HL Deb 19 May 1982 vol 430 cc697-8
Lord Monson

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 the behaviour of those demonstrators at a rally in Hyde Park on 9th May who were chanting "British fleet, murder fleet, we want the Brits' defeat" and "Victory to Argentina" and who tore up and burned Union flags, was seditious; and if so, whether they will ascertain why nobody was arrested and charged with sedition.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, may I remind the House of the answer I gave to a question asked last week by my noble friend Lord Alexander of Tunis. It is for the courts and not for Her Majesty's Government to decide what conduct is capable of constituting a criminal offence and in what circumstances. The police are independent officers of the Crown and it is not for Her Majesty's Government to decide what action they should take when they are present for the purposes of ensuring public order at a demonstration. I am informed that, contrary to what is suggested in the Question, three persons were in fact arrested, one for assault and two for offences under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936. I am informed that at a subsequent rally under the same auspices last Sunday, there were two more arrests under this section of the Act.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his reply. Would he agree that, if anyone in France were to burn the tricolour or to accuse the French Navy of acting as savages, or if anyone in the United States were to burn or desecrate the Stars and Stripes, they would almost certainly go to prison? Is the noble and learned Lord satisfied that the law of this country is sufficient to deal with this kind of grossly offensive behaviour? If so, does he think it would be right to encourage the police and the courts to come down harder on such activities?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not set myself up as an expert on the law of either France or the United States. With regard to English law, as there are five cases pending, perhaps we ought to await the judgment of the courts.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord say, if we had been at war and the Defence of the Realm Act had been in operation, in the context of this Question, what would have been the legal position?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that is a very interesting question, but it is a hypothetical one.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the organisers of this rally, initiated by Quakers, dissociated themselves publicly from any use of slogans of this character, which were due to a small infringement of the demonstration?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am very glad to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, says. I understand that the slogans were uttered by members of the Socialist Workers Party—the SWP.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord can remember the name of his predecessor who, when faced by a similar Question replied, "As far as I am concerned, they can sing what they like if only they would sing it in tune."

The Lord Chancellor

I am afraid, my Lords, that he was a more generous man than I.

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