HC Deb 16 May 1984 vol 60 cc358-60
35. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how many people have been charged with incidents arising out of the miners strike.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

The position as at 15 May is that 513 persons have been arrested and subsequently charged by the police. The majority have been charged either with a breach of the peace or obstructing the police, although other charges, including vandalism and possession of an offensive weapon, have also been preferred.

Mr. Canavan

Is the Solicitor-General for Scotland aware of the widespread concern about incidents such as occurred last week when busloads of miners were arrested on the outskirts of Glasgow after being ordered by the police to discontinue their journey to Hunterston? As this excessive use of police powers is doing untold damage to relations between the police and the community, and in view of the need to try to restore public confidence in the police, will the Solicitor-General or the Lord Advocate act in the public interest by instructing the procurator fiscal to drop all pending charges? If they do not, they will be encouraging the belief that we are indeed on the verge of a police state.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

If anyone is seeking to upset the well-established patterns of prosecution in Scotland, it is the hon. Gentleman. We have a perfectly clear and settled system throughout Scotland. The police make reports to the procurators fiscal, who make an independent and impartial assessment of the situation and determine whether there should be prosecutions. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the cases to which he referred are sub judice. However, the police in Scotland have the authority — where they apprehend that there is the prospect of an offence—to ensure that that offence is not committed, whether it is a breach of the peace, obstruction of the highway or anything else. It is proper to leave such matters to the police and to support them in their difficult and delicate task. It is not for the hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends to seek to arrogate to themselves the responsibility for determining whether there has been a breach of the law in Scotland.

Mr. Fairbairn

Will my hon. and learned Friend remind the House that if large busloads of people travel to a place to prevent other people going to work, they are committing offences that may well be more serious than breach of the peace and may constitute mobbing and rioting?

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his clear perception of the law. He doubtless noted that his predecessor in office has also told the Labour party in Scotland and the Scottish Trades Union Congress that, according to the information before him, the police in Scotland are acting within the law in relation to the present issue. However, if they have operated outwith the law, that is a matter for the courts in Scotland to determine and not for anyone else.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

In view of what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, has advice to that effect been given direct to chief constables or do they judge for themselves without any advice being given by a Law Officer?

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

No specific advice is given on this matter. The chief constables and police officers who have operational responsibility for such matters in Scotland are well aware of their powers under the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 — passed by a Labour Government — to ensure that order should be maintained and the commission of offences prevented. They are all also well aware that they have power to prevent the commission of offences, not being restricted simply to acting when an offence has already occurred. The law on that point in Scotland — and indeed in England—is perfectly clear.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the widespread concern in Scotland is not just about the number of arrests, but about the disgraceful harassment on the picket lines and the intimidation, which is carried from the picket lines to the doorsteps of homes in the early hours of the morning—

Mr. Canavan


Mr. Forsyth

Most people in Scotland welcome the efforts of the police, and if confidence in the police is being destroyed it is because of provocation by those who use intimidation to win what they cannot win through the ballot.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Probably the greatest cause of upset among Opposition Members is that the people who have been charged have been charged with offences that are nothing special and do not relate especially to industrial disputes. The charges concern breaches of the peace, assault, use of weapons and obstruction of highways. Such charges appear before the courts regularly.

Mr. Dewar

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there are many people who might have different views about the merits of the miners strike, but who are deeply worried about the extraordinarily wide use of powers under the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 and the way in which the fundamental rights of the individual to move about the country have been infringed on the rather doubtful premise that, at some future date, an offence might be committed? Is the hon. and learned Gentleman not worried about that as, following that precedent, the police will be able to ban any rally, demonstration or meeting without recourse to public order legislation? Is that not wrong? He must accept that the souring and damaging of the relationship between the police and the public, which is fundamental to our society, is a legitimate cause for concern. Indeed, that relationship has broken down in regard to some important groups. That must worry the Solicitor-General and he must consider carefully whether the right course has been followed.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

If police morale is to be maintained, it would be helpful if the Opposition spokesman on Scottish affairs said that he recognises the difficulty and delicacy of their task in maintaining law and order when people are picketing outside such places as Ravenscraig. The hon. Gentleman's proposition is so ludicrously wide — he used the term "at some future date"—that I cannot possibly answer it. He has been advised by a former Solicitor-General for Scotland that, to date, the police have operated within the law. If they have gone beyond their powers and have not reasonably apprehended the commission of an offence, it is not appropriate for me or the hon. Gentleman to reach a conclusion—it is a matter for the courts in Scotland, once it comes before them.