HL Deb 01 February 1984 vol 447 cc654-6

2.54 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the total sum that has been raised by fines imposed on demonstrators at Greenham Common, and what has been the total cost of repairs to public property and of the extra police deployment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley tells me that up to 27th January fines totalling some £8,156 have been imposed on people arrested by civilian police officers. In addition, fines totalling some £1,631 have been imposed on people arrested by the Ministry of Defence police.

The damage done to Ministry of Defence property caused by protestors is estimated at £145,000. We understand that the Thames Valley Police authority estimates the additional cost of policing Greenham Common in the current financial year as some £2.8 million.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that piece of information. Is he aware that the long-suffering taxpayers, and particularly the local ratepayers, find it very dispiriting and discouraging to see fences and other public property constantly destroyed and repaired, and destroyed again by the same people? Would it not be natural—as in the case of other transgressions whether it be burglary, shoplifting or even driving—for the fines to be progressively increased to make sure that people are aware that they are destroying public property for which other people are having to pay?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the level of fines is of course entirely a matter for the courts. Information available to the police does not record whether people who have been convicted more than once have received a higher penalty for the second offence. However, it is open to the court to take account of a previous conviction in determining what penalty to impose for a second or subsequent offence, and indeed for trying the patience of the court.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the damaging of property and causing unrest have been the excuses put forward for using retributive measures by tyrants thoughout the centuries? Would it not be much better if the type of permission acknowledged by the British people as being their right—that is to say, the right to demonstrate in this country, at Parliament, at Greenham, at town halls and so on—were given and extended in the Soviet Union and other fascist countries? Therefore, the £200,000 that might be involved is very cheap for an honourable, free society?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we have an honourable and free society and in it people are free to demonstrate honourably—they are not free to break the law or to cause criminal damage. In saying that, I can find no similarity with the overtones of tyrants thoughout history.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, arising from my noble friend's answer to a previous question, is it not in accordance with accepted standards of penology that repeated and deliberate defiance of the law by the same person is met, and properly met, by very much increased penalties?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is right, but speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government it is not for me to give advice to the courts.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is it not a fact that it would be very proper for such matters to be left to the courts? Would the noble Lord the Minister accept from this Front Bench, as I am sure he would anticipate, that no one condones damage to property or illegal behaviour but that the asset that we have of freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate is invaluable and certainly could not even be measured in millions of pounds?

Lord Elton

My Lords, indeed it could not be measured even in millions of pounds, and that is why we take such a careful and disapproving view of those who nibble at the edge of such rights by using the right to demonstrate freely to commit illegal, irresponsible and damaging acts.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that, without in any way inhibiting the liberty of the subject, which we treasure, the time has come to consider some measure—legislative or otherwise—which would make it possible for those who damage property to be compelled to help pay for its repair?

Lord Elton

My Lords, indeed the courts are empowered to require compensation to be paid by those committing damage and the magistrates' courts can do so up to a level of £1,000.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that the benches who have to deal with these matters have to consider and balance very finely the great problem of creating martyrs by simply increasing penalties, as noble Lords have implied in their questions, and that the creation of martyrs in this situation might be the very last thing that your Lordships' House would want?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I and the Government have the greatest confidence in the magistracy of this country and, while I do not doubt that the comments of my noble friend and others will be of interest, I repeat: it is not for the Government to tell the magistrates how to discharge their functions.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the fines are being paid or whether they are being ignored?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I believe I am right in saying that most of them have been paid, but that some of them have not, and where they have not been paid there has subsequently been custodial treatment of the offender.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, would the noble Lord say how many women demonstrators have been imprisoned and what has been the cost of their imprisonment?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am afraid that my answers do not discriminate between men and women.