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Bristol Disturbances (Chief Constable's Report)

Volume 983: debated on Monday 28 April 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the serious disturbances that occurred in Bristol on 2 April 1980.

I have considered the full and clear report which I have had from the chief constable of the Avon and Somerset constabulary, and I have placed in the Vote Office a memorandum containing an account of the disturbances, of the difficulties that faced the police, and of how they sought to deal with them.

In the light of the memorandum, there will not, I believe, be dispute about the facts. What began as a normal operation into possible criminal offences turned sharply and unexpectedly into serious public disorder. The memorandum also sets out the chief constable's conclusions and recommendations for future arrangements in his force area. A number of important lessons have been learnt from this event. The chief constable has acknowledged frankly that there were points at which decisions might, with hindsight, have been taken differently, but he remains of the opinion that the decision to regroup his officers away from the area of St. Paul's was, in the face of great violence and extensive injuries to the police, a necessary step. In the light of his report, I understand the reasons for that decision, as, I am sure, will the House.

There can be no excuse for the lawlessness that then followed, but we must ensure that, however quickly or fiercely public disorder may occur, the police are able swiftly to restore the peace and enforce the law. We must, therefore, concern ourselves with the more general lessons that must be learnt from these events, not only for the efficiency of policing but for good community relations. There are three ways in which I believe that we can best move forward.

First, in this country we rightly wish the police to maintain order through traditional methods, but, if that is so, police forces must be able to call rapidly on sufficient trained officers. I am, therefore, asking senior officials in my Department and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in conjunction with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the Association of Chief Police Officers in England and Wales, to examine thoroughly and urgently the arrangements for handling spontaneous public disorder. I shall publish the results of that review.

But we must not look simply at the policing aspects of these events. We must look much more widely in our search for solutions to the underlying problem. Second, therefore, the Government particularly welcome the decision of the Select Committee on home affairs to look into racial disadvantage and, as a part of that work, to study the St. Paul's area of Bristol. We shall do all that we can to help the Select Committee in this work.

But action at local level is also essential. I welcome the decision of the Avon county council and the Bristol city council to come together to examine how best they can further help in strengthening good community relations in the area. Experts from all the Government Departments concerned will play a full part in this examination.

I am convinced that this threefold approach is the best way to respond positively and constructively to these events.

I welcome the threefold approach that is to be made to the riots in Bristol on 2 April. The chief constable's report needs further study. In the circumstances, and at a first look, I am inclined to accept the decision to regroup, though I dislike, from my past experience, " no-go " areas, in whatever sense of the term.

With regard to the police study to examine thoroughly and urgently the arrangements for handling public disorder, I welcome the fact that the report is to be published, because the conclusions will be of general application. In my view, while back-up is vital, control should always be in the hands of those who know the local area. In the context of Bristol, will they look at the procedures for ensuring that there is always a close relationship between the police and local community leaders?

With regard to the Select Committee investigation into racial disadvantage, I hope that it will consider the question of a replacement of section 11 of the 1966 Act. Labour's Bill to replace this was not welcomed by the the then Opposition, just a year ago. Perhaps in government they will be more positive on this matter, because section 11 is now out of date, and it may even be that some of the moneys spent are being spent ultra vires.

With regard to the local investigation by Avon county council and Bristol city council, I hope that their report will also be published and that the Commission for Racial Equality, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment involvement will be such that it, too, will be of use in other parts of the country.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He raises three points. From his experience, he makes a major point about " no-go " areas. So do I from my own experience. I am not prepared, and in no circumstances will be prepared, to contemplate " no-go " areas in any part of this country or of the United Kingdom. It is very important to say that, to be heard to say it, and for it to be realised that that will not happen in the future.

Secondly, on the procedure of the police study, it is important to examine the police's procedure and their relationship with local community leaders. It is important that the chief inspector—I think I am right in saying—of the police, who was responsible for community relations in that area had established a very considerable position with the local community. It is very sad, in the circumstances, that his great efforts did not meet with greater success; but they should be recognised.

As for any reports from the Select Committe, that must be a matter for the Committee. I hope that the local authorities' investigation will be very wide and will include all the bodies that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that Bristol Members are grateful for the speed and efficiency with which he and his colleagues in the Department have responded, including the sending of the Minister of State to the scene within 24 hours, and maintaining close communications with us?

Will my right hon. Friend accept that most of us consider it right to have avoided the setting up of a great circus of a public inquiry, which would have wasted time and would probably not have clarified anything very much? Will my right hon. Friend accept that we are grateful for the promise of publication of the results of the investigation into policing methods, but will he also assure the House that the very welcome local inquiry that has been set up by the local authorities will have at its disposal the full resources of his Department and, if necessary, of other Departments of State, so that it can complete its inquiry in the best possible way?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. On the day after these serious events took place I thought it right that my hon. Friend the Minister of State should go immediately to Bristol. I am grateful to him for having done so. His investigation on the spot did much to help us in subsequent investigations. I am keen to learn lessons for the future. If we are to do that, we should involve all those who are especially concerned— for example, the police, the race relations representatives, the people of Bristol, and their elected representatives. That is why I think it right to proceed in the way that I have described. I can give a positive assurance that the local inquiry will have the full resources of any Government Departments that are involved.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is great pressure for a public inquiry, especially from those who want to bring out fully the fact that unemployment, urban deprivation and the operation of laws such as the " sus " law lie behind some of the difficulties? Is he able to give an assurance that he will extend full co-operation to any local inquiries that might be instituted by the ethnic communities, the trades councils or any other organisation, so that the people themselves can speak for themselves? Does he agree that in the long run it is not really fair to ask the police to try to deal with problems that are fundamentally political and economic in character? For example, if the expansion of the special patrol group were to be recommended to deal with this problem. that would not constitute a proper answer.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman underlines the approach that I am taking. I realise that there are pressures for a full and comprehensive public inquiry. However, I believe that to proceed in a threefold way will help to meet some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made. I am most anxious that the Select Committee should have the chance to examine some of the matters that he mentioned, based on the authority of the House. I hope that we shall be able to do everything possible to give assistance to that end.

I accept at once that the police have an important role to play. I also accept that we cannot place too much stress and reliance on them. There are other underlying causes that we have to recognise and meet, and I think that we can do that through the Select Committee and, more importantly, through the conference of the local authorities involved. The authorities have been elected to take responsibility within their areas. I am anxious to hear their views. They will be given careful consideration by the Government. I appreciate all that the right hon. Gentleman said.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and congratulate him on the wisdom of going for the threefold inquiry that he has described. I welcome the fact that Bristol city council and Avon county council are prepared to work together, thereby burying, perhaps, the party political hatchet. I hope that that can prevail eleswhere and that we shall get an all-party approach to the problem.

May I remind my right hon. Friend that such disturbances as we had in St. Paul's have a spin-oft effect? Is he aware that on the very night after the St. Paul's disturbances there was a similar occurrence in the Southmead area of my constituency? Will the inquiries that he has instigated encompass the whole of the city, and, therefore, take in the disturbances to which I referred, which took place in Bristol, North-West?

I note what my hon. Friend says and am grateful to him for his comments. It will be open to the Select Committee to consider any aspects of disadvantage that come within its investigation. I mentioned the St. Paul's area because that is where the problem lay. If the Select Committee wishes to consider a wider prespective, that will be for it to decide. There are wide lessons to be learnt for the police. They include not only this disturbance but others that have occurred elsewhere.

As the Member of Parliament for much of the area affected, may I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement and ask him two questions? Will be give an undertaking, as far as he can give one, that all those who wish or are required to give evidence to any of the inquiries will be able to do so without fear or favour? Secondly, is he aware that the desire of those in the district concerned, which I know very well, is for the area to return to normality as soon as possible? Therefore, will he make available to the traders who lost stock and property during the riots some form of credit, at low interest rates, so that they may build up their stocks and return to normal trading?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I realise his close personal involvement with the area concerned over a great many years. Obviously I hope that those who give evidence will be able to do so without fear or favour. I hope that that will be respected. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor I can guarantee that, but we can say that we very much hope that that will be the position. As for the traders, in the first instance there must be claims under the Riot (Damages) Act 1866. I understand that these will be directed to the police authority in the first instance. I note what the hon. Gentleman says on that score. If there is anything that can be done to help in that regard, I shall consider it.

Will my right hon. Friend join with me in expressing admiration for the 50 policemen who stuck it out for two and a half hours against a violent group of hundreds of youths? The police stuck it out until 49 of them had been injured—22 seriously—and until six police cars had been burnt out and 15 others seriously damaged. Was it not right at that stage for the chief constable to withdraw his injured men and to seek reinforcements from neighbouring forces? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only fault that can be seen is that the machinery for calling in reinforcements from neighbouring forces is far too slow?

I do not wish to comment at this stage—nor would the House think it wise for me to do so—on matters that will be the subject of further investigations. My right hon. Friend referred to the loyalty, courage and dedication of the police officers. Their actions were in the highest traditions of police service. Whatever criticisms people may have of the police in various areas, there can be no doubt that individual police officers perform their duties with dedication to the service of this country. That should be recognised and I hope that it will be accepted. The other matters that my right hon. Friend raised will have to be considered carefully by the inquiry, which I hope will be extensive. I hope that it will give us lessons for the future rather than rake over the problems of the past.

In the memorandum that the right hon. Gentleman has placed in the Vote Office the local chief constable observes that the problem of policing multi-racial areas requires great understanding and sensitivity. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that in all our cities he will stop the further closure of small local neighbourhood police stations and press even harder for the return of more policemen to the beat so that the police will not be alienated from the communities that they serve?

I think that it would be improper for me to comment on the decisions of local chief constables, who take their decisions in the light of operational responsibility. It must be said that the substantial increase in the number of recruits coming into the service in the past year is bound to have a considerable and good effect in bringing more policemen, or bobbies, on the beat.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a thorough and careful approach, which I am sure will be welcomed within the service? I congratulate him especially as he has avoided pitfalls by recognising that public inquiries can do more harm than good and by not endorsing the view that these matters arise solely from social and economic problems and that the only solution is to throw money at them. May I congratulate him on his sensible approach?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have now to see what the investigations produce. It is important that we consider carefully the lessons to be learnt from what must be accepted as an unfortunate occurrence in Britain's history.

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising. I hope that they will be brief, as there is another statement to be made.

At the risk of disturbing some of the equanimity of these exchanges, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware that some of us are not not too happy about the tone of his statement? There may be other lessons that need to be learnt. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that extensive studies have already been made into social and economic problems and those of national and local government administration and policy in our urban areas? Those studies have been carried out in a whole range of cities. Although we look forward to receiving the reports to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, action should now be taken to restore resources and to improve action in inner Bristol and at least 20 other inner city areas where the same problems may well occur.

The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in these matters and he will be the first to know that a great deal of public money has been put into the St. Paul's area of Bristol. It has not been put solely into the area for which he was responsible. A great deal of money has been put into that area, and it is worth recognising that fact.

Inorder that discussion may be as informed as possible, will my right hon. Friend make a statement at the earliest opportunity, answering three questions? What is the legal status of a police officer who has been called in from an outside area and who is not a constable of the locality involved? Secondly, which police authority is responsible for the actions of those who are called in to assist in an area for which it is not normally responsible? Thirdly, when outside forces give such assistance, is the financial cost borne by the lending police authority or by the borrowing authority?

All those are questions to which I do not know the answer. I shall be pleased to investigate them all. No doubt many of those questions will arise in the investigation that the police officers and my Department will conduct.

Having regard to the important lessons that may be learnt by many inner city areas, not least inner London, will the right hon. Gentleman have urgent talks with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment about the decline in the resources being made available to areas such as my own, where similar problems may arise? Secondly, has he addressed his mind further to the question that I asked him on a previous occasion when he made a statement? I asked then whether he would consider extending the time scale for making applications for compensation under the Riot (Damages) Act. In the final analysis the right hon. Gentleman has the right to extend the inadequate time scale. That would give great encouragement to those who have just filed claims.

I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's second point as sympathetically as possible. He has made an important point from his considerable knowledge and experience, and I respond to it. As for his first question, it is important to recognise that considerable sums of money have already been allocated to that area. That is a very important factor.

Is it not true that the main reason why the local police failed to deal adequately with the disturbances was that pitifully few reserves were available at the critical moment? Should we not give greater consideration—in advance of any expert inquiry—into the strength and establishment of our police forces in all urban areas? Should we not also consider the possibility of mobile reserves on the pattern of the special patrol group?

These matters will have to be carefully considered by the police investigation. The considerable increase in police recruitment and the fact that many forces are up to establishment are important factors in meeting my hon. Friend's point. I hope that all hon. Members will await the result of the police investigation.

Does the Home Secretary accept that one source of the problems that arise between the police and the immigrant community is that the police are reluctantly forced to act as guardians on marches that are held by National Front thugs? Such events can be seen on television, and occurred last week in my constituency. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Thursday's Green Paper represents a welcome development, as it introduces other criteria, such as cost, disruption and affront to the community, in addition to the breakdown of public order? What progress does he expect as a result of that Green Paper, and when does he expect legislation to be introduced?

I should very much like to discuss and debate many of those issues. However, in the interest of the House these questions should be discussed on another occasion, as they do not arise from the statement.

Were not these terrible events in Bristol a fearful condemnation of the demographic policy and drift of the past 25 years? What does my right hon. Friend have in mind to deal with that aspect? As for the mechanics of maintaining public order, does he know of anything better than cold water for cooling these episodes? Why is it not used?

I have suggested how such issues might be considered. I do not think that it would be right if I responded to my hon. and learned Friend in general terms. As I said in my statement, we are proud of our traditional methods of community policing. My hon. and learned Friend's suggestion would lead to a painful and difficult departure from those methods. I doubt whether it would be wise to make such a departure.

Does the Home Secretary accept that for many years people have said that we should tackle urgently the problems of alienated young blacks in our society? Beyond hoping that the Select Committee will come up with something, the Home Secretary said nothing positive about a problem that has faced him and his predecessors for many years. Is not the time for talking over? Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is time that the Government took urgent action so that young blacks who are unemployed and who suffer educational disadvantages can be helped to become members of our society?

These are important matters. However, a Select Committee is engaging in exactly such an investigation, and in the interests of the House we should let it do its work. Of course, the Government will respond to its suggestions.

Will my right hon. Friend explain to my constituents and to those who live in areas of a similar racial and social composition to that of St. Paul's what specific action—as opposed to discussion—is anticipated within the next year to ensure that there will be no repetition of events in their areas?

First, we seek to ensure good community relations. Secondly, we need good policing and increased recruitment. The Government have certainly provided that. If the communities involved adopt a sensible attitude, that will prove to be the way forward. All three must march together.