HL Deb 27 June 1979 vol 400 cc1510-21

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"I should like to make a Statement to the House on the events which occurred at Southall on 22nd and 23rd April 1979. I have now received and considered the report from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that my predecessor requested.

"That report did not and could not deal with the inquiry being conducted by Commander Cass into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Blair Peach. His investigation is continuing and the outcome will be submitted to the coroner and to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Nor did the commissioner's report deal with individual complaints against the police. These will be dealt with in accordance with the statutory procedure; that includes a reference to the Police Complaints Board which may, if it thinks fit, make to me a special report on any matters which by reason of their gravity should be brought to my attention.

"I have already placed in the Library of the House a factual account of the disturbances. My Statement will deal with the conclusions of the commissioner's report, and the lessons to be drawn from the incident.

"Mr. Speaker, there were two reasons for expecting violence on this occasion. The first was the National Front's decision to hold a meeting in Southall on 23rd April. It is the commissioner's view that, from the moment the National Front was given permission to hold an election meeting at Southall town hall, there was a real threat of serious public disorder. Many of those whom the commissioner subsequently interviewed argued that the meeting should not have been allowed to take place. But the law does not allow election or other meetings to be banned on public order or any other grounds, nor does it permit a local authority any discretion in making premises available for election meetings on the grounds that the views likely to be expressed are offensive. The second reason was divisions within the Asian community in Southall. Despite the deep apprehension of the local Asian community, there were, in the days preceding the disturbances, useful and continuing discussions between the police and community leaders. Regrettably, however, the preparations for opposition to the National Front meeting revealed a growing difference of view between the young Asians and their elders, which as events turned out, was easily exploited by extremist elements, not all of them from Southall, some of whom seemed determined to bring about a confrontation with the police.

"I should like to deal with the main criticisms levelled against the strategy and tactics of the police. First, it is said that there were too many police on duty. The commissioner rejects this. I share his view. It is difficult to conceive that any number significantly less than the 2,750 deployed could have handled the situation better. Information available to the police in advance indicated that there might be several thousand demonstrators, and indeed some 3,000 are estimated to have taken part. Moreover, it has been and will remain the commissioner's policy, which I fully support, that defensive containment by numbers of police on foot is more likely to be successful, and is certainly more within our traditions, than deliberate, offensive tactics by smaller groups equipped in the style of some foreign police forces.

"Second, it is said that the Special Patrol Group should not have been deployed at Southall. The commissioner does not accept this. Nor do I. They formed only part, and that a very small part, of the deployment at Southall. As the commissioner made clear in his recent annual report, the Special Patrol Group is used on a wide variety of tasks, including crime and traffic, as well as public order. Indeed, most of their arrests in 1978 were crime arrests. A mobile reserve has considerable tactical value, but its work needs to be kept under review and the commissioner has asked the deputy commissioner to conduct an examination of the group.

"The commissioner has told me of his proposals for restoring and improving relations between the police and the local community in Southall. He will also be making renewed efforts to attract more Asians from the area as regular or special constables. He intends to review his whole community relations organisation and, where necessary, will allocate further resources to it.

"The events in Southall inevitably raise questions about the adequacy of the law in relation to public order. I have already indicated to the House that I wish to consider whether changes in the law are required. The Government are, therefore, undertaking a review of the Public Order Act 1936 and related legislation. I shall welcome the views of Members of this House and of interested organisations. On any matters touching the Representation of the People Act 1949, there will be consultation with the parties in the normal way.

"In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I should like to emphasise certain general points. The Government firmly set their face against extremist organisations, whether to the left or right, who seek to divide society and exploit racial tension. All who live in this country are equal before the law and should be treated as such. Anyone, private citizen or policeman, who breaks the law should be brought before the courts and, if found guilty, properly punished. If the police find it impossible to maintain public order under the existing law, then it is for Parliament to decide whether and how a new balance has to be struck. "But whatever the law may be, it is the duty of the police to uphold and enforce it impartially. That is what they were trying to do in Southall in very difficult circumstances. In my view no police force in the world does it better. We ask much of our police, Mr. Speaker, in carrying out the duty which we lay upon them; I believe that we in this House owe them a reciprocal duty of wholehearted support".

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, the entire House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement being made in another place by his right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I noticed that the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Blair Peach is being conducted by Commander Cass. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, when the report will be available and, when it is, whether it will be made available to the public.

Dealing with complaints against the police, which I gather from the Statement will be dealt with by the Police Complaints Board, I am a little perturbed that in the Statement it says that the commissioner, if he thinks fit, may make a special report to the Home Secretary. I should have thought it was incumbent, if not a requirement in the sense of regulations, upon the Commissioner of Police to let the Home Secretary know the matters which the Police Complaints Board has had to deal with and what conclusions they come to. I do not think it is good enough. I submit it would be intolerable if the Home Secretary were not informed of the outcome of Police Complaints Board investigations.

What happened on the 22nd/23rd April is a matter of very grave public concern, and I am glad that the Government recognise that the time has come to review the Public Order Act 1936. In view of the limitations of the Representation of the People Act—it was made very clear in the Statement that this particular meeting at the town hall could not be prevented because it was during the election period— it is essential that the Representation of the People Act should also be reviewed in the light of what happened on that particular occasion. I gather from the Statement that the commissioner recognised that there would be a very real threat to public order if the meeting took place; and from the moment the National Front was given permission to hold an election meeting in the town hall the commissioner's view was obviously the right one.

As your Lordships will know, the occasion resulted in Blair Peach being killed, but we are not considering that matter this afternoon. However, it raises an important question of whether National Front marches should be allowed to continue. We have over the years seen many of them, and they are a prescription for disorder because their presence is an affront and a provocation to certain minority groups whom we have the duty to protect. Only last Sunday the National Front marched as a protest against the admission of the Vietnamese into this country. I understand that many people —this was reported in the Press—find the use of scores of Union Jacks on these occasions both objectionable and offensive, when they are not even dipped on passing the Cenotaph.

I think one has to recognise that they do not march in the cause of freedom but in defiance of law and order. I think we all welcome the proposals of the commissioner, whom I believe to be seriously desirous of restoring and improving the relations between the police and the local community in Southall. If I say that these have never been at a lower ebb, I do not mean that by way of criticism. I say it merely because I think we would all pay tribute to the commissioner for his resolve in doing something to establish a better relationship between the police and the Southall community.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends I should like to thank the Minister for repeating this Statement made in another place. May I also ask him whether or not he thinks it is intolerable that as many as 2,750 policemen should have been pinned down in dealing with an operation of this kind by a few racists, and that race relations in Southall, in particular between the police and the Asian community, should be subjected to the enormous strains that meetings of this kind place on them? May I echo the call which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that we should seriously consider now whether marches of this kind by the National Front through areas in which large numbers of people of ethnic minorities live should continue to be allowed, or whether this is not in conflict with the very principles of freedom, which these people are seeking to destroy.

May we welcome the review of the Public Order Act, which the noble Lord has announced, and which is obviously necessary. However, am I not right in thinking that this review is likely to take a very considerable while, in view of the large number of consultations that will be necessary with the police and the political parties in connection with the Representation of the People Act and so on? Does the Minister not consider that, in the meanwhile, it is desirable that we should give some guidance to local authorities on how to treat applications from the National Front to use facilities owned by them on similar occasions in the future?

In this connection, is the Minister aware that both Brent and the ILEA refused to grant facilities to the National Front during the recent election, and that in a court case which was subsequently brought by the National Front against Brent Council that authority won? Therefore, was not the leader of the Ealing Council, Councillor Mrs. Howard, wrong when she said that Ealing Council had no power to stop these meetings when that view was expressed to her by the Ealing Community Relations Council on 11th April?

Secondly, while we obviously require time to study the factual account which the noble Lord has placed in the Library, is he aware that there are several discrepancies between this account and that which was issued by the Ealing Community Relations Council? For example, when the police entered certain premises in the area at about 6.15 p.m. and made something like 60 arrests there, a doctor who was on the premises was beaten over the head by the police with truncheons and subsequently required four stitches in her head.

Is it not essential that we should get to the bottom of all the matters which occurred during the course of this demonstration? Therefore, why did the Government decide not to deal with this matter in the same way as the Red Lion Square disturbances were treated in 1974? Can the noble Lord say whether there are any differences between this case and that of Red Lion Square, where it will be remembered that one of the participants was killed and the events were inquired into thoroughly—and, if I may say so, with very great value to the community—by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman? Should not a judicial inquiry of this kind be appointed by the Government to inquire into the disturbances which took place in Southall?

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, if I may at this stage reply to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, I am grateful for what he said, and the answers that I have to the questions which he has put to me are that I am sure that Commander Cass will make his report as quickly as possible. The report will go to the coroner and to the Director of Public Prosecutions. But I am sure the noble Lord will agree with me that it would not be right for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to interfere with that process.

With respect to the noble Lord, I do not think he put quite the right interpretation on the beginning of the Statement. The reference to the report, which the noble Lord regarded as a report which could be given to my right honourable friend by the Commissioner of the Metropolis, is in fact a reference to the fact that all complaints other than those referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions will be referred to and reviewed by the Police Complaints Board, as will the action taken on them. If, having reviewed those complaints, the Board judge that there are aspects of the affair which should be drawn to my right honourable friend's attention, it is open to the Board to make a special report to my right honourable friend under Section 8 of the Police Act 1976.

The noble Lord also referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to the review of the Public Order Act. Yes, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, although it will be a review starting off originally in the Home Office, clearly it will take some time. The reference of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, to the need to look at the Representation of the People Act is a view shared by my right honourable friend, but of course this will be a matter for the political parties.

Finally, may I answer the question which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me. He made two particular points. First, he referred specifically, if I remember rightly, to the London Borough of Brent—


and the ILEA.


But I will reply to him on the London Borough of Brent. As I understand it, the facts are that during the parliamentary election campaign the borough of Brent declined to make a room available for the use of the National Front. The National Front then sought redress in the High Court and a direction that a room should be made available. As in other cases, the judge declined to consider the case in the time available. The noble Lord did not say that; he said that in fact one of the sides to the case won. The judge did not rule, as implied in Press reports, in favour of the Council's decision. The National Front have not pursued any of the cases that they have brought to the point where such an authoritative ruling can be obtained. It is in those circumstances that I think it is wise—and I think the House would agree that it is wise—to review the Public Order Act.


My Lords, may I say that I do not think I misunderstood what the noble Lord said in the Statement. I may have expressed myself rather badly. But as I understood the noble Lord in his reply to me, he said that it is up to the Police Complaints Board to decide, if it thinks fit, to make a special report on these matters. That rather suggests that they have discretion either to do so or not to do so. The point I was trying to make was that I think they ought to.


My Lords, this is enshrined in legislation which was passed by a Government of which the noble Lord was a popular and very hard- working member. I am not making a political point, but this is enshrined in legislation. More seriously, the Police Complaints Board of course take their responsibilities exceedingly seriously, and I am sure that if they feel it is necessary to do this, the report will be made.


My Lords, can the noble Lord deal with the point I made about a judicial inquiry, and whether or not there were any differences whatsoever between the circumstances of this episode and those of the Red Lion Square demonstration, which was the subject of a public inquiry by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman?


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord reminded me of that. I must say that my right honourable friend agrees with the views which were clearly expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, that public inquiries should be used most sparingly and that they are no substitute for an effective complaints procedure, or indeed for the courts. That complaints procedure now exists and all the correct steps have been put into effect and are, at this moment, in effect. Therefore, there is no need for a public inquiry.


My Lords, may I, as one who was involved at the time of the Mosley difficulties in the East End of London, ask the noble Lord whether the lesson has not yet been learned of what should be and what should not be allowed in the interests of freedom? There are many people who are considerably perturbed by the fact that, among those who are in the National Front at present, are people who were actually in the Mosley movement when he was perpetrating some of the most serious actions against liberty, when they were against the policy of the Government altogether and when they were pro-Nazi, as obviously the National Front is at present. Does the noble Lord agree that it is so serious a matter that it ought to be dealt with as quickly as possible?

Perhaps I ought to declare an interest. I happen to be of the Jewish persuasion. I know exactly what has happened. I have followed this matter, even to the extent of seeing in South Africa one of the people who is now a leader of the National Front Party perpetrating similar actions and promoting similar suggestions to those which the Mosley people were presenting then. If I may so with respect, I question whether our idea of liberty of speech and liberty of holding meetings—when it affects the question as to whether, when they hold meetings, they are in fact attacking both liberty of speech and the very ideals for which we stand—should be tolerated at all.


My Lords, is not the House getting rather out of order? This is not a debate. The House seems to forget that fact.


My Lords, if I may keep short my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Janner, in view of the advice of my noble friend, the noble Lord opposite referred to the events of the 1930s. The fact is that the Public Order Act 1936 provides powers only to ban marches and processions, and the chief officer of police can only apply for such a ban when he believes that this is the only way in which serious public disorder can be prevented. This matter is being looked at in the review of legislation which has been announced in the Statement. So far as amendment of the Representation of the People Act is concerned, this, as I have said, is a matter for discussion between the political parties.


My Lords, although it may seem to be a matter of detail, in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, the Minister made no mention of the noble Lord's reference to the use, or the mis-use, of the Union flag by a party which is totally unrepresentative of any constituent part of the Union. In view of the very strong feelings which are held about this abuse, not only in this House but outside it, could the Minister give the House an assurance that this particular point will be looked at very carefully in the review of the Public Order Act? I believe that there is a good precedent for this in the City of Glasgow. At certain football matches, when matches of a national or international character are taking place, the Union flag and the Irish flag are not allowed to be used. That is the city from which the present Commissioner of Police came. He was the deputy chief constable of Glasgow.


My Lords, may I put one further, brief question. Could my noble friend, and those who will be reviewing the law, consider whether a modernised version of the old 1714 Riot Act would be of great help in the control of the kind of disturbances which we have been experiencing?


My Lords, if I may reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and my noble friend Lord Hylton, in the Statement my right honourable friend in another place said: I shall welcome the views of Members of this House and of interested organisations". I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and my noble friend, that the remarks which they have passed, and any other remarks which your Lordships have given and may give in the future, will be treated in exactly the same way as the views of honourable and right honourable Members in another place.


My Lords, could I ask the Minister—


My Lords, we really must draw these questions to a close. The current practice in your Lordships' House is that there should be questions for information on a Statement and that they should be brief.


My Lords, I wish to ask a question in connection with the Statement. It relates to the fact that Ealing Borough Council were, presumably, not able to prevent the meeting. In view of the fact that it was well known to the police that Southall town hall is, from a communications point of view, practically the nerve centre of Southall, could not the police have made representations to Ealing that the meeting should be transferred to a point where it could have been more easily contained and dealt with, possibly with less damage? The very fact that the police drafted in so many reinforcements shows that they must have known what was the situation with regard to that particular point in Southall, which I happen to know very well indeed. I should have thought that Ealing Borough Council could have been advised to transfer the meeting to another point, even if they were not able to prevent it from taking place.


My Lords, discussions were held before the day in question, but the power which the noble Lord hopes can be ascribed to the police does not exist, and it would not have been possible for the police to do what the noble Lord wishes they had done.