HL Deb 06 May 1980 vol 408 cc1516-8

2.48 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 whether they agree that organisers of public demonstrations should pay something towards the extra expenses incurred by the police in keeping public order.


My Lords, the possibility of making the organisers of demonstrations liable for all or part of the cost of policing their events is among the questions discussed in the Government's Green Paper on the Review of the Public Order Act 1936 and related legislation, which was published on 24th April. While Her Majesty's Government have a good deal of sympathy with the suggestion, there are a number of practical difficulties which seem to rule it out.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Would he not agree that the cost of these demonstrations cannot be measured just in terms of money, and that policemen's weekends are often disrupted at short notice as a result of the demonstration? Also, police from other divisions have to go to a totally different area to look after these marches. As a result, crime may become more rampant in the division from which the police have been removed. Secondly, would my noble friend not agree that it would be a very good idea if the British public were informed of the fact that demonstrators do not have to ask police permission before they demonstrate?


My Lords, I agree with nearly all the points that have been made by the noble Earl. The reasons for the review are manifold. One of the most important aspects was of course the demand placed on police resources in terms of manpower. The Green Paper (Cmnd. 7891), which is the Review of the Public Order Act 1936, lays particular emphasis both on the growth of the numbers of demonstrations since 1972 and on the wide increase in the use of manpower needed to cope with them.


My Lords, does not the Green Paper say that one of the matters for consideration is whether the police should have power to ban or divert a march when they are not reasonably confident of being able to prevent a serious threat to public order from within their own resources? Would it not be useful if consideration could also be given to the question of giving powers within Greater London where the police in a division cannot be reasonably confident of containing a serious threat to public order within the resources of their division, so that demonstrations costing up to half a million pounds, like the recent one in Lewisham, which are of a purely local nature—and the disturbances in Southall might also be mentioned in this context—could be banned or diverted by the police in that area?


My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, of course he will be aware that the Public Order Act 1936 allows the banning of a march but not of a meeting. He may also be aware that at the present moment the Green Paper is the subject of a review in another place. The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs is taking evidence, both oral and written, at the present time and I think it would be inappropriate at this moment for the Government to say more.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say when, if at all, the Government have it in mind to legislate upon this matter? The publication of Green Papers has been known in the past to be a massive implement of delay. There is a good deal of public concern about this matter, is there not? There is also an element of urgency. Could we have some indication of the Government's intentions in this matter?


My Lords, in response to the noble and learned Lord, as the Green Paper was published only on 24th April and the Select Committee referred to is sitting at the present time, the present intention is that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary expects to make known his views at the conclusion of the discussions which are now taking place. More than that I cannot say at the moment.


My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that if a hundred National Front marchers of a totally discredited philosophy gather together and march, they are sometimes opposed by more than a thousand of the so-called Anti-Nazi League? To whom do you send the bill for the disruption which is clearly there and where the responsibility rests with the counter-demonstrators rather than with the demonstrators?


My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing. This point is particularly stressed in paragraph 65 of the Green Paper, and perhaps I might quote it to your Lordships. It reads: First, it can be argued that it is unreasonable to hold the organiser of what is intended to be a peaceful march responsible for the activities of elements who may join the march but over whom he may have no control. Equally, recent events have shown that responsibility for disorder occasioned by marches can be caused almost wholly by counter-demonstrators seeking to disrupt the march …".


My Lords, does the noble Lord think it is reasonable that the costs of maintaining public order on these occasions have to be borne by the local authority in whose area, by chance, the demonstration takes place?


My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, will be aware that the whole reason for the review is to discuss this very matter.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that not all demonstrations are itinerant? Is there concern as to what goes on in the "regular pitches" on Sunday afternoons, in particular in Hyde Park? If so, will there be permission given for us to take a collection in order to defray the expenses?


My Lords, I do not know precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has in mind, but if he would wish to use this opportunity of the Green Paper to send in his comments to my right honourable friend, or indeed to the Select Committee in another place, I am sure they will receive very close attention.