HL Deb 22 March 1984 vol 449 cc1365-8

3.15 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

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 whether they propose to make any changes in procedure or to recommend an amendment of the law following the disturbances at the Archway Road inquiry and other public inquiries, and the harassment of the inspectors concerned.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is clear that what has happened in connection with the Archway inquiries, and, in particular, the events which led to the resignation of the last inspector, is quite intolerable and should not be permitted to happen again if it is at all possible to prevent it. I divide my Answer into two parts: first, what it is possible to do to prevent the next inspector suffering from the kind of harassment and persecution which led to the last inspector's resignation; and, secondly, what it is possible to do to prevent disruption at the inquiry itself.

When the next inspector is appointed, I propose to make sure that he is aware of the facilities available to him for monitoring incoming calls to his telephone and sifting his mail, and for the protection of his residence with adequate police presence, and I shall alert my relevant colleagues as to my actions on this. Secondly, I shall also seek to ensure that the inspector is made fully aware of his powers under the Public Meeting Act 1908, and of the provisions of the Public Order Act 1936, and that the meeting is properly stewarded and the police alerted to the possibility of disorder.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Would he not agree with me that one of the disturbing elements of this situation is that the Archway Road episode is by no means an isolated instance? That being so, does he feel that at some stage in the future, when the law on the matter is being reviewed, it would be appropriate to see whether any possible clarification of the law is necessary?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I agree that this is not a totally isolated incident. My own belief is that some minor clarifications in the law might be desirable and I have discussed this with relevant colleagues. I do not think that I have anything much further to say at the moment, but my general conviction is that this is a question of administrative and preventive action rather than of a defect in law.

The House might be interested to hear what is the existing law. Under Section 1 of the Public Meeting Act 1908 it is an offence to act in a disorderly manner at a public meeting. There is a power of arrest where a disrupter refuses to give his name and address. Under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936 it is also an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour at a public meeting with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or which are likely to occasion a breach of the peace.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that owing to my not unexpected lack of success in yesterday's ballot, the House will not have the opportunity of discussing this important matter in depth on llth April? Nevertheless, will my noble and learned friend continue to give urgent consideration to this important matter, and, in addition to looking at the statute law of a general nature (to which he was good enough to refer), will he refresh his memory on the content of the Inquiries Procedure Rules 1974, which specifically govern this matter? Will he consider the rules, since he may find that they are rather sketchy in some respects, with a view to their amendment and addition, so as to provide better machinery for the conduct of these inquiries and to ease the task of those presiding over them?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I share, and I am sure the House will share, my noble friend's disappointment at having been unsuccessful in the ballot. He has wide experience of these inquiries. I shall certainly refresh my memory about the rules and pass on what he said to the relevant colleague who will be more immediately responsible.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, in the review of this question, which has caused such grave disquiet generally, and certainly in this House, will the noble and learned Lord with his colleagues consider the possibility (albeit with the difficulty of a lay inspector presiding over the tribunal) of incorporating such tribunals among those where contempt of court would be a relevant matter?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as a matter of fact I have thought rather deeply about this. Under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 one can set up an inquiry which attracts some of the contempt provisions, but that requires a resolution of each House of Parliament and therefore would not normally be appropriate to inquiries of this kind; but they could be in theory invoked. It so happens that I was sitting judicially in the Privy Council some months ago when we had to consider the situation of an inquiry of a somewhat different kind in one of the dependencies which still has appeals to the Privy Council. We decided then that the law of contempt was not something appropriate for something other than a court of law unless there was special statutory provision to that effect.

I am not trying to dogmatise about this. As the noble Lord will remember, we introduced comparatively recently into the magistrates' procedure the law of contempt for misbehaviour in the face of the court. I am not therefore excluding this a priori, but my own belief after thinking about it has been that you do not want to extend the law of contempt beyond what is necessary and that the matter really is a question of enforcement, which means an adequate police presence, adquate stewarding and the enforcement of the existing legislation, rather than the addition to the criminal code of a special contempt provision in relation to an ordinary road inquiry.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord not agree that both at Archway Road and at an associated inquiry at the North Circular Road there was a deliberate and systematically organised campaign which was intended to negate the whole democratic process? Would the noble and learned Lord not also agree that in fact that sort of behaviour is very difficult to bring within the terms either of the common law or of the statute law such as the noble and learned Lord has described it? In particular, is there not considerable doubt as to whether it is for the police or for the inspector to initiate proceedings? In those circumstances is there not a very strong case to be made for clarifying and strengthening the criminal law to prevent these outrages from continuing?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I have not studied the history of these inquiries in any detail, but from what I hear there is every reason to believe that what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, says about the past inquiries is correct. I myself rather question whether it is a matter of clarifying the law. The inspector has certain rights and I shall try to take steps to see that he is adequately briefed as to his rights about it. The police are naturally reluctant to interfere unless they are called upon, but if they are in the neighbourhood the inspector has rights to summon assistance; and if the inquiry is properly stewarded—which can be, and usually is, arranged—it is possible to summon them. I believe that in fact in the recent inquiry which gave rise to this Question the police were sent for and at the instance of the inspector persons were removed successfully by the police.

Lord Renton

My Lords, should not inspectors have power to award costs against any party whose troublesome behaviour causes the inquiry to be unnecessarily prolonged or the police to be called in?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I shall certainly draw that to the attention of my colleagues. I can see difficulties about giving costs against a person who is not a lawfully-present objector to the scheme which is being inquired into. An order for costs against a non-party to the proceedings would, I think, give rise to difficulty, but I take note of what my noble friend has said.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is not the fact that the inspector who will be conducting the inquiry on its resumption is to be given advance notice that he can have his telephone monitored and that he can have special police surveillance not very reassuring? And does that not indicate the necessity of a strengthening of the criminal law in this field?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, but I should have thought not. Obviously, the next inspector will have to be somebody who is aware of the past history and the fact that he has to be told of these rights indicates that he has to exercise his existing rights. You do not necessarily create greater order by passing a new law but you do create better order by enforcing rights and obligations which already exist.

Lord Hale

My Lords, may I remind the noble and learned Lord—

Noble Lords


Lord Hale

My Lords, I do not know why it is wrong to remind the noble and learned Lord. I was only going to say, on something that I know something about, that the noble and learned Lord did refer to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act. I have had the misfortune to appear before three such. May I beg the noble and learned Lord never again to permit the introduction of a wide system of interrogation of suspected persons ruled by no laws, ruled by no former practice, where the accused person may not know until he goes into the witness box what is going to be put to him at large.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am duly reminded but I think that we are in danger of straying rather far from the original Question.