HC Deb 10 March 1911 vol 22 cc1834-6W

asked the Home Secretary whether he will give the exact wording of the instruction to make as few arrests as practicable, under which the Metropolitan Police were acting in dealing with the women's deputations on 18th and 22nd November last; whether this order was issued in writing; and whether he has made any inquiry to ascertain by what means it was conveyed to the men and in what form it reached them?


No fresh instructions, verbal or written, were issued to the police on or before 18th November. The Noble Lord will, no doubt, appreciate the peculiar difficulties of the police and other authorities in dealing wtih disorderly demonstrations of women Suffragists. If a body of four or five hundred men were to endeavour to force their way into the House of Commons, they would, after being duly warned, be dispersed by charges of police. Many would, no doubt, receive blows from police truncheons; the rest would take to their heels, and very few arrests would be made. In regard to women, and because they are women, no such course is conceivable. Two alternatives alone remain, each attended by its own disadvantages. First, the police may show great patience and defer making arrests until the conduct of individual women has become so outrageous that their arrest is imperative. This course involves comparatively few arrests, and is confined to persons who have committed serious offences, but has the great advantage of allowing the disorder to continue for a long time, during which the women work themselves into a high state of hysteria, expose themselves to rough horseplay at the hands of an unsympathetic crowd, and finally collapse from the exhaustion of their own exertions. The second course is that the police should arrest disorderly women as soon as there is lawful occasion, with a view to conveying them as speedily as may be to a place removed from the disorders they have themselves provoked. In this case, a large number of arrests must be contemplated, many of them for offences which in the case of men would have been dealt with by the summary methods of a police charge, and would never have become the subject of prosecution in the courts.

It was my intention from the beginning of my tenure of the Home Office to proceed by the second method and not by the first, to have these women removed from the scene of disorder as soon as was lawfully possible, and then to press the prosecution only of those who had committed personal assaults on the police or other serious offences. The directions which I gave were not fully understood or carried out on the 18th of November, first, because of the difficulties of making precise rules to guide the constables in the exercise of what is and must remain their lawful discretion, namely, to decide when the facts justify an arrest, and, secondly, because it had been enjoined upon the police in the days of my predecessor to avoid so far as practicable arresting women for merely technical obstruction. The constables on the 18th of November continued to act on old instructions, and the very fact that the superintendent in charge addressed them on parade before posting them and exhorted them to behave with the greatest restraint and moderation, as they would be dealing with women, may in many cases have been construed by individual officers to mean that they should not take them into custody if they could avoid it. I have given explicit instructions that in the future, with a view to the avoidance of disagreeable scenes, for which no one is responsible but the disorderly women themselves, police officers shall be told to make arrests as soon as there is lawful occasion. The degree of emergency, the numbers involved, and the exercise of their discretion by individual constables, must, however, be governing facts in any such proceedings. I have given the Noble Lord a full answer on the subject of his question, but I cannot conclude it without reaffirming my conviction, that the Metropolitan Police behaved on 18th November with the forbearance and humanity for which they have always been distinguished, and again repudiating the unsupported allegations which have issued from that copious fountain of mendacity, the Women's Social and Political Union.