HL Deb 19 February 1980 vol 405 cc584-93

3.37 p.m.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will repeat a Statement now being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney General. It is about the criminal law on picketing. After the formal parts, the Statement is as follows:

"The recent events outside the private steel firms have renewed public anxiety about the law on picketing and intimidation.

"I must emphasise that the law on picketing does not, in any real way, change the criminal law and in no way diminishes the rules which govern public order.

"The criminal law of the land applies to pickets as it does to anybody else.

"Let there be no illusion that the immunity provided under the civil law enables pickets to break the criminal law.

"Peaceful picketing in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute is lawful so long as it is the honest belief of those involved that their action will advance the interests of those in dispute.

"This does not mean that the freedom to picket is a licence to obstruct or intimidate—the law permits picketing solely for the purpose of peacefully obtaining or communicating information or of peacefully persuading another person to work or not to work.

"The immunity from civil proceedings given by Section 15 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 does not extend to any wrongful act such as violence, threats of violence or similar intimidation—whether by excessive numbers of pickets or otherwise or molestation amounting to a civil wrong. In these circumstances it may be open to the employer on his own behalf or on that of his workforce to take action in the civil court. In addition the criminal law is perfectly clear. Each of us has the right to go about our daily work or pleasure free from interference by anybody else. Each one of us is free as an individual to come and go as we please to our home or to our place of work.

"The law specifically protects our enjoyment of those rights. If anyone tried to deter us from exercising those rights by the use of violence or intimidation or obstruction then he is breaking the law and may be punished.

"The freedom to picket does not confer or imply any right to stop vehicles—still less do pickets have the right to stop people going about their lawful business. Pickets have no right to link arms or otherwise prevent access to the place they are picketing. This is not a new situation; the present law was made clear by my predecessor"—that means, of course, my right honourable friend's predecessor—

"on 25th January last year and by my noble and learned friend Lord Rawlinson in 1972 when he was Attorney General.

"If pickets by sheer numbers seek to stop people going to work or delivering or collecting goods they are not protected by the law since their purpose is to obstruct rather than persuade.

"Are large numbers really necessary in the name of lawful peaceful persuasion? They are more likely to lead to unlawful assembly or even an affray.

"So far as excessive numbers are concerned the courts have recognised that the police may limit the number of pickets in any one place where they have reasonable cause to fear disorder. In my view, this includes, in the appropriate case, not only asking some of those present to leave but also preventing others from joining the pickets.

"The enforcement of the law is and must remain a matter for the police and the courts. I recognise the difficult task chief officers of the police have in deciding how order can best be maintained so as to ensure that ordinary people can exercise their own rights. It is the function of the law to protect the rights of people—employers and employees—to go about their daily business, to work or not to work, and to make their own decisions whether to exercise those rights. If we let go of that principle then we risk abandoning the rule of law and risk surrender to the rule of violence.

"I hope that stating the main principles of the law, with which the Lord Advocate agrees, I have removed the doubts and encouraged all those concerned, whether pickets or others, to respect and uphold the law. I am sure that the great majority in this country will support this."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for repeating this Statement, and your Lordships will be glad to have it at this time. The Statement itself does not indicate any change in the law. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would agree, as seems to be quite clear from the Statement itself, that it is a statement of what the law actually is and, if I may say so with respect, a clear one.

There are only two short points I should like to put to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I would ask him first of all whether he would agree that it is for chief constables to use their discretion to ensure that the criminal law is at all times enforced, bearing in mind, as I am sure they do, that in exercising this discretion of theirs, emotive situations are not always improved by introducing criminal sanctions into them, at least straight away.

I would ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether he would confirm that this Statement itself does not in any way imply any change in the well-established tradition that Ministers of the Crown do not themselves attempt in any way to instruct chief constables upon how to carry out their duties or in the exercise of their discretion in handling any of the situations which are in mind in making this Statement, or indeed in any other.

I am sure we are all fully confident that chief constables will exercise their discretion in accordance with the fine and very best traditions of the Police Service. I am also sure that your Lordships on all sides of this House will be very conscious of the need to see that our Police Service does indeed enforce the law in this situation.

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches are also grateful to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for repeating the Attorney General's Statement. I understand it really comes to this: that where there are threats to public order or to the Queen's peace that occur in the course of mass picketing, the criminal law in its present state is perfectly adequate in theory to deal with those dangers, and that the existing law of obstruction, of unlawful assembly, of riot and affray can be used properly against those misbehaving on those mass pickets.

I want to ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack whether he would not agree that the real problem here is not whether the criminal law is adequate—because I would respectfully agree with the Attorney General that it clearly is so—but to what extent it can be enforced, which is a political question rather than a legal one, in a very difficult situation in which enforcing the criminal law is liable to lead to the creation of martyrs and is liable to lead to a situation in which, instead of hundreds of people defying the law, there way well be thousands of people defying the law.

I am the last person to suggest that in the face of such a threat the law should abdicate its responsibilities. What I would respectfully suggest to the noble and learned Lord is this: am I not right in thinking that among those on the mass pickets at the moment who are causing much of the trouble there are many people who are professional troublemakers and are not in the least bit interested in the industrial action which is sought to be pursued by the picket but are solely interested in sowing the seeds of civil disorder? If that is so, am I not right in thinking that these people are perfectly well known to the police force in the locality who have to deal with the situation?

Might I suggest to the noble and learned Lord that in that situation it is those people in the first place who should be dealt with with the utmost firmness of the law in order to cope with the breaches of the Queen's peace that are taking place? If that were done, would it not be right to say that that would be with the full support not only of the community as a whole but of the great majority of ordinary decent, peace-loving trade unionists?

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords for their welcome of this Statement. I begin by confirming that it was designed to state what the law is and not to create any alteration in what it should be. That was my purpose over the weekend and that was my purpose on television yesterday; and it was the purpose of my right honourable and learned friend in the other place in making this Statement.

I absolutely concur in what the noble Lord, Lord Boston, said about the discretion of chief constables. Good policing or "policemanship", if there is such a word, is not a science but an art, and it involves a very great deal of tact as well as a very great deal of firmness. It is certainly not wise in what the noble Lord, Lord Boston, called "emotive situations" to react too violently. On the other hand, violence in itself is a crime, and the rights of ordinary people must be protected by the police Firmness is required as well as tact, and I know that chief constables can be trusted to give us the right blend of both.

I also confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Boston, said: that Ministers do not purport and will not attempt to instruct chief constables. This is not only a very wise and, I think, legal tradition, but it also reflects a fact which must be very familiar to your Lordships; namely, that in different situations and in different parts of the country the art of "policemanship" must necessarily differ. The mood of the locality must be taken into account, and all kinds of local feelings as well as national interests must also be taken into account. It is not the business of Ministers—I made that very clear myself on the television yesterday—even of the Home Secretary, still less of the Lord Chancellor or the Attorney-General, to instruct police constables in the exercise of their duties. Of course, they will consult with one another and, probably, with my right honourable friend, but instructions are not the order of the day.

I was also grateful, as I have said, to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. Yes, I think that the criminal law is sufficient if it has the people behind it. The question is one of enforcement, but it is the business of Government and the business of the police to enforce the law, and enforceability very largely depends upon the extent to which the police and the criminal law have the support of the public. One of the purposes that I think my right honourable and learned friend had in making this Statement was to appeal to the public to give support in these matters.

I am not sure about the danger of martyrs. There are people who seek martyrdom in various causes of different degrees of attractiveness. But to be a martyr in favour of intimidation, to be a martyr in favour of unprovoked violence against innocent people, is a kind of church to which few of us, I think, would care to belong, even if the extent of it led to martyrdom.

Yes, I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, so far as I am informed, about the nature of some of the people who have been causing trouble. Of course, I am not as well informed about this as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, but I am told that of those who have been arrested—and there have been, I think, more numerous arrests than is generally appreciated—a very high proportion had nothing at all to do with the steel dispute or with any organised trade union. They were there to make trouble and they received it, and I hope that they will continue to receive it.

At the same time, I should like perhaps —and I hope not improperly—to say that those who have nothing to do with a dispute do not necessarily help the police by joining the crowd. They themselves may be completely innocent of any offence, but they make it easier for the troublemakers. In any random crowd, of say, 2,000, it is almost inevitable that you get one or two hot-headed people who behave foolishly, and once violence breaks out in a crowd it is rather like a virus breaking out in the body—it spreads. So I do not want it to be thought that, even if the purpose of an individual or a group of individuals is innocent, it is necessarily to be encouraged that they join groups who may themselves have a perfectly legitimate interest in a dispute.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether he would be inclined to agree that what we appear to be discussing, because of some observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, and also by himself in his final remarks, is not the question of whether the law is adequate, whether something is criminal or subject to civil action, but the whole question of picketing? Also, as I understand some of the observations to which we have just listened, although it is not within the prerogative of politicians, whoever they are, on any side of the political fence or even in Government or out of government, to seek to enforce the law or to suggest how the law should be enforced, that has not been the attitude of the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, in his final observations, or of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. They have gone a little further. They disclaim the right of politicians to say to chief constables or to those in authority what they ought to do. They explain what the position is and almost appear to be telling them what to do. I think, if I have made myself clear about it, we want some clarification on that point.

Another point is this. I am not a lawyer, and therefore I understand nothing about these legal niceties. But if, as has been said by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and by others, and as has appeared in Press articles—and there have been many in recent weeks—the criminal law is available and is quite adequate, what is the precise purpose of making the Statement today in another place and having it repeated in your Lordships' House? Is there not in contemplation the intention to make the law more adequate, to ensure that it is going to be enforceable? We ought to know.

I ask these questions because I myself had some experience of picketing a long time ago, just immediately after the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of men in the forces were disposed of without employment, with no hope, and living in despair. We were demanding a reduction in the hours of labour and we wanted to absorb many of those who were unemployed. There was a great deal of picketing in which I joined, and which I even organised, not for the purpose of creating violence or disorder, but in order to provide employment for people who had rendered service to the United Kingdom during the First World War.

I want, further, to ask whether we ought to take account of the reason for this picketing, leaving aside the question of violence, which I deplore. I hate the sight of it when I see it on television, and I am sure that other Members of your Lordships' House feel the same. But do we ask ourselves: why this violence or attempted violence? Why these activities which we deplore? Are we considering what is the cause of it all, and are the workers entirely to blame? Are even the Scargills entirely to blame? What about the people on the other side? Recently, some of the managerial people associated with the BSC have come out and declared that they are dissatisfied with the administration of the BSC. There have also been suggestions, and even direct statements, to the effect that there is something almost in the nature of corruption operating, by way of cars, flats, perks and the rest of it, in the BSC.

Finally, I put this point. Do we take no account of the inescapable fact, which we must all deplore, that thousands of skilled workers who have rendered service to the steel industry, and others, are now to be unemployed with no hope of work in the future? Are we to take no account of that?


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, if I may deal with his points in inverse order, has probably got the wrong end of the stick. I think that he does a very great disservice to the steelworkers to suggest that they have been on any substantial scale—although I would not speak for individuals —responsible for the violence about which we are talking in regard to this Statement. I do not think that is so at all. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, was right in saying that those who have mainly been arrested, and presumably those who have caused offences, are not the workers themselves, nor even the rather uninvited guests led by Lord Scargill.

Several noble Lords: Lord?


I am sorry, my Lords—King Scargill. I beg his pardon. I have underestimated his standing in the world! But it would be right to say that he had behaved perfectly lawfully, even if they were uninvited to the party.

Very largely, the violence is caused by people who want to commit violence, not by people with legitimate grievances. The English people, when they are deeply moved, are not a violent people. Whether their grievances are just or unjust is a very different matter from whether violence is used, and by whom. I do not claim to be quite so experienced of that period of history as the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, but I do remember that in my boyhood there were a number of very legitimate grievances and very legitimate apprehensions, and very serious mistakes were made in the demobilisation period of 1919. I think that we have learned our lesson about that, and I think that that lesson has been learned in all walks of society. We very largely avoided it at the end of the last war because of our experiences of the kind to which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, referred.

Then he says: If the criminal law is adequate, why make the Statement? The fact is that the criminal law may be adequate but people do not know what it is, and that is why we made the Statement. It fell to my lot during the weekend to address a conference which was largely discussing the Employment Bill. We heard one informed speech after another by very intelligent young people who never realised that this criminal law existed. That is why I said what I said, and no doubt that is why my right honourable and learned friend said what he said.

The third point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, was about politicians. Why, he says, if you say that you are not going to instruct chief constables, should you express an opinion at all? My opinion is that one is entitled to express one's opinion, both in this House and elsewhere.


My Lords, would my noble and learned friend agree that he asked for an expression of opinion from the people as a whole in support of the views which have been expressed on this Statement? If so, am I not right in suggesting that this Statement is an appeal to all of us to be outspoken in our disgust and revulsion at the scenes which we see now? And would it not be proper for this House to say that we feel utter revulsion at what has been going on and that we feel it should be stopped?


My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend. This statement of the law serves two purposes: one is to tell people what the law is and the other is to solicit their support in keeping it constantly before people's minds.