HL Deb 30 November 1983 vol 445 cc702-6

3.37 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the picketing outside the premises of the Messenger Group of Newspapers in Warrington last night and in the early hours of this morning.

"I understand from the Chief Constable of Cheshire that between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. last night the number of pickets increased rapidly from 500 to about 4,000 people. Their purpose was clear. It was not to communicate information. It was not persuasion. It was not even demonstration. It was to prevent by physical force and weight of numbers newspapers being taken out of the premises.

"Many of the pickets had travelled from far afield; many came prepared for, and used, violence against the police. A number were armed with offensive weapons, such as iron bars.

"At the height of the operation, the Chief Constable deployed over twelve hundred men, from his own force and those of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire. As a result, the vehicle carrying the newspapers was able to leave the premises at the time planned at 5 a.m. this morning, and did so. The pickets began to disperse from about 6 a.m.

"During the course of the disturbances, police officers were attacked and missiles were thrown at them. Twenty-three officers were injured and three have been detained in hospital. I am glad to inform the House that at present none appears to have been seriously injured. Thirteen pickets are recorded as having been injured, one of whom remains in hospital. Again I understand his condition is not serious.

"A total of 86 people were arrested for a range of public order offences and offences of assault and obstruction.

"I have conveyed to the Chief Constable my great appreciation of the police operation. and the way in which his officers and those of the other forces dealt with an immensely difficult situation. It is a great tribute to them that the lawful right to move the newspapers was upheld. I have asked that my concern and sympathy should be passed on to the injured officers, as I did in the case of those who incurred injuries last week.

"I understand that the number of pickets has now declined to about 150. But there are threats that large numbers will try tonight to repeat the events of last night and this morning.

"The Chief Constable has responsibility for maintaining the rule of law and devising and executing the appropriate plans for doing so. I have made it crystal clear to him that if there is any assistance he requires from me, it will be readily available, and he will have my complete support for the exercise of his very considerable powers to the full extent that is required to deal with the situation.

"Mr. Speaker, there is and can be no excuse for violence and the attempt by intimidating weight of numbers to negate the lawful rights of other people. Irrespective of the merits of the industrial dispute, what has happened here amounts to breaches of what has always been the criminal law. The place and pretext for its breach makes no difference whatsoever. Violence at the picket line is as indefensible as violence at a football match or anywhere else.

"Action of the kind we saw last night cannot and will not be tolerated. I hope that the House as a whole will join me in condemning what occurred, and the mass picketing which was its cause, and giving every support to the police in preventing or dealing with a recurrence".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords. we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. In response to what the Home Secretary has said, I may say that the confrontation which led to violence of the kind which broke out in Warrington last night and which led inevitably and regrettably to both police and pickets being injured must be greatly deplored.

Is the noble Lord aware that if a law in this country is shown to be a bad law then the course to be followed is to use all constitutional means to change or repeal it at the earliest opportunity? Did he note that in the report leaked yesterday, and reported in today's issue of the Guardian, the Master of the Rolls said (and I quote) that, the legal system was not in practice even-handed as between employers and unions; current functions put the courts almost entirely in the business of restricting or penalising the latter, and not remedying their grievances"? Does that not indicate that the Government should take a new look at trade union legislation generally and at their current proposals, which have led to tensions and which are against the public interest?

Is it not essential that this damaging dispute should be brought to an end as quickly as possible—and does the Minister take that view? Can he say what steps are being taken, therefore, to speed the conciliation process and further to involve ACAS in the dispute?

With regard to the allegations which have been made that the police—with whose difficult and thankless task we all sympathise—extensively damaged the NGA's communications van and that individuals were beaten and assaulted, can we assume that an investigation will he held and that a report will be made as soon as possible on those allegations?

Finally, do the Government themselves propose to take any specific action to help to achieve a long-term settlement of this unhappy dispute?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we on these Benches wish to say in the most unqualified terms (unlike the statement that has just been made by the Leader of the Opposition) that we warmly approve of the action of the police last night, and we wish the Chief Constable of Cheshire to be told on our behalf—and. I am sure, on behalf of the overwhelming majority of the House—of our warm support for the bravery and courage of many of the police officers concerned, who were so viciously abused last night?

Is the noble Lord not aware that a very serious situation is developing in which, notwithstanding the violence which took place last night, the organisers are now encouraging other trade unionists, and many who are not members of any trade union, to go to Warrington for a further serious disturbance this evening? Is he not aware also that the full moral responsibility for any injuries which may be caused as a result of these disturbances tonight will lay with those who are so irresponsibly urging people to go to Warrington?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for their comments and queries about the Statement from another place which I repeated. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, endorses the belief of all your Lordships that it is better to proceed by constitutional methods and not by unconstitutional methods. It is right to proceed by argument at Westminster and not by intimidation at Warrington when it comes to changing the law.

As to the question of legislation, I do not consider that a Statement on the outbreak of public disorder at Warrington is the occasion for a forum on the ethics of trade union legislation. But I can tell the noble Lord that the legislation we have is just, and is seen as being just by the country as a whole; and what is going on at Warrington is seen and thought by the whole nation to be unjust, and something that should be stopped—and that is what we propose to do.

If there are allegations of brutality by the police, it is strange that there have been no complaints of that nature made under the proper procedure to the Chief Constables concerned, and I hope that those who are aware of any such circumstances will make those complaints. I cannot comment on events which have not been reported reliably to me.

We wish to have this matter disposed of swiftly. There is the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service available for that purpose. The Government themselves should not be drawn into this dispute; the parties to the dispute are at liberty to go to the service.

I should like particularly to welcome the supportive remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, from the Benches on which he sits. I agree with him entirely as to where moral responsibility for all the ills flowing from this disgraceful episode properly lies.

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair

My Lords, on a slightly different point about this whole matter, is it not ignominious to the legitimate local weekly press that such organs should be called "newspapers" universally when they are in fact giveaway sheets? Is the noble Lord not aware that in my own area they have already killed off the Stowmarket Chronicle and its associated papers, and that they will probably do the same to the Bury St. Edmunds Free Press quite soon? Would not the NGA's time have been better employed if they had blacked right from the start giveaway newspapers, which every jobbing printer throughout the country seems busy producing? They give blanket coverage of a whole ward or village by sending out school-leavers, who would be otherwise unemployed, to distribute them free. What are the NGA doing? They are hitting at the point where the press is most vulnerable—in Fleet Street, and in Gray's Inn Road—and messing about with idiotic people in Warrington.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Marquess will realise that the Statement is about the preservation of law and order in Warrington, and is not about the editorial standards of local newspapers throughout the country. I entirely agree with him that the NGA would have been better employed in almost any way other than they have been.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether any of the pickets have been charged with being in possession of firearms?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, is referring to a particular instance reported in the press this morning which may have been misleading. I understand that during the arrest of a man in the night for a breach of the peace a 45 automatic replica pistol fell to the ground. The man made no attempt to display or use it, and claimed that it was a collector's item which he had brought with him to sell.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can it be brought to the notice of those who make special transport arrangements for people to travel sometimes long distances for this kind of intimidating picketing that they themselves may be in breach of the criminal law if they do so knowingly?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am very much aware of the position to which my noble friend rightly draws our attention. We are prepared so to do.

Lord Monson

My Lords, could the noble Lord say whether the use of water cannon might not have saved many police, and, indeed, pickets, from injury?

Lord Elton

My Lords, operational decisions on the equipment to be used in any particular instance must rest with the Chief Constable.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, would not my noble friend the Minister agree that, really, the merits of this dispute are now of very little consequence, and that what is of consequence is the challenge to parliamentary democracy and the maintenance of the rule of law? Is this not a time when we should all, in all quarters of the House, whatever political persuasions we have, draw on our reserves of goodwill and common sense to stand up for the maintenance of law?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I entirely sympathise with what my noble friend has said. That is indeed what is at issue. This country is governed under a democracy, and democracy proceeds by persuasion and the views of the majority. Where a minority does not agree with the law it is not open to that minority, under a democracy, to overthrow the law by violence or by any other means except through the ballot box and by persuasive argument. I think the whole of your Lordships' House ought to endorse that on every possible occasion.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the use of the adjective "spontaneous" in connection with the presence of many hundreds, if not thousands, of pickets who assembled at Warrington is entirely specious and misleading, and would require redefinition of the meaning of the word in the English dictionary?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not actually know of any individual, though I am told there is one, who is prepared to regard these events as having been spontaneous. Certainly the Government do not.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, with regard to the question of travel arrangements, it was suggested yesterday that perhaps a special train was being run, presumably by British Rail, to take pickets to Warrington. Did that in fact happen, and, if it did, is it going to be repeated?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I understand that it did not happen, and, therefore, whatever happened, it cannot be repeated.

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