HL Deb 25 April 1983 vol 441 cc718-20

2.41 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what extra costs will fall on the Thames Valley Police Authority as a result of the anti-nuclear demonstrations in that area during the Easter holiday period.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, we understand from the Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police that he estimates that the additional manpower costs incurred by his force in policing the major demonstrations on 31st March and 1st April, together with minor, isolated events on 2nd to 4th April, were of the order of £252,000. These costs are shared between local and central Government in the usual way and attract 50 per cent. specific grant.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord the Minister for that reply, may I ask him two supplementary questions? First, is he aware that the loyal and patriotic citizens of the Thames Valley strongly disapprove of these activities, which are largely conducted for the benefit of Soviet television, and believe that it adds injury to insult to expect them to pay for them? Secondly, will the noble Lord agree that the investigations by his department into the possibility of making the instigators of such demonstrations pay for them should not be inhibited by false references regarding the freedom of speech, which is in no way involved?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I have always thought that the inhabitants of the Thames Valley, in which I was born, are particularly prone to good sense in judging such matters. As to the requirement to pay for this sort of demonstration, we are considering the suggestion that those who demonstrate should contribute. In our review of the Public Order Act 1936 and related legislation we sympathise with the feelings that often lie behind the suggestion, but the practical difficulties seem formidable. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary hopes to announce the conclusions of the review in the not too distant future.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether he agrees that, apart from sporadic incidents, this demonstration, however much he and I may have disagreed with its objects, was an entirely lawful occasion? Could he please go on and help us by advising us what each Member of your Lordships' House would have to pay if we had to bear the cost of the police on the scene at the time of the opening of Parliament?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the first part of the noble Lord's supplementary I endorse. It was a lawful demonstration, apart from a few sporadic occasions, and I should like to put on record my admiration for the way in which, in the face of some considerable stress, the police force controlled it peaceably. As to the question about what it costs to open Parliament, I am not at all certain whether in some indirect ways the noble Lord may not already contribute, if only at lunchtime.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is true to say that, whatever the cost, it is a compliment to our democracy that we have the freedom to demonstrate in this way?

Lord Elton

My Lords, that is perfectly true, even when one does not always agree with what is being demonstrated for.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, can the Minister advance any reason why his noble friend, who, of course, is always tolerant and impartial, should query the cost of policing an anti-nuclear demonstration, but not, for instance, the policing which is quite properly done at the Cenotaph? Will the Minister reflect on this, in order to avoid his noble friend tabling a Question on this matter in the future?

Lord Elton

My Lords, my noble friend is entitled to ask any Question which he wishes, particularly of a sensible nature, which he has just done.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell me whether it is true that certain countries are already contemplating and trying this? If it is true, would it not be a very good idea if we looked over their shoulder to see how successful they were being?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am not certain what it is the noble Viscount is asking me to look over the shoulder of these people to see. If it is staging demonstrations where 14½ miles of people hold hands, I am not certain that we have a great deal to learn. If it is a question of getting the people holding hands to pay for that, then, obviously, we should be interested to see what other people's experiences were.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is some difference between national events like the opening of Parliament, which is clearly in the national interest, attendance at the Cenotaph, which is clearly the wish of the whole community, and entirely partisan events like this particular demonstration which the Question is about? Is it not reasonable that public funds generally should pay for the former, and that there should be some consideration of whether the individuals who are particularly involved should pay for the latter?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I cannot anticipate the results of the reflections of my right honourable friend on this matter. I will certainly place my noble friend's views on this matter before my right honourable friend. It covers a very wide field, and I would remind your Lordships that both the Pope's visit and the London Marathon could be regarded as national occasions, too.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, will the noble Lord ask his right honourable friend, when he is considering this matter, to consider whether there is a matter of principle involved here? If this new principle were introduced, would it not be very dangerously close to insisting that only those with money available would be able to have the right of free speech?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think that the administrative difficulties, to which in part I referred, would look after that issue. There is another principle, of course, which is the principle of the independence of individual police forces.