HL Deb 15 November 1989 vol 512 cc1316-8

2.56 p.m.

Lord Monson asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware that, five days after the calls for the death of Mr. Salman Rushdie were publicly reiterated in Manchester, a meeting of Bradford Conservatives due to be addressed by Mr. Ray Honeyford had to be cancelled because of threats by Moslem fundamentalists; and whether they are satisfied that the right of free speech within the law is in practice still equally available to every individual in this country.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, we understand that a meeting due to be addressed by Mr. Honeyford on 26th October 1989 was cancelled by the organisers because of possible demonstrations. The police were not consulted about this decision. There is no evidence of a direct link between these events and statements made in Manchester on 21st October which have been referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. We deplore any attempt to deny free speech within the law. The police and prosecutors are well aware of their responsibility to uphold this right.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that very full Answer. Is he aware that I deliberately avoided questioning the legality of the calls for the death of Salman Rushdie on the assumption that, if they had been illegal, the police would have acted long before now? Obviously I was mistaken. Of course one accepts the noble Lord's reassurances. But in order to dispel the widespread impression that, in the matter of free speech, some are decidedly more equal than others, can the noble Lord assure the House that the police will be instructed automatically to protect meetings at which the right of free speech within the law is to be exercised from physical attacks by those whose aim is to extinguish such traditional rights?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the decision to call off this meeting was taken by the organisers. I understand that they did not seek the advice or assistance of the police before reaching that decision. But, before the decision to cancel the meeting was taken, I understand that the police in consultation with the organisers had made arrangements to police the meeting. The noble Lord is asking for this to happen automatically. That would be an operational matter for a chief constable.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend draw to the attention of the responsible Moslem leaders in this country that if they care to refer to Chapter 50 of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire they will find a very great deal more to complain of, if it is an unbowdlerised edition, than in Salman Rushdie's unreadable book?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, we have made it consistently clear to Moslems that, while they have a right to protest peacefully and legally, it is wholly unacceptable for any protests to be turned towards violence or the threat of violence. Any possible protest against that chapter in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would fall within the scope of that answer.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the noble Lord said that the matter had been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, can he say what progress has been made? The Government have said that it is an offence under common law, as well as under the 1861 Act, to call for, or attempt to encourage, the murder of any other person. Will the Leader of the House tell us what is the present position? For example, when are the Crown prosecutors going to prosecute?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Greater Manchester police have asked the Crown Prosecution Service to see whether there is a case for prosecution on the grounds of Dr. Siddiqui's remarks to the Moslem Association meeting in Manchester on 21st October. However, I am afraid that I cannot take the noble Lord or the House any further in the matter today.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many people are extremely concerned about the length of time this matter is taking? They believe that there is one law for one section of the community and one law for another. Is it not a fact that book burning, threats to publishers, threats to organisers of proper and legal meetings and incitement of a mob to murder a fellow citizen is not Moslem fundamentalism; it is naked, brutal and primitive fascism? It is a system and a creed which we ought not to allow to rear its ugly head in this country. I hope therefore that the Government will stamp on the matter quickly and firmly.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that each case is looked at on its merits. There is no police policy of treating these threats any differently from any other threats. However, the fact of the matter is that allegations of unlawfulness are for the police to pursue. And, indeed, they are pursued. Many prosecutions are brought forward each year under the charge of conspiracy to commit murder or incitement to murder.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, are not the problems which face the population in this country usually dealt with in this House by moderate language? Moreover, do we not usually find that this is the better way to deal with such matters?

Is it not confusing to deal with freedom of speech —which is one subject we all value and know about —and another subject concerning breaches of our criminal law in regard to calls for murder, and so on? Would it not therefore serve a useful purpose if the noble Lord the Leader of the House uttered in clear terms —in what may be the last question on the subject —the fact that these threats constitute a serious breach of our criminal law and that this ought to be looked at and noted by all sections of our community?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I have made it crystal clear that the police have asked the Crown Prosecution Service to see whether there is a case for prosecution on the grounds of the remarks which we have discussed. I must make it absolutely clear that incitement to murder is a criminal offence.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House not agree that it was extreme moderation between the years 1930 and 1939 which allowed Hitler to gain ascendancy?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has just said that this may be the last time we shall be discussing the matter, presumably before a case is brought forward or not brought forward.

I should like to make two points. First, it would be quite wrong to castigate a particular community in this country on the basis of the actions of an extremist few, however much one might disapprove fundamentally of that view. However, if there is to be a case the law can take care of the matter. As I said, the papers are in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service.

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