The Queen’s Speech

Recently, I have been discussing with my students the creation of statutory criminal offences i.e. those created by Parliament (whether the U.K. or Scottish Parliaments). In particular, the group discussions have centred around the issue of whether the offence requires the accused to have mens rea (criminal intent or the guilty mind) when carrying out or attempting the actus reus (the wrongful act). Alternatively, the offence may be one of strict liability where mens rea is largely irrelevant. Strict liability offences include non-payment of a TV licence and some road traffic offences.

In relation to strict liability offences, the Crown (the prosecutor) merely has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the actus reus.

These issues were particularly pertinent because the Queen’s Speech had just taken place at Westminster on Tuesday 10 May 2022 (delivered by Prince Charles this year in his mother’s absence). This is a ceremonial occasion in the life of the U.K. Parliament, but it isn’t just for the tourists to come and gawp at. It’s the occasion where the U.K. Government sets out its legislative or law making proposals for the next year.

It used to be a very important occasion for Scotland, but since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 (the Devolution process), it has become less so. Many laws for Scotland are now made in Edinburgh.

That’s not to say that the U.K. Parliament can no longer pass laws for Scotland. That would be giving you a totally false impression: the U.K. or Westminster Parliament remains the supreme law making or legislative authority in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. That is a legal fact.

One of the Bills that was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech this year was the Public Order Bill. This is a very controversial Bill because it aims to target and control the conduct and extent of public protests – particularly protests by environmental groups such as Insulate U.K. and Extinction Rebellion.

The section of the Queen’s Speech referring to the Public Order Bill

A link to the text of this year’s Queen’s Speech can be found below:

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/queens-speech-2022

When I was speaking to the students several days after the Queen’s Speech, I was saying that I would have to go and look at the text of the Public Order Bill in order to establish a number of things:

a) Does it apply to Scotland? The answer would appear to be no as the text of the Bill mentions England and Wales only.

b) Does it create strict liability criminal offences in relation to the practice of ‘locking on’; ‘obstruction etc of major transport works’; and ‘interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure’?

For locking on offences, the intention of the accused still seems to be critical, but regarding obstruction etc of major transport works, there could possibly be an element of strict liability.

Some screenshots from the text of the Public Order Bill can be seen below:

Front page of the Public Order Bill 2022
The proposed offence of locking on. Note the use of the words intend and reckless which are underlined in red

When the language of a Bill or an Act of Parliament uses words such as ‘wilfully’, ‘recklessly’ or ‘intentionally’ in connection with a criminal offence, it’s a fairly safe bet to conclude that the Crown must be able to demonstrate that the accused had the necessary mens rea when the actus reus occurred.

Some of the media commentary around the Public Order Bill was misleading to say the least – particularly in relation to the proposed offence of ‘locking on’. I picked up from several media outlets that this proposal involved the creation of a strict liability offence and, yet, the language of the Bill seems to suggest otherwise.

Section 2 (the proposed offence of being equipped for locking on). Note that the word intention appears in the text.
Section 3 of the Public Order Bill 2022. Note that the text does not contain any words or phrases which suggest that the mens rea of the accused is essential.

That said, Section 3 of the Bill (obstruction etc of major transport works), lacks clear references to the intention of the accused and this might suggest that Parliament intends to create a strict liability offence. Further clarity can, of course, be sought by studying the explanatory notes which accompany the Bill. It is worth pointing out that, even if this is an attempt by Parliament to create a strict liability offence, it could be blocked or amended as the Bill makes it way through the Commons and the Lords.

Sweet v Parsley [1969] UKHL 1

In the above (and often quoted) decision of the House of Lords, Lord Reid (in paragraph 6 of the judgement) made the following observations regarding statutory offences which require mens rea and those which are ‘absolute’ or ‘strict’:

“Our first duty is to consider the words of the Act: if they shew a clear intention to create an absolute offence that is an end of the matter. But such cases are very rare. Sometimes the words of the section which creates a particular offence make it clear that mens rea is required in one form or another. Such cases are quite frequent. But in a very large number of cases there is no clear indication either way. In such cases there has for centuries been a presumption that Parliament did not intend to make criminals of persons who were in no way blameworthy in what they did. That means that whenever a section is silent as to mens rea there is a presumption that, in order to give effect to the will of Parliament, we must read in words appropriate to require mens rea.”

A link to the decision of the House of Lords can be found below:

https://vlex.co.uk/vid/sweet-v-parsley-794063145

Conclusion

The Public Order Bill must now pass through the House of Commons and then the House of Lords before receiving the Royal Assent. Once the formality of the Royal Assent has taken place, the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament i.e. part of the law of the land (for England and Wales in any case).

I am jumping the gun somewhat: the Bill might have a stormy passage through Parliament. As if to prove my point, please see a recent Tweet from Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP:

We’ll just have to wait and see how matters develop.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 May 2022

Black sailors and the battle of George Square

Photo by Soviet Artefacts on Unsplash

To mark Black History Month, my friend and colleague, Tony Adams recalls a forgotten chapter of the events around ‘Red Clydeside’ in 1919. This article was originally published in the Scottish Left Review.

The year, 1919, in Britain represents a high point in working class struggle and one un-matched since in its breadth and scale. Over 34m working days were not worked due to strikes compared to an average of 4.5m for each of the preceding four years. Two thousand soldiers, ordered to embark for France, instead mutinied and formed a Soldiers’ Union. Even the police force struck and demanded the right to unionise. Britain, it is said, was on the brink of a revolution. On 31 January that year a violent confrontation took place in Glasgow between the police and radical striking workers centred in and around the area around George Square. The workers were striking to demand a reduction of the working week from 54 hours to a 40 hour working week.

At a massive union rally in George Square on the day of the protest, the red flag was raised above 60,000 striking shipbuilding and engineering workers. Newspapers of the next day dubbed the demonstration which saw pitched battles between the police and strikers as ‘Black Friday’ or ‘Bloody Friday’. What began as a protest soon became a riot, with fighting across the city continuing throughout the night and 53 people were recorded injured. This dramatic incident and the leaders of the strike have been mythologised under the banner of ‘Red Clydeside’.

Meanwhile, a lesser known harbour race riot on Thursday 23, January 1919 in which black British colonial sailors were branded as unfair economic competitors by the national seamen’s unions and their local delegates, has been overlooked both in the personal and historical accounts of the general strike until more recently. The riot began in the yard of the mercantile marine office in James Watt Street where sailors gathered for their chance to be signed on to a ship. While waiting to see if they would be hired, competing groups of black and white sailors jostled and shouted insults at each other. This baiting descended into a pitched battle which spilled out of the yard onto the street. More than thirty black sailors fled the sailors’ yard pursued by a large crowd of white sailors. White locals joined the crowd which grew to several hundred strong. The rioters used guns, knives, batons and makeshift weapons including stones and bricks picked from the street. On being chased out of the hiring yard, the group of black sailors initially ran towards the nearby Glasgow sailor’s home on the corner of James Watt Street and Broomielaw Street. The white crowd smashed the windows of the sailor’s home and then invaded it. The two or three beat police officers in the harbour area were overwhelmed and an additional force of 50 police officers was called in. The large police force cleared the two set of rioters from the sailors home.

Though the staging of a general strike in Glasgow, its collapse following ‘Bloody Friday’ and the presence of tanks in the city centre the next day were far more eye-catching than the riot in the harbour a week earlier, the two events were explicitly inter-connected through the activities of the members of the leadership of the 40-hours strike movement. Emanuel Shinwell, leader of the Glasgow branch of the Seafarer’s was in addition, president of the Glasgow trades and labour council and chairman of the workers strike committee. Although a moderate, he advocated direct action in the most inflammatory terms in the days leading up to both the harbour riot and the mass protest of the 40-hours campaign. He and other strike leaders, such as William Gallacher, sought to encourage unskilled workers – including seamen – to take part in the sort of strike action that had been the province of the skilled workforce on wartime Clydeside. The two episodes ought to be viewed together as the harbour riot and the George Square demonstration occurred within a few days of each other. This proximity was much more than coincidental especially as the riot in Glasgow seaport, was soon followed by similar riots in South Shields, Salford, London, Hull, Liverpool, Newport, Cardiff and Barry.

It is important to note that the Glasgow harbour riot was the first instance of a spate of rioting focussed upon black residents in British ports which reached its height in June of that year. It was also part of the wider picture of industrial strife which has been simmering below the surface on Clydeside and other heavily industrialised regions throughout the war years and into 1919.

During these riots, crowds of white working class people targeted black workers, their families, black owned businesses and property. One of the chief sources of the violent confrontation in the run- down port areas was the ‘colour’ bar implemented by the sailors’ unions campaigning to keep black, Arab and Asian sailors off British ships in a time of increasing job competition. The imposition of a ‘colour bar’ on black workers at Glasgow and elsewhere around Britain’s seaports to protect white British sailors’ jobs illustrates the disregard for sections of the working class among many of those who considered themselves protectors of the organised workforce. Historically expressions of racist hostility have been tied to questions of employment. Hostility towards groups of fellow workers among trade unionists was nothing new. The opposition of white union members to the employment (in some cases) of cheaper overseas merchant sailors, violently demonstrated at Glasgow harbour, bears comparison to the wartime industrial action on Clydeside which aimed at preventing the ‘dilution’ of skilled with unskilled job losses and the permanent undercutting of ‘engineers’ wages.

The sea port riots of 1919 in which white crowds attacked black workers, their families and communities, have long presented a painful conundrum as they prefigure a century of conflict and harassment of people of colour in Britain. The causes of the riots are located in the interplay between on-going strikes, riots and other collective violence elsewhere in Britain and the Atlantic basin as well as the local context and meanings (including housing shortages and unemployment). In this light, the British riots appear less an isolated eruption ‘proving’ British racism, as they have often been portrayed. They were part of a broader political movement of resistance against post-war betrayals. This made the role of service and recently demobilised men a significant factor in the riots, one which was commented upon in many local press accounts of the violence. It is also clear that the specific grievances of the white sailors were not the only issues in the riots. The sense that the great sacrifices of the war years had been futile was being experienced at a national level as post-war shortages in housing and increased competition in the job market were the first results of mass demobilisation. Wider frustrations were being focused on the black community in Britain as a means of release. That the authorities in part recognised this is often apparent from the light sentences meted out to the white rioters in various centres around the country. However, there is also an element of racial antipathy revealed by the official response to the riots.

The fear of violence in the immediate post-war period became a worldwide phenomenon, and not without reason. The level of global unrest in the late 1918 and 1919 is also worth considering as it provides a wider context in which the race riots in Britain may be discussed. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1918 provided governments worldwide with a spectre of the overthrow of the state in a situation of crisis. The attempted revolts of the Spartakist movement in Berlin, the establishments of soviets in Bavaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the socialist revolt in Austria fuelled the worldwide fear of Bolshevism. It was not merely in the ‘defeated’ nations that unrest occurred for the politicising effect of war service and the strains placed on every day society by the war resulted in riots in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa as well as in Britain. As one of Scotland’s leading expert calls for a permanent fixture to remember the demonstration which took place on 31 January 1919, the black sailors of the Glasgow harbour riots deserve a place to be commemorated too because there is a single working class in Britain by historic right and present participation.

Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal. Jacqueline Jenkinson’s ‘Black 1919 Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain’ (Liverpool University Press, 2009) is the best available study of the issues.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/04/13/no-blacks-no-irish-no-dogs-we-like-to-think-that-such-signs-are-a-thing-of-the-bad-old-days-in-housing-law-what-about-no-dss-tenants-some-recent-legal-actions-suggest-that-such/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/17/is-it-cos-i-is-black/

Banning smoking in the streets of Paris …

Photo by Paul Gaudriault on Unsplash

If anyone or anything wanted to ban smoking in the streets of Paris, you would think that (logically), this would be a matter for the French National Assembly or even Paris City Council (Conseil de Paris).

… And you would be quite correct.

You might be thinking what relevance does this have to Scots or indeed English law?

The supremacy of Parliament (or its limits)

The constitutional lawyers amongst the Blog readership, however, might guess where I’m going with the title. When studying the area of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty many, many years ago, I was struck by the words of Sir Ivor Jennings QC, a very famous British constitutional lawyer.

Jennings was explaining that the Westminster Parliament, as the supreme law making body in the UK, had the power to pass any law – even making it unlawful to smoke cigarettes or cigars in the streets of Paris. Now Jennings fully appreciated that this was a slightly absurdist statement; that wasn’t his point (to which I shall return shortly).

Would our French neighbours obey such an Act of the Westminster Parliament? They would not; quite rightly recognising that such a law lacked any legitimacy in their eyes.

So, what was Jennings driving at when he uttered his remark about the scope of the law making powers of the Westminster Parliament? He was recognising that Parliament could pass any law that it wished irrespective of how absurd it was or how unlikely it was to be obeyed in practice.

The English have placed great emphasis on the notion of parliamentary sovereignty. This principle, of course, can be challenged. The American colonists who participated in the protest popularly known as the Boston Tea Party in 1773 were directly challenging Westminster parliamentary supremacy. Several years later, with the successful conclusion of the American Revolution, it would be the new legal order of the United States of America that would supplant the British parliamentary tradition and thus make it a matter of history.

In 1919, Irish Republicans refused to send Members of Parliament to take their seats at Westminster following the UK General Election of 14 December 1918. Instead 27 Sinn Fein MPs chose to sit in Dáil Éireann (effectively an embryonic Irish National Assembly) in Dublin. Highly unconstitutional in British eyes; yes but it spelled the beginning of the end for Westminster parliamentary sovereignty in 26 of the 32 counties comprising the Island of Ireland.

More recently, in 1965, the White minority Government of the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia (under the leadership of Premier Ian Smith) declared independence unilaterally from the mother country. There was very little that the Westminster Parliament and British Government could do to prevent this situation. The Rhodesian Government would ultimately be brought crashing down to earth because of the armed struggle of the Black majority liberation movement. This would eventually lead to independence and majority rule for the territory (to be known as Zimbabwe).

Brexit

To return to Sir Ivor Jennings, his remarks about smoking in the streets of Paris were brought home to me today when reading about the remarks made by Simon Coveney, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, about Brexit.

Mr Coveney was being asked about the implications of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – introduced in the House of Commons by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly after his Conservative Party won the General Election of 12 December 2019.

This Bill has just passed through the Commons and will now go on to the House of Lords (where it will pass) and receive the Royal Assent in the next week or two. The exit of the UK from the EU will happen by 31 January 2020.

Mr Coveney was not taking exception to this development. In fact, he was merely pointing out some hard realities for the British Prime Minister. The easy part of Brexit will have been completed, but the harder part remains: concluding a trade deal between the UK and the EU by the British Government’s self-imposed deadline of December 2020. Needless to say, this date has not been accepted by the remaining 27 EU member states.

Mr Coveney noted that a provision of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (currently Clause 33) prohibits the UK Government from extending negotiations with the EU 27 in order to obtain a trade agreement if one is not concluded before the end of 2020:

“I know that Prime Minister Johnson has set a very ambitious timetable to get this done. He has even put it into British law, but just because a British parliament decides that British laws say something doesn’t mean that that law applies to the other 27 countries of the European Union and so the European Union will approach this on the basis of getting the best deal possible – a fair and balanced deal to ensure the EU and the UK can interact as friends in the future. But the EU will not be rushed on this just because Britain passes law.”

Conclusion

When Sir Ivor Jennings made his oft quoted remark about parliamentary legislative powers, he was acknowledging the theoretical supremacy of Westminster. I also believe that he used the particular example of banning smoking in the streets of Paris to demonstrate the clear limits of Westminster supremacy i.e. practical and political realities will often combine to frustrate the will of Parliament.

In speaking today in the terms that he did, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister clearly recognises this reality.

Does the UK Government?

A link to an article on the Sky News website about Simon Coveney’s remarks can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/eu-will-not-be-rushed-in-post-brexit-talks-irish-deputy-simon-coveney-warns-11907060

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 12 January 2020