HL Deb 16 December 1936 vol 103 cc961-72

Amendments reported (according to Order).

Clause 3:

Powers for the preservation of public order on the occasion of processions.

3.—(1) If the chief officer of police, having regard to the time or place at which and the circumstances in which any public procession is taking place or is intended to take place and to the route taken or proposed to be taken by the procession, has reasonable ground for apprehending that the procession may occasion serious public disorder, he may give directions imposing upon the persons organising or taking part in the procession such conditions as appear to him necessary for the preservation of public order, including conditions prescribing the route to be taken by the procession and conditions prohibiting the procession from entering any street or public place specified in the directions:

Provided that no conditions restricting the display of flags, banners, or emblems shall be imposed under this subsection except such as are reasonably necessary to prevent risk of a breach of the peace.

THE MARQUESS OF DUFFERIN AND AVA moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "street or." The noble Marquess said: My Lords, in the debate on the Committee stage my noble friend promised on behalf of the Government to consider whether we should not insert a definition of a public place; and in fact, as your Lordships will see, we have inserted such a definition. As that definition quite clearly covers a street, there is no need for those words in this part of the Bill I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 4, line 26, leave out ("street or").—(The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 6:

Amendment of 8 Edw. 7 c. 66.

6. Section one of the Public Meeting Act, 1908, (which provides that 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, or incites others so to act, shall be guilty of an offence) shall have effect as if the following subsection were added thereto— (3) If any constable reasonably suspects any person of committing an offence under the foregoing provisions of this section he may if requested so to do by the chairman of the meeting require that person to declare to him immediately his name and address and, if that person refuses or fails so to declare his name and address or gives a false name and address he shall be guilty of an offence under this subsection and liable on summary conviction thereof to a fine not exceeding forty shillings, and if he refuses or fails so to declare his name and address or if the constable reasonably suspects him of giving a false name and address, the constable may without warrant arrest him.

LORD JESSEL moved to substitute "subsections" for "subsection" ["as if the following subsection were added thereto"] in order later to insert the following additional subsection: (4) If any person commits an offence against the foregoing provisions of this section at a public meeting stated (by written notice displayed at the public entrances to the building or place in which the meeting is held, or if the meeting is held in the open air by a written notice conspicuously displayed (luring the period of the meeting) to be held in reference to a municipal election for the area or district in which the meeting is held, he shall be guilty of an illegal practice within the meaning of the Municipal Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Act, 1884.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my object in moving this new subsection is to assimilate the procedure in this Bill which applies to Parliamentary elections to municipal elections. The Act of 1908 has been much strengthened by the subsection which has now been added to this Bill on page 6, but my object is to make it an illegal practice at a municipal election just as at a Parliamentary election. I had the good fortune as long ago as 1911 to get a Municipal Elections Act passed through another place which made it an illegal practice to publish a statement reflecting on the personal character of a candidate. I cannot understand why the Government have not put into this Bill, to strengthen the Act, the same procedure as applies at Parliamentary elections. It may be argued that the new powers under this Bill may make it unnecessary.

This, however, is not a new matter. As long ago as 1908, when the Bill, which was successfully piloted through another place by Lord Robert Cecil, now Lord Cecil, came up to your Lordships' House, the noble Earl, Lord Midleton, tried to get this Amendment put in. I am sure that we must all regret that Lord Midleton is not present to-day, and that those who know him well will rejoice with him and congratulate him on having this month passed his eightieth year. The noble Earl, Lord Beauchamp, who was then Leader of the House, expressed his sympathy with Lord Midleton's idea but for some reason or other the matter was dropped. In May, 1933, Sir Gerald Hurst moved in another place a Bill called the Public Meeting Act (1908) Amendment Bill with the same object as I have in this subsection: to assimilate the law. Unfortunately that was a Private Member's Bill, and your Lordships know that there is very little chance of a Private Member's Bill, especially at a late period of the Session, getting through in another place unless the Government take it up.

I am sure that no one in this House objects, as was pointed out yesterday, to fair heckling at an election meeting. It certainly makes election meetings much more lively and interesting than if no interruptions were allowed. On the other hand, the breaking up of meetings by deliberately-organised gangs is not a practice of which anybody can approve. There is no doubt that at these local elections, which become more important every day, scenes of disorder now occur which prevent candidates from speaking, and I know for a fact that many persons are deterred from coming forward as candidates because they are afraid of the violence and disturbances that go on at these meetings. It is well known that such things occur in many large towns. We should all do our best to ensure that free speech and free hearing are allowed to everyone who has a proper case to state. Your Lordships will notice that this new subsection applies not only to indoor but also to outdoor meetings. Outdoor meetings are now very widely held, and the same protection should be given to them as is given to indoor meetings.

Your Lordships will also notice that the noble Marquess, Lord Dufferin, in the Amendments which he has put on the Paper, includes a definition of "public place." He has very much enlarged the definition. I do not know whether he got the idea from my subsection, but it certainly looks as if he regarded it as important that outdoor meetings should be looked after as well as indoor meetings. I doubt whether the powers of the police and the increased fines and penalties laid down in this Bill, which it is hoped will be more effective machinery, will in fact be a great deterrent to some of those practices, which are very reprehensible and not at all in the public interest. I earnestly trust that the Government will accept this proposal, because it has long been wanted in connection with these important local elections. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 6, line 7, leave out ("subsection") and insert ("subsections").—(Lord Jessel.)


My Lords, I cant to support the Amendment, and in doing so I want to make quite clear, rat her for my own satisfaction, the difference between a municipal and a Parliamentary election. If I am wrong I hope I shall be corrected, but I understand that to create a disturbance at a municipal election is an offence but not an illegality, but to do so in a Parliamentary election is both an illegality and an offence. In other words, if connivance can be proved against the opposinging member (or his agent) then he can be unseated. Now it is only fair, surely, that the protection of the law should be given to a municipal or county council candidate as well as to a Parliamentary candidate. One point may be made by the noble Lord who replies, and that is that the Government do not desire to bring politics into municipal or county council affairs. If the, noble Marquess makes that point he is not really facing the facts, because we all know now that many county council and most municipal elections are run on Party lines, and say that the time has now arrived when the machinery of Party Government should be placed at the disposal of all municipal and county council candidates.

I have attended many county council, municipal and Parliamentary election meetings in the North. I have attended in the capacity of steward, and I have had a large body of stewards under me. When I raised one finger it meant "Stand by." When I raised two fingers it meant "Out," and they went out. I mention this to show that good organisation was necessary in order to counter the excellent organisation on the other side. I may say here that the obstruction that occurs at municipal elections is often greater than, certainly as great as, the obstruction which occurs at Parliamentary elections. The usual procedure is that the man who does the interrupting sits in the centre of the block, and is surrounded on either side, and probably in front and in the rear, by two or three comrades. Your Lordships will understand that some very hard and difficult work is necessary in order to put out the principal interrupter. Noble Lords on the opposite side will probably say it was brutal work.

I should like to take the opportunity now to refute the unfair and unjust criticism in the public Press of the stewards of public meetings, which has been going on during the last two years, and I include Fascist stewards. People allow their dislike of Fascism to run away with their sense of fair play. Fascist stewards are young men who code forward to do their duty, as they consider it, in the defence of free speech at meetings. We are told again and again that they behave in a brutal manner, but the Press and the public never say anything about the brutalities on the other side. Is it likely that stewards are going to say: "Come along quietly with me, and I will put you out in the street," when they see women stewards gashed with razors? What would your Lordships do if you found one of your friends slashed with a razor? Yet you find the Press sticking up for people who interrupt, and not saying a single word in favour of the stewards who are merely doing their duty.

The root of the matter is that many of those interrupters—allies of the Party of noble Lords opposite—are opposed to ordered government. They are determined that free speech shall be denied to the moderates, and to the followers of the National Government, and send their bravoes to smash up meetings. These men are what the Americans call "tough guys," and are fighters, who come there to fight and be ejected. Communists throughout the world believe in force, and the only thing which can possibly meet that force is force—of course the minimum force. The stewards, whether Fascists or not, should be praised and not blamed when they act against these people. I hope that the noble Marquess who replies will realise that this is a very important Amendment and that as much justice and consideration should be given to the patriotic gentlemen who come forward as municipal and county council candidates as is given to Parliamentary candidates.


My Lords, the noble Lord, who moved this Amendment has, if I may say so, such vast experience in these matters that one hesitates to entertain or express a different view from his, but at the same time, while humbly agreeing with a good deal that he has said, and with what was said by the noble Earl who followed him, I venture, as one who has had a little experience in another place in the structure and drafting of Bills, to offer one or two considerations before your Lordships proceed finally to deal with the Amendment. The Amendment, as has been truly said, is of an important character. Its purpose, as the noble Lord explained, is to assimilate the procedure at local government election meetings with the procedure at Parliamentary election meetings in the matter both of penalty and disqualification. As I read it, the effect of this subsection, if included in the Bill, would be that instead of the existing law, which imposes a fine of £5 or a month's imprisonment, the noble Lord's Amendment would lay the offender against the Public Meeting Act open to a penalty of £100, and disqualification from voting for a period of five years.

When one has said that I think one has said sufficient to demonstrate the importance of the step which the House is being invited to take. I venture to put before the House one or two considerations why in my humble judgment it should hesitate before now taking that step. The first of these has been referred to by the noble Lord himself in moving his Amendment. It is true, as he said, that many attempts have been made in the last few years to reform the law in this direction, and, according to my information, they have all failed. They have failed, if I am not misinformed, either because of the extremely elaborate machinery which would be required to give effect to them, or because the need for such reform at municipal elections was not thought to be demonstrated. At any rate, for one reason or another, these attempts have not been successful. If this subsection is to go into the Bill the consequential machinery which will be required will be of a most complicated and elaborate character, and, if I may take it as an illustration, in the case of Scotland, the machinery—I have looked into the matter—would be of a most difficult and complex character. That will be understood when I state to the House that the Act of Parliament to which reference is made—the Municipal Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Practices) Act—does not apply to Scotland at all.

If that be so, does it not seem a little difficult to introduce at this very late stage, in the second House and on the Report stage, an Amendment requiring such consequential provisions to give effect to it, and that at a time when the House has just strengthened the Public Meeting Act by inserting appropriate machinery for that purpose? Would it not be better to wait for a time and see whether that machinery functions successfully and satisfactorily at municipal elections; and if it is found that, even in its strengthened condition, it does not do so, that may be the appropriate time to introduce legislation of this character. And if I may humbly say so, that would be clone much better in a separate Bill than in a pendicle to a Bill which has passed through another place and is just about to pass through this House. I agree with a great deal that has been said by the two noble Lords who preceded me, but I do suggest that it is for consideration, first of all, whether the existence of the mischief which they fear has been made out, and, secondly, whether the remedy proposed to remove that mischief is an appropriate remedy.


My Lords, I do not know what reply the Government are going to make to this Amendment, but as one of the "tough guys" who have aroused the ire of the noble Earl opposite, your Lordships may expect me just to say this word. The noble Earl speaks of his experience. It may be appropriate therefore that I should speak of mine, which is quite as long as his, and where he has attended one meeting I must have attended ten throughout my life I have taken part in many elections and I have never seen—in England at any rate and I do not believe it exists in England—that there is razor slashing by English people.


On the noble Lord's side one never sees that kind of thing. It is only on our side that you see it.


I do not understand that the noble Earl challenges what I said: we do not in England use razors to enforce political arguments. I agree that organised rowdyism is just as hateful at a municipal meeting as at a Parliamentary meeting, and it is just as hateful whether it is organised by one side or another side. I do not believe that the side with which I am connected has been particularly guilty in this respect. It is quite outside my own experience. I will only say that there is this difference between a municipal election and the case with winch this Bill proposes to deal. At a county council or a borough election imported rowdies are not the custom; wherever there is interruption it is borough-born, as we may say, rather than imported. Do not let us be too sensitive about interruption. If the noble Lord asks your Lordships to believe that the Labour Party receives some special consideration from the capitalist Press in England he has surely got a very hard task before him. I ass Ire him that all the evidence is on the other side. I think I agree that, as the consequential results of the noble Lord's Amendments would be so considerable, we might wait a bit before we deal with this problem. But do not let it go out that I or my Party believes any more in rowdyism for municipal meetings than we do for any other.


My Lords, I do not think your Lordships want me to intervene between the noble Lord who has just spoken and my noble friend behind me. I think if I keep to my muttons and to the Amendment I shall serve your Lordships best. The Government can say at once that they have considerable sympathy with the object of the Amendment. It certainly seems not illogical that the Act of 1884 should also apply to municipal elections. I put certain practical difficulties before your Lordships quite frankly. I am advised that for various reasons, into which I do not think I need enter in detail, the Amendment would in practice be quite unworkable. It is not a very easy thing to apply this law to municipal elections because the period of a municipal election is not clearly defined, as is the period of a Parliamentary election when a writ is issued. For that reason and for various others the Amendment could not possibly be accepted.

If the purpose of the noble Lord was to be served it would mean complete redrafting of his Amendment, and that redrafting would have to be done with the very greatest care, because it would be altering the electoral law, which is a delicate and susceptible fabric which no draftsman would care to alter without the very greatest consideration. As my noble friend behind me pointed out, there is also the fact that the Act of 1884 imposes these very severe penalties—£100 and five years' disqualification; and there is, furthermore, the possibility of an election petition. That being so, and the matter being so grave, I do not think that any of your Lordships would have thought it right that I should have come down to this House with a whole host of manuscript Amendments and asked you to pass them straight off. I do not think that that would be a proper procedure in your Lordships' House. As has been said, the Public Meeting Act of 1908 applies to all meetings and £5 and a month's imprisonment are pretty severe penalties. In these circumstances I would ask my noble friend to give the working of this Bill a chance. Let him see whether in practice his difficulties are not met by this Bill, and not press his Amendment.


My Lords, after the speeches that have been made, and in view of the practical difficulties, I shall not press this Amendment. But I would wish to point out to Lord Alness that these are maximum penalties. As regards the razor slashing, of course that did not occur, I believe, south of the Tweed. I think therefore that my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition might be quite satisfied. I was also glad to hear what the noble Lord said. I made my speech in no Party spirit. I did not accuse either one side or the other. Both at Parliamentary elections and municipal elections, I venture to say, I have had a great deal of experience, having sat off and on for nearly twenty-five years in another place, and been through six Parliamentary elections and I do not know how many municipal elections. I do know that at election time—and I am not saying this in order to arouse Party feeling or to arouse the Opposition—both sides have been known to send gangs about from one part of London to another to break up meetings. It is just that that I am sure we all want stopped.

We do want to see that a fair hearing shall be given, and though the noble and learned Lord, Lord Alness, said that he had had no experience of it I think he will find that, if he makes some inquiry in his own country, there have been certain towns, which have not been mentioned but which we all know, where there has been a great deal of organised rowdy-ism. All I can say is that the expression of hope by the noble Marquess, Lord Dufferin, will, I trust, be fulfilled, and that the improved procedure under this Bill may be effective. If not, I hope that, if this evil still continues in the big towns, Government help will be afforded in some other Bill with the same object, but which will not necessitate all these various Amendments which have been indicated. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9:

Interpretation, Etc.

9.—(1) In this Act the following expressions have the meanings hereby respectively assigned to them, that is to say:— Recognised corps" means a rifle club, miniature rifle club or cadet corps approved by a Secretary of State under the Firearms Acts, 1920 to 1936, for the purposes of those Acts.

THE MARQUESS OF DUFFERIN AND AVA moved to insert in subsection (1): 'Public place' means any highway, public park or garden, any sea beach, and any public bridge, road, lane, footway, square, court, alley or passage, whether a thoroughfare or not; and includes any open space to which, for the time being, the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, this Amendment is in pursuance of a promise made to look into the question of whether it is possible to define a "public place." I think it was Lord Rankeillour who asked for the definition. We have taken this definition from the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, and I hope he likes it.

Amendment moved— Page 8, line 4, at end insert the said new paragraph.—(The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.)


My Lords, I like the definition very much.


My Lords, before we part from this clause, may I ask what a "recognised corps" is I asked this question yesterday, and was told that the Government would consider the matter before the Report stage.


My Lords, "recognised corps" is defined in the Bill itself on page 8. "Recognised corps" means a rifle club, a miniature rifle club, or a cadet corps approved by the Secretary of State under the Firearms Acts, 1920–1936, for the purposes of those Acts. The noble Lord may ask why it is that we have put in a definition of "recognised corps" in this Bill at all. The reason is that "recognised corps" is mentioned in Clause 4 of the Bill, which deals with the prohibition of the carrying of offensive weapons at public meetings and in processions. Certain persons are relieved from that prohibition. They are enumerated in subsection (2) of Clause 4, and amongst them is "recognised corps." That is why "recognised corps" appears in the Definition Clause of the Bill.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended:


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time, and on that Motion I would like to answer a question which was addressed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, who put forward yesterday a manuscript Amendment dealing with the definition of the chief officer of police. The noble Lord suggested that the definition should be amended by the insertion of the words "Third Schedule of the" before the words "Police Pensions Act, 1921," in Clause 9 of the Bill. I regret to say that that Amendment cannot be accepted because the definition of chief officer of police applies to the whole of that Act and not only to the Third Schedule. If we inserted the words "Third Schedule" it would give rise to the supposition that the definition of chief officer of police in the Third Schedule differed from the definition of the chief officer of police in the rest of the Act. I might add that the definition which is contained in Clause 9 (1) has already been inserted in a large number of other Acts and has become a more or less stereotyped definition of the phrase "chief officer of police." With this explanation I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Marquess of Zetland.)

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.