HL Deb 13 April 1981 vol 419 cc773-9

3.45 p.m.

Lord Belstead

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:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the major disorders which have taken place in Brixton over the weekend. The House is well aware of the violent clashes which have occurred between the police and young people, mainly black. The most serious disorder took place in the afternoon and evening of Saturday. Shops were looted, vehicles destroyed and other property (including private homes) seriously damaged. Again yesterday there were outbreaks of lawlessness in the area, though on a lesser scale. Over the two days a total of 149 police officers were injured, along with 58 members of the public. Ten police officers and one member of the public remain in hospital; 224 people were arrested.

"We in Parliament, on behalf of the people of this country, have placed on the police the heavy burden of maintaining peace on the streets and of preserving order and the rule of law. Whatever questions may arise in people's minds about the reasons why this outbreak of violence occurred, there is no doubt in my mind, nor should there be in the mind of any Member of this House, that Metropolitan Police officers of all ranks carried out their duty with great bravery and professionalism. On our behalf I have asked the Commissioner to pass this message on to all members of his force. I would also wish to pay our tribute to the same courage and determination which were shown by the members of the London Fire Brigade.

"But despite the determined efforts of the police, they were faced with violence which was very serious in its type, scale and intensity. In addition to the personal injuries, the widespread damage to property, and consequent financial loss to wholly innocent people, has been enormous. Whatever grievances individuals or communities feel they suffer, such violence—from whatever quarter it comes—cannot and will not be condoned. The police will continue to do their duty to maintain the law on the streets of London, and in this they are entitled to the full support of Parliament and the nation.

"The events of this week-end call for the most thorough examination. I have therefore decided to appoint an inquiry under Section 32 of the Police Act 1964. I have invited Lord Scarman to undertake this inquiry and I am glad to say he has accepted. His terms of reference will be: 'To inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10 to 12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations'. "The inquiry will be held in public save where Lord Scarman decides that it is appropriate to be held in private".

My Lords, that is my right honourable friend's Statement.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement. It is of course a most sombre one and there was indeed, as we have seen both from the Statement itself and from the reports over the weekend, a very serious breakdown in law and order in Brixton. I join in condemning the appalling violence and the looting and the other criminal acts, including the arson and the destruction that took place. Whatever the causes, whatever the tensions, whatever the frustrations, there can be no excuse whatsoever for action of that kind.

I would also join in commending the courage and efforts of the police and of the other essential services. It needs to be plainly stated—and I would ask the Minister if he would accept this—that no one must be allowed to force the police off the streets in this country. It is the police's duty to protect all law-abiding citizens and to bring to justice those who break the law. I think in the context of the disturbances it is reassuring, and, if I may say so, praiseworthy, that there was no withdrawal of police officers from the area over the weekend. Clearly lessons have been learned from last year's Bristol experiences. I would just mention one point in passing about the actual circumstances, and that is the question of the police shields which went up in flames; perhaps that matter has been receiving urgent attention already.

We welcome the decision to set up an inquiry, and particularly the fact that it, or part of it, as the noble Lord, Lord Scarman, directs, can be held in public, and that it has been set up so swiftly. We would also welcome the fact that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, has been invited to take the inquiry. I would ask the Minister whether there are limitations and, if so, what in the scope of the inquiry? Under Section 32 of the Police Act 1964 an inquiry of this kind is held to look into the policing of an area, and that is capable of quite a wide interpretation, one would hope. Obviously it will need to go into the causes, but including, one would hope, the underlying causes; whether, too, there is any evidence of people coming in from outside, whether the action taken was spontaneous or in any way planned, and indeed also whether there is any evidence that any police activity before the rioting took place was insensitive in any way. But, of course, it must also be clearly understood that the police presence anywhere must be what is needed to protect all citizens and to maintain law and order.

Also I would ask whether the scope of the inquiry would cover such causes, if they be causes, as unemployment and housing in the area, and indeed whether the inquiry can indicate, in the course of the report which has been mentioned by the Minister, measures to avoid similar difficulties in the future. We would, of course, offer sympathy to those who suffered injury and damage in the course of these disturbances. My only other question to the Minister is whether he can give any indication to people affected by damage about compensation questions.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, may we also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and may we ask him to associate us with the expressions of sympathy voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Boston, for the police officers and members of the public who have been injured in these events, and particularly those who have had to be taken to hospital. May I also express on behalf of my party a very warm welcome for the inquiry which the noble Lord has announced, under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, and say that no one is more fitted to undertake such an inquiry than the noble and learned Lord.

With regard to the terms of reference, Section 32, as we understand it, limits the scope of the inquiry. While we agree that it is a matter of considerable urgency that the events immediately surrounding the disorders should be explored and explanations found for them, would the noble Lord not agree that a more thorough and far-ranging inquiry is necessary to find out what are the origins of the fury and resentment which boiled up over the weekend, which were a repetition of the events which occurred about this time last year in Bristol?

Would not the noble Lord agree that, while a very thorough inquiry was undertaken by the chief officer of police into the events as they affected the police in Bristol, the underlying causes of those disorders were never revealed because they were not properly explored, and that some more far-reaching inquiry into the underlying causes of both Bristol and Brixton is now necessary, so that we do not have a third event, perhaps further events, of this kind happening in our major urban centres in future?

3.55 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response to my right honourable friend's Statement, and for the expression of sympathy from both noble Lords for those who have been injured in the violence of the weekend. The noble Lord, Lord Boston, expressed the view that the police must protect all law-abiding citizens in this country and preserve the law wherever it has to be preserved. I confirm what has already been said in my right honourable friend's Statement: that during this very difficult weekend the Metropolitan Police discharged their duty very bravely indeed.

Both noble Lords have asked me in rather different ways about the scope of the inquiry. The noble Lord, Lord Boston, referred specifically to the effects of Section 32. I have already referred in my right honourable friend's Statement to the terms of reference which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, will have in the inquiry which he will conduct. It might be worth repeating them: To inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10 to 12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations". Speaking for my right honourable friend, I am just as concerned, and so I believe will be the inquiry, about the circumstances which precipitated these matters and how for the future disorder on this scale can best be prevented. But in saying that may I remind your Lordships that at the present time there are issues which are relevant to the Brixton disturbances which are under study already in different ways.

I would simply remind your Lordships that the Sub-Committee on Race Relations and Immigration of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place is undertaking a wide-ranging inquiry into the problems of racial disadvantage; and, as your Lordships will know, the Home Secretary has instituted a study of the incidence of racial attacks wherever they are to be found. It must be for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, to decide exactly on the lines of his inquiry, and this of course he will do within his terms of reference.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston, asked me about compensation. As the Statement says, the damage has been enormous. The vehicle for handling claims for compensation is the Riot Damages Act 1886. This provides that, subject to certain conditions, the police authority shall pay out of the police compensation fund, compensation to any person whose house, shop or building has been injured or destroyed, or the contents of which have been injured or destroyed or stolen by persons who riotously and tumultously assemble together. Claims must be made within 14 days. The consideration of claims in respect of the disturbances in Brixton is a matter for the Receiver of the Metropolitan Police district.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, when I moved recently from Newcastle to Southwark I knew that one of the major differences between the two areas would be in the degree and extent of racial tension in the inner city areas of my new diocese. I did not expect to be walking round scenes of destruction yesterday which reminded me of the early days of the last war. Being new, I cannot speak from much personal experience, but I have been in close touch with clergy and others who live and work in this area. Yesterday I spoke at length with the vicar of the parish and with the Methodist minister one of whose churches is actually in Railton Road, the so-called "front line", and with one of our senior clergy who exercises a ministry to the whole borough. I have studied private reports on church life in the area going back to 1976, and the more recent report of the working party into police and community relations.

As a result of this, I want to say two things to your Lordships today. I will try to weigh my words carefully, because this is a very fragile situation and it is easy to be misunderstood. First, I, like others of your Lordships, very much welcome a full-scale inquiry which may at least lay bare the roots, or some of the roots, of this tragedy and I am sure that I speak for all the Churches in the area when I say that. It is a tragedy because all the evidence suggests that the pressure has been inexorably building up despite the efforts of many people. The roots are long and complex, as one would expect. They are also intertwined with the national situation and the policies of central Government. After the inquiry there must be the will to act in ways which will undoubtedly require financial and other sacrifices from the rest of the community. One thing is certain, to my mind, and that is that Brixton—

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I hope that the right reverend Prelate will forgive me for intervening, but perhaps he would be so kind as to frame his remarks in the form of questions to the Minister. That is the form we adopt in this House. This is not the moment for a speech on the situation so much as perhaps to give, within the form of questions, the right reverend Prelate's own observations as to these sad events.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, I apologise; I shall do my best. I have not very much more to say. Is the Minister aware that the state of community and police relations in Brixton is something which has been giving cause for great concern over recent years? I should like to say in relation to that question that that is a question which I have been very reluctant to put and very sceptical about because I know very well what an intensely difficulty job the police have to do on our behalf, often acting in some degree as our scapegoats. I know at second hand from a friend in Uganda what it is like to live in a country where law and order has largely broken down. I know also that it is not easy to be constantly criticised, especially if that criticism shows a lack of understanding of the job one does and the majority are given a bad name because of the faults of a minority. It was only a few days ago that your Lordships had some very critical things to say about bishops and clergy in this very Chamber. But in recent years—

Noble Lords


The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, I shall leave it at that.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I should like to reply to the right reverend Prelate, who was good enough to welcome this inquiry. The right reverend Prelate, of course speaking with his knowledge now of the diocese, also mentioned the need for sacrifices to be made for this particular area of London. No one, I think, would gainsay the needs of people living in the area of Brixton, but I believe that it is just worth putting on record in reply to the right reverend Prelate's observations that Lambeth received assistance of about £8 million in the last year under what are known as the "partnership arrangements for inner cities" and, without in any way prejudicing the findings of the inquiries of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, I would doubt whether financial matters are the whole story.

The right reverend Prelate was also good enough to say that the police have an intensely difficult job. I would only add again that in Parliament I think that we need to support the police in that job which they have to do.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister three questions. First, while welcoming the appointment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, as chairman, will the Government be very careful to appoint a membership of this inquiry which receives the confidence of those involved? Will they include a member of the racial community councils and of the ethnic organisations? Secondly, can the Minister say whether the apparently rather restricted terms of reference will include a discussion of the deeper reasons for the sense of frustration, particularly the unemployment among young workers, mainly blacks, but also including whites? Thirdly, will the inquiry pay special attention to what has been done in Handsworth, Birmingham—a very similar locality— where, by the action of the racial community councils, this situation has been avoided?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, perhaps I may answer those questions one at a time. The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, asked me about other appointments to this inquiry. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary much appreciates the swift reply of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, in agreeing to undertake this inquiry, and my right honourable friend has not indicated that he intends to make any other appointments to this inquiry. As regards the other two questions which the noble Lord asked, I think that they are both matters for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, when the inquiry begins.

Lord Boothby

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Americans have been through all this, and much worse, since the war, and that they have now managed to establish better racial relationships than those which exist in this country today? Will the noble Lord give us an assurance—I am sure that it is really unnecessary—that the Government will request the commission of inquiry to examine how they have done it in the United States, because there is no doubt at all that racial relations in the United States have vastly improved, despite massive unemployment, in the last 10 years?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am not sure, with respect, that I would agree with the premise on which the noble Lord's question is fixed. However, I should like to repeat the information which I have given—and I do so in the form of an assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Boothby—that, at the same time as this inquiry will be running, there are, of course, other inquiries which are going on at present in this country: one is the inquiry of a Select Committee of another place into racial disadvantage and another is a study promoted by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary into the incidence of racialist attacks in this country. We take very seriously the trend of the question which the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, has asked me, but I repeat that I do not agree with the premise on which the question was asked.

Lord Gifford

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the devastating events of this past weekend were foreshadowed as recently as January this year in a very full report of an unofficial inquiry headed by Mr. David Turner-Samuels, Q.C., bringing to light case after case of intimidation and harassment of black people in Brixton by members of the police, leading to the most profound alienation and distrust? Quite apart from the setting up of the inquiry, which I welcome, I should like to ask the noble Lord: has any action been taken, and will any action be taken, to change the attitudes and the methods of work of the police, including the special patrol group, in the light of this valuable report?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, overlooks the efforts, the very real efforts, which have been made by the Metropolitan Police to try to improve police/community relations within the boundaries of the metropolis, and not least in this area which has to face so many very real difficulties. So far as the report to which the noble Lord referred is concerned, that was a report which consisted of, or at least included, a number of anonymous allegations, and I do not think that it was a particularly helpful report at all.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the Minister accept from someone in your Lordships' House who was born in that area, who spent his youth there and who represented it on the London County Council and the Greater London Council for over 20 years, a sense of horror at what took place over the last weekend? Will the noble Lord the Minister also take it from someone who knows this area well that any preconceived judgment—which I am sure my noble friend Lord Gifford did not seek to make, but it might be inferred that he did—about the police being responsible, by harassment or otherwise, for troubles is not shared by many in your Lordships' House? Finally, will the Minister take it for granted that we shall await the recommendations, which I hope will be positive, with very great interest and with very great concern?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for the two questions he has asked. I agree with the noble Lord that, whatever the reasons for the violence which occurred over the weekend, nothing can condone it, because it has caused misery to so many people and such a threat to law in this country. I also agree with the noble Lord, and thank him for saying, that with an open mind we should now support the fact that the most thorough examination into the events of the weekend will be undertaken in the inquiry which will be headed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman.

Lord Soames

My Lords, on that note I suggest that we might move on to the next business.