorney-General

This cannot be described generally as mob rule. On a number of occasions there has been serious intimidation and violence. In such cases the decision must be left to chief constables. There is no way in which the Government can or should intervene in such circumstances. Chief constables are very experienced. The number of arrests exceeds 3,000 since the strike started, and, as I said to the House, a comparatively large number of people have been charged with unlawful assembly and riot, which are two separate offences. Some 124 have been charged with unlawful assembly and about 70 with riot. I emphasise that I should not wish to influence the chief constables in this matter.

Mr. John Morris

Is the Attorney-General aware that there is considerable anxiety about the working of the Bail Act in connection with persons charged with offences arising from picketing? Is he further aware that in so-called picket courts, bail forms, with conditions already printed, are given to the magistrates even before hearings take place? Is not this appearance of pre-judging an affront to British justice, in which each case should be seen to be decided on the evidence? How can the blanket imposition of conditions on picketing miners, who may face only minor charges, be reconciled with the granting of unconditional bail to persons charged with serious offences? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman ask the Lord Chancellor to inquire into the working of the Bail Act in mining areas over the past few weeks?

The Attorney-General

I have no evidence to show that magistrates are not dealing with each application for bail on its merits and individually. It does not matter what is printed on the form. It may be for convenience, in case those are the conditions that are imposed. It is a matter for the judgment of magistrates when dealing with applications. I have no evidence that magistrates are approaching this matter in the wrong way.