HL Deb 18 December 1908 vol 198 cc2206-11


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, your Lordships are probably aware, from painful experience, that attempts are sometimes made to disturb public meetings and to dry up the natural flow of eloquence that we should expect to find at them. Your Lordships are also probably aware that the law provides absolutely no remedy in such a case unless an actual assault takes place or the facts warrant an indictment for conspiracy. The object of this Bill is to make disorderly conduct at a meeting for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business of the meeting an offence. I do not think it is necessary for me to remind your Lordships of recent events. I think it will not be denied that during the last three or four years the general tone of behaviour at public meetings has been of a distinctly lively character, culminating in a great meeting in the Albert Hall some ten days ago which was described to me by an eye-witness as pandemonium, and which has given rise to a rumour that the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to address no more public meetings if anything in petticoats is allowed to form part of his audience. I do not know whether the rumour is true; but I cannot help sympathising with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in view of the treatment he has had. Anyhow, I do not think it will be denied that disturbance, as a regular practice, is extremely undesirable. That is the case for this Bill. The Bill, perhaps, concerns Members of jour Lordships' House less intimately than it concerns Members of the other House, but still we are not uninterested. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will approve of the principle of the Bill. The first subsection of Clause 1 provides that any person who, at a lawful public meeting—I understand it is not lawful always to hold meetings in Trafalgar Square, for instance, and meetings of such a character will not come under the Bill—acts in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business for which the meeting was called together—those words are important because they safeguard the practice of the heckler, whose questions and interruptions are generally a delight to the audience and sometimes to the speaker—shall be guilty of an offence, and, being summarily convicted thereof, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £5 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one month. I am not actually wedded to the last three lines of the first subsection, and in Committee I will move an Amendment, drafted by the Government, slightly altering those words though not altering the intention of the clause. Subsection (2) makes special provision for Parliamentary elections. At Parliamentary elections, I am given to understand, though I have never had the privilege of going through one myself, feeling rises a great deal higher than at normal public meetings, and therefore it is felt desirable that the penalties of the Corrupt Practices Act, which are more stringent than the £5 fine in subsection (1), should be invoked. His Majesty's Government do not like subsection (3)— (3) Any fine imposed under this Act may be recovered as a civil debt due to the Crown, and I shall ask your Lordships, in Committee, to amend it. I have fully explained the object of the Bill, and I ask your Lordships to pass it on the ground that the right of public meeting is of importance to the enjoyment of constitutional government.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


My Lords, it would obviously be an unfeeling and heartless action on my part if I were to interfere with the progress of a Bill which is urgently required for the protection of Members of the House of Commons, and especially of members of His Majesty's Government. I was given to understand that this was the Bill of a Member of the Opposition, but I rather gather from what has fallen from my noble friend that the Government have taken in under their protection. I suppose no Bill has been ever passed through the other House with greater rapidity than this one, except a Bill dealing with dynamitards, which, about twenty years ago, was passed through all its stages in less than an hour. The noble Earl has endeavoured to persuade us that nobody will be injured by the Bill; but I gather that any person who attends a meeting and shouts "Votes for Women," "Down with the House of Lords," or "Your coal will cost you more," will be liable to a penalty of £5 or imprisonment for a month; and when the noble Earl talks about the necessity of safeguarding free speech I should like to point out that he is interfering with one of the most cherished privileges of the public. It is an immemorial practice in the public life of this country to attend public meetings, not necessarily of one's friends, and the measure is such a startling departure from well-established national habits that I am disposed to suggest that, following the precedent to be established by another Bill which is before Parliament, it should be brought into operation by instalments. The most dangerous class ought to be dealt with first, and I would suggest, thereto re, that in the first instance it should be applicable only to women, and at a subsequent stage it should be brought into operation in regard to adult males, and, at a still later stage, should apply to the rising generation.


My Lords, I think I need only say on behalf of His Majesty's Government that they will be very glad to co-operate with the noble Earl opposite and afford every facility for the passing of this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a.

Then (Standing Order No. XXXIX. having been suspended) committed to a Committee of the Whole House forthwith.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Earl of ONSLOW in the Chair.]

Clause 1:


said that, owing to the delay in printing, his Amendments were not available. He had, however, had three copies of them typewritten, one of which he had handed to the Government and one to the noble Earl in the Chair. The Amendments had been agreed to between those in charge of the Bill and His Majesty's Government, and he hoped they would be accepted. His first Amendment was in page 1, line 8, to leave out from the word "and" to the end of line eleven, and to insert the words "if the offence is committed"; and his next Amendment was to insert, at the end of line 13, the words "within the meaning of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, 1883, and in any other case shall, on summary conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding £5, or to imprisonment not exceeding one month."

Amendment moved— In page 1, line 8, to leave out from the word 'and' to the end of line 11.'"—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


said it was impossible to understand the full bearing of the proposed Amendments without having them before them. Again, what was the penalty under the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, 1883? The Bill would not, he hoped, be susceptible of being applied to cases where members of the audience indulged in what might be regarded as legitimate expressions of opinion owing to the way in which the facts were presented by a particular speaker.


said he had been furnished with one of the few copies of the Amendments, and had tried, without success, to follow them. He had pieced them together, but they did not make English at all.


said the clause as he proposed to amend it would read— Any person who at a lawful public meeting acts in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business for which the meeting was called together, shall be guilty of an offence, and if the offence is committed at a political meeting held during the progress of a Parliamentary election he shall be guilty of an illegal practice within the meaning of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, 1883, and in any other case shall, on summary conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding five pounds, or to imprisonment not exceeding one month.

The rest of the Bill went out.


said that the copy of the Amendments furnished to him did not contain the latter half of what the noble Earl had read. Would not the better course be for the noble Earl to write out the clause as it was proposed to amend it, and substitute it for the clauses in the Bill?


said the substance of the Amendments might be known to two out of the three fortunate possessors of a copy—the Lord Chancellor appeared not to understand it—but other noble Lords were in complete ignorance on the matter. The House had to meet to-morrow. Could not the Amendments, therefore, be printed and inserted on the following day?


expressed the hope that, if subsection (2)— (2) Any person who commits an offence under this section at a political meeting during the progress of a Parliamentary election shall be guilty of an illegal practice,"— were omitted, the proposed new clause which Lord Donoughmore had read should provide for the offence if committed "at a political meeting held during the progress of and in connection with a Parliamentary election."


agreed that it would be safer to insert the words "and in connection with."


hoped also that words would be inserted to cover disturbances occurring at meetings held in connection with municipal elections, especially in the Metropolis.


withdrew his Amendment, and said he would draft the Amendments in the form the Lord Chancellor had suggested, and bring them up to-morrow.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without Amendment; Standing Committee negatived, and Bill to be read 3a to-morrow.