Skip to main content

Water Cannon

Volume 598: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2015

I want to inform the House of my decision regarding the potential authorisation of water cannon for use by the police in England and Wales. Members will remember that in the wake of the disturbances that took place in cities across England during the summer of 2011, the police reviewed the range of tactics and equipment available to them to manage public disorder. In its report following those disturbances, the Metropolitan Police Service identified water cannon as a potential option, and, in May 2013, chief constables took the decision collectively to bring forward a business case for authorisation.

It was not until March 2014 that I received the formal request seeking authorisation for the Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000 water cannon to be made available as a policing tactic on behalf of all forces in England and Wales, at which time I began the detailed consideration of whether to authorise. In June 2014, the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime approved the purchase of three Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000 water cannon from the German federal police, and they arrived in the UK in July 2014.

My decision relates specifically to the application submitted by Chief Constable David Shaw, the relevant national policing lead, in March 2014. It applies to all 43 forces in England and Wales, but it does not apply to Northern Ireland, where the use of water cannon is already authorised. The decision whether to authorise water cannon is a serious one. Water cannon, without safeguards, have the capacity to cause harm. Their use is a police tactic that has not been used in Great Britain previously, and there are those who argue that its introduction would change the face of British policing. I have therefore taken the utmost care to ensure that the testing and assessment on which a decision is made is as thorough and exhaustive as possible.

Water cannon are classed as a less lethal system and technology, for which there is an established authorisation process to gather the evidence necessary for a decision by the Secretary of State. It is the same process that my predecessors followed to authorise the use of less lethal weapons such as baton rounds and Taser, and similar to that by which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland approved water cannon for use by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The assessment process is comprehensive. It has involved a full independent review of the medical implications of water cannon and a further review of the latest police guidance, training and maintenance documents, both of which were conducted by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory as advisers to the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons—SACMILL. The process has also included formal operational performance trials of the three water cannon vehicles procured by the Metropolitan police, conducted by the Centre for Applied Science and Technology. I received the evidence from these reviews, and the final assessment from SACMILL, from the Surgeon General immediately before the general election. I shall place copies of all the reviews and the formal request from Chief Constable David Shaw in the House Library.

In addition to undertaking the scientific and medical assessment, I wrote to a number of senior serving and former chief constables in August last year to gain a better understanding of the operational context in which water cannon could be used. This was with particular reference to the potential use and effectiveness of water cannon in major operations, including the Countryside Alliance demonstrations in 2004, the Israeli embassy demonstrations in 2008-09, the student protests in 2010, the G20 protests in London in 2009, and the summer riots in 2011. I shall place copies of this correspondence in the House Library.

On the basis of the evidence provided by the police and the relevant independent bodies, I can inform the House that I have decided not to authorise the Wasserwerfer 9000 water cannon as a policing tactic for operational use in England and Wales. My rationale is threefold. First, the medical and technical issues raised by the reviews do not give me the degree of confidence that I need to authorise less lethal weaponry. While evidence suggests that these water cannon are unlikely to result in serious or life-threatening injuries as currently built, and used as envisaged, the assessment nevertheless poses a series of direct and indirect medical risks from their use. Those risks include the possibility of causing primary, secondary and tertiary injuries, including musculoskeletal injuries such as spinal fracture, as well as other serious injuries such as concussion, eye injury and blunt trauma. International evidence supports this conclusion: during a protest in Stuttgart, a 66-year-old protester was completely blinded by a model of water cannon similar to those under consideration.

At the same time, I remain unconvinced of the operability of the machines under consideration. They are 25 years old and have required significant alterations and repairs to meet the necessary standards. The final SACMILL assessment found 67 separate outstanding issues that would still need to be addressed before the machines could be deployed, including serious faults that would result in significant operational implications if they were deployed.

Secondly, my decision takes into account the operational case for water cannon. The original police request argued that water cannon offered a flexible option to disperse crowds, protect premises and deter disruptive behaviour that might otherwise have to be dealt with by forcible means. However, it made it clear that water cannon have limitations, especially in response to fast, agile disorder. This has been borne out by further discussion with chief constables, who raised the possibility that the vehicles might serve to attract crowds to a vulnerable location and noted that evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the deployment of water cannon usually requires significant advance notice, which casts doubt on their utility in a riot scenario.

Finally, I am acutely conscious of the potential impact of water cannon on public perceptions of police legitimacy. As a number of chief constables argued, in areas with a history of social unrest or mistrust of the police, the deployment of water cannon has the potential to be entirely counterproductive. This country has a proud history of policing by consent, and this decision goes to its very heart.

Since I became Home Secretary, I have been determined to give the police the powers and tools they need to cut crime and tackle disorder on our streets. I have extended police discretion over areas such as police-led prosecutions. I have consistently made the case for legislation on communications data to ensure that technology does not outpace the ability of the intelligence agencies and law enforcement to keep us safe. And I have cut central targets and bureaucracy to save officer time and ensure the police focus relentlessly on what they are trained to do: cut crime. But where the medical and scientific evidence suggests that those powers could cause serious harm, where the operational case is not clear and where the historical principle of policing by consent could be placed at risk, I will not give my agreement. The application for the authorisation of the Wasserwerfer 9000 water cannon does not meet that high threshold.

I would like to end by saying this: this Government’s programme of police reform intends, fundamentally, to transform the relationship between the public and the police. We have reformed stop and search to ensure that its use is targeted, intelligence-led and accountable. We have taken steps to reduce the use of police cells for those with mental health problems and to free up police officers to do their job. We have taken steps to reform undercover policing—tomorrow I will lay the terms of reference for Lord Justice Pitchford’s review before this House—and established the College of Policing to drive standards and training on behalf of all policing. Later this year, our police and criminal justice Bill will propose reforms to strengthen police integrity, reform the complaints and disciplinary systems, and introduce limits on the length of time people spend on pre-charge bail.

But however much we have achieved, this mission does not stop. Crime may have fallen by more than a quarter since 2010, according to the independent crime survey for England and Wales, but it remains too high. Public trust in the police has risen in recent years, but it remains too low. That is why I initiated my programme of reform in 2010, and it is why this Government are determined to finish the job. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. She and I are often at odds on Home Office issues—she will know that we have disagreed on issues relating to police reform, including on police and crime commissioners, and she referred to that at the end of her statement—but today, on the main substance of her statement, I could not agree with her more. She is exactly right to reject the application from the police and the Mayor of London to use water cannon, and I support her decision today. I also welcome the thorough and comprehensive way in which she has done so and agree with her on each of her three counts.

The Home Secretary is right to take immensely seriously the safety and health risks from this kind of weapon. She referred to the case from Stuttgart in 2010, where a man was blinded when he was hit in the face by a water cannon during a protest against a local infrastructure project. It was troubling that the submission from the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2014 calling on her to authorise water cannon did not even refer to that case—that did not reflect well on the thoroughness of the case being put forward.

Secondly, I agree with the Home Secretary that the operational case that was put forward is too weak to justify the authorisation of something so potentially dangerous. During the riots in 2011, the then president of ACPO, Sir Hugh Orde, described calls for the use of water cannon then as

“the wrong tactic, in the wrong circumstances at this moment”.

He said that

“excessive force will destroy our model of policing in the long term”.

Significantly, Sir Hugh Orde is one of the few chief constables to have authorised water cannon in Northern Ireland, where of course the circumstances are very different and where a unique threat is faced.

The ACPO paper from 2014 also says that

“history would suggest that the most serious outbreaks of public disorder have occurred spontaneously”

and therefore water cannon would not be suitable. Instead, it says water cannon would be useful for “planned events” and points to

“ongoing and potential future austerity measures likely to lead to continued protest”.

However, Britain has policed planned events in this country for centuries without the need for water cannon, by using communication with event organisers, using sensible policing strategies or, in exceptional cases where violence is expected, such as with English Defence League marches, using the power to ban marches or relocate them. Can the Home Secretary confirm that she believes the police do have a wide range of powers available to them to deal with serious public order threats or serious criminal threats on our streets, be it in the capital or across the country? I agree with the Home Secretary that water cannon have never been deployed in England, Scotland or Wales and no one has put forward any justification for why that should change now.

The Home Secretary also pointed out that the Mayor of London has already purchased three water cannon. Can she confirm that that cost £218,000 of Greater London Authority money, and that it was done before getting her authorisation and was based on an operational case that has now been proven to be extremely weak? Can she also confirm, as she seemed to be saying in her statement, that he did not even seem to have bought particularly good water cannon, as it appears that they are 25 years old and need at least 67 major repairs and alterations? Given that the Chancellor has now grounded the Mayor’s airport ambitions, may I strongly welcome her comprehensive pouring of cold water on his cannon ambitions, too?

I agree with the Home Secretary that deploying water cannon could also be counterproductive and could damage our long tradition of policing by consent. She rightly has a responsibility not only to look seriously at any proposal put to her by the police and to make sure that they have the powers they need, but to take account of the fact that our model is based on nearly two centuries of policing by consent, with people becoming police officers from their communities to represent and protect their communities. Public order policing, just like any other aspect of policing, is based on that consent and confidence, and to weaponise policing further would create significant risks. The Home Secretary is therefore right to reject water cannon today and Labour strongly supports her decision.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her remarks about the decision I have taken. May I echo one of the comments she made about Northern Ireland? It is important that we recognise that the policing circumstances there are completely different from those the police face in England and Wales, and I would just like to commend the work that the Police Service of Northern Ireland does. Its officers face significant threats and significant trouble, and they do that job with integrity and professionalism.

The right hon. Lady is also right to say that a range of powers are available to the police in England and Wales to be able to deal with public order, as they have been doing for many years. At least one chief constable referred in his correspondence to me to the way in which they like to work with communities when public demonstrations or marches are about to take place, and would prefer to be able to use those methods of communication and working with communities to ensure that public order is maintained at all times.

The decision on the three machines was a matter for the Mayor of London. The point that she makes, crucially, about the level of trust is a significant one; it is about that model of British policing. As Peel said,

“the police are the public and the public are the police”

and we should treasure our model of policing by consent.

I thank the Home Secretary very much for her statement, and for the care and thoroughness with which she has considered this case. Obviously, I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion. May I remind her that the decision to buy the Wasserwerfer was taken in the light of the strong support of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis for this operational crowd control tool, and of the strong support of the Prime Minister and indeed of the people of London, as expressed in a poll that found that 68% were in favour? Indeed, it was taken in the interests of economy, as we are able to buy these machines and thereby save £2.3 million. No Member on either side of the House wants to see the deployment of water cannon anywhere in the United Kingdom, and I fail to see the physiological difference between the people of England and Wales, and the people of Northern Ireland—I will read her study with great interest. Will the Home Secretary confirm that, in the vanishingly unlikely event of a serious outbreak of violence on the streets of London or indeed any other city in this county that poses a threat to life and limb and to property, it would be open to the Metropolitan police, and indeed any other police force, to present an application for the use of non-lethal methods of crowd control?

It is of course open to the police at any time to apply for the use of a less lethal weapon that has not been authorised. A proper process is undertaken, and that is the process that has pertained in this case. A business case is put forward, the proper medical and technical evidence is taken and the decision is then made by the Home Secretary.

I thank the Home Secretary for an advance copy of her statement. I will probably not say this very often during the life of this Parliament, but I wish to commend her for her decision and for the careful reasons she has given. This was a decision for England and Wales only. I have been in touch with the Scottish Government this morning and can confirm that Scottish Ministers do not support the use of water cannon in Scotland. Water cannon do not offer a proportionate response, and they cut across the traditional approach of policing in Great Britain. They are indiscriminate and target peaceful protesters with a significant risk of injury. The Home Secretary was not convinced of the case for water cannon back in 2010 when she said:

“A range of measures is available to the police…and we do not believe water cannon are needed.”

We are delighted that nothing has happened to make her change her mind. Will the Home Secretary confirm that there will be no change in her announced approach over the next five years?

The hon. and learned Lady was probably entirely correct in her initial surmise that this is possibly going to be an unusual occasion when she and I agree on matters related to home affairs. I am grateful to her for outlining the Scottish Government’s position. As it happens, I will meet the Scottish Justice Minister later this afternoon to discuss a number of issues. As for the next five years, I have taken the decision on the basis of the evidence that has been put before me. As I have indicated in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), it is open to the police at any time to apply for the use of a less than lethal weapon. At that time, the evidence available would be considered and a decision taken on that basis.

Does the Home Secretary agree that, in the summer of 2011, police officers were worried about not only the imminent threat of physical violence to themselves, but the consequences had any violent rioters been injured while the police were trying to deal with them? With that in mind, does she accept that the advantage of water cannon is that they enable the police to deal with people at a distance and that the alternative is that police officers will have to deal with people at very close quarters, probably using batons, spray and shields? Will she give some reassurance that police officers in that situation will not themselves face serious disciplinary consequences if violent people who are trying to attack them receive injuries while doing so?

I have always made it absolutely clear to the police that if they act within the law I will stand by them. Our police officers do a magnificent job. I spoke to many of them immediately after the riots of 2011 and heard from them at first hand the danger they were under. The nature of the riots of 2011 was predominantly such that water cannon would not have been able to be used. Police had to deal with smaller groups of individuals who were very mobile, and it was not the stand-off situation that we see, for example, in the parades in Northern Ireland, which is a completely different circumstance from that which we saw in 2011.

I also commend unequivocally the statement made by the Home Secretary. London has a rich history of demonstration and protest. Very rarely is there disorder, and I support the police when there is. During the course of her detailed statement, she talked about our history of policing by consent. We are all concerned about the 25-year-old water cannon. Can she ever foresee a situation in which she consents to the use of those cannon in London?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the statement I made today was on the basis of an application for the use of those water cannon, and I have decided not to authorise that use.

Just as there is unusual agreement on this, there are also unusual disagreements. I think that this is a regrettable decision. Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is not a case of either water cannon or policing by consent as normal? The water cannon would be used only in circumstances where it is either water cannon or some other violent force that the police need in an emergency. Will she therefore comment on the relative merits of water cannon as opposed to individual batons, Tasers, baton rounds and other forms of less lethal force? It is not obvious to me that water cannon are more dangerous in such situations.

I recognise my right hon. Friend’s experience as a former Policing Minister in looking at these issues. The police have a range of tools available to them. Of course there will be circumstances in which they will have contact with those who are demonstrating—those who are causing public order problems. He referred, I think, to the use of Tasers in this context. I say to him that they would be unlikely to be used in the circumstances he describes. For his information, I have set in hand a piece of work to look at the use of Tasers by police, because a number of issues have been raised around their use.

Many Londoners will be surprised that the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), the current Mayor of London, spent nearly a quarter of a million pounds of public money on water cannon before they had even been authorised, but they will be relieved, none the less, that they have not been authorised. Twice in my time as a Member of Parliament, I have seen public disorder on the streets of Hackney—first, the poll tax riots and then the events following the shooting of Mark Duggan. I take these issues very seriously. They are as frightening and difficult for the communities in which they occur as they are for anyone else. I do not believe—and thinking Londoners do not believe—that undermining a centuries-old tradition of policing by consent is the way to go on these very serious matters. Does the Home Secretary agree that many Londoners will welcome her decision today?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I hope this decision will be welcomed by many people. As I have said, that issue of trust between the police and the public is very important. Indeed there are many communities in which we need to build that trust rather than the reverse.

There are very few issues on which I find myself at odds with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Unfortunately, this is one of them. Rather than using water cannon, would my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary consider authorising the use of traceable liquid such as SmartWater and other similar products, so that the small number of violent offenders in these protests can be individually identified and, at a time and a distance, when tensions have subsided, be arrested and brought to justice?

I have seen the examples of SmartWater. Obviously it is a product of great interest. If the police feel that they wish to be able to use it in certain circumstances and it requires authorisation, there is a process by which an application can be made.

On every occasion that the Home Secretary has appeared before the Select Committee—at least in the past 13 months—we have asked about this issue, and she said that she wanted to deliberate very carefully and make a decision after she had looked at all the evidence. May I commend her not just for the decision she has made but for not being pushed into making this decision? She has studied the matter carefully and come to the House and given her version, so well done.

I know that the Home Secretary will have taken this decision with great care. I therefore regret to say that I, too, have grave concerns about it. Does it not directly contradict the statement of the Prime Minister during the London riots of 2011 that water cannon would not be taken off the table and that indeed they could be made available within 24 hours? The Home Secretary has not been directly responsible for policing in the capital for 15 years. The elected Mayor has responsibility in that regard and the senior operational commander in London has made it quite clear that he supports the use of water cannon. Surely a riot is a riot whether it is in Northern Ireland or on the streets of London and it is hard to see why it should be dealt with differently. Just this week, water cannon have been used in the Province.

I thank my right hon. Friend the former Policing Minister for sharing his views. On the point about comparisons with Northern Ireland, I simply point out that he is talking about water cannon being used in a riot, which—this is important in thinking about their operability—is a fast-moving situation in which circumstances can arise very quickly that require the police to make quick decisions on the use of the tools available to them. Last August, as I indicated in my statement, I wrote to a number of senior officers and serving and former chief constables to ask about the circumstances in which water cannon would be used. In response, the then temporary deputy chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland wrote—his letter will be placed in the Library—that:

“the predominant method of deployment for the PSNI is within a pre-planned public order operation, with cannons deployed to either a reserve, holding or forward location, depending on an assessment of the ‘immediacy’ of use.”

They are pre-planned operations, so the fact that they might be used is known some time in advance. That is a different scenario from a rapidly moving, spontaneous occasion of the sort my right hon. Friend refers to.

Have I got this correct: instead of engaging in careful analysis of the sort undertaken by the Home Secretary, the Mayor of London charged ahead and bought three antiquated, expensive, dangerous, and now totally redundant, German-made water cannon, aided and abetted by the Prime Minister? Is that not the sort of behaviour that local councillors used to be surcharged for, and has the Home Secretary any plans to use such a penalty against her future rival in the Tory leadership contest?

We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for contributing to the debate, and on a matter that, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, is devolved; the decision in Scotland is for Scottish Ministers. I am sure that all of us who have taken decisions in relation to the matter have done so on the basis of the advice and evidence put before us.

The Home Secretary has commented on the powers that the police have to deal with such situations without the use of water cannon, but she has also commissioned a study on the use of Tasers. I wonder whether this is not the time for a comprehensive assessment of those powers and how they can be used.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. There are circumstances in which particular tools that are available to the police are used, and there are questions about their use, particularly for Tasers, in particular environments, so it is right that we look at their use. With regard to the wider use of police powers, I am always looking to ensure that the police have the necessary tools and powers available to them, commensurate with requirements relating to medical and technical advice and with the need to maintain the firm trust between the police and the public.

I spent five years in Northern Ireland monitoring the police, and I spent time in the command room and during briefings when the use of water cannon was being planned. The situation there is very different from the situation in London, and it is important to bear that in mind in this debate.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for making that point. Indeed, I have had that conversation with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, who is a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, and he is conscious of that real difference, both for policing more generally and for the circumstances that the police there have to deal with. As the hon. and learned Gentleman points out, the use of water cannon in Northern Ireland is very much pre-planned.

The Home Secretary talks about the public perception of legitimacy. Did she formally consult the public before making the decision? A poll shows that two thirds of Londoners support the use of water cannon in exceptional circumstances. In particular, has she consulted the victims of the 2011 riots, such as those in my borough of Enfield? They certainly admired the police’s restraint, but they also want them to have more tools in the box to be able to take exceptional action in a proportionate and reasonable manner.

I am very conscious of the poll that the Mayor of London, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Boris Johnson), undertook on the views of Londoners. I am also conscious that a number of views were expressed in 2011 by those who sadly found themselves living in parts of London that were affected. I reiterate my earlier point that people often assume that because what happened in 2011 were riots, water cannon would necessarily have been operable in every circumstance. In fact, they would not have been. There is evidence from the chief constables of West Midlands police and Merseyside police, where riots also took place in 2011, that water cannon would not have been the answer because of the nature of the riots taking place.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s decision. It feels as though the Government are preparing for a number of confrontations. Is she confident that the police have the necessary resources for what could prove to be a long, hot summer?

I was asked by the shadow Home Secretary about the tools and powers available to the police. They have a range of powers available to them, and a range of guidance and training in relation to public order policing.

As a former Metropolitan police officer, I was relieved to hear my right hon. Friend’s announcement. Does she agree that the use of water cannon would have changed the face of traditional policing on the mainland beyond all recognition? Will she ensure that the police are provided with the most up-to-date equipment to fight criminality, including robust stop-and-search powers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, particularly given his experience. We do indeed believe that stop-and-search powers are an essential tool, but they must be used properly and in a targeted way that will be effective. That is what our “Best Use of Stop and Search” scheme is for. I echo the question that Lord Condon asked the Minister in another place in March:

“Does the Minister agree that no compelling case has been made, now or in the past, for the use of water cannon in London and that that is why all former commissioners, me included, have resisted calls for their use?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 March 2015; Vol. 760, c. 1001.]

I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), who has struck me, in the short time I have known him, as a very decent fellow, but he has only just toddled into the Chamber and is now rising to ask the Home Secretary a question. He cannot expect to be called in relation to this statement, because he was not here for it. We will hear from the hon. Gentleman on another occasion—we are saving him up.

The Home Secretary has clearly considered this matter, and I respect her decision. All that I will say is that when the Police Service of Northern Ireland makes it clear that it requires water cannon for public order situations, it rightly receives the support of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But when police in England and Wales say that they require that capability in their respective contexts, the Home Secretary disagrees. Why is one chief constable right and entitled to support while the other is wrong and not?

As I have said in answer to a number of points raised today, the policing situation in Northern Ireland is different from the one in England and Wales. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to assume that all chief constables in England and Wales think that water cannon are a tool that they should have, or indeed that they would use, because the evidence shows that their views on the issue are very mixed.

I thank the Home Secretary for sharing a copy of her statement in advance. I rise simply because Northern Ireland has been mentioned a number of times today. I wish to commend her for the statement. There will be a range of views on how water cannon can best be deployed, but I think that it is incumbent on Members of this House to recognise that it is not for parliamentarians to frustrate the full range of non-lethal means that the police can use in a riotous and difficult situation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. As I have pointed out, water cannon have been used for some years in Northern Ireland, and they are used in a pre-planned way and in a particular set of circumstances. It is right that we recognise that the circumstances of policing in England and Wales are different; the police in England and Wales face different types of issues from those faced by the PSNI.

Chief Constable David Shaw was very clear that water cannon would not have helped in the London riots in 2011 and that the coalition Government were right to resist their use, so I commend the Home Secretary for her decision. She has clearly done her scrutiny in an entirely proper and admirable way. Will she also ensure that there is proper parliamentary scrutiny of any changes to the deployment of less lethal weapons in this country?

There is a very clear process by which the use of less-lethal weaponry is authorised for use in England and Wales. It is for the Home Secretary to take a decision on the basis of the evidence that is put before SACMILL and the various other bodies I mentioned that are part of the process of looking at this. In order to ensure that parliamentarians are as fully informed as possible, I am making as much of the evidence as possible available in the Library so that people are able to look at it themselves.