HL Deb 03 April 1980 vol 407 cc1469-79

11.31 a.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:

"The Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset has informed me that serious disorder occurred yesterday evening in part of the St. Paul's area of Bristol. The trouble started when police officers visited a club to execute a search warrant in connection with suspected drink and drug offences. A hostile crowd gathered outside the club and threw stones at the police, who were obliged to call for reinforcements. Police reinforcements arrived, but were heavily outnumbered by the crowd, which had grown to some two to three hundred and which pelted the police with bricks, stones and bottles. A running fight developed in which a number of police cars were overturned and set alight.

"The chief constable, who had taken personal charge of the operation, decided temporarily to withdraw his officers from the area, pending the arrival of further reinforcements. As soon as reinforcements were available the police moved in with riot shields and secured the area. Order was restored by midnight. The police are continuing to patrol the district to prevent further trouble. During the course of the evening considerable damage was done to shops and other premises; a bank was set on fire; and looting took place.

"Some 21 police officers and nine members of the public were injured, none seriously. Twenty-one arrests have been made so far, mainly for looting. It is not yet possible to assess the extent of the damage to property. The chief constable has announced that he is making full inquiries into the incident, and I have asked him to report to me urgently. He is in close touch with the local community relations council".

That, my Lords, is the Statement which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made in another place.


My Lords, your Lordships will be very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating this Statement, and for taking this early opportunity to report to the House—and particularly for doing so at what is not the most convenient of times. Your Lordships will clearly be deeply distressed at the deplorable events in Bristol yesterday, which must have come as a shock to people in many parts of the country. We on this side of the House —and I am sure this feeling is shared in all parts of your Lordships' House—regret all the injuries sustained; and we note, too, the large number of police injuries in these incidents. Obviously, whatever we say here in this House, it is in Bristol that the local problem itself will be solved. We note that the police inquiry is taking place as a matter of urgency, and the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, may be able to assure your Lordships, perhaps, that he will keep the House informed as more material emerges.

As to the actual events, it is obviously too early to form judgments on these, but perhaps as a preliminary point it might be said that it is clearly difficult for a police force to react if it is not organised to deal with situations, particularly untypical situations, of this kind. The events of yesterday of course raise certain questions, including certain very basic questions, not the least of which—and I am not suggesting for one moment that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will be expected to tender even a preliminary answer today—is clearly: What were the underlying causes here? One does just wonder whether in fact a police inquiry, if inquiries into this matter are limited solely to that, will be adequate to cover points of that kind.

Another question which clearly emerges so far—and no doubt this is a question which will be considered in the course of the investigations and inquiries—is whether it is true that leaders of the communities in the Bristol area have been warning for some time, as has already been suggested in some reports, that trouble was simmering; and, if that is so, whether and what action was taken about it. Of course, in posing that question we nevertheless also have in mind that on occasions like this there is a great deal of benefit from hindsight, which suddenly reveals itself to people after events of this kind.

I would ask just two further questions of the Minister. Would he not agree that these matters suggest it is time that perhaps we talked more about race relations and less about immigration and swamping? For one thing, whatever else one can say apparently about the Bristol situation, that is certainly not a part of the country which evidently has been in any way swamped, considering the size of that city. Again, would the Minister not also agree that we must continue to tackle very urgently the problems of the inner cities, and that there is a very great need to maintain expenditure on urban programmes, not least to combat further problems of this kind?

Those are the only points that I wanted to put to the Minister. The only other matter which I would suggest to him at this stage, without necessarily seeking an immediate answer, is this—and it arises from a point which I ventured to make earlier about whether the police inquiry was adequate. It is whether he and his right honourable friend would not close their minds, if the need seems to suggest it, to widening the inquiry at a later date.

11.39 a.m.


My Lords, I am sure that, while the whole House deplores the violence and the looting that took place last evening in Bristol, the House is also greatly disturbed by it, because it brings to an end the period of comparatively sustained calm in this area. Would the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, not consider recommending to his right honourable friend the Home Secretary the wisdom of having an immediate, fairly high-powered inquiry into the matter, for this reason? I think the public need to be reassured, and there is a great danger of various people jumping to (as it were) preconceived explanations of this trouble yesterday evening unless a fairly high-powered inquiry is set up. Because it is very disturbing for the country as a whole that this violence has taken place in an area where there has not been as much immigration as there has to other cities in our country.

There is also another aspect of the matter which I think needs inquiry other than a police inquiry, and that is that, on the face of it, the decision of the chief constable to withdraw his forces (which I have no doubt was taken in entirely good faith) in the face of a crowd of 200 or 300 does seem to be a rather odd decision. It may be entirely right. For example, I think that the greatest mistake is to jump to conclusions on insufficient evidence. But I think the public need to be reassured as to why it was done, why it was necessary to leave the area without police for some hours. These matters need to be inquired into immediately, sensibly and at a fairly high level. With great respect to what has been said today, I think it would be better for the Home Secretary to consider setting up his own inquiry immediately.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Boston of Faversham and Lord Hooson, for what they have said on this very difficult matter. Both noble Lords, in essence, have asked me to give an assurance that the House will be kept informed. I can certainly say to your Lordships that I know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will consider whether it will be helpful for him to make a further Statement to the House in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, said that certain basic questions arise from this and both he and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in terms, asked whether there had been prior warnings. Lord Hooson said that this area appeared to be one which had been absolutely quiet. I should like to say on this that there have been reports, I understand, of statements that relations between the local community and the police were not good and that trouble was inevitable. I am bound to say to your Lordships that these reports conflict substantially with the information available to my right honourable friend. I believe firmly that it would be wrong to come to a hasty judgment about the reasons for the trouble that occurred.

Both noble Lords have asked me whether a police inquiry is enough. I fully understand the reasons why both noble Lords have asked this. There must be most careful investigation into the cause of the disturbances. In the first instance, my right honourable friend will be receiving an urgent and full report from the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset. My right honourable friend will want to consider carefully, in the light of that and other reports, what further action may be appropriate. I think that I am right in saying that it is the intention of my right honourable friend to ask his Minister of State to go immediately to Bristol to see at first hand and to talk at first hand about what has happened.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, put to me the point about the importance of race relations. I entirely agree with that, and also with the necessity for bringing help, where possible, to inner cities. The Government are trying to do that through the enterprise zone concept. Finally, there was the point put by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, about the tactics of the police. I am sure that the noble Lord with his experience would agree that we must place great weight on the operational judgment of the chief constable as the man on the spot who must cope with the situation with the forces at his disposal. I think it right to say that the police showed both courage and coolness in ensuring that order was restored without loss of life or serious injury.


My Lords, there is another matter that I would venture to put to the noble Lord. In doing so, I should like to thank him for the forthcoming way that he dealt with the questions so far raised. Can he say anything at this early stage about the question of compensation for the victims of the events of yesterday? Obviously, we all deeply deplore the violence that occurred and which resulted not only in the injuries about which he has told us but also in the great damage which appears to have been done. I am sure that, at an early stage, at any rate, it would be helpful if anything can be done to indicate to people what the position is there. May I add that we all very much share in what he has said about the courage of the police and, most notably, of the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset (who, I think, has been fairly recently appointed) and who, if the reports are correct, was right in the thick of things from as early an opportunity as was possible throughout yesterday.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his final words. I agree with him on his first point that compensation is a matter of concern; but it is not a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. Any claims will be against the police authority.


My Lords, the Minister made some promise of a further Statement. Can he be sure that in it there will be reference to the proportion of those apprehended who are non-white? Further, from the fact that in the area under consideration it is understood there is a very substantial population coming from the West Indies, will he ask his right honourable friend to give further consideration to the proposal that has been made that there should be established a substantial fund which would permit voluntary repatriation in view of the fact that there is likely to be a great deal of unemployment in this country?


My Lords, I would hope that I speak for all sides of the House when I say that we are all concerned that in those areas (particularly inner city areas) where there are many different communities, relations should be as good as possible. I am not going to jump to any hasty conclusion as to the exact causes of this particular trouble, except to draw to the attention of the House the fact that my right honourable friend's Statement does not make any reference at all—and quite deliberately so—to who actually caused the trouble, because at the moment we simply do not know. So far as my noble friend's second question is concerned, this is a matter that he and I have discussed before now outside this House. I think that I must repeat what I have said previously and privately to my noble friend: that the point he is putting to me is not Government policy.


My Lords, on a point arising from the Lord Belstead's reply, I am not disputing in any way that the chief constable on the spot must take the decisions. What is disturbing to the public is the reason why he had to take that particular decision. It is a serious matter in a British city if the police have to be withdrawn for a number of hours because of any disturbance. The reasons underlying that are truly disturbing.


My Lords, I fully understand the noble Lord's concern; but I think that we ought to await the report from the chief constable.


My Lords, would the Minister agree that on all sides of the House there has been in the past and is at present much worry about the underlying reasons which bring forth an incident such as happened yesterday? Would not the Minister agree that the last Government set up a committee of inquiry called the Rampton Committee into the education and training of children of ethnic groups, concerning also the work and unemployment of those children; and that the present Government have continued with this committee of inquiry and have added members to it? Would not the Minister agree that the first part of the report is to be on the needs of the West Indian community?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the information that she has given to the House.


My Lords, is the Minister not aware that while his request to postpone judgment is essentially reasonable, he, himself, with the support of speakers from other Front Benches, has jumped the gun by assuming that what happened in Bristol yesterday was associated with race relations? In saying that, is he not aware that when I was Member of Parliament for Dudley in the early 1960s, we had the first real trouble in this country on a substantial scale? What came to light eventually is that, although it looked to be a race riot, it was nothing of the kind. There are deep-seated underlying causes of such a spontaneous eruption. The reasons for it we do not know and should not pretend that we know. We should try to do some fundamental research to find out what went wrong.

I should like to make a suggestion, and I speak with deep feeling on this matter. When the Dudley riots occurred I went and had a look, and I am sure that the troubles were aggravated by the actions of the media. On the second or third night in Dudley market place the television cameras were already there. They were in Bristol last night, and for the moment it is the duty of all of us to quieten this down and not to try to dramatise the situation and to blow it up.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, advises that we should not jump to conclusions. That is good advice, which the Government have already taken. I said earlier that my right honourable friend's Statement makes no mention in any line that this matter was connected with race relations. We must await what will come out of the report by the chief constable. After we have had the full report from the chief constable, which my right honourable friend is receiving as a matter of urgency, and after the Minister of State has been to Bristol to see the situation on the spot and to discuss the matter, my right honourable friend will, as Lord Wigg wishes, consider carefully in the light of that and other reports what further action may be appropriate.


My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to ask his right honourable friend to make representations immediately, this morning, to the governors of the BBC and to ITV to remind them of their responsibilities, so that they will not try to blow up the situation in the hours to come? In my judgment, which is not without complete knowledge, what underlies the situation in Bristol underlies another place, too. These things have a habit of catching on. The media now have a great responsibility to put the situation objectively, and certainly not to dramatise it and to blow it up.


My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, programme content is a matter for the governors of the BBC and for the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, within the terms of the Charter and the Independent Television Act. However, I shall draw the noble Lord's remarks to the attention of the chairman of the governors of the BBC and the chairman of the IBA.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are other areas in our inner cities, including certain London boroughs, where the situation which arose in St. Paul's district of Bristol last night has been for some time more predictable than what happened in Bristol, and potentially more dangerous? Does this not add powerful weight to the case for instituting a wider inquiry following the police inquiry into the events in Bristol?


My Lords, I repeat that my right honourable friend's mind is in no way closed on the way in which he should proceed, once he has received the reports to which I have already referred.


My Lords, I am sure that every Member of this House deplores what has happened. wishes to express sympathy with the injured and supports compensation for those victims who are not covered. I wish strongly to support the proposal for a public inquiry. It is not enough that there should be an investigation within the police force. We want an inquiry and a report which will have the confidence of the black people as well as of the white. I strongly urge that that should happen.

I have been impressed by the view taken by the community workers in the area to the effect that this was not a racial conflict, that the relations between whites and blacks in the area have been good and continue to be good, and that the real reason is the frustration of the young blacks, born in this country, who leave our schools only to find that they have no jobs to go to. They become anti-social, they regard the police as the embodiment of authority, and they turn their minds against the authorities. May I remind the Minister that 13 years ago the Hunt Commission warned us of this danger? However, very little has been done, and the position today is worse than it was then.


My Lords, I agree with much of the noble Lord's remarks and I do not wish to add to them significantly, except to take up his last point. I remind the House that there are agencies, of which the police are one, community relations councils locally are another and other people working in the field are a third, who will have been involved in the St. Paul's area of Bristol. My information is very much the same as the information which has come to the noble Lord and to which I referred in a supplementary answer. The reports received by my right honourable friend indicate that relationships between the local community and the police, for instance, were not bad; they were in fact good.


My Lords, may I intervene for one moment? I know that the Order Paper for today is not absolutely crammed full and that this is an important subject. However, the House has now been dealing with it for a long while. I remind the House that this is only a Statement and many noble Lords have asked not one question but have taken two bites at the cherry. Therefore, I think it might be appropriate for the House to move on to the next business.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!