HL Deb 17 June 1974 vol 352 cc746-51

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has just made the following Statement in another place:

"The violence which took place in and around Red Lion Square on June 15 followed police action to prevent a clash between a demonstration organised by the National Front and a counter-demonstration by a movement now called Liberation. I understand that the National Front arranged some time ago to hold a meeting in the larger of two rooms at Conway Hall on the subject of 'Stop immigration—start repatriation'. Subsequently a smaller room at Conway Hall was made available for the Liberation meeting, and both meetings were to be preceded by marches.

"I would prefer not to go into detail at this stage about the precise sequence of events on June 15. With around fifty charges pending as well as a Coroner's inquest it is obvious that there are substantial sub judice aspects. It is evident that there are some differences of opinion about the actions of those involved, clearly pertinent to the court proceedings. I would also like more time to consider a report which was given to me this morning by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

"However, I take this opportunity of expressing regret—on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House—that in the course of Saturday afternoon a young man died. There were also a number of injuries, not least among the police. The exact cause of the death is not yet clear and we should be careful not to comment on that. I cannot be too emphatic in my condemnation of the actions of all those who contribute to acts of violence. The burden imposed on the police by disorder of this kind is very heavy. It is more than time that those who organise demonstrations which may develop into violent confrontations realise and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions."


My Lords, I am sure that we are all very grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement and I quite understand the reservations referred to in view of the coroner's proceedings and also because of the charges that have still to be heard. It is hard for me to say with which of the two organisations concerned I differ more greatly in their general views. Therefore, at least I have the chance of being impartial.

Whatever may be the wisdom of those who accepted these two rival bookings in the Conway Hall, do not the Government agree that both factions concerned were taking advantage of our much-cherished traditions of freedom of speech and freedom of association? Also, were not the police there probably sacrificing some of their well-earned off-duty time in order to guarantee those traditions and to keep the peace? I ask whether it is not some indication of what happened that 39 policemen were injured, as opposed to six of the demonstrators. Has the noble Lord any comment on what is on the tape about the death having been caused by cerebral haemorrhage? Perhaps I might reinforce the Statement's conclusion—I may well not get another chance to comment on this matter. If it should turn out that, by suddenly seeking to charge and break the police cordon, some demonstrators used or provoked violence, would it not be the conclusion that they were blatantly abusing the traditions which were protecting them?

Perhaps we may all now realise that violence at demonstrations, however induced—by carelessness, folly or, indeed, by calculation—can lead to injury and death. Then, afterwards, we all say—as I do now—how sorry we are. Organisers of these demonstrations should take this lesson to heart and, if they do not, they should take the blame. Should we not all consider, if there is not a general lesson to be learned, that it is most questionable whether rival factions who are so much in disagreement as these two, should have demonstration meetings at the same time and at the same place in the way that occurred on this occasion?


My Lords, we from these Benches certainly deplore the violence and the death of the young man and the casualties to the police. Presumably there will be an Inquiry into this incident. It seems to have stemmed from a series of appalling misjudgments by practically everybody involved. I should like to know what form the Inquiry will take when it is an appropriate moment to undertake it. I should like to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, in condemning all those who provoked the violent reaction and all those who reacted to the provocation. Those who took part in both the marches were totally irresponsible in every sense of the word.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure all Members of the House will wish to be associated with the general approach of the noble Lords who have spoken. On the precise question of the post-mortem examination, if the noble Viscount will forgive me, I prefer not to comment on this matter at this stage because it has to be gone into rather more carefully. Certainly my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wishes to study some of the wider implications of this whole episode, not least the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, en the question of some form of Inquiry. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary was told during the course of his meeting with the Metro- politan Police Commissioner this morning that the police would welcome an independent Inquiry into this episode. My right honourable friend is now considering this matter.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister a question? Who authorised the letting of the small room? However much one abhors, as I do, the National Front, they have a right to hold a meeting, but was it not very silly and unwise for the smaller room to be let to the Liberation Movement?


My Lords, the point which my noble friend has raised is a matter entirely for the hall authorities. No doubt this is one of the questions which will come within the general discussion.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that on the B.B.C. television news last night the incident was presented as a clash between the police and the Liberation Movement? Is he aware that this presentation of the news completely omitted to show that basically this was a clash between the Liberation Movement and the National Front Movement which the police were trying to hold apart? Is he aware that, as the liberty and safety of everyone depends on the action of the police, the presentation by the B.B.C. was far below their normal high standards? Will he ask them to take more care in the presentation of a very important incident?


My Lords, I will draw the attention of the Chairman of the Corporation to what the noble Lord has just said.


My Lords, may I first express what I have already done by telephone this morning—my sympathy with the relatives of the boy who died? The relatives accepted the statement which I am now about to make to this House.

My Lords, I am the Honorary President of Liberation, but that is more because of my activities in the past than so I can become involved in its activities to-day. I heard of this proposal of a counter-march in Red Lion Square six days before it took place. I heard of the proposal that there should be two meetings in Conway Hall only four days before they took place. I expressed my strong disapproval and dissent, and I declined absolutely to take any part in either event. I was assured that the arrangements were being made with the police, and that the Liberation movement was co-operating entirely in those arrangements. I was also assured that the two meetings in Conway Hall would be sealed off so that there would be no opportunity of one audience getting to another. Nevertheless, I continued to express my disapproval of both those proposals.

It is fair to Liberation to say that I was not so much concerned that those associated with Liberation would engage in violence as with those who always attach themselves—and this is the danger—to such demonstrations; and that is in effect what took place. There w as no conflict between those associated with Liberation and the police. The conflict was when those who sought confrontation with the police broke away from the procession and advanced towards the police. I should add that these occasions were organised not by the central organisation of Liberation, but by its London Area Council. Although I have explained my own position, I deplore that these events ever took place. Obviously within Liberation we have to consider the consequences as soon as our central council meets.


My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government please recognise that this is the first confrontation between Fascism and Communism in this country, and that it is likely to be repeated?


My Lords, on the second point, I prefer not to follow the noble Earl on that. I trust that we shall not see demonstrations of this kind again on the streets of London, and it is certainly the objective of my right honourable friend to see that we do not have a recurrence of this regrettable and deplorable episode. The whole House will take note of what my noble friend Lord Brockway has said, and deeply regret that the advice he gave was not followed.


My Lords, when my noble friend comes to consider the relative responsibility of these two organisations, and when he comes to consider the statement of my noble friend Lord Brockway that there was no con- frontation between Liberation and the National Front, will he bear in mind what many of us saw on the television last night—that a member of Liberation, with a baton in his hand, advanced towards a horse upon which was a mounted policeman, and he struck at that horse?


My Lords, would not the Minister agree that a great deal of the trouble with this demonstration, as at others, was caused by demonstrators' placards being mounted on heavy poles which are subsequently often used to attack the police Would the Government seriously consider making the brandishing of such poles or sticks a punishable offence?


My Lords, would i1 not be better if we left these matters until the coroner's inquest and any inquiry which the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary may think fit to order?


My Lords, I am much obliged.