HL Deb 19 June 1984 vol 453 cc165-71

3.42 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer which has just been given in another place to a Private Notice Question about measures to prevent a repetition of the violence and public disorder that occurred yesterday in connection with the mining dispute. The Answer was as follows:

"The violence yesterday was concentrated at the Orgreave coking plant. The police estimate that at nine o'clock yesterday morning some 10,000 people were in the vicinity. They were there to stop the British Steel Corporation exercising its lawful right to remove coke from the plant. The police were subjected to a considerable level of violence, and to deal with it found it necessary to use both mounted officers and officers equipped with shields and helmets. Ninety-three arrests were made. Of those arrested, 26 have since been charged with riot. The remainder have been charged with unlawful assembly, assault and public order offences. Twenty-eight police officers suffered injuries. The disorder, during which large numbers of missiles were thrown at police officers, continued until after mid-day. Apart from the physical violence, a field close to the lines of police officers was set on fire and three vehicles were removed from a local yard and set on fire. A car filled with rubble was pushed down a hill towards the lines of police officers. Fortunately, it merely hit a wall. A barrier was erected in the road and set on fire.

"In spite of the large numbers of people present and the violence which arose, the police were able to ensure that the vehicles due to go into and out of the plant were able to do so as required.

"With regard to the possible repetition of events of this kind, no Government can guarantee that violence will not recur if there are people who are determined to resort to it. What the Government can and must do is to give the police any support that is needed in their difficult task of preventing and containing violence and dealing with it when it arises. This Government have done that and will continue to do so. The Government must also ensure that the law relating to public order is adequate and that the courts have proper powers to deal with offences against it. For the most part, the provisions of the criminal law relating to such offences as obstruction, intimidation, criminal damage and riot are adequate, and the courts' powers very substantial. I do not believe that there is a need for major changes in this area, although, as the House will know, this is a matter we have under review. What there is need for now is unequivocal and unanimous condemnation of the use of violence as a means of securing political or industrial objectives; and full support for those who are determined to ensure that violence shall not prevail."

My Lords, that completes the reply which was given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, this House will be grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his courtesy in repeating that Statement in reply to a Private Notice Question in another place. In every part of your Lordships' House, and in every part of the nation among our decent folk, yesterday will go down as a black Monday. From these Benches there will never be anything other than a condemnation of violence from wherever it may come, nor will there be anything other than support for picketing which is peaceful picketing. Yesterday's scenes on television were too terrible for words, bearing in mind our history of moderation in this country; and, having said what I have said, I cannot do better than to repeat what my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition in another place said after looking at those scenes: "Horrifying, untypical, and un-British".

I am sure that we are all pleased—if that is the right word —that a police inquiry is to take place into what occurred yesterday. But I believe that the nation as a whole knows, as your Lordships know, that no police inquiries, no epithets, and no denunciations will of themselves cure this completely unholy deadlock, which has culminated in the situation that we now face after 15 weeks of this dispute. I believe that from these Benches, which I have the honour to represent at the moment, we are speaking for the nation as a whole when we say that the Government have a duty to act.

That does not mean anything other than this: none of us can stand by idly while these things occur as a result of complete inactivity by a Government who are supposed to stand for law and order and for strong government. There must be third party intervention in this unholy deadlock, especially where the two chief participants have —and it is evident —no confidence not only in one another, but, as they have themselves so expressed, no confidence in one another's words.

I hope that the noble Lord the Minister read the letter in The Times this morning from my right honourable friend the Member for Barnsley, Central. With your Lordships' permission, I shall quote merely one sentence of the letter: The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Energy must impress upon all concerned the necessity to establish an independent court of inquiry to examine the causes of this dispute, the way forward for conciliation, and the salvation of our main industrial producer of energy". I ask the noble Lord the Minister, who speaks for the Government on this occasion, if there is not to be a court of inquiry, is there at least to be an approach made by the Government to see that ACAS takes its normal intermediary role in this affair; and, if not now, when? All of us have regretted this Statement. As I plead on behalf of these Benches, let it at least lead to some action before things get even worse.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that we are grateful to him for having repeated this Statement? Following what he has said, perhaps I may ask him one or two questions. First, will he accept from my colleagues and myself, and I am sure the overwhelming majority of the House, that we wholly deplore what happened yesterday? There can be no possible excuse, under any circumstances whatever, for what happened at Orgreave. May I ask him whether he is aware that the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, Mr. Wright, has indicated today that so far 223 people have been injured, many of them police officers, during the course of these various incidents at Orgreave? This is a scale of violence which is wholly unacceptable in this country.

May I further ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that we believe that in these circumstances there should be the firmest and most unequivocal support for the police in the job which they are doing? Secondly, may I ask him whether he is aware that many of us are disturbed by suggestions which have been made that the Government have been attempting to dissuade the heads of nationalised industries from using the civil law to deal with the situation which is arising? Is he aware that secondary picketing is unlawful in this country; and is he further aware that, given the fact that Parliament has spent a great deal of time and devoted a great deal of attention to these matters over the last four years, we expect the civil law in this country to be upheld?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords —

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think convention requires me to intervene at this stage. I should like to welcome the vigour and robustness with which both noble Lords who have spoken have, on behalf of their parties, supported law and order and those who enforce it. I believe it is crucially important that the nation should be united in resistance to any resort to bully-boy, strong-arm tactics to achieve what the law denies in the protection of other members of the community.

Her Majesty's Government are not sitting in masterly inactivity. They have secured the means by which even this level of violence can be contained at a level at which it does not achieve its avowed objective. I do not wish to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, into questions on the management of the coal and steel industries when dealing with a Question concerning the enforcement of law and order. On the latter, I can tell the noble Lord. Lord Harris, that, to the best of my knowledge, up to date 406 policemen have been injured in this dispute as a whole. I do not have figures for members of the public.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I apologise to the House for rising before the Minister replied. From these Benches we take very seriously the tremendous problems and pressures which our nation faces at the moment. I am sure that all of us on these Benches would want also to underline our unequivocal support for the police, who are facing the greatest difficulties, pressures and dangers. We know what those pressures are like, because all of us know ordinary policemen and the way they constantly care for us here and outside the Palace. Secondly, we on these Benches should also like to underline the fact that the violence is of such seriousness that it is untypical of the way our nation conducts its business, and we should all abhor that violence.

Thirdly, I know I speak for a number of bishops who are personally concerned here when I say that we on these Benches should like to feel that the Church, which stands for reconciliation in difficult situations, understands better the minds of ordinary miners who are at the moment caught up in this untypical and dangerous situation, and from these Benches we should like to offer anything that we can do. That is not simply saying piously that we will pray —I know there are prayers on this matter being offered in every church throughout our country—but if from these Benches we could offer anything by way of reconciliation we would gladly do so and would gladly go to the point where conversation between conflicting parties can be entered into. Down the years Christian leaders of various kinds, as well as rank and file Christians, have sought to be at the point of confrontation between people, and we should like to offer whatever reconciliation or work we can.

I give one simple and homely instance, and with that I finish. There is in one of the parishes in this difficult area at the moment one member of a church council who is a representative of the National Union of Mineworkers, and there is one member in that particular parish, also on the church council, who is himself a local representative of the National Coal Board. When, in that area, they have had incipient problems in the past, those two have gone together into their local parish church; they have talked and prayed together, and they have sorted out their local situation in prayer together. If there is anything which we on these Benches can do to help in reconciliation, we should like to be able so to do. Pray we do, pray we will —and we will go if there is anything we can do.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful for the right reverend Prelate's intervention and for his perceptions. I am certain that the Church—aptly, the Church militant—can be of help in the field and the home in this matter, though I would not at this stage be able to suggest a national role, if that is what he had in mind. However, his good wishes are almost as welcome as his prayers, without which we would not survive.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken so far have rightly deplored the scenes of violence which were witnessed yesterday. These indeed exceed anything that has occurred in an industrial dispute since the war, and far exceed even those scenes of violence which occurred in the 1972 miners' strike. So we must by every possible means ensure that these scenes do not recur. It is therefore necessary to try to consider what are the causes of this dispute continuing.

As the chief constable who was interviewed said yesterday, there is undoubtedly a sense of frustration, whether or not justified. As a part of that sense of frustration there is undoubtedly, within the mining industry, in my opinion, a feeling of uncertainty about the future. Obviously that future will be made all the more uncertain the longer this dispute continues.

The Government have said that they do not wish to intervene in any negotiating position between the participants. However, I should like to submit that there is a way in which, without departing from that intention, the Government can help to allay some of the uncertainty about the future of the mining industry in this country. If the Government were to come out with a clear statement as to their broad energy strategy and the part which coal could play in that, under whatever conditions they wish to indicate, then at least everybody in the industry would know where they stood. I should like to make that suggestion to the noble Lord the Minister.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord again tempts me to discuss how the nationalised coal industry should be run. As I understand it, our interest at the moment is not whether the miners should be on strike but whether they should be conducting themselves in the way that they were conducting themselves last night. That is the question on the Order Paper. Therefore, although I am tempted to reply to the noble Lord, I simply say that the way in which the strike was conducted last night is at variance with the experience of British history, that it is contrary to the British character, that it is destructive of the Queen's peace of this country, and that it should not be tolerated.

Lord Denham

My Lords, before the noble Lord who leads for the Opposition intervenes, I wonder whether I can say something. Rules are occasionally meant to have a slightly blind eye turned to them. I think that this was probably right in the case of the right reverend Prelate and of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who possibly went beyond the questions that are meant to be put following statements. I wonder, however, whether from now on noble Lords can phrase their remarks in question form for elucidation from the Minister.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, may I support the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, but go one step further? The noble Lord, understandably, has confined himself to questions of law and order and condemnation of violence. There is no question but that this side of the House condemns violence completely from whatever source it comes. We were deeply disturbed and distressed by what occurred yesterday at Orgreave. Nevertheless, in view of the developing gravity of the situation and the national interest that is involved—I stress the words "national interest"—will the noble Lord at least discuss this matter with his right honourable friends? Is it not the case now—this is relevant to the question—that it is vital that the Government should intervene to seek to bring this unhappy dispute to an end?

Will the noble Lord ask his right honourable friends to consider the possiblity of an intervention by way of an independent inquiry which would look at this objectively and hear evidence from Mr. MacGregor, Mr. Scargill and other independent sources? Would be not agree that it is very much in the interest of Britain at this time that this matter should at least be tackled by the Government in a constructive way?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am of course obliged to the noble Lord, I will give the undertaking that he wants because I always draw to my right honourable friends' attention the opinions and views of your Lordships expressed in this House, and I note appropriately the level of enthusiasm with which they are given. What I am seeking to do is to avoid this spilling into a debate on energy or coal policy which it would not be proper to have now. I am therefore putting myself at a disadvantage by not replying to some of the fairly telling points made on the other side, and which I am tempted to do and could put myself in a better light if I did. Of course, I give that undertaking.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether consideration has been given to the legal responsibility of those who organise very large gatherings outside premises that are not their normal place of work and which bear no resemblance whatever to the peaceful picketing that our law recognises?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the question of law enforcement is, in a situation like this, continually under review. It may be useful, although I cannot list every provision of the criminal law that may be used, not all of them in relation to the leaders or godfathers of these events, to give the example that any unlawful infliction of violence against the person is a criminal offence. Violence against property is dealt with under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Obstruction of the highway or of the police are criminal offences, and there is a range of offences of intimidation. Conduct conducive to a breach of the peace is an offence, and there are the common law public order offences of affray, unlawful assembly and riot. But my noble friend has rightly pointed a finger at those responsible who are supposed to be leading a responsible national body and who, with every intention of causing a vast assembly of their membership at one place, cause it to take place in the full knowledge that its intention is to stop a lawful procedure which the police will be bound to protect, It seems to me that the consequences that flow from that decision must lay a very heavy burden of responsibility indeed upon those who take it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that come what may, at some time, full cognisance will have to be taken of the submissions made by my noble friend Lord Mishcon, in such a sober and sane manner, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra? Will the noble Lord also bear in mind that there is another element which has not been mentioned and which many people might have seen on television last night in those horrible—those almost unbelievably horrendous—scenes? I come from a coal mining area. I know the solidarity of coal mining folk. It is perhaps not appreciated in this House, but every meeting of a branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, certainly in South Wales, is always preceded by prayers. This is apropos the point mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. The point I wish to make is this. The final scene on television last night gave us a ray of hope. It was of a senior police officer shaking hands with a miner (who was stricken and bleeding) and agreeing when the miner said that many of those who had started the violence were in no way connected with the picketing or with the miners themselves. Surely, this point must be taken as encouraging by both police and miners.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if the noble Lord's question was: "does Her Majesty's Government think that wherever possible enmity should be turned into friendship, and that those who protect the law and those who live under it should be on the same side in maintaining order in our society?", the answer is unequivocally, yes.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, did not Mr. Eddie Shah show how to deal with situations of this sort, and has not the law been strengthened since then?

Lord Elton

My Lords. I think that the circumstances were a little different.