HL Deb 20 June 1963 vol 250 cc1382-8

3.35 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a short and straightforward measure, and I need not detain your Lordships-very long with my opening remarks. I should like, however, first to remind your Lordships of the circumstances leading to its introduction; second, to say a few words about the Bill itself; and, finally, to deal with one or two matters that arise in connection with it.

The problem with which we are dealing is, in its current form, a comparatively recent one. There has been so much discussion of the question during the last twelve months that it is worth recalling that it was less than a year ago that much public attention became drawn to it. For a number of years Fascist groups have been in the habit of holding meetings in the streets and on open ground. They no doubt caused a good deal of annoyance, but in general these meetings attracted small attendances and practically no publicity, caused little public reaction and had minimal influence.

It is still the case that none of these groups has a substantial membership: their subscribed membership runs into hundreds only, and their active membership is probably a good deal less. Nor is there any evidence that any of them has, or could obtain, wide support in the country. Where they have put forward candidates for local council or Parliamentary elections they have almost invariably found themselves at the bottom of the poll. But last summer a special effort was made by one of these groups, split off from the others, which it regarded as too moderate, to attract public attention, and on 1st July last year a meeting was held by the National Socialist Movement, led by Colin Jordan, in Trafalgar Square.

It was advertised beforehand that the theme of the meeting would be anti-Semitic; representations were made that it should not be allowed to be held, and, in fact, the question of stopping the meeting was raised in this House on 14th May, 1962, by the noble Earl, Lord Longford; but it was then thought that, in the light of experience of previous meetings held in the Square by extremist organisations, there was no justification for banning this one. It was pretty clear that the object of the advance publicity was to ensure that at any rate on this occasion they would not be ignored. The meeting was held, and well attended. The speeches were strongly anti-Semitic in tone, disorder ensued and the police had to close the meeting.

Not unnaturally, a great deal of publicity was given to this incident, which led to representations in Parliament and elsewhere. Partly, I feel sure, as a result of the publicity created, disturbances took place at a number of other meetings held by Fascist organisations (including the less extreme ones) during the summer and early autumn of last year, and the police had to close them, in some cases almost as soon as the speeches began, whether or not anything outrageous was said. Their opponents were determined not to give the Fascists the chance of spreading their doctrines.

However, the various authorities concerned with law and order, took appropriate steps to deal with the situation. As a temporary measure, to allow feelings to cool, my right honourable friend the Minister of Public Building and Works refused various applications from Fascist and anti-Fascist organisations to hold meetings in Trafalgar Square during September. Mr. Colin Jordan and some of his associates were arrested and charged under the Public Order Act, 1936. And my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in a statement in another place on November 8, promised that the penalties at present available to the courts in respect of offences under Section 5 of the Public Order Act and the Public Meeting Act, 1908, would be increased as soon as a suitable opportunity occurred. He added that this was without prejudice to any further steps which might be considered necessary in the light of the decisions reached by the courts in the case of Jordan and his associates, which at the time were sub judice. He promised that the Government would review the situation in the light of these decisions and that, if the law were then shown to be inadequate, would give that immediate attention.

Your Lordships will recall that there were two cases involved. In one, Colin Jordan, John Tyndall and two other members of the National Socialist Movement were charged, under Section 2 of the Public Order Act, with running a quasi-military organisation. They were found guilty at the Central Criminal Court on October 15 and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. Jordan and Tyndall sought leave to appeal against their convictions and sentences, but this was refused by the Court of Criminal Appeal on November 9. They have since been serving their sentences but have now been released, Jordan as recently as May 31.

In the other case Jordan and Tyndall had been convicted by the Magistrate at Bow Street on August 20 last of using, in Trafalgar Square on July 1, insulting words whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned, contrary to section 5 of the Public Order Act. Both appealed to quarter sessions against conviction and sentence. Jordan's appeal against conviction was allowed, Tyndall's appeal against conviction was dismissed, but a fine of £10 was substituted for the sentence of imprisonment. The chairman of quarter sessions was asked to state a case for consideration by the Divisional Court, which decided on March 19 this year that the appeal should not have been allowed and that Jordan had been rightly convicted by the Magistrate. The Lord Chief Justice said in the course of his judgment that: a man was entitled to express his views as strongly as he liked…but he muse not threaten, abuse or insult by hitting with words ". My Lords, an application for leave to appeal to the House of Lords was subsequently refused, and the case was sent back to quarter sessions where a sentence of one month's imprisonment was imposed.

It was in the light of these decisions that the Government reached its conclusions, which were announced on May 30 by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place and by me to your Lordships' House. Having deferred a decision on the question of the need for legislation until these cases were no longer sub judice, the Government not unnaturally concluded that since the eventual results showed that the courts took the view that infringements of the Public Order Act had taken place, the adequacy of the law to deal with the activities of this the most extreme of the fascist or quasi-Fascist bodies had been demonstrated. I will not go so far as to say that they show finally and conclusively that no substantive legislation will ever be necessary (I shall return to this point later), but certainly there is now no justification for holding up any longer the implementation of the Government's promise to increase the existing penalties.

This, my Lords, is the purpose of the present Bill, which is, as I said, a short and straightforward one. The operative part is subsection (1) of Clause 1. This increases the penalties for two existing offences. Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936, provides as follows: 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". The present maximum penalty is a fine of £50 or three months' imprisonment or both. Section 1 of the Public Meeting Act, 1908, reads as follows: 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". The present maximum penalty for that offence is a fine of £50 or one month's imprisonment. Thus the Public Order Act deals with the speaker of provocative words, while the Public Meeting Act deals with the wilful breaker-up of meetings. The new maximum penalties for both offences proposed by this Bill are first, that on summary conviction there should be a fine of up to £100 or three months' imprisonment or both; and, secondly, on conviction on indictment a fine of up to £500 or twelve months' imprisonment or both.

I do not propose on Second Reading to discuss the details of the penalties now proposed, but I think that your Lordships will agree that they show a very significant increase over the existing penalties. Quite apart from providing a more substantial punishment for convicted offenders, it is the Government's hope that they will afford an effective deterrent for any who may be tempted to "go and do likewise".

I should now like to say a word or two in advance about two criticisms which may be levelled at the Bill. First, when I announced on May 30 that I should he introducing this Bill in the House later that day, the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, suggested that, since the Bill was concerned with freedom of speech, it was a Bill of a constitutional character and should have been introduced in another place. At that time the noble Lords were at a disadvantage since they had not had an opportunity of seeing the Bill. Now that they have done so, they will, I hope, agree that it is so framed that it does not alter the limits of freedom of speech at all. It does no more than increase the penalties that may be imposed on those who infringe the existing law. No constitutional question is involved. There is therefore no need to start the Bill, and no argument for starting the Bill, in another place, and indeed the Government's view, which I do not think your Lordships will require me to elaborate, is that, if the Bill is to have an expeditious passage, the balance of advantage lies in introducing it here.

Secondly, it will be said that the Bill does not go far enough to deal with extremists who provoke violence by stirring up racial hatred. I do not want to anticipate what will be said in the debate, but I should like to make it clear at the outset that the Government share to the full the loathing of Fascism which is felt by nearly everyone in this country. We are firm and united in our determination not to allow abuse of free speech by extremists leading to breaches of the peace. The action so far taken under the existing law has been effective. The prison sentences imposed on Jordan and his associates have clearly had a sobering effect on the National Socialist Movement, whose activities have been much reduced of late. And there has been no disorder at any of the meetings held this year by the other Fascist organisations. The police welcome the court decisions, which clarify the law and make easier their task of enforcing it. This they can be relied upon to do with vigour.

We in the Government, for our part, will watch the situation closely, and, to quote the the words of the Government statement made on May 30: If further legislative action be found necessary we shall not hesitate to take it, for we are determined that the law shall be fully adequate to deal with any persons or groups whose words or actions give rise to breaches of the peace. But on the facts as they now appear the Government feel that it would not be right to substitute, for the plain, objective test of provocation of a breach of the peace, any wider and vaguer prohibition of incitement to racial hatred, which would make a prosecution depend on the subjective test of the view taken by the police officer on the spot of the content of the words used. I must confess that I am sometimes surprised that this particular amendment is often advocated by those who, in the ordinary way, are strong supporters of free speech and very conscious of the danger of putting too much discretion in the hands of the police officer as to the content of the words used, irrespective of the effect on the audience.

I do not want to attempt a polemical speech on this issue. To some extent individual views cut across Party lines. But I think it is true to say that we are all determined to see that effective steps are taken to maintain public order. I think—at least, I hope—that we are all agreed that any legislative action should carry with it a very minimum of restriction on free speech. The Government feel that the additional penalties for which it is now proposed to make provision should add substantially to the armoury available to deal with incitement to racial hatred, and that we should not be justified, on the facts in front of us all, in going further now. My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)