HL Deb 15 May 1973 vol 342 cc667-71

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why, on May Day, 1973, motorists for over one hour were prevented by the police from crossing Oxford Street and the marchers not halted at intervals to prevent traffic chaos.


My Lords, this is a matter for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. He tells me that the prior arrangements made by the police with the organisers of the demonstration included provision for breaks in the procession to allow traffic to flow across its line. In the event, however, disruptive behaviour by some of the demonstrators prevented these breaks from being maintained and the police judged that it would not be conducive to public order to insist on re-establishing them when the procession was moving down Oxford Street.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he appreciate that the unwillingness of the police to enforce breaks in the march resulted in the fact that no vehicle was able on, cross Oxford Street from North to South, or vice versa, for almost an hour? Does he also appreciate that had an ambulance or fire engine tried to cross Oxford Street it would have been immobile for approximately the same time? Is this kind of situation to be tolerated?


Yes, my Lords, I know that. The job of the police on an occasion of this sort is very difficult; they have to try to judge between sticking to and trying to insist on the prearranged methods of breaking the demonstration into several parts so as to allow traffic to go across, if necessary at the expense of a good deal of public disorder, and dealing with the situation as it develops. I do not think it would be right for me to comment on the judgment which they adopted on this particular occasion. It is for the person on the spot to judge which is the better of the two courses to take. In fact they decided not to try to separate the first and second halves of the procession, inconvenient though I appreciate this was for the public.


My Lords, would the noble Viscount agree that, taken by and large with the many demonstrations that we have in London, the relationship between those who organise and those who participate in marches and demonstrations and that of the Metropolitan Police is excellent? Would the noble Viscount agree that if a fire engine or ambulance which was clearly on duty wanted to get through the line of marchers it would be inconceivable that anyone would have prevented it?


Yes, my Lords. It is important that we should retain this consultation between organisers of marches and the police, and make every attempt to enable the stewards themselves, in conjunction with the police, to try to maintain the orderly situation that ought to exist at these expressions of what, after all, is a public freedom that we all cherish. If the fire engine or ambulance had been at the front of the queue the marchers would have let it through. What worries me a little is if it had been held up in a long backlog of traffic some way away from the point where the bottleneck occurred. Happily, I do not believe any such thing happened on May 1.


My Lords, while agreeing with my noble friend about the normal activities of the police, when a march to a meeting is over a certain size would it not be more sensible to have the march on different routes?


My Lords, on May 1 there were a certain number of marching activities going, on in London and they took different routes. This was a particularly large march and I do not know whether it would have been possible for the police and the organisers to arrange that the groups should come together at Speakers' Corner, at which the march was aimed, by different routes. It was intended that there should be a break between the two halves of the march in order to let the traffic go through. This would to some extent have had the same effect. Unfortunately, the operation did not work in practice.


My Lords, would it be an advantage if May Day were a public holiday? When do the Government expect to make an announcement about this matter, which they are considering?


My Lords, I am always answering questions about public holidays of one sort or another, but that one is not on the Order Paper to-day.


My Lords, is not the noble Viscount in his reply conceding that an action taken by a single individual which would lead to his immediate apprehension, such as obstructing traffic, is tolerated if perpetrated by a mass of individuals?


My Lords, it was not quite as simple as that. The organisers, stewards, the police and everybody else intended that the march should be in two halves. By various means, some of which I do not think either the police, the House or I would necessarily approve of, the first half was slowed down so that the second half caught up. Whether this comes into the category of the question asked by the noble Lord I am not sure. It is a complicated situation on the ground and I believe that the police must be the best judges of how to handle the situation on the occasion.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that this is not the first time this has happened in London, that in fact it has happened many times and that I, for one, being a motorist who cannot take public transport, have not only been inconvenienced but been made perhaps even more angry than usual by the fact that people who have been walking along Oxford Street demonstrating—and thereby, I would think, probably not making our economy any better, or even earning their living—have delayed those of us who are trying to get to work for many hours? This has happened on more than one occasion, and I wonder whether the Minister could help us as to what is likely to happen in the future.


My Lords, I very much regret that my noble friend has been inconvenienced in this way. I would suspect that the police would say the same—in fact, I am pretty sure they would. I would also think that the organisers of the marches would say the same, because I believe they wish to preserve the free flow of traffic, so far as possible, in parallel with their own freedom of expression which they are putting forward in this way. The trouble is to get this through to certain of the more unruly hangers-on who sometimes turn up at occasions of this kind. I can only express regret to my noble friend and say that the police and everybody else concerned try to avoid this situation.


My Lords, would the noble Viscount confirm that some people who object to marches ought also to object to State processions when Heads of State visit us, which also causes traffic troubles?


My Lords, I do not think I should speculate on what some people who object to one thing might also object to.


My Lords, I think that the noble Viscount in his original Answer said that some members of the procession were rather obstreperous, or words to that effect, and made the procession close up. Have there been any prosecutions of people on that score?


Yes, my Lords.


My Lords, would not the Minister agree that these demonstrations are a very useful safety valve for the expression of the emotions of people who feel very keenly over a given subject? And even with the slight inconvenience that is caused from time to time, is it not advisable in this free society that both sides work together with a view to creating the least inconvenience while allowing these demonstrations to continue to take place?


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell. What is probably the most constructive course of all that can happen is for the stewards to try to keep control over their processions, their marches, in collaboration with the police. That is the way in which we shall avoid trouble of the kind which occurred on this occasion.


My Lords, would not the movement of traffic be speeded up if definite instructions and markings by road signs were placed to divert the traffic along alternative routes?


My Lords, I have tried on numerous occasions, but I am not altogether certain what alternative routes there are North and South across Oxford Street.

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