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Public Order Act 1936 (Prosecutions)

Volume 12: debated on Monday 9 November 1981

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45.

asked the Attorney-General how many prosecutions have been brought, since May 1979, under the incitement to racial hatred provision of the Public Order Act 1936.

During the period 5 May 1979 to date I have consented to the prosecution of 11 persons for offences contrary to section 5A and two persons for conspiring to contravene the section. The two conspirators have been found guilty, and five persons have been found guilty under section 5A. Proceedings under section 5A against the other six are still outstanding.

Is the Attorney-General aware that many people are puzzled at the small number of prosecutions that have been brought, given the rather nasty racist material that is in circulation? Is that small number of prosecutions due to an inability to identify the publisher and distributor, because the material comes from abroad, or for some other reason?

As I said when this matter was previously raised, there are, and have been, serious evidential difficulties, but the House may be interested to know that the number of prosecutions to which I have consented has greatly increased over the past few months.

I sympathise with the difficulties involved in bringing proceedings under the existing section. However, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that years of patient work in community relations can be destroyed in an hour by a busload of mischief makers brought in from another area, or a busload of material brought in from London, which sometimes uses language that is not necessarily threatening, abusive or insulting? Will he invite his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider whether in this respect the limits of free speech are still too widely drawn?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is no doubt right when he says that a great deal of patient work can be destroyed almost in a matter of moments either by a busload of people or material, some of which, unfortunately, is printed outside our jurisdiction. However, we are now engaged in a much greater drive against it, so far with considerable success. I should like to see how that continues with the cases that are outstanding before I say any more.

I thank the Attorney-General for his reply to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer). Does he agree that the existing law, particularly in its emphasis on the word "hatred", makes it too difficult to prosecute the pernicious material that is circularised and which no doubt floods into his Department as it used to do in my time? Will he therefore take urgent steps to urge his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to tighten the law so that in future one can be sure that prosecutions will be successful?

The Director of Public Prosecutions is keeping a close eye on this. One must always maintain the balance that has existed for centuries between those statements and speeches that are racist in their intent and the maintenance of a measure of freedom of speech.