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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the picketing outside the premises of the Messenger group of newspapers in Warrington last night and in the early hours of this morning.
I understand from the chief constable of Cheshire that between 9 pm and 11 pm last night the number of pickets increased rapidly from 500 to about 4,000 people. Their purpose was clear. It was not to communicate information. It was not persuasion. It was not even demonstration. It was to prevent, by physical force and weight of numbers, newspapers from being taken out of the premises. Many of the pickets had travelled from far afield; many came prepared for, and used, violence against the police. A number were armed with offensive weapons such as iron bars.
At the height of the operation, the chief constable deployed over 1,200 men, from his own force and those of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, and Lancashire. As a result, the vehicle carrying the newspapers was able to leave the premises at the time planned at 5 o'clock this morning, and did so. The pickets began to disperse from about 6 am.
During the course of the disturbances, police officers were attacked and missiles were thrown at them. Twenty three officers were injured and three have been detained in hospital. I am glad to inform the House that at present none appears to have been seriously injured. Thirteen pickets are recorded as having been injured, one of whom remains in hospital. Again, I understand that his condition is not serious. A total of 86 people were arrested for a range of public order offences and offences of assault and obstruction.
I have conveyed to the chief constable my great appreciation of the police operation, and the way in which his officers and those of the other forces dealt with an immensely difficult situation. It is a great tribute to them that the lawful right to move the newspapers was upheld. I have asked that my concern and sympathy should be passed on to the injured officers, as I did in the case of those who incurred injuries last week.
I understand that the number of pickets has now declined to about 150, but there are threats that large numbers will try tonight to repeat the events of last night and this morning. The chief constable has the responsibility for maintaining the rule of law and devising and executing the appropriate plans for doing so. I have made it crystal clear to him that if there is any assistance he requires from me it will be readily available, and he will have my complete support for the exercise of his very considerable powers to the full extent that is required to deal with the situation.
There is and can be no excuse for violence and the attempt by intimidating weight of numbers to negate the lawful rights of other people. Irrespective of the merits of the industrial dispute, what has happened here amounts to breaches of what has always been the criminal law. The place and pretext for its breach make no difference whatsoever. Violence at the picket line is as indefensible as violence at a football match or anywhere else.
Action of the kind we saw last night cannot and will not be tolerated. I hope that the House as a whole will join me in condemning what occurred, and the mass picketing which was its cause, and giving every support to the police in preventing or dealing with a recurrence.