HL Deb 18 October 1993 vol 549 cc417-21

3.7 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely: whether Her Majesty's Government will make a Statement about the recent disturbances in Welling.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Answer is as follows:

"The police became aware that the Anti-Nazi League planned a major march past the site of the British National Party bookshop in Welling on Saturday 16th October.

"The Commissioner considered that for the march to progress through this area would be to risk serious public disorder. He therefore decided to re-route the march, using his powers under Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986, to a safer area Some 20,000 people were estimated to have taken part in the march; 2,600 police officers were deployed, together with 84 police horses, with a further 3,000 police officers held in reserve.

"When the march reached the point where the revised route departed from the organisers' preferred one, there was a confrontation which resulted in many appalling acts of violence. Thirty-one arrests were made and more are expected once the police have had time to review the video evidence. Twenty-one police officers and 41 demonstrators were injured. All the police officers are now out of hospital.

"As the Commissioner said at his press conference, it is highly regrettable that what should have been a peaceful demonstration against the despicable views of the British National Party was hijacked by a malevolent minority bent on confrontation of the police. I am satisfied that, had the Commissioner not taken firm and decisive action to re-route the march, the level of violence could have been much worse.

"It is a matter of great regret that the police and the public should be subjected to this disgraceful level of violence. The police acted with astonishing bravery, as is their custom, and according to the highest standards of their profession."

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, in thanking the noble Earl for replying to this Question, would he not agree—I am sure that he will—that this was a deplorable episode? It involved calculated attacks upon the police and created an immense amount of fear among law-abiding people who have the misfortune to live near the headquarters of this thoroughly unpleasant organisation.

Does he not also agree that the behaviour of a minority of the demonstrators reminded one only of the conduct of fascist bully boys? Will he pass on the congratulations of the whole House—I am sure that is the case—to the commissioner on the way in which he organised a response to this incident? Will he also pass on our regrets to those officers who were injured, and in particular to the black officer who was attacked solely because he was black? Will the Government remember this incident, as well as others that have involved a substantial level of violence against the police, when they are considering their response to the recommendations of Sir Patrick Sheehy? Does he not agree that it would be deplorable if the starting salary of police officers—if the recommendations are accepted—were reduced to a level below that of traffic wardens?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that this was a deplorable act and it was a calculated one. I agree with him that the fear inculcated into not only the people in the locality but also, let us not forget, into the police themselves was absolutely shocking. I hope that when these people appear before the courts they will be dealt with severely. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that the behaviour of some of these people was that of bully boys. Our information is that some 10 per cent. of the people—this is only a rough guess—attended the march not because they sympathised with its cause but rather because they intended to create mayhem. I shall be happy to pass on to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police the noble Lord's congratulations, which he offers on behalf of the whole House—I know everyone in the House shares in those congratulations—on the work of the police officers. I shall pass on his regrets to those who were injured, and particularly to the black officer who I understand was singled out for particularly offensive treatment. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that Sir Patrick Sheehy considered all the conditions relating to policing when making his proposals. This incident and all the other conditions relating to policing will be taken into account in the Government's response.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope the Minister accepts that we on these Benches agree with what has been said with regard to the decision of the commissioner of police to use his powers under Section 12 of the Public Order Act to divert the march from its intended objective. We share the horror felt by all decent people at the injuries that were inflicted on Saturday afternoon at Welling. Does the Minister also accept that two demonstrations took place against nazism? One took place, completely peacefully, at Trafalgar Square. That march was organised by the Anti-Racist Alliance. The other, as has been said, took place under the auspices of the Anti-Nazi League. The vast majority of members of that organisation are peaceably inclined and belong to all political parties and to none. We share the Minister's view that it was a tiny minority of the people who took part in the demonstration at Welling who were responsible for the damage and the injuries that were caused. I congratulate the Minister on resisting any temptation to call for a change in the law with regard to the confrontation last Saturday. It is apparent that, although it is not possible to stop those who are hell-bent on violence, the right to demonstrate peacefully in our streets is of great importance and ought not to be diminished.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is correct to say that another march took place. It went from the Strand to Trafalgar Square and some 3,000 people took part in it. The march was conducted entirely with decorum and there was no trouble. It is a great pity that the other march did not follow the same pattern. The reason for that, as I have already said, is that many other people, extraneous to the organisers of the march, decided to batten themselves on to the march and cause trouble.

However, we have no intention of changing the law to which the noble Lord referred. The right to free speech is essential. The right to go on marches is also essential, but the right to protect people from the disasters which these marches can cause is also essential. That is a responsibility for the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. As the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Harris, have said, the commissioner conducted that exercise wholly correctly and in the interests of all those who live in the area through which the march passed.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister consider the planning laws which allow nazis to site their offices in certain places and to engage in provocative and intolerant acts of racism which incite acts of hatred and violence against members of ethnic minorities in the centre of our urban areas? Will the Minister consider the planning laws which allow offices of such organisations to be sited in such areas? Will he reflect on the possibility that if the local authority had been able to refuse permission for the BNP to operate from its premises, no march would ever have taken place and the violence would not have occurred?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we are getting on to dangerous ground if the Government or local authorities are in a position to permit certain people to do things and certain people not to do things which are perfectly legal operations in themselves. The British National Party is not a proscribed organisation. If it were, other considerations would apply. I believe that it would be dangerous to give planning authorities the right to discount those people they do not like.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am sure that among all the people in this country there will be a wide acceptance of one simple fact concerning this disgraceful behaviour: that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and his officers not only knew what was happening by means of good intelligence but also knew how to deal with the situation and save a great deal of trouble. The Metropolitan Police deserve the greatest congratulations. They are so often criticised. Sometimes they are rightly criticised, but on an occasion such as this they should receive all the credit they deserve.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Whitelaw for those comments, which I know the police service will receive with pleasure. My noble friend is quite right to say that the commissioner had plenty of intelligence about this matter. He informed my right honourable friend the Home Secretary that there was likely to be trouble. He also informed the Home Secretary that he could take sufficient action to contain that trouble.

This is yet another example of how hooligans can bring this country into disrepute as they did last week on the occasion of the football match in the Netherlands. So often the people of this country are blamed for such action when it is a matter of only one or two people who are intent on creating trouble and who have no interest in either football or in the march that took place on Saturday. Nevertheless they bring the whole country into disrepute and they upset and put fear into ordinary law-abiding people.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is there any indication that the tiny minority who created the trouble are members of the British National Party?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is too early to say at the moment whether that is the case but the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is studying all the evidence which is available to him.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend take care to repudiate the suggestion always made by the rioters on these occasions; namely, that the police overreacted?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that such a concept would be totally absurd in this connection. The police knew there was going to be trouble. They informed the marchers that they intended to re-route the march from the place the marchers wished to proceed to, which was the British National Party's headquarters, because the police knew that the roads in that area were restricted and therefore it would be impossible to control the march, and any mayhem which arose would be much worse. I suggest that there is no question that the police acted in an untoward fashion. However, if anyone has a complaint to make, the commissioner will, of course, investigate it.