HC Deb 23 July 1962 vol 663 cc953-7
Mr. G. Brown (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Public Building and Works whether he will give an undertaking that, in view of the disturbances on Sunday 22nd July, permission will not be granted for holding meetings in Trafalgar Square to persons proposing to engage in propaganda involving incitement to racial discrimination until Parliament has had an opportunity to discuss the matter further?

The Minister of Public Building and Works (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

I do not propose to use my powers under the Trafalgar Square Act, 1844, as a means of censorship over the political opinions expressed by the organisers of meetings in the Square.

I will continue to consult the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in view of his responsibility for maintaining public order.

It would be regrettable if the precedent were established that any body of persons by attending a meeting for the purpose of making trouble could thereby ensure that the organisers would not be allowed to hold further meetings.

It was clear before the meeting began yesterday that there were a number of persons there determined to break it up.

Mr. Brown

Is the Minister aware that this answer seems to miss the real issue raised, which is whether free speech, which we cherish in this country, shall be used to destroy it and to destroy the moral basis of our society? Is he further aware that some consideration should be given to the police, who were put in an intolerable position yesterday? While one recognises that those who were affronted by racial hatred perhaps should not be provoked, and that other people climbed on the bandwagon, nevertheless this situation ought not to occur.

If the Minister—and I speak as one of his predecessors—wishes to rest on his ordinary position, will he agree that the right answer probably is to suggest to his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the time is now ripe for an amendment of the Public Order Act to make incitement to racial discrimination an offence?

Mr. Rippon

Obviously, matters relating to the Amendment of the law are matters for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Meanwhile, I think that it is my business to distinguish between those people who are advocating an opinion, although it is distasteful, and those who are organising an illegal action. The best thing that I can do in ordinary circumstances is to continue the previous practice, which has been to give permission in all cases unless it is clear that the organisers intend to break the law or to incite someone else to break the law or the Commissioner of Police advises that in any particular case there would be grave public disorder or danger of grave public disorder.

Sir G. Nicholson

Is not the moral that in this and similar instances it is desirable that political meetings of this sort should be prohibited within a certain distance of Westminster? Would not all the steam go out of meetings like these if the organisers were compelled to hold them some miles away?

Mr. Rippon

That is obviously a possibility, but I should regret it very much if we were driven to take such an action.

Mr. S. Silverman

While applauding the right hon. Gentleman's determination to uphold civic liberties and democratic rights in this country, may I ask him to bear in mind that every insane obsession is not a political idea and that the incitement to hatred of people because of things which were never within their control is not the exercise of free speech but the exercise of anarchy and wickedness?

Mr. Rippon

No one wants to condone any particular opinions which may be expressed on these occasions, but I do not think that it is our business to decide in advance that somebody will say something which is so distasteful and provocative that it will produce grave public disorder. What I think we must be careful about is banning public meetings not because the people holding them are likely to break the law, but because their opponents threaten a breach of the peace as a result.

Mr. Emery

Would the Minister not go a little further in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Sir G. Nicholson) and consider that Trafalgar Square is a national monument and that it would be very much more convenient for most of the public if no political meetings were held in Trafalgar Square? If he did not grant permission to any political party, no question of censorship would be held against him. Could not these meetings be held in the centre of Hyde Park, where they could not be a matter of concern to any of the passing public?

Mr. Rippon

I take the point, which is more logical, at any rate, than that of trying to act as a censor.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Minister aware that there are many people who deplore what is said at these meetings in Trafalgar Square, but who, nevertheless, agree with what the Minister says—that he does not think that it is the duty of the Executive to decide at its discretion that a meeting should be held or should not (be held? But is this not a reason for considering again the Racial Discrimination and Incitement Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), and for allowing us to discuss that Bill? If 'the House voted down the Bill, it would be the House's business. But could we not at least discuss the Bill?

Mr. Rippon

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Am I wrong in thinking that it is sedition to incite hatred among any section of Her Majesty's subjects? If that is so, is not the enforcement of the law best left to those whose responsibility it is rather than to the lynch law of political extremists? If the Government were to do what the Opposition Front Bench ask of them, would not this encourage any group of political extremists to break up any Conservative, Labour, or Liberal meeting of which they did not approve?

Mr. Rippon

I am sure that it is right that we must be very careful not to create a situation in which we try to anticipate what people may say or do. If an illegal action of any sort is committed while the meeting is taking place, the Commissioner of Police has powers to deal with the matter.

Mr. Shinwell

May I, first, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment?

Secondly, may I ask him whether, if he relies on the Commissioner of Police, who advises him as to whether there is likely to be disorder? Did the Commissioner of Police expect public disorder? If not, why were there 300 police present?

Mr. Rippon

There was no reason to expect grave public disorder of the kind which would justify cancelling the meeting. In fact, the Commissioner of Police dealt with matters, I should have thought, very satisfactorily.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the only freedom of speech worth having is freedom to speak things which run wholly counter to the spirit of the time? Secondly, will he consider whether the preservation of this sort of wide freedom necessarily involves having meetings the proceedings of which are electrically amplified in Trafalgar Square, which is a place of public resort where people, without having deliberately gone there to protest. may legitimately complain that they could not help hearing things which deeply offended them? Is not that a perfectly good reason for not having such meetings in Trafalgar Square?

Mr. Rippon

I follow the point which has been made now by several hon. Members. I can only say that I should regret it if we had to make such a decision.

Mr. G.

Brown: To clear up a point made earlier, may I remind the Minister that the request I made was merely that he should exercise his powers not to allow further meetings until the House had discussed the matter, not that he should act as a censor, as it were, for ever?

Secondly, is it not clear that the conclusion to be drawn from the Minister's answers is that an amendment of the law to prevent—or to make it an offence —the preaching of racial hatred and intolerance is the real solution to the problem? Does he realise that the sort of answers he is now giving were given regularly before the Olympia meeting in, I think, 1936, and that after that the Government of the day had to change their mind and were applauded by the entire nation for doing so?

Mr. Rippon

The allocation of Parliamentary time for any purpose is not a matter for me.

As regards what happened in 1936, all I can say now is, as I said in my Answer, that I shall consider each case which comes up on its merits and I shall have regard to the situation as it develops.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this without a Question before the House.