HC Deb 21 June 1984 vol 62 cc462-5
4. Mr. Lawrence

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the police operations to ensure that those who wish to go to work during the current coal dispute have been able to do so.

Mr. Brittan

Major policing operations have been necessary to ensure that people who wish to go to work may do so. Neither I nor the police welcome the need for these operations, but those who believe in the rule of law will be very gratified that they have succeeded in enabling all those who wish to go to work to do so.

Mr. Lawrence

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that only hon. Gentlemen in the Labour ranks do not have admiration for the police for the courageous and efficient way in which they have safeguarded the going to work of 50,000 miners, despite the fact that in many pits they are under criminal siege? Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider making the dangerous tasks which the police have to do less dangerous by putting a legally enforceable limit of six on the number of people who may picket, in line with the agreement by the TUC and the National Union of Mineworkers when they undertook to make that part of a voluntary code? They have not lived up to their promise.

Mr. Brittan

I welcome the opportunity once again to pay tribute to the truly remarkable achievement of the police in making it possible for 50,000 people to go to work. I do not think that at this stage it would be useful to introduce legislation to limit pickets to six—which was included in the code of practice—because the police have powers in common law to limit the number of pickets where necessary to prevent or deal with breaches of the peace. They have used those powers in appropriate circumstances.

Mr. Ashton

Is it the rule of law when a car load of striking miners are refused permission to leave the M1 to go to the county council headquarters in Nottingham to talk to Labour councillors about free school meals for their children, and are then sent back up the M1 and again refused permission to leave it to go to their homes? Was it the rule of law when seven car loads of plain clothes policemen invaded houses in Meden Vale, Warsop this week and arrested miners sitting in their homes—including one miner who was not on strike—and took them away for questioning for several hours? Is that the rule of law in Nottinghamshire today?

Mr. Brittan

If the police seek to stop any vehicle and it is alleged that they are going beyond their power to prevent a breach of the peace, that can be challenged in the courts. If people are suspected of having committed a criminal offence, the police are entitled to arrest them in their homes.

The hon. Gentleman should ask himself whether it is in accordance with the rule of law to organise the descent of thousands and thousands of pickets on a place where it is clear that their presence in such numbers is bound to lead to a breach of the peace.

Mr. Conway

In view of the pressure on conventional policing during current operations, has any thought been given to extending the role of the Special Constabulary to help with conventional police operations?

Mr. Brittan

The numbers in the Special Constabulary have increased recently. It has an important role to play in supporting the police by taking on certain duties to release police who need to be committed to a certain task.

Mr. Alton

Is the Home Secretary aware that the cost so far to Merseyside for policing the dispute is £4.7 million? What comfort can he offer to the hard-pressed ratepayers? Does he agree that it is a scandalous misuse of money for Keeva Coombes, the leader of the Merseyside county council, to hire a double decker bus to send 70 people to Point of Ayr for illegal secondary picketing? Does he further agree that that will not help to settle the dispute, that it will not contribute one iota to doing so?

Mr. Brittan

I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's second point, and I am inclined to agree with him.

On his first point, there is no doubt that many police authorities have incurred a substantial financial burden as a result of policing operations. For that reason, I announced special Government assistance of 90 per cent. of costs incurred above a 1p rate. I recognise that that may still lead to some difficulties for certain forces which have made representations to me. I am considering those representations and hope to make a further statement shortly.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Would it not be helpful if the Leader of the Opposition could get into his head the difference between violent disorder and the legitimate use of force to suppress that?

Mr. Brittan

That is a distinction which we would all be wise to bear in mind al all times.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Home Secretary aware that his assumption that picketing miners are blacker than coal and that picket-line policemen are whiter than snow is naive and foolish? Is it not also dangerous, because it polarises both sides in the dispute? The right hon. and learned Gentleman should not judge the issues so simply.

Mr. Brittan

I refuse the temptation to equate those who break the law with those who preserve and maintain it. It is a spurious equality to try to say that there is one and then the other. As I said earlier, there is no doubt that the weight of sheer numbers—thousands and thousands of people—is bound to lead to breaches of the law. Those responsible for that have a heavy burden on their consciences.

Mr. Rathbone

Will my right hon. and learned Friend comment on the integration of voluntary members of police forces from other areas into the areas where picketing takes place? Have they not contributed a great deal to the keeping of order in those areas? Has my right hon. and learned Friend any idea of how they have integrated with the local forces and what contribution they have made?

Mr. Brittan

The aid given by forces from other parts of the country to those who are at the cente of the areas in dispute has been substantial and deeply appreciated. It has been successful in the sense that policemen going from one part of the country to another have been able to make a most effective contribution.

Mr. Concannon

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the time is right to try to gel the police back to performing their normal duties? It depends, of course, on where one lives and whom one represents what view one takes of the activities of the police at present. Will the Home Secretary use his influence in the Cabinet to get it accepted that now is the time to start getting reconciliation instead of confrontation, so that the police may return to their normal duties?

Mr. Brittan

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the sooner the police return to their ordinary duties, the better. I assure him that as soon as there is no threat of a breach of the law by obstruction and by the other criminal acts that take place the police will return to their normal duties. The most useful step that any of us can take to bring that day nearer is to call on those who have been responsible for threats to breach the peace to desist from doing that.