HL Deb 26 January 1987 vol 483 cc1149-55

5 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement about the disorders at Wapping, which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend, the Home Secretary. The statement is as follows:

"I understand from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that the disorder followed a march from central London marking the anniversary of the News International dispute. The police estimate that 12,500 people took part. When the march reached Wapping at 7.15, disorder broke out almost immediately. Cordons of police officers in ordinary uniform came under attack with missiles. At about 7.40 a lorry being used by the demonstrators was overturned, and an attempt was made to set it on fire. Disorder then continued for some hours. Missiles were thrown at the police, including rocks, bottles, ball bearings, darts, railings, scaffolding poles and pieces of paving stone. The police used mounted officers, and foot officers in protective equipment, to restore order. I understand that calm returned by about midnight.

"In all, 162 police officers were injured. The injuries included a broken bone in the hand, injuries to the face and legs and concussion. Two officers were detained in hospital overnight. I am glad to say that they have both now been discharged. The police know of 40 members of the public who were injured; there will have been others whose injuries did not come to police attention. I understand that 67 people were arrested of whom 65 have now been charged with public order and other offences. Fifteen of these arrested are print workers.

"This is the latest in a series of disturbances connected with demonstrations at Wapping. Over the last year, including last Saturday, 572 police officers have been injured, 1,462 people have been arrested, and over 1.2 million police man-hours have been spent. The total additional policing cost up to the end of 1986 is estimated at £5.3 million.

"It is clear that some of those attending Saturday's demonstration armed themselves with ferocious weapons intent on violent attacks against the police. No serious attempt was made to stop the lorries leaving the plant, and they were able to do so without significant difficulty.

"It also seems clear that the organisers of these demonstrations are unable to prevent violence or to control the activities of all their supporters. They must now find some other way of making their point, without providing occasions for violence and disorder.

"I have conveyed to the Commissioner my full support for the action taken by the Metropolitan Police to deal with this disgraceful incident, and my sympathy for the police officers who have been injured. The vicious attack on Saturday evening had nothing to do with peaceful protest or the peaceful furtherance of a dispute within the law. I trust that it will be condemned unreservedly by both sides of the House."

My Lords, that concludes the text of the statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lord Mishcon I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for repeating the Statement of the Home Secretary. While expressing deep regret and sympathy with the police and also innocent members of the public who were injured, we are very glad to note that only two police officers had to be detained overnight in hospital, and that both have now been discharged.

The whole House will lament and deplore what can only be described as a series of the most dreadful occurrences at Wapping. It is significant that, as the Statement has described, out of the 65 people who have been charged with public order and other offences (no-one yet knows whether or not they were guilty) only 15 were print workers.

The union concerned expressed itself as wanting a perfectly legal demonstration which it was entitled to have, marking, as it did the anniversary of the News International dispute. The general secretary of the print union SOGAT 82 is quoted in the press as saying: There were elements who came along not to support the workers on strike but to cause trouble". The members of the union, and certainly the union itself, on the evidence available to date, do not call to be castigated at this time. This also applies to the police. On any view, in the light of the concern that exists as to what did occur and as to the identity of the people who attached themselves to the demonstration, must there not now be an inquiry which should cover certain aspects? First, who was responsible for causing and stirring up this violence? Secondly, how can such people be stopped and deterred without interfering with the right of peaceful demonstration? Thirdly, are the rules governing police action in such situations, including charges by police officers on horseback, properly formulated, and do they meet with public approval?

Of one thing there can be no doubt. This House is united in the belief, and it is certainly the view of my noble friends on this side of the House, that there can no condonation of the use of violence from whatever source it may come.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. My noble friends and I would like to be associated unequivocally with the statement of the Home Secretary in support of the actions of the Metropolitan Police over a matter which the Home Secretary rightly describes as a disgraceful incident.

Is the noble Earl aware that since this dispute began, over 600 police officers have been injured during a series of disturbances outside the News International premises, and that more than 1,000 people have been convicted of criminal offences associated with the disturbances? The noble Earl has told us that the public expenditure implications are substantial with over £5 million of public money involved. Is he also aware of the profound counsequences being experienced by the people of London in terms of the manpower implications of such disturbances so far as the Metropolitan Police are concerned?

Is the noble Earl aware that one full police division, on an average basis, is now fully committed in Wapping, and that some noble Lords are beginning to be seriously concerned about this aspect? Is he also aware that some of us would find it difficult to support any demands for a public inquiry into the police action? There is no comparison between what happened in Wapping on Saturday night and, for example, the incident in Red Lion Square which led to the appointment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, to conduct an inquiry?

If, by chance, there were to be a public inquiry, some noble Lords would wish to have one particular issue in the terms of reference, namely, how it can be that, month after month, the trade union leaders concerned call for large scale demonstrations in the highway at Wapping knowing that there will be riots as a result of their calls for such action. Is the noble Earl aware that there is no doubt at all as to who bears the full moral responsibility for what happens? Twelve thousand people gathered in the dark at Wapping, against a background on every previous occasion of extreme violence. This is the one matter that would be worth considering at a public inquiry.

Is the noble Earl aware that on Saturday night the weapons used against the police included spears, sharpened sticks, petrol bombs, bottles, hammers, darts, paving stones and bricks? Is he aware also that nylon rope was stretched across a darkened street in order to bring down police horses? There were shouts from the crowd, as reported in the Financial Times today, of "Blakelock was just the first".

Is the noble Earl aware that many noble Lords believe that this long running series of violent episodes in the highway must now be rapidly brought to an end? Is he aware that the legal basis of picketing is based on peaceful persuasion? How can anyone believe that what happened on Saturday night had anything whatever to do with peaceful persuasion?

Perhaps I may ask the noble Earl specifically whether he will consider asking his right honourable friend the Home Secretary to discuss with the law officers of the Crown whether some aspect of the civil law can be considered now. Obviously the criminal law has direct application so far as individuals are concerned, but week after week and month after month the road there is being wilfully obstructed, and if this is going to continue for much longer the government law officers are going to have to consider what other action can be taken.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, before the noble Earl replies may I mention one point? I did not refer to a call for a public inquiry. I did not have that in mind.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for the words of the noble and leaned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, when he said, "We lament and deplore the events at Wapping." We believe that the trade unions—and our belief is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich—reneged on their responsibility by letting a demonstration take place where there has been the whole history of violence at Wapping. It was there to be used as a catalyst, which blatantly it was, and theirs is the obligation to see that it does not happen again.

I am grateful for the unqualified support of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for the police, and we on this side give our total support to the police. Yes, we are aware that some 572 officers have been injured. Of course the situation requires manpower. As the noble Lord will recall, he asked me a Question on 17th October on this matter. I was able to report that manpower had been reduced and that in fact the commissioner of police was able to continue to reduce the manpower at Wapping until it came to the demonstration, when over 1,000 officers were involved. This is a sad tale. The situation lessened the police force in the rest of London, and that is a moral obligation that the union leaders must bear in mind.

The question of an inquiry was raised by the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord. My right honourable friend does not think it is appropriate to raise an inquiry on this matter. We understand that some complaints about the police have been made. Those will be pursued through the police complaints procedures approved by Parliament. The outcome of any such police investigation is referred to the independent Police Complaints Authority. The courts will deal with the cases of those charged with criminal offences. This is surely the right way to proceed. An inquiry is neither necessary nor justified.

The noble Lord asked about petrol bombs. So far as I am aware no petrol bombs as such were thrown, but I can confirm that across Wellclose Street, apparently in order to injure police horses, a wire was stretched. I am glad to be able to report that on that occasion no police horses were injured, but 11 horses were injured during the evening's performance of terror and violence.

On road obstruction and whether this should be met by a civil case, as I understand it this would be inappropriate because obstructing the roads is a criminal offence. If there is to be a civil case it is to be taken not by the Government but by the residents. I am sure that the noble Lord knows of a resident who lives nearby as leader of his party who might want to start that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, my noble friend in reading the Statement referred to the organisers of this matter. Given the experience of the past year, and given the legal presumption that a sane man is deemed to contemplate the natural consequences of his acts, will my noble friend consider consulting the law officers of the Crown to see whether criminal proceedings can and should be brought against those who have organised this continuing riot culminating in this appalling one, whether they be trade union officials or other people?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, certain police action has been taken, as my noble friend knows, but I shall of course pass that important point he has made to my right honourable friend.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there is a strong view among trade unionists that one thing which Saturday night's events proved beyond doubt is that the legitimate and proper grievances of the trade unionists in this dispute will not be resolved by mass picketing, or by the violence into which mass picketing invevitably degenerates, and that the unions concerned would be well advised to call an end to mass picketing? It provides only a Roman holiday for hooligans and Trotskyites.

However, would the noble Earl further agree that as a means of promoting a peaceful resolution of this dispute it would be helpful if his noble friend the Secretary of State for Employment would help to promote discussions and negotiations between News International and the trade unionists concerned?

5.15 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I have said before in your Lordships' House, the dispute is between the employers and the employees and is not a matter for the Government. Of course ACAS is available to help should either or both sides require it. I am grateful, however, to the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, for his condemnation of the irresponsible action, and I hope that the unions will heed his wise words, which are filled with experience.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, has the noble Earl read a report in the Independent and The Times this morning that a team of 20 legal observers, including barristers, was present? If so, can the noble Earl help us as to who comprised that motley crew? Who organised their presence? Who instructed them? Who were their clients? And what political faction, if any, do they belong to? Above all, can the noble Earl help us as to why anybody who was intending a purely peaceful demonstration should have taken the trouble to arrange for such people to be present?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for that question from the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. I shall remember to refer to barristers and legal advisers as a motley crew in the future. I am afraid that I cannot help the noble Lord about the 20 so-called legal experts. As I understand it, they range from students studying law to various other people. Also as I understand it, they are employed by the organisers, so they cannot be independent. They are there to witness from their particular viewpoint the actions of the police. I am afraid that I cannot help the noble Lord much further.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend give us some guidance? Of the 65 who have been charged, only 13 seem to have been printworkers. What were the occupations of the other 52? After one year of riotous assembly every Saturday and to a lesser extent every Wednesday, surely my noble friend must have some information as to who is organising and paying and renting the buses to take those who have no connection whatsoever with the print industry to cause this riotous assembly.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I understand it there were 15 printworkers who were charged, of whom two said they were unemployed. The remainder come from various occupations including some students, a teacher, a trade union official, a miner, a postman, a driver, a civil servant, a shop assistant, a library clerk, a surveyor, a salesman, a butcher, a musician and various others. They come from various parts of the country. Most came from London but some came from as far afield as Liverpool, the West Midlands, Warwickshire, Bristol and Derbyshire. I am afraid that I am unable to help my noble friend as to who is behind paying them.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that it is a year since the 5,000 people were dismissed from News International in Wapping, and that that was the reason the senior trade union officials had this demonstration? As evidence of the fact that they wanted it to be a peaceful demonstration they actually had a jazz band fixed up to play at the demonstration. The disruption was caused by elements other than those organised and led by the official unions, and therefore the statements made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in this connection are entirely unwarranted.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, before my noble friend answers that, he may recall that I made no statement, as has been attributed to me quite inaccurately by the noble Baroness. I asked a question.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I understand it, it was the lorry on which the jazz band was brought to the demonstration that was used by some of the violent people. If the union is going to organise such a demonstration—as I said on numerous occasions during the passage of the Public Order Act through this House this Government do not want to stop peaceful demonstrations—the union must put its own house in order to be able to control those who will join it and seek to use it as a catalyst on an occasion such as this.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that efforts are being made to establish the common affiliation of the 50 members of the 65 who were arrested and who is co-ordinating their efforts? Will suitably strict measures be taken against them?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, this is a matter for the police and I am sure the police will be looking into the points raised by my noble friend.

Lord Parry

My Lords, the House will accept and it has already been established that there is at this stage no difference on either side of the House in the attitude to the terrible things that took place. Such things should never happen in a civilised society. The answers that have been given to the House are so far short of real information that surely it would be intelligent for an inquiry to be held. No one has asked for a public inquiry. We have asked for an inquiry so that answers to all these speculations could be absolute.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think I have dealt at some length with the point about an inquiry. It would be wrong for me to repeat what I have said. My right honourable friend does not think an inquiry is suitable, because other processes are there.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, following the catalogue of occupations given in response to the question of my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing, can the House assume on the principle of exclusio alterius that no barrister is included in that number? Can those of us who follow or have followed that calling take some modest crumb of comfort from that?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I cannot answer for the 11 students. They might well have been training in the law. Looking through the list, the civil servant might have been a legal adviser, so I am afraid I am unable to help my noble friend.

Lord Constantine of Stanmore

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister, in view of what is happening in Europe, and in the interests of law and order and the peace of the population in this country, whether we are yet again considering the use of water cannon, which have proved most effective in Europe and could prove equally effective and efficient here in avoiding injury to the police and to the public.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there are, as my noble friend reminded us, some situations where water cannon are used on the Continent, but they are not at present operationally available to the Metropolitan Police because their use in some situations of mass disorder is currently being evaluated. I must tell my noble friend and the House that there are limitations on their effectiveness in a confined area.

Lord Constantine of Stanmore

My Lords, I merely remind the Minister that it is far better to wet them than to hit them.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it would be much more preferable if demonstators did not hit the police.