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Public Disorder at NUS Rally

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 11 November 2010


My Lords, I beg leave to repeat a Statement made earlier in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on yesterday’s public disorder at the National Union of Students rally.

The House will be aware that yesterday, following a peaceful demonstration organised by the National Union of Students, a violent faction directed a series of criminal acts against the office complex on Millbank, which houses a number of organisations and businesses.

This Government have been clear that we are committed to supporting peaceful protest. Indeed, we included the restoration of the right to peaceful protest in our coalition agreement. However, as the Prime Minister said this morning, we are equally clear that when people are bent on violence and on destruction of property, that is completely unacceptable.

The operational response to the violence is quite rightly a matter for the Metropolitan Police, but I want to give the House an early indication of what happened yesterday, the action taken by the police and the follow-up action that will now be necessary. This information was provided at 9 this morning by the Metropolitan Police Service.

The NUS had predicted that yesterday’s protest would attract around 5,000 demonstrators. This estimate was then revised upwards to 15,000. The police had planned to deploy around 225 officers to the protest. As the situation developed during the day, an additional 225 officers were deployed.

In the initial stages, the march passed the Palace of Westminster in an orderly manner. However, this meant that vehicle access to the Palace was not possible for around two and a half hours.

At about 1.10 pm, the front of the march reached the rally point at Millbank. At the same time, a group of protestors ran towards the Millbank office complex, which houses the Conservative campaign headquarters. Protesters from the main march then seemed to be encouraged by a number of individuals to storm the building and throw missiles. Windows were broken and significant damage to the property was caused. Some protestors also managed to gain entry to the building and some got on to the roof.

At its height, it is estimated that about 2,000 people were around Millbank, though many appeared not to be directly involved in violence. It is now clear that a small hard core within this group were intent on violence. Additional officers were then deployed in public order protective equipment. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was also attacked by a small number of protesters.

At about 3 pm, the police were informed that members of staff within the Millbank complex were concerned for their safety. They advised them to stay in the building. Officers were deployed to make contact with the staff and secure their safety. This took some time to achieve. By 4 pm, police officers had located the staff members and, over time, arrangements were put in place to escort them from the building.

The police then undertook a search of the office complex and made 47 arrests for criminal damage and aggravated trespass. The British Transport Police also made three arrests. Around 250 individuals were also searched, photographed and then released pending further investigation. Forty-one police officers received injuries. A small number were taken to hospital for treatment and were subsequently released.

The police are committed to bringing the criminals who carried out this violence in front of a court. The whole House will join me in condemning the minority who carried out these violent and criminal acts. There is no place for such behaviour in Britain’s democracy. I would also like to thank the police officers who were deployed to the scene and who helped to protect innocent bystanders. They acted with great courage, particularly those who were holding the line until reinforcements arrived.

Yesterday, during the violence, the Home Secretary was in contact with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson. The Home Secretary also spoke to the Mayor of London and I spoke to Kit Malthouse, the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which has responsibility for the governance of policing in London. I would like to praise Sir Paul for his swift and candid response to yesterday’s events.

I spoke to Sir Paul this morning. He confirmed to me that the Metropolitan Police will also be undertaking an immediate and thorough review of their operational response to the incident. This will include an examination of why numbers and violence on this scale were not anticipated.

The police have to strike a balance between dealing promptly and robustly with violent and unlawful activity on the one hand and allowing the right to protest on the other. Clearly, in this case the balance was wrong, but these are difficult decisions and they are not taken lightly.

Let me finish by saying this. Yesterday did not go according to plan and the police will learn the lessons, but the blame and responsibility for yesterday’s appalling scenes of violence lie squarely and solely with those who carried them out. I commend this Statement to the House”.

That concludes the Statement. In the course of questions afterwards, my right honourable friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice corrected himself. The Home Secretary did not in fact speak to the head of the Metropolitan Police yesterday. However, my right honourable friend did.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and for the further clarification that she has just given regarding the Home Secretary.

I start by agreeing with the Minister’s right honourable friend, the Police Minister. The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental part of our democracy, supported on all sides of this House. Tens of thousands of students and lecturers came to London from across the country yesterday to exercise that right and to make their voices heard. However, the Police Minister is right to say, as the Prime Minister said last night, that the vandalism and violence that we saw yesterday were completely unacceptable. They were perpetrated by a small minority of thugs who hijacked what was planned to be a legitimate and peaceful demonstration and in so doing denied tens of thousands of students the right to have their voices properly heard.

The Metropolitan Police have told us that the National Union of Students worked closely and co-operatively with them before and during yesterday’s events, as it has done in the past. The president of the NUS rightly said yesterday that the actions of a small minority were despicable and designed to hijack a peaceful protest. We on this side of the House are clear that there is no excuse whatever for such criminal behaviour and that those responsible must be brought to justice. We note that 50 arrests have been made. It is the job of the police not only to tackle crime and protect the safety of all our communities but also to keep public order as they ensure that the law-abiding majority can exercise their democratic right to protest and make their voices heard. The police ensure that thousands of major events and demonstrations pass off peacefully each year, often in difficult and challenging circumstances. I am sure that all noble Lords will want to join me in commending the hundreds of individual officers involved in yesterday’s events, particularly the small number outside 30 Millbank and Millbank Tower early yesterday afternoon, for their bravery and dedication.

When things go wrong, it is vital that we ask questions, find out what happened and learn lessons for the future, so we welcome the urgent investigation that was ordered later yesterday afternoon by the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and his straightforward and responsible admission that these events were “an embarrassment for London” and that there were lessons to be learnt. The Metropolitan Police have acknowledged that there was an operational failure and it seems sensible and appropriate in this instance that the investigation be conducted by the police themselves quickly and reported to the independent police authority.

I am sure that this investigation will look at a number of operational policing issues, including: whether sufficient officers were on duty to police what was expected to be a peaceful demonstration; why, when estimates of the size of the demonstration were revised up from 5,000 people to 15,000 and then 25,000, the Metropolitan Police made the judgment that this would be a peaceful demonstration; and whether there was any intelligence to suggest that violent actions were pre-planned. We also need to know whether sufficient back-up was available, how quickly it was able to be deployed and how operational decisions were made about which buildings and public spaces to protect.

However, wider questions were raised by yesterday’s events, which go beyond the direct operational responsibilities of the commissioner and the Metropolitan Police and which are rightly also matters for the Home Secretary and the Government. Given the failure of intelligence in this case, will the Home Secretary assess whether the gathering of intelligence by the police and security services was sufficient and sufficiently well co-ordinated? Will she discuss the procedures for assessing risk and intelligence in advance of protests of this kind to ensure that the full risks are understood in advance? Given that yesterday and on previous occasions mobile phones and social networking have been used during demonstrations to co-ordinate actions and build momentum at short notice, what work are she, the Home Secretary and her ministerial colleagues doing to support the police and others in responding to this new challenge and what wider public order issues does this raise?

Given that this was a demonstration against a controversial aspect of government policy and that police officers were deployed outside the party headquarters of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, did the Home Secretary or her advisers have any advance discussions of possible risks with the Metropolitan Police and lead party officials? At what time was the Police Minister alerted to the risk of elements in the demonstration becoming violent? What plans does the Home Secretary have to update the House following the conclusion of the Metropolitan Police investigation and the wider investigations that are now taking place?

Yesterday’s events were at root the fault of no one but a small minority of violent demonstrators, whom we all roundly condemn. They are a timely reminder of how all of us are reliant on the police to maintain public order and ensure legitimate and peaceful protest. Is the Minister confident that the police will have the resources that they need in the coming years to deal with threats to our national security, to tackle organised crime, to ensure a safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic Games, to continue to provide visible neighbourhood policing in all our communities and to ensure public order at major events?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for his endorsement. I think that it is the shared sentiment of the House that we do not accept violence as an accompaniment to the right to demonstrate. He was correct to commend the officers who were involved in dealing with the violence in Millbank Tower. Of course it is right that the police will want to learn lessons; the head of the Metropolitan Police has made that clear and has himself said that there was an operational failure. I have no doubt that it betokens a serious and detailed investigation that he will want to take place and I am confident that we can expect that. Of course, he will be reporting to the Metropolitan Police Authority.

As for the questions that the noble Lord put to me, in the first instance it is clearly for the police to decide how it was that a failure of intelligence arose. They were clearly not aware of the faction that appears to have come to the scene. It will be for them to assess why that was the case. There is no reason to suppose that it was in any way a result of a failure of resources. If the head of the Metropolitan Police decides to come to talk to the Home Secretary about some of his findings, I have no doubt that my right honourable friend will wish to listen to him and see where, if anywhere, the Home Office can offer help. However, in the first instance, it is clearly for the Metropolitan Police to make these judgments.

On the noble Lord’s other points, I do not know whether there was advance discussion about Millbank Tower. It is clear from the dispositions of the police that they were aware of some of the sensitive buildings along the route. The Police Minister was certainly in touch with the Metropolitan Police during the demonstration, although I cannot give the noble Lord a precise time. As for the resources available, this is not a resource question; it is very clear that that was not the issue yesterday. I am confident that the measures that the Government have taken in relation to policing will not in any way impede an adequate response to all the various points that he mentioned in his list of issues, which undoubtedly we will need to take care of in future years.

My Lords, there will be criticism no doubt that the policing was too light on this occasion and there was criticism that the policing of the G20 demonstrations was too heavy. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the pendulum does not keep swinging and that we seek the right level of policing for such demonstrations?

My noble friend puts the point, which I am sure we all appreciate, that these decisions are difficult. Getting the balance right between protecting the legitimate right to peaceful protest and safeguarding the public against illegitimate activity—and certainly violence—is precisely the issue that the police face. She is also right to say that in the past the police have been criticised for being too heavy-handed, whereas this time there was clearly not quite enough resource immediately available. However, once the police had learnt the nature of the situation, they were pretty fast in bringing the right sort of people in protective gear to the scene. I am sure that this is the aspect that the head of the Metropolitan Police will be looking at with great care.

My Lords, yesterday I was rushing to get to the House for our weekly Cross-Bench Peers meeting at 2 pm, but I was stuck on the Embankment for an hour. I eventually made it to just below Big Ben, where a policeman kindly let me through after I showed my pass and I drove, very slowly and carefully, through the mass of protesters. In front of the House of Commons, I was then surrounded by demonstrators with placards, who started to get violent and then lay down in front of my car and refused to let me move. The police standing around immediately came to my rescue. Four of them removed the demonstrators and I was able to proceed. When I made it here into the House the doorkeeper, when he heard my story, said, “My Lord, either you are the bravest Peer in this House or out of your mind to drive through that”.

Only afterwards did I learn of the violence that had taken place, but when I was in that car I did not feel scared. I just thought to myself, “You’re not doing any favours to your cause. There is no place for violence”. There is every place for peaceful demonstration and I have every sympathy for the students who were demonstrating peacefully. I want to place on record my thanks—I request the Minister to convey them—to the police who saved me yesterday.

My Lords, I am sure that the police will be extremely grateful for what the noble Lord has just quite rightly said. I am sure that one of the points that the head of the Metropolitan Police will be looking at is the question of access to the House, which was not available to vehicles for rather more than two hours. I am sure that he will want to look at the whole question of how you combine the right to peaceful protest with continuing to enable Members of the House and, indeed, members of the public to gain access to the Palace of Westminster during protests. Perhaps I might say that the president of the NUS, to do him credit, has written to the head of the Metropolitan Police saying in formal terms that he is willing to co-operate with the police in their investigation, which shows a good sign of responsibility on the part of the NUS and its president.

My Lords, I join in praising the police for their efforts yesterday and in condemning those demonstrators who resorted to violence, thereby weakening their case. I am pleased that the Government have committed themselves to the right of peaceful protest, as we all do. However, I have one difficulty with what the Minister said: that it was not a matter of resources. If the police are using what intelligence they have to assess the likely amount of trouble that may be associated with a demo, the pressure on the police will be to have police officers in reserve and sitting in their vans in case trouble should develop. The difficulty for the police is that keeping those officers there is pretty expensive in overtime. I should like an assurance that the pressures on police finances, through the Government’s decisions, will not be allowed to affect the right and the ability of the police to have officers in reserve, should they seek to do so.

My Lords, I should perhaps have been more specific when I commented that it was not a matter of resources. It was not a matter of the availability of resources. This was not a case where the police were constrained from having the necessary resources available. I think that it was an operational decision that they were not necessary but, as regards the future, that is obviously going to be very important. I am sure that the police will wish to make sure that in the resources available to them are the resources necessary for policing this kind of demonstration.

My Lords, I first declare an interest as somebody who, perhaps surprisingly, was once elected deputy president of the National Union of Students. The Official Opposition spokesman raised the fact that the estimates of those who were going to attend rose steadily in the 48 hours before the protest. Do the police have a figure for those whom they believe to have been involved at the end of the day?

My Lords, I think I am right in saying that the figure is 40,000 involved. Certainly, there was a relatively late surge and the figures rose. I am sure that is precisely the point which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, when he is investigating how they did their planning, will want to look at—including whether they had enough regard to possible, last-minute additional numbers joining the demonstration. Until we have had the results of that investigation, it is quite hard to go any further in examining the whys and wherefores or the lessons that we need to draw.

The Minister was quite right to underline the fact that most students conducted themselves in a seemly manner and that it was a minority who misbehaved, but will she also direct her attention to the way that the press—some of the press, not all of them—have depicted the view that a large section of the protesters encouraged riotous behaviour? It was unseemly of that section of the press to so behave.

Well, my Lords, we have a free press, do we not, and we may not always agree with either what they say or do. This is not quite so germane to the noble Lord’s question, but it turns out that the correction I made was erroneous. The Home Secretary did not speak to the mayor; I had said it was the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, so I apologise to the House. However, as is clear from the Statement, there was contact between the Government and the police. There has also, obviously, been extensive contact today as a basis for giving accurate information to the House.

My Lords, yesterday when watching television I had a sense of déjà vu watching the disgraceful events in Millbank Tower. The déjà vu was: 1996 in Seattle with the World Trade Organisation, where I was one of the people inadvertently suffering from pepper gas and tear gas, because the police were seeking to protect the delegates but had the Seattle sound with a 30 mile an hour wind to put up with. The thing that was in common was watching people dressed entirely in black and wearing hard hats, smashing into Millbank Tower then encouraging young people to go in and themselves, noticeably, not necessarily going in but walking away. That is exactly what I saw when a Starbucks coffee house was burnt out in Seattle. The gentleman who threw the brazier in—he had lit a whole pile of rubbish—then walked away, taking off his black shirt and putting it underneath his other T-shirt.

It is therefore not necessarily just a question of students, because I suspect that some of the people have nothing to do with being students. I trust that the investigation will therefore look at that. More particularly, there was intelligence about Millbank Tower, where I used to work. It is a large building with lots of staff who must have been very terrified when that happened. If there was such intelligence, was the management of the building informed of the likelihood of such dangers?

The noble Lord makes some good observations about what went on. The Statement was rather careful in just referring to a “faction”, because at this stage we simply do not know exactly who was involved. He is quite right, and anyone who viewed television saw what he saw, that there was obviously preparation; you do not come along with a mask without the intention of doing something, or indeed with, I believe, a hammer. Clearly there was premeditation.

The noble Lord is also right to say that this must have been pretty frightening for those who were in the building. I would say that one of the first cares of the police when they arrived in that building was to secure the safety of those in it and, thereafter, to begin to eject the intruders.

I cannot answer the question about the information to the management. I would hope that because of the route, and given that the police were there, the management of the building had some forewarning.

My Lords, I am sure we all agree that peaceful protest is a crucial element of democracy and that the right place to protest against Parliament is Parliament Square. Unfortunately, Parliament Square is barely available now to protesters. Because of the misuse of the whole green area over a long period, it has all had to be closed off, and now the pavement in front of that area is occupied by a permanent camp. Will my noble friend recognise that Parliament Square should be kept as an open space, available for protest, and that the way of achieving that is to say that there should be no permanent camps in the square? I suggest that at some stage in future—I do not know whether it needs legislation—all impedimenta is removed between midnight and 6 am. People can come and protest any time they like but, between midnight and 6 am, anything that has been left behind is removed by appropriate vehicles. That at least will mean that Parliament Square is then available for protest, which is such an important aspect of our liberty.

The noble Lord is right to say that we need to have Parliament Square available for protest. The House had a big discussion of this issue a few days ago and I repeat what I said then: we entirely agree that that is the case. At the moment the grass is being reseeded, which is why the square is not available. The Government intend to bring forward a first Session Bill not so much directed at in any way limiting or trying to curtail the right to organise a protest but to deal with those things that get in the way of and frustrate the right to peaceful protest, which will include encampments.

My Lords, I commend to the Minister the wisdom of the late James Callaghan, whom I had the honour of serving in the Home Office some 40 years ago when there were some very robust protests, as she will remember. He used to say, “It is far better to have a surplus of officers on the scene rather than the other way round. The more officers you have, the less likely will be the need to resort to violence”.

I have no doubt that the head of the Metropolitan Police will heed those words. It is obviously not just the number of policemen that is important; it is how they manage the protest as well. It is clear, though, that one has less chance of being able to police it satisfactorily if the numbers are not adequate.

My Lords, the demonstrations yesterday were about tuition fees. Today we have the announcement about welfare reform. Next year we will start to see the consequences of the housing benefit changes being introduced and there will be a growing mood, as I am sure most people will agree, of dissatisfaction in many quarters. Do the Government have appropriate resources available, following on from my noble friend Lord Hunt’s question, for the appropriate intelligence research to be undertaken?

As a side issue, I draw attention to what happened in Newcastle when there was the debacle with Mr Moat. We saw that a substantial website was quickly established, with thousands of people signing up to it and supporting him, quite contrary to the view expressed on behalf of the public by the Prime Minister. We then saw a funeral that literally hundreds of people attended, contrary to what most people would have thought would happen. There is a distinct possibility, with the technology that is now available to us—we see this when surprise parties are called by teenagers and thousands of people descend on their home for a party—that in 2011 we will see a different mood entirely, with a different technology available that could lead to demonstrations of a nature that we have not previously experienced. Are we geared up for this when we face substantial cuts in the Home Office?

My Lords, as I said previously, I am confident that this is not a question of whether the numbers and resources are available for the acquisition of intelligence. The noble Lord makes a good point when he says that modern technology—mobile telephony, combined with the use of the internet—can produce situations that can change rapidly, as in the immediate run-up to a demonstration of this kind. That is clearly something that the police will need to take into account in how they use their intelligence resources with the help of other agencies, and how they plan for demonstrations. I am confident that the police have both the resources and the capability to do this.

My Lords, were any police resources outside those of the Metropolitan Police used to help to police this demonstration?

I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question. I will have to write to the noble Baroness. Clearly, students came from some distance so it would be logical for there to have been contact, but I do not specifically know.