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Imposing Conditions on Public Assemblies

Clause 14 – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 30th April 1986.

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Photo of David Clelland David Clelland , Tyne Bridge 8:45 pm, 30th April 1986

I beg to move amendment No. 40, in page 10, line 13, leave out clause 14.

We now come to what is probably the most contentious clause in the Bill, in so far as it proposes the introduction of restrictions on traditional liberties and freedoms. Our intention is to oppose the inclusion of clause 14, and to this end we have tabled the amendment.

This part of the Bill threatens to introduce the criminal law into picketing, and in so doing it presents the distinct possibility—indeed, probability—that that other forms of assembly will also fall foul of its provisions. The fact that the Bill defines an assembly as being constituted by as few as three people reveals the extent to which the Government have been taken over by their more extreme element, and how much of an influence it has within the Conservative party. It also says much about the Government's policies and proposals as they affect other sections of our society.

I do not have the experience to recall the progress of other Bills, but the number of amendments that the Government have had to accept as a result of the force of argument from the Labour party reveals a carelessness in drafting that must be horrifying to all thinking people who live in the realisation of the power that the Government wield and the extent to which that power can affect their everyday lives and freedoms.

In Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) attempted to persuade the Government that to define a group of only three persons as an assembly, which could thereby make them liable to be in conflict with the criminal law, was an act of the utmost folly that threatened to be a more serious erosion of traditional liberties. Thankfully, the Minister, who evidently does not share the extremist views of some of his colleagues, accepted the strength of the arguments of my hon. Friends and agreed to an increase in the number to 10. That was an improvement on the proposal in the Bill, but it was still short of our perception of what was reasonable if such a provision had to be included at all. I am pleased to learn that the Government, having thought more seriously about the matter, may now be disposed to accept the amendment tabled in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends proposing that if the clause is to be included in the Bill the number constituting an assembly for the purposes of the Act should be increased to 20.

9.30 pm

Notwithstanding this and other amendments tabled by the Government following arguments advanced in Committee by Opposition Members, it remains our contention that clause 14 constitutes a major change in the right of ordinary citizens to demonstrate their discontent.

Much has been said about the rights of individuals, as though there was some doubt whether the Labour party believes that the rights of individuals deserve protection. It appears that some Conservative Members are under the impression that if an individual seeks support from a number of his fellow citizens—only two originally, but now 19—to protect or advance these rights, he ceases to be an individual and becomes a mob, and as such his rights become less important than they were when he was an individual. What nonsense that is. That defies the traditions and principles of democracy.

On Monday I visited a voluntary group in my constituency called the Riverside Child Health Project. This project brings together mostly young mothers and one-parent families to discuss health and other problems which they have to face—problems of which my constituency has more than its fair share.

In discussions with one young mother, who was extremely concerned about the implications of the Government's proposals for the social services system, I was asked what can these young mothers do but demonstrate to illustrate their opposition? What struck me as significant and cruel is that this week, while the Government continue to progress their proposals for further eroding the standard of living of that young woman and her family, we will have to listen to the Government putting up arguments as to why her one direct avenue of protest should be restricted. Conservative Members may say that that will not happen and that it is not the purpose of the Bill to do that. How do they know that that will not happen? There is nothing in the Bill which says that it cannot happen, although there is plenty that says it can.

The clause reveals that it can happen, and the police will make it happen. A policeman must decide whether an assembly can be effective or not by imposing the conditions laid down in the Bill as to time, place, numbers and so on. In some cases a single police officer must believe that an assembly will result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community. He must decide whether the purpose of the persons organising the assembly is to intimidate others with a view to compelling them not to do something they have a right to do or to do something they must not do. There is too much scope for interpretation within the clause.

What is serious disruption to the life of the community which a policeman must decide in advance may occur? As the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) said in Committee: what may be serious disruption to my tranquil village of Wendons Ambo will not have the same effect on a street in Islington?"—[Official Report, Standing Committee, G, 13 March 1986; c. 744.] What is intimidation? As we saw in the case of Thomas v. The National Union of Mineworkers, at least one judge, Mr. Justice Scott, believes that simply standing glowering can be highly intimidating.

The clause does not say that the participants in the assembly must cause disruption in order to trigger this legislation. Therefore, the opponents of an entirely peaceful demonstration could, by threatening disruption, without necessarily having the intention to do so, cause a demonstration to be moved on by the police and even broken up. We can all think of organisations or individuals who would take great delight in such activity.

Some Conservative Members may still insist that that will not happen, but there is another law which says that if it can happen, it will happen. Even the most ardent supporters of the Bill cannot deny that under these proposals it is possible for a demonstration to be inhibited for reasons entirely within the personal prejudices of an individual police officer.

I am not suggesting that police officers will deliberately set out to act in such a way, but the fact that it is in their power to do so is as worrying to many of them as it is to anyone else. Senior police officers have said that the police should not be thrust into the arena of political decision making. Indeed, the Home Secretary said as much. Under the Bill and this clause they will be, or at best, they may be, thrust into that arena. Because so much will depend upon the judgment and discretion of the police, even when demonstrators act reasonably and genuinely fear the consequences set out in the Bill, they will always have the suspicion that the police are biased against them and that they are making decisions of a political nature. That will cause a further deterioration in relations between the police and the public, and that is why some senior police officers are worried and do not want to be put in that position.

The clause is designed to be restrictive. Therefore, in carrying out the law, as it is their duty to do, police officers will be viewed as acting in a restrictive manner. They will be seen to be against the demonstrators and so, by implication, for the subject of the demonstration. That is why it was argued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that the Bill should contain some positive measures to balance the negative elements; that the Bill should recognise the rights of individuals to the right to protest and demonstrate, rather than deal entirely with restrictions on such activities.

The Minister has agreed, again after strong argument by Opposition Members, to issue a circular to the police reminding them of the right of people to assemble and demonstrate peacefully, but a golden opportunity has been missed to win back the confidence of the vast majority of people who will be directly affected by the legislation—the opportunity to give something rather than once again be taking more away.

It is perhaps a measure of the distaste which the Government have for those traditional rights that, while they are willing to issue a circular, they could not bring themselves to incorporate in legislation the right to protest. In Committee the Home Secretary said: We have no desire to heap powers on the police for some political purpose. The sole test should be the better protection of the public. I certainly agree with that, but the public whom I represent want protection against burglars, muggers, rapists and vandals. Not one constituent has asked me for protection against a May day rally or students' rag week parade.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell , Mid Bedfordshire

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who had the greatest possible success with his amendments in Committee, which is no doubt why he is proposing this amendment. But should not the public who wish to go to work at least have protection from those who mob around the gates in that the police can ask them to stand back? All right, they may demonstrate, but the man who does not wish to be stopped, even by menaces, should be able to walk through to work. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that in the case of Mr. Justice Scott, to which he referred, some 50 people sought, by much more than glowering, to try to intimidate people from exercising their lawful rights?

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland , Tyne Bridge

The hon. and learned Gentleman ignores the fact that the police already have considerable powers to make way for people going to work, as was done during the miners' strike. This is an additional power which is designed to restrict not only that activity but some other peaceful activities, as I have described. I am sure that we shall see examples of that as time goes on. This further restriction is an infringement of individual liberties and that is why we shall oppose the clause.

What are we to read into the Home Secretary's words? They reveal to me that the right hon. Gentleman identifies three groups of people—the police, the public and the demonstrators. The job of the police, as he sees it, is to protect the public against the demonstrators. This was confirmed, to my mind at least, when he went on to say:

I think that we all agree that a balance must be struck between the rights of those who organise and attend assemblies and the rights of other people who are going about their lawful occasions."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 11 March 1986; c. 729–30.] I could not help noticing that the word "lawful" is used of one group but not of the other. It may be a bit Freudian of me, but the right hon. Gentleman's words reveal to me a bias, perhaps subconscious, against those who wish to demonstrate. I must not, however, be too disparaging. The decision to issue the circular is welcome and will, no doubt, have an influence over the practical operation of the proposals, if enacted.

In the Government's whole approach to this matter, we perceive a desire to curtail the freedom of groups and individuals to protest and to dissent. While the amendments which have been accepted have gone some way towards tempering the original proposals, the clause remains too restrictive, potentially too damaging to police-public relations, and too intolerant of traditional rights and liberties. It is good news for Rupert Murdoch, but it threatens to weaken even further the position of those who find themselves in conflict with the rich and powerful.

We spent about 80 hours in Committee on this Bill. When we spend that much time discussing how we may correct the social conditions which have led to so much crime and unrest in our country over the past seven years, that will be when the House really begins to tackle the problem of public order.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

If this clause is removed from the Bill, we may as well not have a Public Order Bill at all. Nobody who realises the problems of public order today and who is responsible for organising demonstrations will doubt that this Bill will affect in any way the control and administration of demonstrations and processions that are properly organised and responsibly carried out. Those organisers have nothing to fear. What this clause strikes at is the problem outside the print works in Warrington and Wapping, outside Orgreave coke works, outside Nottingham pits. Those are the problems that the public look to us to solve, and this is one of the ways in which we do it.

If we vote against this clause, we fail in our duty to the public—and they are not expecting us to do that tonight. I ask that the amendment be rejected.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

Clause 14 demonstrates not only the Government's failure to understand what is required in the situations with which they are attempting to deal but, far more fundamental and disturbing, the Government's continued failure to recognise their international obligations as regards the right of peaceful assembly.

This is a failure not only of the present Government but of successive Governments over many years. It is my view, a view that I urge the House to take, that it is wrong to enact a further series of prohibitions dealing with assemblies without at the same time attempting at long last to enact some positive legislation which gives and defines the right to protest and of peaceful assembly. We tend to assume that, in common with some other countries, we have a right to make peaceful protest, and to assemble to make that protest, but, of course, that is not the case. As Lord Hewart said in the case of Duncan v. Jones: English law does not recognise any special right of public meeting for political or other purposes. The right of assembly … is nothing more than a view taken by the court of the individual liberty of the subject". This Government, like all Governments since Lord Hewart spoke those words many years ago, should have brought into domestic law the obligations to which we as a nation have assented in more than one international agreement.

9.45 pm

Pursuant to article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, we as a nation have agreed that Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others", subject to restrictions which, in my view, do not go as far as those in the present clause 14. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that The Right of Peaceful Assembly shall be recognised. It is worth bearing in mind, too, the first amendment of the United States constitution which provides that Congress shall make no law … prohibiting … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance. The word "right" is repeated again and again in those international declarations. It must be within a framework that includes a clear statement of what our rights are that prohibitions such as those that are contained in clause 14 should be enacted, and then only if they are absolutely necessary.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

There seems to be something slightly wrong with the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. All right hon. and hon. Members would subscribe to the idea of peaceful assembly, but clause 14 deals with a completely different situation where a senior police officer reasonably believes that it may result in serious public disorder, et cetera. That is the precise opposite of the hon. and learned Gentleman's case.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. It is the use of the phrase "et cetera" that gives away where he is wrong, because "et cetera" includes the right of a senior police officer to order an assembly to move if he believes that there will be "serious disruption to the life of the community". Quite apart from involving a very subjective judgment or belief, it also involves the police officer in an interpretation of what will be serious disruption to the life of the community. In my constituency in mid-Wales, which is not, on the whole, prone to demonstrations and assemblies, on the day following the American bombing of Libya there were two peaceful assemblies, one in the country town of Welshpool, the other in the country town of Newtown. It was a very unusual occurrence in each of those towns. They were peaceful assemblies and, judging by the newspaper photographs, extremely respectable and respected citizens took part. They assembled to protest against the British Government's error of judgment, as they perceived it, in allowing American F111s to fly from bases in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] I give way to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). I think that he wants to intervene.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

I intervene briefly only to say that the hon. and learned Gentleman may remember that Welshpool is where Llewelyn died.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

If the hon. Gentleman had been a little more straightforward with us, he would have repeated what he said earlier from a sedentary position and I should have asked him to withdraw it.

It would be quite wrong for a police officer to be empowered to tell an assembly like that which, legitimately in my view, is protesting publicly and seeking signatures for a petition, to go into a hall or back street because it happens to be holding up the traffic. On one occasion I saw a demonstration in a village by ladies with prams and pushchairs, who, because a child had been injured the day before in a road traffic accident, were protesting about the lack of a pedestrian crossing. They could have been caught by clause 14 merely because they were holding up the traffic on the main road. It is outrageous for hon. Members to seek to give police officers a discretion which, as the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said, will often be severely misunderstood—a discretion to intervene in such assemblies and to try to move them on. Many police officers—indeed, most police officers—are unhappy about the discretion which is invested in them in the clause. That is a discretion which they would be willing to undertake, as opposed to compelled to undertake if this clause is enacted, only if it was set out in a much clearer framework which enabled them to know what the rights of the public are, not just giving them a discretionary slate of prohibitions.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

On what authority does the hon. and learned Gentleman say that most police officers are opposed to this provision?

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

The hon. Gentleman talks to some police officers, just as I talk to some police officers. From the conversations that I have had with police officers—not union officials but ordinary bobbies—I understand that they are unhappy about this provision. The hon. Gentleman appears to have a slightly different opinion. No doubt we shall hear from him in due course.

The clause as it stands imposes no duty on the police to recognise that the purpose of an assembly should be taken into account. It does not require the police to consider, for example, whether the purpose of an assembly relates to the affairs of the community, such as the pedestrian crossing protest to which I referred. It gives what some regard—perhaps it is slightly overstating the case—as draconian powers to the police. It gives them the ability to say, on the widest grounds of alleged "disruption", that a meeting must take place elsewhere.

The clause as it appears in this Bill is outside what would be its proper context. Of course, if one set out in positive form the right of peaceful assembly—I and my colleagues would say that it should be, as part of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated in our domestic law—one would be entitled under article 11(2) of the convention to set out a lawful series of prohibitions within the terms of the convention. That is the proper context for provisions of this general nature. This Bill is not.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell , Mid Bedfordshire

I speak in strong support of the clause as an important part of the Public Order Bill. I was not surprised that it was opposed by the Labour party, but I was interested that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlisle), speaking on behalf of the Liberal party, should also oppose it. If one considers the major public disorder that can be caused not only by the enormous demonstrations which we saw at Orgreave, Wapping or Warrington, but the way in which ruffians can describe themselves as a peace convoy and descend on a whole community, the way in which the villagers of Molesworth can be completely swamped by people, albeit most of them thoroughly sincere, the way that militant animal rights protestors can sometimes descend on farms and homesteads, the way in which the "Stop the City" campaign or a major demonstration on Oxford street can bring the life of a community into serious disruption, is it unreasonable for the police to have powers, when they fear serious disruption to the life of the community, serious public disorder or serious damage to property, to say, "Stand back. Move on. Demonstrate, but go to some more suitable place"? That is not preventing peaceful demonstration but preventing what should be a peaceful demonstration from turning into a riot or a rowdy mob, which is the denial rather than the protection of liberty. That is the essence of the clause and why, reasonably interpreted, as it will be, and checked by the courts, as it can be, it is central and important to the Bill and should be supported.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

It should be said that the police service was not happy at the task that it had to undertake last year during the miners' strike. The police found the duties that fell upon them distasteful, damaging to their relations with the community and a heavy burden on them individually. They nevertheless carried out their duties effectively. In no way did they allow the distinction between their duties under the criminal law to be confused with the Government's trade union legislation, which is an entirely separate matter.

After the scenes that we all saw on television and many of which I saw personally, it would be outrageous if a Bill which purported to deal with public order did not contain a clause such as this. I appreciate the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I congratulate him on his appearance at the Dispatch Box and on his contribution to the Committee. I hope that he will accept, however, that, taking account of the problems confronted by the police, and which the public observed, it would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty if the House failed to tackle the problem of serious disruption.

Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) in congratulating the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) on speaking from the Dispatch Box so soon after arriving in the House. I am sure that he has deserved that promotion, to say nothing of his contribution to the Standing Committee. Although his speech might have been excellent in rhetorical content and in terms of mastery of brief, I cannot share much joy or rapture at it because he elected to argue that we should have deleted clause 14.

At least the hon. Member was at the Committee when we last debated the inclusion of clause 14. He was present with three other Labour Members when the Committee decided, by four votes to 10, that the clause, as amended, should stand part of the Bill. I make that observation because no vote was cast by the representative of the Social Democratic party/Liberal alliance, who was absent then, as he often was. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) tried to make good that omission in his speech tonight. He does himself no credit when he suggests that the clause has no place in a public order Bill. It is essential that there are changes in the public order law governing static assemblies.

I remind the hon. and learned Member, because he was not a member of the Committee, that, in the Metropolitan police district, of the incidents of severe public disorder, eight involved processions, three involved meetings and six involved assemblies. Since 1980 we have witnessed serious disturbances on the picket lines during the miners' dispute, at Warrington during an industrial dispute and now at Wapping. Those are examples of serious disorders resulting from static assemblies. I have to remind the House in firm tones that the requirement to trigger conditions imposed on assemblies—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.