Skip to main content

Grunwick Limited: Dispute

Volume 385: debated on Monday 11 July 1977

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

3.37 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary about the dispute at Grunwick Processing Laboratories. The Statement is as follows:

"The House will appreciate that I did not want to make the task of the Commissioner of Police and his senior officers who have operational responsibility for policing arrangements more difficult by calling for elaborate reports while the operation was taking place. I have, however, kept in touch with the Metropolitan Police, met the Commissioner and thought the House would wish to have the following information.

"The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis informs me that up to 10,000 people were outside the premises early this morning. There was some disorder, though considerably less than on some days in recent weeks. Eighteen police officers were injured. The police know of 12 injuries to civilians. Some 69 arrests were made.

"The numbers at the premises diminished substantially as people moved off to join the march from Dartmouth Road to Roundwood Park. Over 18,000 people took part in the march, which took place peacefully."

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would like to join with me in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. As to the merits of the dispute of course I vouchsafe no opinion. However, it is perhaps unfortunate that, at a time when they have so many things to do, so many police officers have to be engaged on an operation of this kind and, perhaps more importantly and more sadly, that apparently no fewer than 18 were injured not fighting crime in the usual sense of the word, but merely supervising what should have been a lawful democratic exercise. I have no doubt that if any of them are badly injured, the House would join with me in expressing sympathy to their relatives, and indeed to them.

As I say, the merits of the dispute do not concern us and I make no comment about them. One would hope that as there is now both a court of inquiry sitting and indeed action of one kind or another being taken in the High Court, this matter will subside at least a little so that, hopefully, the police can be left to carry out their normal jobs which, as we understand it from reading the newspapers at the weekend, they now have to do while considerably under-manned.

My Lords, we too are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for repeating that Statement, and I have three matters to raise with him. First, may I ask whether, as the march took place apparently peacefully, it was necessary for the chief officer of police to make any directions as to the control of that march, as he is empowered to do under Section 9 of the Public Order Act 1936? Secondly, would the noble Lord accept that there is a clear distinction between a mass demonstration and a picket; would he consider making it clear that although the law gives very substantial protection to those who take part in peaceful picketing, that same protection might not apply where people by the thousand are taking part in a demonstration and may indeed be incurring the risk of being prosecuted for the offence of unlawful assembly?

Thirdly, might I invite the noble Lord to do what I am sure he wants to do, which is to urge not merely on the trade union leaders but the members of the trade unions the extreme undesirability of their repeating a demonstration of this nature, particularly at a time when both the court and the court of inquiry are sitting? Will he urge on them that if they behave in this way, with all the grave risks that are involved to public order, they run the real danger of alienating the support of millions of people who have every sympathy for their legitimate aspirations?

My Lords, I am much obliged for what the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said. I do not think it would be right for me to enter into the merits of this dispute. I speak on occasions such as this for the whole Government, but being a Minister at the Home Office I think it would be particularly inappropriate if I became embroiled in an argument about the merits of this dispute.

So far as the point made by Lord Wigoder is concerned, the march took place only a relatively short time ago and, as I understand it, the march was peaceful and certainly the police took the view that the powers they had were adequate. Regarding the point he made about mass demonstrations and the possibility of prosecution in certain circumstances, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to go into the merits of that matter. I think it only right for me to say that when people talk about a change in the law of picketing they sometimes tend to understate the difficulty of redefining the law on this matter. I do not think there is any easy amendment to the law which would avoid some of the problems we have encountered at Grunwick in recent days.

I entirely share the view of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, about the pressure to which the Metropolitan Police have been subjected. He will be gratified to know that the Metropolitan Police are now far better manned—I make no Party point here—and that recruiting is very substantially higher than it was in March 1974. It is only right for me to say that a number of policemen have been on the receiving end of savage violence in recent weeks, and I share the views of the noble Earl entirely on that matter.

Certainly our respect for the Metropolitan Police has hardly ever been higher. There can be very few countries in the world where there could have been scenes of this sort without very substantial casualties both to demonstrators and police officers, many of them in other countries possibly with gunshot wounds and the like. At a time when we spend a great deal of time talking about the difficulties in this country, it is right to say that there are few other countries where demonstrations would have passed off as relatively peacefully as this one has.

I would end by saying that inevitably there has been some argument and discussion about the way in which the police have conducted themselves. Speaking for myself, I think the police have done an absolutely admirable job and certainly the Commissioner of Police in the Metropolis has the total confidence of the Home Secretary and myself.

My Lord, in view of the number of people taking part in the picketing, may I ask the noble Lord to say whether those who wished to go to work were able to do so perfectly normally, or were they subjected to any sort of intimidation?

My Lords, it is only a relatively short time since these particular events occurred. As I understand the situation, a number of those who normally go to work in Chapter Road went to work elsewhere today, at the premises of the firm in another area. I cannot give a definitive answer to the noble Earl because this episode took place only a short time ago.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that there should be a limit to the number of times that the life of the community should be disturbed by repeated demonstrations, time and again, to make precisely the same point?

My Lords, what I have attempted to do is to point out that if Parliament were minded to change the law on picketing it would have a rather more formidable job before it than sometimes appears to be the position. It is only right that Parliament should recognise that, if it is anxious, as I think it would be, to indicate that people who are involved in an industrial dispute have certain rights; I think it would be exceptionally difficult to move to a situation where changes in the law would meet the point which the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, has made.

I think the Minister misunderstood me, my Lords. I was referring not to picketing but to peaceful demonstrations.

My Lords, what I am saying to the noble Lord is that if one were to deal with this particular problem, one of the ways in which it is argued it should be dealt with is by changing the law on picketing, and I have indicated to him that I think that is a rather more difficult problem than people sometimes imagine. I must also say that the scale of the disturbances today has been rather less than on previous occasions, and it is necessary also to recognise that fact.

My Lords, I quite understand that the Minister, particularly as he is a Minister at the Home Office, does not wish to get involved in the merits of this dispute, and equally I certainly do not want to press him on the point of the definition of picketing. However, may I ask him to respond a little more positively to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that in such a situation the Government should give their full moral authority to denouncing this sort of demonstration in these sort of circumstances?

My Lords, people in this country have an absolute right to demonstrate peacefully. That is what picketing is supposed to be about, and that is what the law provides. I think it is absolutely right that we in this country should preserve the right of people peacefully to picket. On the other hand, there can be no excuse whatever for the type of violence which has taken place on a number of occasions outside the Grunwick laboratories. What I am saying to the House with the greatest emphasis at my command is that the Commissioner of Police and his men have the total support of the Home Secretary and myself in the job which they are doing.