HL Deb 30 April 1980 vol 408 cc1248-51

2.47 p.m.


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 what public expenditure was incurred as a result of the police measures in the Borough of Lewisham instituted to protect the march of the National Front which took place on 20th April 1980.


My Lords, I understand from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that the cost of the policing arrangements for this march has been estimated at £300,000.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask him this question: Does he not think that we are paying too high a price—and I do not refer to this purely in financial terms—to enable small Nazi groups (because that is what they are), in the name of so-called freedom of speech, to inflict inflammatory racialist slogans on areas which have apparently been deliberately chosen on account of their large coloured population?


My Lords, so far as the financial price is concerned, I certainly appreciate the force of the question which the noble Lord asks of me. It is to see whether the balance between the rights of demonstrators and the interests of the rest of the public is correct that the Government are undertaking a review of the Public Order Act 1936 and related legislation, on which my right honourable friend published a Green Paper last week and upon which I know my right honourable friend would welcome the views of noble Lords. Of course, in that respect my right honourable friend will be taking into account what the noble Lord said in his supplementary.


My Lords, did not the National Front march in Lewisham, consisting largely of "skinheads" shouting racialist abuse, in itself constitute a threat to law and order? Was this not foreseeable? If it is thought that the powers of the chief constable are inadequate to protect the public peace by preventing this sort of illegal procession, should those powers not be reviewed immediately to see whether this public abuse cannot be remedied?


My Lords, I would not presume to depart from the conclusion which the noble and learned Lord has reached that this constituted a threat, and clearly the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis took the threat very seriously. But the commissioner has to operate within the terms of the existing law, and, as the noble and learned Lord will know better than I do, the commissioner has to believe that serious disorder cannot otherwise be prevented before he can apply for a ban or impose conditions. The commissioner reached a conclusion that serious disorder could otherwise be prevented; and, if I may say so, in the final analysis the commissioner was proved right.

The Lord Bishop of SOUTHWARK

My Lords, if the Government consider it essential for these demonstrations to continue in the interests of free speech, could not the payments for the police and other payments come from the whole community rather than from the ratepayers of a particular borough? Having witnessed two demonstrations in Lewisham (which is in my diocese) and also one a month or so ago at the Elephant and Castle, it seems unfair that the ratepayers of a particular locality should have to pay the police to protect them from invaders from the whole country.


My Lords, I must confess that this is something which has not been taken into account in the Green Paper. What has been canvassed in last week's Green Paper is whether it might not be right to require those who demonstrate to contribute to the cost. This presents difficulties because in some cases it would be difficult to apportion blame for the disorder between the organisers and those who oppose them. In regard to the suggestion that the right reverend Prelate has put to me, I should like to look at that and draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us whether demonstrators have any rights at all on a high road? In my day, the leading case was Harrison v. The Duke of Rutland where a demonstration march by a gentleman beating a tin can was designed to obstruct the noble Duke's driving pheasants across the road. Mr. Harrison was mulcted of damages on the principle that the only right that the public have on the highway is to use it to go backwards and forwards on their lawful travelling purposes.


My Lords, I think that each case is a matter for the courts to decide.


My Lords, would my noble friend say something about the figure of £300,000? Does all of that represent overtime? Could he also say what happens in those districts of London from which large numbers of police were drawn for this purpose? Since we have so few organised reserves, were they left wide open to the petty thieves?


My Lords, as far as the first supplementary question is concerned, these are costs which have been assessed by the Metropolitan Police for the expenses they incurred. I am not trying to be unhelpful, but I do not think I can go further than that. So far as the second and important supplementary question is concerned, what the noble Lord has said is taken seriously into account from the operational point of view by the commissioner and his officers before these decisions are arrived at.


My Lords, quite apart from the review of the Public Order Act which is being conducted by the Home Secretary, is there not an important question of resources which must be devoted to these demonstrations? Would he not agree that the fact that public order was maintained in the event is not necessarily a vindication of the judgment of the Metropolitan Commissioner that this march should have been allowed to take place, bearing in mind that there was a continual threat of serious disorder during the whole of the period that the "Nazis" were marching through this area; and the fact that no serious public disorder eventuated was largely a matter of luck and of the enormous resources that the police put in? Are we to put in resources without limit for any future march that the National Front may choose to conduct to areas largely populated by ethnic minorities?


My Lords, the noble Lord asks hypothetical questions. The only way I could respond to be helpful to the House is to make it clear that the powers under the 1936 Act to ban or impose conditions on marches require that the decision is made on public order grounds alone. Before going to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, it is on those grounds, and those alone, as the law now stands, that the commissioner and chief constables throughout the country must make up their minds.


My Lords, as one who was concerned with the Mosley predecessors of these vicious people, may I ask the noble Lord to go into the methods used at that time to prevent demonstrations? For example, will he remember that at that time—and will he consider it now—demonstrations in Trafalgar Square were prohibited? Furthermore, is it not a fact that these people are preaching exactly the same kind of thing which we have fought against for years and which caused such terrible disturbances in this country until they were quelled by the people themselves?


My Lords, noble Lords are saying many things with which I find myself in agreement, but I seriously ask the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and all noble Lords, if they have time, to read my right honourable friend's Green Paper (Cmnd. 7891) and perhaps to respond to the invitation that I sought to offer at the beginning of this exchange. I repeat that the Home Secretary would very much welcome observations from Members of your Lordships' House.