HC Deb 14 January 1985 vol 71 cc14-5
53. Mr. Alex Carlile

asked the Attorney-General how many persons were prosecuted in the Crown court in 1982, 1983 and 1984, respectively, for offences contrary to section 7 of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

Offences under this section are purely summary and not justiciable in the first instance in the Crown court. Proceedings under this section are ordinarily instituted by the police and not by the Director. One prosecution was commenced in 1982, and two in 1983. Equivalent figures for 1984 are not yet available, but since 13 March 1984 275 people have been charged under this section.

Mr. Carlile

First, I am grateful to the Attorney-General for his correction about the mode of trial, which I accept. Does he agree that there is an urgent need for an early review of public order offences? Does he further agree that the revival of a previously disused public order offence specifically for the purpose of charging pickets in the miners' strike is liable to exacerbate already difficult circumstances unnecessarily?

The Attorney-General

The Home Secretary is conducting a review of the public order aspects of the law. The offence covered by section 7, of which the hon. and learned Gentleman disapproves, is not one which should or could be outside the criminal law. The value of a law is not measured in inverse proportion to the length of time it has been enacted. There are three grades of unlawful assembly, for example, which the Law Commission recommended, of which the hon. and learned Gentleman is no doubt aware. Those matters are being considered by the Home Secretary, who, I hope, will be able to deal with them shortly.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this piece of legislation came into effect precisely to deal with the sort of intimidation that we are seeing at the moment? Can he assure me that he has had consultations with chief constables about obtaining evidence from working miners to the effect that the National Union of Mineworkers' leadership is organising a conspiracy? Will he take this opportunity to encourage working miners to come forward with further evidence, which will enable the conviction of the ringleaders to take place so that my constituents, who, even today, are visiting me because they cannot get to work without suffering from intimidation, can get justice?

The Attorney-General

It is not for me to have conferences with chief constables. That would be a matter, if appropriate, for the Home Secretary. It is true that there is a dearth of evidence that would be necessary if, for example, the Director of Public Prosecutions were seeking to initiate proceedings for conspiracy under section 7. He would need to have evidence which, at the moment, is not available. I have no doubt that the chief constables are carrying out their duties properly. I would welcome any working miner who has evidence of an offence under section 7 making that evidence available to the police.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

Surely the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) has the better point here. The use of the legislation in recent times has concerned solely industrial disputes. There is a real fear and danger that it will be seen as partisan, and that respect for law and order will be undermined for a considerable period in communities where such a law is used.

The Attorney-General

I congratulate the hon. Member on his appointment to the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that he will enjoy it.

The 1875 Act was designed exactly for this sort of industrial dispute. I cannot imagine occasions on which it would be used other than in the course of industrial disputes. As I said in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), I cannot believe that the criminal law could be effective without at least having the section 7 offence or one similar to it.