HC Deb 22 March 1984 vol 56 cc1310-6

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

1.18 am
Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I am grateful to the 104 hon. Members who have stayed here until quarter past one in the morning to ensure that I have the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment, but I doubt whether I shall be able to write to them all personally before the weekend. This is not usually my best time, as it is a little too long after dinner for an after-dinner speech, but I hope that many households will hear my remarks and the Minister's reply over breakfast later today.

The morning newspapers these days are often full of reports which make the reading public angry and upset. They refer to acts of harassment and attempted intimidation against those engaged in public duties. My right hon. Friend the Minister will forgive me for saying that I am not dealing especially with action against Ministers and Members of Parliament at public meetings, for whom a diet of verbal and actual rotten eggs has been the practice for many hundreds of years, but I strongly deprecate the efforts made by organised rent-a-crowds to stop Ministers and Members of Parliament from speaking and keeping public engagements as it is a denial of free speech and democracy.

I especially deprecate the involvement of the families of Ministers and Members of Parliament in campaigns of harassment. For that reason, I ask my right hon. Friend to make public any police reports that he has so that the extent of the problem can be assessed and a position taken to combat this new and growing menace to the traditional decency of British public life. First, I draw attention to some recent examples of harassment.

The most notorious recent case concerns the resignation of the inspector in the Archway inquiry, Air Marshal Sir Michael Giddings, a man with gallant war record and a successful peacetime record. He was forced to give up the position of inspector in the inquiry for the following reasons. The Times of 1 March reports: His wife … already sensitive after a two-month illness last year, has taken the brunt of a persistent and often offensive assault on their privacy. It included opening a parcel of excreta sent to their home, taking telephone calls in the night which threatened violence, or were obscene, receiving 600 letters, disturbing trespassers in their garden, and having two deputations visit their home over Christmas … The harassment, he says, was encouraged by objectors circulating his home address and telephone number. 'In the inquiry objectors have been hysterical at times, believing that the only way to stop the road is by stopping the inquiry. I actually regard most of this as pretty infantile, but the effect on a woman on her own is serious.' In a preview of my speech today which appeared in The Standard the facts about the Archway inquiry were mentioned and I received five telephone calls and messages from indignant members of a particular group of opponents to the Archway scheme, suggesting that I had slandered them. I did not do so, but I pointed out, as I do now, that some people did harass Sir Michael and his wife to the extent that he felt it necessary to resign his appointment. This emphasises the difficulty of pinning the blame on the real culprits.

Next I cite the case of an old friend of mine who is chairman of a district health authority in east London.

Last September, at the end of a meeting which was discussing the future of a local hospital, the platform at Hackney town hall where the meeting was being held—which has, I am told, been declared a no-go area for the Metropolitan police by the Hackney council—was invaded and he was assaulted and taken by the throat by three hooligans. By a fortunate coincidence, the radio reporter who was by him happened to be the sports reporter and not the social security reporter, who would normally have been on duty. The sports reporter took a very robust attitude towards the thugs who were threatening and attacking my friend and beat them off, so that he was able to get away fairly unscathed. The meeting had to be adjourned and took place later under police protection.

It is a sad day when the meetings of a district hospital committee have to be held under police protection.

I will deal briefly with a few other cases.

A few years ago there was a major intimidation in a coroner's court after a tragic fire in which a number of people were killed. Another recent occasion was the assault and knocking to the ground of Mr. MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board. Again, this was an act of unacceptable violence. Another occasion, to which I made a glancing reference earlier, was the daubing of the house of a Home Office Minister with red paint and other matters and the harassment of the young wife of that Minister, who is about to have a baby.

It makes one feel sick that such things can happen in a civilised country such as ours.

Finally, another group of animal rights activists has actually claimed to have sent five fire bombs through the post in order to intimidate certain people over the culling of seals.

Where does all this start and what can we do to deal with it? First, I believe that television is a very influential medium, and a news flash on television can be seen by literally millions of people. So groups which wish to make themselves known to the public like to think up an incident which will get them before the cameras. The easiest way to get this sort of attention is by the use of violence. I contend that a number of pressure groups of ordinary people dedicated to a cause start to flirt with violence in order to get publicity, and by so doing attract to themselves some revolutionary elements who want to join any operation which they feel could destabilise society and destroy our institutions. These experts in turmoil very often come from the far left, and I would like to quote evidence from the Sunday Express edition of 4 March. It is headed Be a pest and a liar to win, says Red Ken and it goes on: A programme of harassment and intimidation designed to 'put the fear of God' into Tory MPs and councillors has been recommended to local Labour parties by Mr. Ken Livingstone, left-wing leader of the GLC. His astonishing call comes as political worries are growing over the way the far left and protest groups are using personal abuse, intimidation and the threat of violence to further their cause. I blame Mr. Livingstone and people to the far Left of him for many of the troubles that we are discussing tonight, and from which the country is suffering.

I have presented just some of the information that I have gleaned about harassment, and I shall be most interested to hear the view of my right hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that he can give the House more detailed information than I can.

I want to discuss what we should be doing about all this. I want to make some initial suggestion, although I am hoping that as a result of this debate other lines of thought and action may emerge. Where public inquiries or meetings of statutory bodies take place, if the inspector or chairman finds that public behaviour is quite unmanageable, and that proper conduct of the meeting is impossible, he should adjourn the meeting and ask the responsible Minister to order that future meetings should be held in private. That would be a strong disincentive to those who feel that a great row acts in their interests. It might make them desist from taking such action.

Secondly, in any statement by the responsible Minister—who, in such an issue, is usually the Home Secretary—it should be made clear that when there is personal harassment and intimidation of a person conducting art inquiry or carrying out a statutory duty, the individuals and organisations concerned will be considered specifically to have damaged that case.

The representations made to me about the Archway case show that it may not always be easy to identify those using illegal or unlawful means to express their views. However, protestors would take a great deal more care and not risk their case by chancing the use of improper means of harassment and intimidation if my two initial suggestions were taken into consideration.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity of this Adjournment debate at this late hour. I shall listen with the greatest interest to what my right hon. Friend the Minister has to say.

1.28 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page) for giving us the opportunity to debate briefly a very important matter. I congratulate him on the statesmanlike way in which he introduced the subject. I entirely agree with his basic points. It is completely unacceptable for attempts to be made to interfere with or side-step the normal democratic processes of this country by the intimidation or harassment of those charged with carrying out often difficult duties on behalf of us all.

There are plenty of opportunities in a free country such as ours to express disagreement. We all enjoy coping with fair, vigorous criticism. If we did not, we would have no business being here. But that is quite different from the sort of intimidation and bullying—sometimes extended to the families of those concerned—of which we are now seeing many examples.

As there are no precise figures, it is hard to be sure, but I fear that my hon. Friend is right in saying that there is more intimidation and harassment than there used to be. He referred to the sad resignation of Sir Michael Giddings. Sir Michael and his family were subjectd to many forms of harassment, including abusive telephone calls and letters, trespassers in their garden, the breaking of windows, and so on. We deeply deplore the attacks endured by Sir Michael and his family. We have no intention of allowing such tactics to win the day, and a new inquiry with a new inspector will be set up as soon as possible

It is natural that the problems over the Archway inquiry should lead to a more general concern over the powers connected with good order at such inquiries. One good result of this debate would be to describe those powers more clearly so that all concerned knew what they are.

Where there is a threat of a breach of the peace, the police may attend. Up to 20 police officers attended the five sittings of the Archway inquiry in January to maintain order in and around the building. On two occasions the inspector asked the police to help in removing disruptors, and the police did so. It is an offence under section 1 of the Public Meeting Act 1908 to act in a disorderly manner at a public meeting, and there is a power of arrest in cases where a disruptor—who could be removed anyway—refuses to give his name and address.

Under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936 it is an offence to use threatening or insulting words or behaviour at a public meeting with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or which is likely to provoke a breach of the peace. The maximum penalties for those offences are a fine of £1,000 or six months imprisonment.

Those powers, which may not be as widely known as they should be, should be adequate. However, I would like to consider any cases of apparent difficulty which my hon. Friend or other hon. Members may want to refer to me. We must ensure that the law and its procedures are effective to deal with disruptive tactics.

Mr. Page

Could my hon. Friend tell me again what the £1,000 fine or the six months imprisonment was for?

Mr. Hurd

The offence under the Public Order Act 1936 is to use threatening or insulting words or behaviour at a public meeting with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or which is likely to provoke a breach of the peace.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, by coincidence, explained yesterday in another place that he will ensure that the new Archway inspector is made fully aware of his powers under both those Acts, that the meetings are properly stewarded and that the police are alerted to the possibility of disorder.

So much for the powers at the point of the inquiry. Harassment away from the site of an inquiry is also covered by provisions of the criminal law. The forms of harassment of which we have heard could involve assault and criminal damage—serious offences for which Parliament has declared potentially heavy penalties—and the police will not hesitate to provide all necessary help to prevent and detect such offences.

My hon. Friend has listed some cases that have come to his attention. Politicians must learn to be reasonably robust about such matters, and, traditionally, we have been. The harassment of families is, however, a different matter, and I share my hon. Friend's views about it. Sometimes, too, people who are not so much in the public eye as politicians may become Involved in a wholly unfair way. I am aware of the case involving the chairman of the health authority. There have been other cases, and I join my hon. Friend in deploring what was done. On at least four occasions during the past year, members of health authorities have suffered harassment.

In the past few years, there have been cases also of possible harassment of coroners' juries, and I add that to the catalogue given by my hon. Friend. In 1980, a juror at an inquest reported harassment to the police. In 1981, at the Deptford fire victims inquest jurors were faced by demonstrators outside the building who had placards threatening to burn down the jurors' houses. In a more recent case, the jurors made it clear that they might become subjected to harassment and violence.

What is important in all those cases is not the rights and wrongs of the issues but the fact that those employing those tactics have chosen to abandon the argument about the issues in favour of coercion. Once we have established that there is a problem, the questions are what can be done to deter people from resorting to that type of behaviour, how we can protect those who might be at risk and punish those who, despite the deterrent, resort to that behaviour.

The harassment of public figures can take many forms. I am sure that my hon. Friend accepts that it is not always easy to prevent such things happening. In some cases, individuals will decide not to report those matters to the police. They may be reluctant to make a fuss and to put the police to trouble. They may fear further harassment if it becomes known that they have contacted the police. A good many of those incidents occur where the police are, understandably, not usually present. Unless the police are called immediately to the scene, it may be difficult to prove that particular individuals were responsible for the disruption or that they committed criminal offences. The police can do a good deal, once they have been involved.

It is important that individuals, who fear that they may become involved in danger because of their public duties, realise the abilities of the police to help. The police could do their best to trace those who might have committed criminal offences and offer advice to a person who is the subject of harassment. Patrols near premises can discourage those who might intend to trespass or commit damage. The police might consider it valuable for a person to obtain a number of physical security measures. If a person is subjected to many unpleasant telephone calls, the police may suggest that the telephone number be changed or that efforts be made to identify the source of the calls. Arrangements can be made to redirect offensive mail and possibly to identify the sender.

The measures which the police can take and the advice they can offer to potential victims of harassment will work only if the police are informed immediately that there is a danger of such tactics being used. I urge anyone who becomes aware of any of these dangers to let the police know at once. It is easy—the Home Office is familiar with this problem—to complain about ineffective police action after the event when insufficient has been done to tell the police what was happening before or during the event. The police must, therefore, rely on law-abiding citizens to alert them to any harassment if this phenomenon is to be checked.

My hon. Friend made two interesting suggestions. He asked whether it would be possible for public inquiries to be held in camera in the event of disruption. Strictly, that is a matter not for me, but for the Departments responsible for planning and highway inquiries. A former Member for Salisbury, Mr. Michael Hamilton, introduced a private Member's Bill which passed into law and is now the Planning Inquiries (Attendance of Public) Act 1982. That legislation requires that all evidence given at planning inquiries shall be heard in public. It would be hard to go against that recent legislation. There are exceptions where the national interest or national security is involved, and those exceptions would be a matter for decision by a Minister.

Mr. Hamilton's Act does not apply to highways inquiries. The Department of Transport is reluctant to hold highways inquiries in camera, and believes that, if the powers that I have mentioned are properly used, this should not be necessary. I think this point applies to my hon. Friend's suggestion. The point of such inquiries is partly that the right decision should be come to after an independent inspector has listened to the evidence, but it is also that all those concerned should be able to feel at the end of the day that, even if their point of view has not prevailed, they have had a chance to put it.

The difficulty about my hon. Friend's line of thought, although I entirely understand why he puts it forward, is that one would to some extent frustrate, not the first, but the second, of those purposes. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend who deals with the inquiries the suggestions made by my hon. Friend.

Intimidation of the kind that has been described during the debate will not persuade the Government to change their policies or the procedure by which decisions are taken in this country. I suspect that my hon. Friend is right that usually what is going on is a search for publicity. This the media must weigh carefully when they decide how to report these activities. I think it is a short-sighted approach by those who take it, because no right-minded citizen will be persuaded to align himself with a cause which relies on intimidation for its expression.

Therefore, it is probably true to say that such bullying tactics are the sign of a weak, or a lost, cause. They are adopted by people—and this is the worrying thing about them—who have a contempt for the opinions of others which can legitimately be called Fascist, a word that is tossed about far too widely but which I think accurately pinpoints the state of mind that we are considering here. Indeed, some of the incidents to which my hon. Friend referred, and others that have come to my notice, remind me strongly of what one reads of the tactics of the Nazis in pre-war Germany. Such tactics have no place in a democratic society.

As to the Home Office, the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend, I assure my hon. Friend that the police, who have an important part in checking abuses of this kind, have our full and continuing support in taking steps to deal with those who commit criminal offences and to protect people from these deplorable attacks on their privacy and occasionally on their person.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Two o' clock.