HL Deb 03 July 1962 vol 241 cc1187-94

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I shall repeat the statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place on the incidents in Trafalgar Square on Sunday, July 1, 1962. Mr. Butler said:

"With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and I think at the wish of the House, I want to make a statement about a meeting organised by the National Socialist Movement which was held in Trafalgar Square on the afternoon of Sunday last. I am informed that this movement has less than 100 members. "The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis tells me that when the meeting began about 2,000 people were present. Later the number rose to about 5,000.

"The speakers were interrupted by an organised body of 300 to 400 persons. The police found it necessary to stop the meeting on two occasions while order was restored, and they eventually closed it altogether on the ground that a serious breach of the peace was imminent.

"Twenty arrests were made—in fifteen cases on charges of offences against Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936. All but two of these cases have been dealt with by the courts, the offenders being fined or conditionally discharged. The speakers themselves were not arrested, but were told that a full report was being submitted for consideration of proceedings under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

"I deplore the disorder which occurred on this occasion, and even more the obnoxious doctrines expressed. As I have indicated the police dealt firmly with the situation, and I believe existing powers to be adequate.

"We must not put ourselves in a position of lightly restricting free speech. However, I wish to make it quite clear that we shall not tolerate the provocation of disorder by the abuse of free speech. I shall therefore watch the position with care; and shall consider any representations that honourable Members may wish to make to me."


My Lords, the House will appreciate the statement that the Lord Chancellor has made on behalf of the Secretary of State for the Home Department. We on this side of the House would not wish to champion the idea of an absence of free speech, partly because we suffered from the interference with free speech in the 1880's, in the last century, in this very Trafalgar Square. But may I ask the noble and learned Viscount whether the Government are aware that there can be a kind of speech which is not only provocative of disorder in itself but is announced in advance in terms which incite people to come and the disorder is provoked? Is he aware that most of us think it would have been better if everybody had left this meeting alone except the so-called National Socialists, in which case there would probably have been an audience of 30 or 40? But they came, as they had the right to do, and they expressed themselves strongly. But the disorder was in the main created by the promoters of the meeting who were deliberately provocative at the meeting and in their previous announcements of the meeting.

May I also say this to the noble and learned Viscount? While not saying that the Government were necessarily wrong in permitting the meeting to take place on this occasion, nevertheless it is the case that experience of this meeting showed that meetings of this character are liable to provoke disorder and to put a great strain upon the police; and I think they have had enough strain put upon them by the unilateralist sit-downers without this. And may I ask the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor whether, having regard to this experience, and having given these people one chance to "have a go", so to speak, the Government will now say, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, that they will not permit this organisation to have any future meetings in Trafalgar Square? I submit that that would not be an unreasonable conclusion arising out of this experience, which is a very nasty one.

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, I am quite sure that my light honourable friend the Home Secretary will be as grateful as I am to the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, who speaks with great authority as an ex-Home Secretary and from his experiences of London. The noble Lord has correctly stated the position: that at the present time permission to hold this meeting was given in accordance with normal practice, which is to allow any organisation to hold a public meeting provided the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police sees no reason, in conformity with his duty to ensure that public order is maintained, to object. The Minister of Works wrote on this point, and I think all noble Lords would agree, I am sure that it would be wrong for me to use my powers under the Trafalgar Square Regulations to operate political censorship, intensely as I dislike the objects of this particular meeting. As the noble Lord implied, the Commissioner had no evidence before this meeting to suggest that the meeting might constitute such a threat to public order as would justify recommending the Minister of Works to withhold permission for the use of the Square. I agree with the noble Lord that a new factor has come in, and I will, with great pleasure, convey what he has said to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my right honourable friend the Minister of Works, who, I am sure, will give it the great attention it deserves.


My Lords, there are, I think, two things which worry many of us in this particular case. One is the actual incident which took place last Sunday and the other is what steps can reasonably be taken, without, as my noble friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth said, interfering with free speech, to prevent such a thing from happening again. Many of your Lordships will recollect that this matter was in fact raised in very good time by my noble friend Lord Longford, who some time ago asked the noble and learned Viscount Whether this meeting should be held or not. It was later raised in another place only a few days ago. I should like to ask the noble and learned Viscount now, in view of the actual disturbances Which took place and which had been foreseen by many people, whether he and the Home Secretary are still satisfied that Section 5 of the Public Order Act is sufficient to prevent this sort of thing from happening, or whether the time has not now come, after the experience of last Sunday, to amend Section 5 or some other section of the Public Order Act in order specifically to state that any meeting which has the object of inciting racial hatred shall be against the law. Because that, after all, must be the criterion by which this particular incident Should be judged.


My Lords, while I appreciate the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, I think all your Lordships would agree that it raises an extremely difficult point. The criterion of Section 5, if I may just remind our Lordships of the point, is that any person who in any public place or at any public meeting uses threatening abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned shall be guilty of an offence. As I think I told your Lordships—and those of you who were there at the time will remember it—when the Bill was before another place an Amendment was moved in the sense that the noble Lord has suggested to-day and was defeated. I could not go beyond what was said in another place by the Minister of State for the Home Office, and if I may quote his words I think they put it well. When he was asked a similar question he said: No, Sir. However much we may deplore appeals to racial and religious prejudice, my right honourable friend is not convinced that there are sufficient grounds for proposing any amendment to the Public Order Act. It is already an offence under the Act to use in any public place or at any public meeting threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be committed. I think one has to be very, very careful on this matter. The present rule is that one takes the forecast of the Commissioner of Police as to whether there is likely to be a serious breach of public order. Many of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Walston, have long records of political experience. We all know what happens at various meetings—what has happened at various meetings at which we have spoken. None of us for a moment would, I think, want that treated as a serious breach of public order. We have all been through it. But to go further than that and to use the other language of really imposing a political censorship is very dangerous. We all dislike what was said on this occasion, but if one drifts into the position of imposing a censorship over something which one dislikes then it is very difficult to say where we stop. Therefore, I should prefer to leave it, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, has asked me to do, in this way: that the matter will be reconsidered in the light of this experience but reconsidered on the basis of public order.


My Lords, may I put this point to the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor? We do not disagree with the spirit of approach dealing with any possible amendment of the law or change in administration of the law that has been evinced. But I think what people outside are saying is this: the pre-advertised objective of this meeting, the specific purposes they wished to promote, being to re-introduce into this country all the doctrine and practice which led to the horrible war of 1939, in which millions of people lost their lives, many of them by shocking slaughters by the people who uttered the same principles which they also intend apparently to carry into effect, a war that cost our country alone not only lives but thousands of millions of pounds, would the Government not consider it should be put to Parliament to consider Whether that ought not to be declared an illegal organisation?


My Lords, of course I will consider, as always—and I say this with complete sincerity—anything advanced by the noble Viscount and any suggestion of his. I should like to say again, although I do not like intruding personal matters, that nobody could feel more strongly than I do on the point, as it was part of my working life to investigate, examine and present before the Bar of International Justice the crimes against the Jewish people in Europe to which the noble Viscount referred. But I still feel that the threat to public order is the only safe consideration. I will willingly consider what the noble Viscount has said in this sense, because I think there is a synthesis between the two points of view. What the noble Viscount is really saying is that if the procedure takes this course it must ipso facto be a threat to public order. I should very much like to consider that and discuss it with Mr. Butler. But I do want to assure everyone, if it is necessary, of my complete detestation of the views expressed.


My Lords, may I put the question in another form, because as I understand the noble and learned Viscount's answer it is difficult, if not impossible, for the Government to take action in prohibiting a meeting until disorder has taken place? I should like: to ask him whether he would not consider that where there is reasonable ground for apprehension that disorder will take place there should be justification for stopping the meeting—that is, quite regardless of the views that would be expressed, and purely on the basis of public order and with reasonable apprehension that disorder will take place.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, before my noble and learned friend answers that, will he bear in mind, as I am sure he does, a most important leading case which shows the danger of stopping what would otherwise be a lawful meeting simply because those who object to it threaten disorder? I share fully every view expressed by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, but I feel sure that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, if he examined some of the leading cases, would see the danger of the doctrine which he has just announced.


My Lords, I would rather have had a reply from the noble and learned Viscount than from the noble Lord.


My Lords, may I explain the position: that the decision as to whether a meeting will be held rests with the Minister of Works. The procedure is that of course he consults the Commissioner of Police, who expresses his view as to whether there is likely to be disorder in the sense that I explained—the ordinary noises and perhaps occasional scuffles that happen at political meetings would not be sufficient. On this point, the Commissioner had no evidence to suggest that the meeting might constitute such a threat to public order as would justify his recommending that the Minister of Works should withhold permission for the use of the Square. Mr. Colin Jordan had addressed meetings in the Square on previous occasions, and police records showed that on two occasions, in September, 1960, and April, 1961, he had used the platform to attack the Jewish people. He had been met with boos and catcalls, but there had been no violence. I can tell your Lordships that I saw the Commissioner myself before this and got his assessment. It seems to me, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, has suggested, that if this meeting had not taken place it would be right for the Commissioner to take that into account in making a further assessment, and for the Home Secretary and the Minister of Works to consider it also. I should have thought that was the approach.


My Lords, I am quite certain that we on these Benches would wish to agree with the final sentence in Mr. Butler's statement. Is he aware that we feel that the importance of free speech is such that it can occasionally stand a certain amount of difficulty of this kind? The question of free speech is paramount. But there is one other point that I should like to put to the noble and learned Viscount. As I understand it, the position is that all of those who were charged and convicted were those who had been incited, while, as yet, the persons who did the incitement have not been charged. I take it that they may be charged in the near future.


My Lords, as I think I said, those arrested did not include the speakers. The speakers have, however, been informed that a full report of the meeting was being submitted for consideration of the taking of proceedings under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936. Further consideration will be given to this when examination of the typescript of the shorthand notes has been completed. I do not think I ought to say anything more at the moment.


My Lords, may I submit to the Lord Chancellor that we have got ourselves, or the Government have got us, into an altogether lamentable position? I ventured to raise in this House the desirability of banning this meeting, or at any rate of refusing the use of Trafalgar Square for this purpose. I quoted then the poster which was being exhibited, where we were told "Don't vote for any supporter of coloured immigration or Jewish control", and the headline was "Mass meetings: Free Britain from Jewish control". That was the attraction held out, and we were told on the strength of that that the meeting could not be stopped. We are now told that it could not be stopped because on previous occasions the Jewish community had not protested violently. Now that there has been a violent and understandable protest from the Jewish community we are told that it could probably be banned in future. I think that is an outrageous position in which to be landed, and I only hope that the law will be amended.


My Lords, with the greatest respect, I entirely disagree with the approach of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I do not think that he is giving the proper weight and influence to free speech. There are many things which the noble Lord detests because I have heard him express his detestation of many of them. There are many things that I detest. But if he or I impose a censorship because we detest things, we are on the way down a slippery slope. I ask him to reconsider the views that he has expressed and to see whether he cannot take the view that only the threat to public order should be allowed to infringe free speech.