HC Deb 30 April 1986 vol 96 cc969-82

'Any person who uses the union flag in any procession or demonstration the purpose of which is to stir up hatred against a racial group in Great Britain or at which such hatred is likely to be stirred up shall be guilty of an offence.'.—[Mr. Lawrence.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 28, in clause 12, in page 8, line 4, at end insert 'or if its intention is to incite racial hatred'.

Mr. Lawrence

The name of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) ought also to appear as supporting new clause 3, but by a printing error his name appears on the marshalled list as supporting amendment No. 1.

One of the most pernicious and objectionable kinds of public disorder that is too often perpetrated today is public disorder connected with racial hatred. This is particularly objectionable, because in our multiracial society an increasing number of people who come from races not indigenous to the United Kingdom are easly offended, hurt and distressed by manifestations of this kind. It is to deal with that matter that part III of the Bill has been particularly and importantly created. It deals with a whole range of despicable offences that cause racial hatred.

One of the most sickening and offensive manifestations of racial hatred is when the National Front and its satellite organisations march through the streets carrying the Union flag, as though the people of Great Britain approve of that kind of racialism, or any racialism, as though the people who gallantly fought under the Union flag in the second world war against fascism have relented of their activity and now favour what some of them laid down their lives to oppose.

It is difficult to think of a more insulting abuse of decent society than to have racially hateful processions being swathed in the honour and dignity of the Union flag. In order to avoid the kind of distress that is caused not only to racial minorities but to every decent citizen in this country, it is necessary to take more action than is available under part III of the Bill. Unfortunately, we do not seem now to respect the flag, or to encourage respect for it, as we ought to do. Those of us who have the privilege from time to time of going to the United States cannot help but notice that every office of state and that every office of public administration has, by the desk, the United States flag. Hardly any activity of a public kind in the United States takes place without some reference to, or some prayer directed to, their union flag.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

They do not have a queen.

Mr. Lawrence

My hon. Friend points out that they do not have a queen, but makes the fact that we do not have such respect even worse because, in a sense, the Union flag is an embodiment of the monarchy and a manifestation of the monarchy, for which we in this country have so much respect.

As long as there is no special provision to deal with abuse of the flag, such abuse will continue. So will the dissatisfaction and distress of decent British citizens and racial minorities whom we in this place have to protect. As long as no offence arises from such abuse, distress will needlessly be caused. My amendment will remedy that defect in our law. It will encourage respect for the Union flag. It will restore some degree of decency to political demonstrations, which we must, of course, tolerate and perhaps encourage in this country, but which often get out of hand.

Manifestations of public disorder are dealt with elsewhere in the Bill. A provision that specifically makes it an offence to abuse the Union flag will have the additional virtue of weakening the public persona of that most repulsive of all political groups, the National Front, and its satellite organisations.

5.45 pm

As for amendment No. 28, under the Bill, conditions on public processions can be imposed by a senior police officer in certain circumstances. He can do so if he reasonably believes, first, that a procession may result in serious public disorder; secondly, if it may result in serious damage to property; thirdly, if it will cause serious disruption to the life of the community; and, fourthly, where the purpose of the organisers is the intimidation of others. That is all very praiseworthy and welcome, and sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will support provisions that deal with matters of that kind, but my complaint is that the line has been unnecessarily drawn at that point.

Where the purpose of the organisers is the intimidation of others, it is most sensible that a limitation should be placed upon processions, in certain circumstances, by senior police officers but, alas, that restriction is limited to two kinds: intimidation that compels somebody not to do something that he has a right to do, such as going to work, and intimidation that compels others to do something that they have a right not to do, such as not to go to work. However, the amendment does not deal with intimidation for the purposes of inciting racial hatred, which is a particularly unpleasant form of intimidation. Why is it not dealt with? Racial hatred is dealt with in part III of the Bill. Racially insulting matter may not be published or distributed, or possessed with a view to publication, and words or gestures that are racially hurtful may not be used in a public place. However, one cannot stop a procession or impose conditions upon a procession whose purpose is to incite racial hatred. That is quite an important and glaring hole in the Bill.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that on two occasions during the 1970s under the existing law conditions were attached to marches of the National Front through the Highfields area, an area where many Asian people live? Under the existing law, therefore, there is a measure of control that will be extended by the Bill. Does my hon. and learned Friend think that that is sufficient, or would he go even further?

Mr. Lawrence

I am pleased to hear from my hon. and learned Friend that from time to time such a limitation is indeed imposed. Clause 12 either consolidates and clarifies the existing law, which is one of the purposes of the Bill, or it adds something to the existing law. It contains no mention of the very power to which my hon. and learned Friend has referred. If there is no mention in this consolidating, explanatory and extending measure of a power that already exists, it might be taken that that power no longer exists. That seems to me to present some kind of danger.

Irrespective of whether my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) is right, the fact remains that clause 12 gives senior police officers powers to impose conditions on public processions when there is intimidation. However, it makes no sense to restrict the kind of intimidation which can be limited, or to exclude an especially repulsive form of intimidation—intimidation which is intended to incite racial hatred. Therefore, for clarification and simplication, if not for the extension of the existing law, all senior police officers in any threatened part of the country should have clearly in mind what the law is. The law should be extended so that all of the examples referred to by my hon. and learned Friend will apply generally throughout the country and not just within the police authority to which he referred.

It appears eminently sensible to extend clause 12(1)(b) to read: the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do or if its intention is to incite racial hatred. For that sensible reason, I hope that I have the support of all hon. Members.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

First, may I draw attention to the misprint on the Amendment Paper. I had intended that my name should appear under that of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and not under that of "Mr. Secretary Hurd" as he is described in the amendment underneath. That is entirely due to a printing error.

Happily, there are occasions when hon. Members, who disagree profoundly on many issues, come together in an attempt to preserve and extend those basic decencies which lie at the root of democracy and which allow us to disagree as freely as we do without violence and usually without ill will. I am pleased to support the efforts of the hon. and learned Gentleman both in connection with new clause 3 and amendment No. 28.

New clause 3 deals with the Union flag. It is an obscenity that those who would stir up racial hatred and ill-will, who are basically devoted to the philosophy of Hitler and Mussolini, who regard fascism as their creed and "Mein Kampf" as their bible, should wrap themselves up in the Union flag as the symbol of their despicable organisations.

The campaign of fascists and Nazis—whether they call themselves the National Front or the National party—is aimed against blacks, Asians, Jews or any other minority. It is wrong that, in our law, they can freely use the Union flag, the symbol of our democracy and our decency, to precede them in their parades.

Some of us remember the Mosley marches in Ridley road. Some of us emerged from the armed forces to find that the philosophy which we had been rallied to fight against was using the Union flag as its banner. I served as a war crimes investigator in Germany and came back to find fascists using the Union flag in their parades. It is undoubtedly a source of great unhappiness to those who are proud of our democracy and to whom the flag is a symbol to defend.

I hope that new clause 3 will be accepted. It does not represent a new effort by the hon. and learned Gentleman or me. I have before me a copy of Hansard for 3 February 1982. Similar discussions took place then, but unfortunately the Government declined to accept the amendment. There was no vote on it and it faded into the mists of the past as one of those worthy motions which did not receive the assent of the House. I hope that will not happen again.

Amendment No. 28 is allied to new clause 3 and it is a happy decision to take them together. The amendment is specifically aimed at making clear beyond doubt, manifest beyond peradventure, that those who march with the intention of inciting racial hatred will be in breach of the law and should be dealt with by the authorities. Unfortunately, the freedom which we cherish and which we do not like to impede in any way is used too often by those who would destroy it and attack the decent and happy lives of our citizens. We are concerned only with the prevention of the abuse of freedom. It is a poignant, vicious and too common evil to use the freedom in our decent democracy deliberately to stir up racial hatred. That is the intention of marches and demonstrations in areas where black people live or, as in Leicester, where Asian people live.

I remember a march one Saint George's day during a general election campaign. The candidates of all of the decent parties—which means all parties other than the National Front and the National party—went to the chief constable and asked him to place a restriction on a march which would clearly cause ill-will, unrest and no small danger to the police whose unhappy job it was to try to preserve the peace of a city in the face of deliberate disruption.

When the chief constable decided to allow the march to continue, I concluded that the law was too weak and that it was wrong to leave such a decision in the hands of the chief constable. There was, inevitably, a battle and the police were in the centre. A vast number of police were doing their best to preserve the safety of our citizens at great cost and risk to themselves and at great cost and risk to ratepayers. A breach of the peace, which should never have been permitted, occurred.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) said that it is possible to place restrictions or bans on such demonstrations under the existing law. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Burton that the law is not clear enough and that the guidance given to chief constables is not manifest. It would be wrong to amend the existing law without specifically including the intention to incite racial hatred.

I hope that that proposition will unite the House and that the discussions which are going on on the Government Front Bench are intended to ensure that the Government agree to the amendment so that there is no need to rally the troops and press it to a Division. I anticipate that all of the Opposition parties who sit on this side of the House will agree to the amendment. I know that the Government willingly adhere to the principle and hope that they will accept the amendment.

In advance of the attacks, which I know will be made on those of us who support the new clause and the amendment, by the National Front and other fascist and Nazi organisations, may I say that there is no desire to restrict the decent expression of free speech. There are, however, certain restrictions in any society. We are not allowed to engage in defamation, libel or slander. We are not allowed to speak treason or to incite violence. There are limits on our freedoms so that we may live together in decency and dignity.

At present, the restrictions are not great enough when applied to those who would remove the freedom of others to live in equality, irrespective of their race, creed or ethnic origin. We are here concerned only to restrict the freedom of fascist and Nazi organisations and racist bodies to stir up hatred in demonstration, march and by use of the Union flag. I strongly hope that the Government will accept the new clause and the amendment.

6 pm

Mr. Spencer

I hope that the Government will be able to consider amendment No. 28 further. The lesson to be learnt from a study of public order in the past few years is that what is tolerable at one time is utterly intolerable a few years later and justifies the intervention of the criminal law. Recognition of that fact has led to the Bill, and the extension of police powers to attach conditions to marches which were not to be found in the Public Order Act 1936.

We must ask whether the Bill goes far enough. The Select Committee said that an amendment such as amendment No. 28 had two faults—first, that it was impracticable because it introduced a test which did not raise a justifiable issue and, secondly, that it would lead to the prohibition of marches by certain political groups. Those objections seemed valid to the Select Committee at the time, but I should like to consider them in turn.

Does anybody think that the test would be impracticable? Does anybody think that a National Front march through the Highfields area should not attract the intervention of the criminal law? What is so fine and nice about the application of the test in Highfields and countless other areas in large cities? I do not regard it as a matter of nicety—I regard it as being as plain as a pikestaff.

Mr. Lawrence

My hon. and learned Friend's argument is extremely valid and is surely answered in clause 17 and, no doubt, others. In clause 17, precisely the type of judgment which was previously objected to is required. It requires somebody to decide whether the publishing and distribution of written matter is intended to cause or provoke racial hatred. There seems therefore to have been a shift in the approach to practicability since the Select Committee reported, and I am grateful to the Government for it.

Mr. Spencer

My hon. and learned Friend is quite right. The existing law requires that there is a reasonable belief that serious public disorder will ensue. Acting under that provision, the police in Leicester have twice attached conditions to marches. That shows how closely linked are the concept of causing serious public disorder and the intention to cause racial hatred. In practice, it is almost impossible to isolate the two. We must now recognise that the law should be specific.

The Select Committee's argument that an amendment such as is proposed might prohibit marches by certain political groups is invalid. It said that the amendment would automatically prohibit certain political parties from processing publicly because of their notoriety and because their views constitute an insult and a provocation to various communities. It is quite right—their views do constitute an insult and a provocation, and their very presence inspires such feelings. If marches have that effect, the matter must require further consideration. I invite the Government to say that, upon better reflection, the reasons which seemed good to the Select Committee have at best worn thin and at worst should be rejected.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

The anomaly of my speaking as a representative of Northern Ireland on a Bill which does not apply to the north of Ireland is that, if ever there were two amendments or new clauses which should apply to Northern Ireland, these are them.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) spoke emotively and effectively of the Mosley marches in Ridley road. I ask him to remember that I have such experiences nightly as, where I live, there are people who engage in fascist activities each night. From 1 to 26 April, 79 people who happened by birth to be Catholic by religion were burnt out of their homes simply because they were Catholic. Over the same period 50 policemen were burned out of their homes by those same people because they earned their living as policemen.

That, in any man's language, is fascism. It is fascism equal to that referred to in the Mosley marches. We could coin a phrase in relation to the type of fascism we see in the north of Ireland, to which this legislation does not apply. We could see a new type of fascism emerging which could best be described by saying that it is accompanied by a bible in one hand and a petrol bomb in the other.

Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the links are even closer than that? There is evidence of links between the National Front and associated groups in this country and certain extremist Protestant groups in Northern Ireland. In some instances those links lead to suspected gun and ammunition running from this country to Northern Ireland to assist extremist groups such as those to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Mallon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that. I can confirm his point.

Court records, show that members of the National Front have appeared before the courts in Northern Ireland charged with this type of fascist activity, centring on threatening people in their own homes, backed up in a cowardly fashion by petrol bombs. They are also accused of attacks upon the families of police officers in their own homes. The irony and ambiguity are there. This legislation is very much needed within Northern Ireland, yet it does not apply there. Indeed, as someone who wishes to see the peaceful reunification of the Irish nation I would be tempted to ask for a definition of "Great Britain" in this new clause. If ever an amendment were needed in the part of Ireland where I live, it is this.

It is sad and tragic when, from the hour one is born, and as one grows up, one sees the flag that most hon. Members and I would look upon with respect—the Union flag—hoisted on broomsticks and used as a means of incitement and intimidation against another section of the community for seven months of the year.

There is a mirror image of fascism in Northern Ireland. On one side we have that which avows its loyalty to this Parliament, this Government and the British Crown. They used to call themselves Unionists. I do not know what they will call themselves in the future. Every time they hoist the Union flag on a broomstick and use it as a means of incitement within my community they are behaving in a fascist way and in a way which should come under the influence of this new clause. That is also reflected by another section of the community. As someone who honestly wishes to see the reunification of Ireland, when I see the Irish flag used to insult those who are Unionist and Protestant, my blood boils. That is the type of racial incitement covered by this new clause. That is the type of fascist problem we are dealing with in Northern Ireland.

It is an anomaly that I, as a Northern Ireland representative, am debating something which does not apply to Northern Ireland, where it is most needed. On the Benches behind me we should have those who represent the Unionists, but they dare not come here even to hear the debate.

On amendment No. 28, anyone who has been following the problems in Northern Ireland would realise that the prohibition of marches is very relevant. For the next three or four months, until the end of October, Ministers who represent the Government in Northern Ireland, I as a Northern Ireland representative, and every person living in Northern Ireland face 2,000 more marches. One hundred and eighty six of those marches are controversial. We have seen what has happened in two of them. Is it not time that we started to look at the problem in Northern Ireland and at the way in which the marching season is allowed to dominate not just the lives of the ordinary people but the whole political process. One could almost say that for seven months of the year politics goes into abeyance while everyone—Unionist, Nationalist or whatever creed—is allowed to trail his coat up and down the streets of Northern Ireland causing inconvenience to everyone, enormous expense to the taxpayer and great danger to everybody who lives in those areas and to the people who have to police them.

It would be remiss of me if I allowed the debate to continue without reminding the House of the anomaly that new clause 3, amendment No. 28 and the Bill do not apply to Northern Ireland. The things I have mentioned are happening in Northern Ireland. The term "Great Britain" is used in an anomalous way in new clause 3. Is it not time that we looked at that type of developing and rampant fascism? There is no means of dealing with it. Those marches continue year after year, costing millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, yet we bring down the blinkers. The usual type of myopia creeps in and we put it to one side by saying, "It is only Northern Ireland." The right hon. Lady the Prime Minister once reminded people under questioning that the north of Ireland was as British as Finchley. God help Finchley.

6.15 pm
Sir Eldon Griffiths

I wish that the Bill applied to Northern Ireland, but it does not. This morning in a police station in Northern Ireland, which shall be nameless, I saw what was left of the possessions of three young policewomen who had been subjected to petrol bombing. Those possessions were gathered in half a dozen black plastic bags. There were photographs of their loved ones, a charred badminton racket, a couple of pairs of gym shoes and all the artefacts of the life of those young women, as they had been living peacefully in their flat doing their duty as police officers. Of course, those who threw the petrol bomb which intimidated those women out of their homes were the same people who carry the Union flag. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) is right to make his protest against that.

I am glad that the leaders of the other Northern Ireland parties, who unhappily are not here, have very responsibly denounced the attacks on the homes of the police. I am pleased to say that there is some evidence that those attacks are diminishing.

I understand very well what the hon. Gentleman has said about the marches still to come. However, he illustrated the problem of the amendment. No one could claim that the use of the Union flag in Northern Ireland, in the distressing circumstances I have just described, is strictly directed to the incitement of racial hatred. It may be religious or political, but I doubt whether it is strictly racial and that is the purport of the new clause and the amendment.

The hon. Gentleman illustrated another problem. He knows, as well as I do, that occasionally the tricolour of the Irish Republic is used—I will not say in an equally repugnant fashion, but in a manner which certainly incites other people in Northern Ireland. I have had the distressing personal experience of knowing that one man, carried to his funeral in a coffin which bore the flag of southern Ireland—although within our own country—accompanied by hooded men who were members of Sinn Fein or worse, carrying weapons and firing them into the air, said that his aim in life was "killing Protestants". The flag of the Irish Republic was used in just as obnoxious a fashion as the Union flag is used.

That is the technical problem that I face. If the new clause were passed, it would have all my sympathetic support, but I am not sure whether we would be right to say that only one flag should be banned from use in a demonstration. All flags, whatever they are—American or German flags, swastikas, fascist or Communist flags—if they are used to incite the hatred and harassment that we seek to deal with, are the artefacts of violence, irrespective of whether they are the Union flag or any other.

Therefore, the House must be careful before it imputes an intention to the flag itself. The intention lies in the hearts and minds of the people, not in the piece of cloth. Although I understand—I am sure that the House will, too—and largely support the intentions of the new clause, technically there are many problems in passing it as it stands.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

It is helpful to have the benefit of a speaker from the Social Democratic and Labour party in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) always speaks powerfully. Those who remember his maiden speech will recall the eloquence and force with which he made his remarks, and he did so again today. We must be grateful to him for that.

I think—indeed, I hope—that everyone in the House will be sympathetic to the ideas and intentions behind the new clause and the amendment. I suspect that I can say with certainty that the Minister will be, too, because, to be fair to him, in Committee, particularly on part III of the Bill, on racial hatred, he was very good and showed his willingness to accept amendments from us and to insert some himself, which strengthened the offences that most of us are anxious to stamp out.

There is a problem of definition. For example, the Conservative party uses the Union flag at its conferences from time to time. Although a conference is not a demonstration, if a person used a Union flag outside and made comments that were seen as racialist, that party or organisation would be in trouble. I take the view that no political party should ever use the flag of the country because, in doing so, it tries to take unto that party the national identity of the country. I do not believe that one can legitimately do so. I can see that there is a problem of definition, but I ask the Minister to take away and look at the two amendments to see whether they can be incorporated in the Bill. There is a powerful argument for the wording and intentions behind them.

I remember, as many of us will, how, in the 1950s and 1960s, many black people from the Caribbean used to put, with pride, the Union flag on their cars, carry the Union flag, and speak highly of it. It was only after the flag was taken over by various racialist organisations and used to flaunt in their face in an offensive manner that that practice began to fade out among the ethnic minority groups, especially black people from the Caribbean.

As I suspect the Minister will tell us, some aspects of the problem are already covered by part III. Clause 19 says: A person who uses in a public place or at a public meeting words or gestures which are threatening, abusive or insulting is guilty of an offence if he intends hatred against a racial group in Great Britain". If a person carrying a flag was doing other things, in words or gestures, which showed racial hatred, one could argue that the two points that the amendments seek to deal with are already dealt with in that clause.

Amendment No. 28, in the name of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), changes the position inasmuch as it applies to processions. The Minister might like to tell us whether he thinks that the wording of clause 19 covers the circumstances referred to by my hon. and learned Friend and perhaps also by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence).

I ask the Minister not to reject the amendments out of hand. They put powerful arguments, which we touched on in Committee. If the Minister argues that the matter is already covered by the Bill, he will have to demonstrate to the House that clause 19 does the job. If he says that that is not so, there is a strong argument for him to look at the amendments while the Bill is going through the House of Lords, and perhaps table amendments later if he feels that that is appropriate.

Mr. Cash

I share many of the sentiments expressed on both sides of the House about this provision. I await with interest what the Minister has to say on the subject.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said, there is no doubt that no flag should be used to incite racial hatred of any description. I would consider voting for the new clause in a Division if what the Minister said did not satisfy us and matched up to the sentiments that have been eloquently expressed on both sides of the House.

Mr. Giles Shaw

The debate initiated by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has taken, for me at any rate, a substantial turn. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will recall that we debated such issues in Committee. We debated an amendment that was akin to amendment No. 28, grouped with new clause 3, moved by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton. We negatived the amendment after a fairly full discussion of the complexities involved in inviting the police service to seek to interpret the situation in which they become involved in making such a judgment.

I remind my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton that this is the nexus of the public order problem, where the police are seeking to take a view on a situation that could be fluid, and have to decide whether it would be wise to intervene for this or that reason to prevent greater mischief. This is an emotive and powerful issue. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with feeling. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) all did so. The contribution by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was relevant to the discussions that we are having, although the Bill does not apply to the Province that he so proudly represents. It is vital to hear a point of view that is as cogent as his.

In dealing with these matters, we are seeking, at the extremity, to avoid the major provocation, which, collectively, we all seek to prevent. In Committee, we tried to improve and tighten the conditions under which we are taking action on public order.

There is a significant difference between new clause 3 and amendment No. 28. New clause 3 requires that the Union flag should be a provocation. I hate to say "provocation", but that is the impression that is given. I suspect that that is a broader concept. On the other hand, amendment No. 28 appears to include major mischief that is the consequence of action being taken which could result in racial difficulties of one sort or another—intimidation, the creation of racial hatred and so on.

I must remind the House—this was touched on by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer)—that this issue was substantially discussed both in the Select Committee's report and in the Government's White Paper published last year. The report states: Assessment of the likelihood of a breakdown in public order remains a relatively technical matter upon which the chief officer of police may pronounce. The likelihood of a procession stirring up racial hatred or intolerance is a more difficult test to apply. A measure which rested on the judgment that incitement or intolerance was likely to be caused would present insuperable problems of enforcement and could easily backfire by creating martyrs for free speech out of groups whose policies and activities, having been subjected without hindrance to the judgment of the electorate have been decisively rejected. That is the type of problem to which the Select Committee drew our attention, and we reflected that concern in the preparation of the Bill.

6.30 pm

Likewise, in our White Paper on the review of public order law, paragraph 6.4 on the Union flag states: In the course of the review of public order law it has been suggested to the Government that the use of the Union Flag should in some way be restricted. This suggestion reflects concern at the use of the national flag by extremist right-wing groups. The Government considers this use of the flag deeply offensive, and believes that most people share this view. But it has proved impossible to devise a provision which defines satisfactorily those organisations or individuals who should be allowed to use the flag or those occasions on which its use would be permitted. Accordingly the Government has concluded that it is not practicable to try to legislate to control the use of the flag. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton seeks primarily to deal with that particular provision through new clause 3. It is probably not as significant in terms of public order, of controlling racial incitement and racial difficulties as amendment No. 28.

The substantive mischief seems to be addressed by amendment No. 28. I recognise the concern felt on both sides of the House about marches where the intention is to intimidate others, especially ethnic minorities, and that, perhaps, in clause 12 our definition of "intimidation" may be unduly tied to the concept of coercion, as, indeed, it is. We talked a great deal about that in Committee. That limitation is perhaps something which we should be prepared to reconsider and, in particular, to discuss with the police.

I cannot be so welcoming to new clause 3 about the use of the Union flag. I suspect that an amendment penalising the use of the flag in a procession the purpose of which is to stir up racial hatred would probably already be subordinate to amendment No. 28. The real mischief is not the misuse of the flag, but marching to stir up hatred or deliberately to put whole communities in fear. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend also considers that to be the problem.

I shall certainly reconsider the issue in relation to amendment No. 28, despite the fact that it was talked out in Committee where we felt that we had reached a consensus. I am minded to do so because of the range of expressions put to the House, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would agree to accept that advice in relation to his amendment.

Mr. Lawrence

To some extent I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his undertaking, which will be most welcome, but may I take the opportunity to say that this might not have happened had it not been for the enthusiastic support for the new clause and amendment which has been voiced by hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially those representing Leicester constituencies. I am grateful for that.

Perhaps I might be permitted to attempt to strengthen the Minister's elbow with the following observations when he tries to imbue those who are about to reconsider the matter with the good sense behind the inclusion of amendment No. 28. The objection raised by the Select Committee to such provisions because they might automatically prohibit political groups cannot possibly apply where we are merely giving a power to a senior police officer to consider whether it is appropriate to impose a condition on a march. That is not automatic prohibition of political marches or political parties. Therefore, that criticism falls.

The second criticism is that the measures are impracticable. Clearly that objection has now been superseded by the completely new approach which the Government have adopted, and which is welcome. In clause 17 they see no practical difficulty in creating an offence for: A person who publishes or distributes written matter which … intends hatred against a racial group in Great Britain". There is no impracticability about that measure. If there had been, it would not have been included.

In clause 18 the Government see no impracticability in applying such a restriction to the possession of racially inflammatory matter where a person intends hatred against a racial group in Great Britain to be stirred up as a result of the publication". The same applies to clause 19, where "words or gestures" create an offence if a person intends hatred against a racial group in Great Britain to be stirred up". It is nonsense for the Government to say that there is some impracticability about using the test in new clause 3 when they have said that there is no such impracticability about using it in those three provisions which relate directly to the same intention—to stir up racial hatred.

Mr. Giles Shaw

My hon. and learned Friend is stretching my credulity a bit far when he examines the judgments that can be arrived at in printed material on the one hand and a fluid public assembly on the other. The problem is the practicability of the fluidity of a situation.

Mr. Lawrence

It must be manifest to anyone with even the meanest of intelligence whether a publication is intended to stir up racial hatred, that a gesture or action is intended to stir up racial hatred, or that a march or procession is intended to stir up racial hatred. Those matters are not subtle. They do not require close attention with a magnifying glass or weighing up with scales. They are blatant, open perversions of what people consider to be ordinary decencies. To march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day with the Union flag, boasting about fascism and the National Front is a manifest perversion to which nobody should have the least difficulty in applying a practical test.

Mr. Cash

My hon. and learned Friend may care to draw the Minister's attention to the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954, which has been a source of considerable controversy. Does he recall that serious questions arise in relation to that Act, which may have implications in this context for the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Lawrence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the Minister's attention to that point. However, until I have studied it, I have nothing useful to add.

Mr. Soley

To assist the House, will the hon. and learned Gentleman ask the Minister to clarify his commitment? We understand that the Minister will reconsider the words in amendment No. 28 and will, at some stage, insert them into the Bill. On the other hand, the Minister may just be reconsidering the matter. At some point the House will surely want to insert those words into the Bill.

Mr. Lawrence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. Of course I assume that when my hon. Friend the Minister says that he is taking away an amendment to reconsider it, he intends to do something constructive and not just talk about it. It would be churlish to come to any other assumption. Certainly nothing that my hon. Friend the Minister has ever done would lead me to suppose that he intends to do nothing.

Mr. Giles Shaw

Perhaps I can respond to the invitation that has been conveyed to me by my hon. and learned Friend on behalf of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I said that if my hon. and learned Friend was good enough to withdraw amendment No. 28 we would take it away and discuss it with the police in the context of the Bill, as drafted, to see whether the Bill is adequate. If it is not, we will introduce an amendment. There will be a discussion about the amendment in relation to the conditions contained in clause 12, and we shall have to see whether the latter are adequate to deal with the problem highlighted by the amendment.

Mr. Lawrence

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that he thought there might be a problem of definition. There might be a problem if one accepts what my hon. Friend the Minister says about the difficulties of amendment No. 28, but of course I do not accept what he says. However, there can be no problem of definition with regard to new clause 3, because there is only one Union flag. I refer to the national flag, which is commonly, but wrongly, known as the Union Jack. Moreover, "Any person" means any person. If someone comes out of the Conservative party conference waving a flag in a despicable way, he should be as subject to the restrictions of the law as anyone else who does something grossly offensive with the Union flag. Whether the person involved is a Conservative does not matter; the same rule must apply. There is obviously no problem of definition, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be unnecessarily deterred from considering the issue more fully.

Mr. Mallon

Is there not something slightly contradictory in restricting the terms of the amendment and the clause to racial hatred? For 65 years the same sort of hatred has been expressed in violence year after year in Northern Ireland. That hatred could not, strictly speaking, be defined as racial hatred. It could be defined as religious or political hatred, but the net result is the same. Such dangerous hatred results in great violence and bloodshed.

In Northern Ireland the concentration of violence and hatred that has gone on for 65 years has culminated in the past 17 years of extensive violence. Almost 3,000 people have died. That seems to be excluded from the Bill, and there is something contradictory about that. From Northern Ireland's point of view, it seems cynical to exclude all that on the ground that it does not come within the definition of racial hatred.

Mr. Lawrence

There may be something contradictory about it, but I have enough problems trying to get the Government to accept my limited and less all-pervasive proposal.

Mr. Janner

Perhaps I can ease one of the problems facing the hon. and learned Gentleman and the Minister. If amendment No. 28 is withdrawn on the basis that the Minister has implied, that he will positively reconsider it, and that reconsideration does not lead to the Government's acceptance of it, there is a distinct likelihood that a further effort will be made to reintroduce it in the other place. If the hon. and learned Gentleman saw fit not to press his amendment, we would not press it either.

Mr. Lawrence


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I remind the House that there is no question of amendment No. 28 being withdrawn. It has not been moved, but is being discussed with new clause 3.

6.45 pm
Mr. Lawrence

I had hoped that when my hon. Friend the Minister reconsidered amendment No. 28 he would not exclude the possibility of reconsidering new clause 3. I would feel happier about accepting his undertaking if he could give the tiniest sign that the abuse of the Union flag will also be reconsidered. I have no doubt that that issue will also arouse the concern of those in the other place. If that happens, it may well increase the amount of activity when the Bill returns to this House.

Mr. Mallon


Mr. Lawrence

I shall not give way, as there are many other important matters to consider. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The House has discussed this issue several times, and most recently on 3 February 1982, when it debated the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. On that occasion we were again told that the Government were sumpathetic but that it would be premature to introduce such a measure into the Bill because a Public Order Bill would be presented to the House in due course. It was said that the matter was being considered in a much wider review and that instead of pre-empting any discussions on the point it would be better to leave it until later and not adopt a piecemeal approach towards improving the law. That time has now come. If that improvement is not made now, when will it be made, so that the ethnic minorities can be protected against such indecent activities? The excuses are getting a little thin. The objections raised hitherto seem to have even less foundation now.

I do not wish to be churlish, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his undertaking. However, if he could move just a little, almost imperceptibly, so that those of us who are very careful to discern movement can see some, and if he would agree to reconsider the Union flag issue, I should be most grateful. Its use is very hurtful and offensive to many people. On the basis of that most welcome undertaking, I shall not press the amendment or the new clause. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to