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Public Disorder: Policing

Volume 723: debated on Monday 13 December 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the appalling violence that took place during last week’s protests outside Parliament.

I want first to express my gratitude to those police officers and commanders who put themselves in harm’s way. They showed great bravery and professionalism in the face of violence and provocation. It was this bravery that enabled this House to engage unhindered in democratic debate. I know that the whole House will want to send them our thanks. I also want to thank Sir Paul Stephenson, who led the Metropolitan Police Service through a difficult operation and who serves London as Commissioner with distinction.

Honourable Members may find it useful if I recap last week’s events. On Thursday, 3,000 people assembled at the University of London Union to march through central London. By the time the crowd reached Parliament Square, police estimate the number of demonstrators had grown to 15,000.

The police maintained a barrier system outside the Palace of Westminster which allowed pedestrian access and the business of the House to continue at all times. Concerted attempts were made to breach the barrier lines. Protestors threw bottles, stones, paint, golf balls and flares and attacked police with metal fencing.

A cordon was placed around Parliament Square, but throughout those who remained peaceful and wished to leave via Whitehall were able to do so. A large number of protesters remained, many of whom committed acts of violent disorder, damaging historic statues in Parliament Square, breaking windows and starting fires. Sporadic disorder also took place in parts of the West End. It is quite clear that these acts were not perpetrated by a small minority but by a significant number of trouble makers.

Some students behaved disgracefully. But the police also assess that the protests were infiltrated by organised groups of hardcore activists and street gangs bent on violence. Evidence from the other recent protests shows that many of those causing violence were organised thugs, as well as students. It is highly likely that this was also the case last week.

I want to be absolutely clear: the blame for the violence lies squarely and solely with those who carried it out. The idea that some have advanced that police tactics were to blame when people came armed with sticks, flares, fireworks, stones and snooker balls is as ridiculous as it is unfair.

We have a culture of policing in this country that is based on popular consent and trust between the police and the public. That must continue.

Thursday’s police operation involved 2,800 officers. More than 30 officers were injured, of whom six required hospital treatment. All six have now been discharged from hospital. Forty-three protesters were injured.

The IPCC has already begun an independent investigation into the incident which left one protester seriously injured. Honourable and right honourable Members will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on this incident while the IPCC investigation is ongoing.

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that 35 people have been arrested so far. I expect this number to rise significantly as the criminal investigation continues. I can inform the House that there has been a good public response to the police’s request for information on 14 key perpetrators of violence published on Sunday. The Met will continue to publish pictures of other key individuals in the week ahead.

I also want to inform the House about the attack on the royal car. The House will be aware that on their way to an engagement in central London, the car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was attacked by several protesters. There has been much speculation about the Duchess being struck through the window of the car. I understand that there was some contact made.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has ordered an urgent review of the royalty protection arrangements in place on the night. I can tell the House that the review is due to report by Friday 17 December. Honourable Members will understand that for security reasons, the public details of the report may be limited. I will await the findings of the review before deciding what, if any, further action is needed. The Prince and the Duchess have already expressed their gratitude to the police. I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning all the acts of violence that took place last week, and I call on the organisers of the protest unequivocally to condemn violence as well.

The Government are determined to protect the right to peaceful protest, but violence is absolutely unacceptable, and the perpetrators of that violence must be brought to justice”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, we share the gratitude expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to the police at all levels who were involved with the policing of the demonstration outside Parliament last week. A number of officers were injured in simply seeking to do their duty.

Nothing justifies the violence and the criminal damage, much of which bears the hallmark of being planned and premeditated by a small minority who used the demonstration as a cover to carry out their own, far from peaceful, agenda. If major demonstrations become associated with mindless violence and vandalism, that is an attack on democracy, as it will deter decent-minded people who simply wish, with fellow-minded citizens, to express their view peacefully and publicly in that way, from doing so in future. There is also the risk that the violence detracts from the message.

However, while unreservedly condemning the violence by a small minority, we share the anger and dismay of the many thousands of students who demonstrated peacefully over the decision by the Government to increase tuition fees so dramatically on the basis of a phoney argument that the country is on the verge of bankruptcy.

As we know, there have been allegations of violence made against the police, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission is now involved in an independent investigation. One hopes that the matter will be investigated fully and as speedily as possible.

A further issue was the appalling incident involving the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall who, as the Leader of the House said, were travelling by car to an engagement in central London. The investigation being carried out by the police should establish the facts, but that was a worrying and disturbing incident and must surely lead to a review of procedures.

We understand that a number of those suspected of being involved in the violence and vandalism have been arrested, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave the number. Can he tell us how many, if any, have been charged? The perpetrators, whoever they may be, should be brought to justice.

There was a previous demonstration last month at which there appears to have been an underestimate of the number who would be taking part. Once again, a small minority used a peaceful demonstration for their own violent ends. Was the Home Secretary satisfied beforehand, in the light of what had happened at the earlier demonstration, that the intelligence about the demonstration last week appeared adequate and that whatever could realistically be done had been done to minimise the prospect of a repeat of the previous violence and vandalism, and of threats to key people, such as members of the Royal Family, and to key buildings?

The resources needed to police the demonstration last week must have been considerable. Can the Leader of the House give us some idea of the figure? Bearing in mind that cuts in the police budget are looming, can he give us an assurance that, despite that, the police will never be left in a situation where they feel that they do not have the resources available adequately to police major demonstrations in future? Can he also give an assurance that the budget for the policing of the Olympic Games will provide the police with the necessary resources to address major incidents of the magnitude and difficulty that we saw outside Parliament last week?

There has also been speculation about the use of water cannon by the police in future major demonstrations and protests. Will the Minister say whether the Government agree with the view expressed by the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, that the use of water cannon would not be proportionate to the violence at recent protests?

Finally, I return to the actions of the police last week. They were there to enable people to exercise their democratic right to demonstrate peacefully. They were not there to provoke violence or to carry out acts of violence. The police do get provoked by a small minority who have that objective in mind and it must require the exercise of considerable restraint by police officers when they are attacked, and particularly when they see colleagues being attacked and injured—colleagues who are only seeking to do their duty. Inevitably the police will at times have difficulty in such a situation in being sure who are the perpetrators of violence and who are not. Where allegations are made against the police, they should of course be investigated, but we should also be grateful for the work the police did in controlling a very difficult situation last week. We should be conscious at all times of the pressures, the violence and the provocation they faced and of the restraint they showed.

I thank the noble Lord for the broad support and welcome—and, indeed, for the unreserved condemnation of those who protested with violence on their minds on Thursday. I agree with him that the violence looked as if it was planned and premeditated. I also think he is right that it was an attack on democracy and that it will put off those who are genuinely interested in peacefully demonstrating their views if each of these demonstrations is taken over by those who are violent.

I did not quite follow the noble Lord’s argument on tuition fees. I also remind him that it was his party that created the inquiry chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Madingley, which we have broadly accepted and which we will be debating in this House tomorrow.

The noble Lord asked how many students have been charged. I was able to announce that 35 have been arrested but I have no figures yet on how many have been charged—or, indeed, on what the charges could be. Some of them could potentially be for major criminal acts.

On the question of intelligence gained from earlier demonstrations, what I can say is that the police study each demonstration with care and learn lessons from each of them. The tactics of the demonstrators have clearly changed. The police prepare for that, but sometimes that is not enough to avoid those who are hell-bent on violence when, at the same time, the police’s main aim, and indeed the Government’s aim, is to support the right to peaceful protest. However, as the noble Lord pointed out, Thursday’s violent disorder was not just protest; it was wanton destruction and is not acceptable.

As far as funding is concerned, the Government are committed to ensuring that the police have sufficient resources to protect Parliament, the Royal Family and communities from concerted violent disorder such as we saw on Thursday.

The noble Lord asked about the use of water cannon, a matter which has been raised in the press and has caught the eye of some. Water cannon are a potential option for use in public order scenarios, and while it is right that we look at the whole range of options, we need to consider their impact on the British model of policing and whether they are operationally needed. I do not think that anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain. We have a different culture of policing in Britain, one that is based on popular consent and trust between police and public. As I said, a range of measures is available to the police, and I do not believe that water cannon are needed.

The noble Lord finished by praising the police and by pointing out that we should all be grateful to them for the work that they do, and that enormous pressures were brought to bear on them and on their methods. Clearly the police need to learn lessons from this, as do the parliamentary authorities. However, we all owe the police a great sense of gratitude.

My Lords, I have two questions for my noble friend. First, I understand that Westminster Underground station and the road outside Parliament were closed. Surely it is not right that people should be prevented from arriving here as well as from leaving here.

Secondly, I had a tiny hope that good might come out of very bad and that the people who are tented around Parliament Square might have been overrun. However, to my great gloom this morning, there they are still. How did they manage it?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first question, I think we all regret that Members of either House could not arrive at Parliament and leave easily on Thursday afternoon. However, pedestrian access was maintained at all times.

On my noble friend’s second question, she may well say that good could have come out of bad. However, the Government, more strategically, are looking at ways of improving the Parliament Square situation, and I hope that an announcement will be made shortly.

My Lords, may I express my sympathy for the difficulties in which the police found themselves, and my admiration for the way in which, by and large, they handled the event? I have two questions. First, the Statement says that those who wished to leave the area of containment and,

“to leave via Whitehall were able to do so”,

but a lot of people in the media have commented that they could not leave. Is there any doubt that the demonstrators who wanted to go down Whitehall to get away from the area of containment could do so?

Secondly, I find what happened to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall slightly puzzling. Those of us who were Ministers in Northern Ireland had the benefit of close protection officers who phoned ahead at all times and who would never have got me into that difficulty, and I fail to see why those of us, like me, who were Ministers were better protected than the Royal Family. Something seems to have gone badly wrong.

My Lords, on the first point, about being able to leave the area of containment, my understanding is exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said: that those who wanted to leave, and to do so peacefully, were given the opportunity to do so through Whitehall. Furthermore, I gather that many thousands of individuals chose to take that route.

On the second question, the noble Lord is quite right; something went badly wrong. That is why there is to be a security review. It is not my place to pre-empt or second-guess that review, but I am sure that it will take into account everything that the noble Lord said about his experiences in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, mention has been made of the number of officers involved. First, does the Leader of the House have any information on the numbers of officers who were brought in from forces outside London? Secondly, he will recall that, at the time of the G20 protests, there was a lot of concern that some officers were not showing their numbers clearly on their uniforms and therefore could not be identified. I understand that comment has been made that, although the number of officers was not large, some officers again could not be identified properly because their numbers were not displayed. Does he have any comment to make on that?

My Lords, as I said in the Statement, 2,800 officers were in and around central London on Thursday. I do not have the figures on how many of those originated from forces outside London but if I can find out I shall let the noble Baroness know. As far as ID numbers are concerned, she is entirely correct in her understanding that these should be uncovered so that individual police officers can be identified by members of the general public or anyone else. They should not be covered up, and there are standing instructions to make sure that those numbers are not hidden from sight.

My Lords, I join those who have expressed horror at the ease with which a relatively small number of aggressive anarchists were able to hijack what otherwise was a properly constituted and utterly justified demonstration. Perhaps I may invite the Minister to bear in mind the wise and statesmanlike words of the late Lord Callaghan. As the House will remember, at the time of the Grosvenor Square demonstrations in the late 1960s, he said that whenever you are faced with a situation like this, it is best, on the whole, irrespective of cost, to have a surfeit of officers in place, because the more force you have, the less violence you have to use.

My Lords, Lord Callaghan had wise things to say from time to time, and I am sure that that was one of them. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred to a relatively small number. That was our assessment on some of the earlier demonstrations, but we have increasingly taken the view that that is not so much the case—that this was a much larger number of individuals who were looking for trouble, and looking to make trouble and to use violence as a form of making their views heard.

My Lords, will my noble friend Lord Strathclyde comment on the statement made by the Minister last Thursday that the order ensuring Peers and MPs’ entry to Parliament has now been dropped? Is he aware that a top constitutional expert in this House has assured me this morning that Peers have not suspended that order, so presumably they still have such rights? Does he agree that if demonstrators and accompanying anarchists are aware that they are able to halt even a part of the work of Parliament, we have reached a dangerous situation indeed?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct to say that nothing should be done outside this building which stops either of the Houses from being able to continue their work, and I am glad to say that nothing last Thursday or on any of the previous demonstrations allowed that to happen. But obviously there can be occasions when so many people have gathered outside that it is difficult to keep every entrance and exit on the estate open.

On the question of the sessional orders, they are of course in place, but my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire wisely explained their effect and raised some doubts in the mind of the House as to their efficacy. This morning I held a discussion, and with the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition, the Convenor, my noble friend Lord McNally and the Lord Speaker, we have asked the Clerk of the Parliaments and the acting Black Rod to report to me and the Lord Speaker on two matters. First, they will report on the effect of the current sessional order passed in the Lords and whether it remains useful, particularly as the equivalent order is no longer passed by another place at the start of each Session and, secondly, how the input of the House authorities into police operations around Parliament works specifically to seek to ensure access for Members and staff. I hope that my noble friend and the rest of the House will take that as a serious attempt to clarify what the situation is in this House so that Peers approaching police lines with their passes will be given the access they are due so as to continue their work.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and it would therefore probably be inappropriate for me to ask any questions about the detailed policing arrangements. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, raised the issue of the tented community opposite the Houses of Parliament and I would also like to ask about Parliament Square. I believe that the arrangements for who is in charge of what in Parliament Square are immensely complicated, but my understanding is that the grassed area in particular is the responsibility of the Mayor of London, and I assume therefore that the fences surrounding the grassed area are the mayor’s responsibility as well. It was those fences which were broken down and used as weapons against the police. Given that for previous demonstrations the statues in the square were boarded up—particularly the statue of Sir Winston Churchill—I was surprised that that was not done on this occasion. What representations have the Government made to the Mayor of London about his stewardship of Parliament Square under such circumstances?

My Lords, I think that responsibility for Parliament Square was handed over to the GLA when it was set up, and therefore to the Mayor of London, so I can confirm that there is a confusing and sometimes disjointed ownership of different parts of the square. The grass is the responsibility of the mayor and the GLA, while the pavements are the responsibility of Westminster City Council. I can also confirm that the fences were therefore the responsibility of the GLA. The noble Lord might well ask why other precautions were not taken to protect the statues or to firm up the fences, but these are precisely the questions that not only the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police but also his commanders on the ground will be posing. No doubt we will learn lessons from that.

In answering the noble Lord, I have an opportunity to give a fuller response to the question put by my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who asked about police forces outside London. I understand that no police officers from other forces were deployed on mutual aid arrangements on Thursday.

My Lords, what discussions are taking place with the organisers of these demonstrations, in particular the student unions, to discuss the most helpful ways in which they can dissociate and separate themselves from the violent elements who are clearly infiltrating their ranks on these demonstrations?

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord is entirely correct to point out that there is an absolute responsibility on the student union, the organisers of these marches and the police to have a dialogue in order to decide on a route and on roles of behaviour. As I said in repeating the Statement, the march started off with 3,000 individuals, but by the time it got to Parliament Square it had grown to 15,000 and had created a sense of its own instability. I am sure that the police and many others will be making representations to the National Union of Students, other organisers and, indeed, colleges and institutions of higher education to see what they can do to try and help control the violence.

My Lords, on a practical point, does my noble friend agree that it would be extremely helpful if noble Lords who want to get here to register their votes but who do not want their arrival to coincide with the most difficult periods of these protests could obtain information closer to the time about when a gathering is going to start elsewhere so that they can try to arrive before it becomes too congested outside?

My Lords, my noble friend has made a good suggestion. Obviously, with modern technology and communications it is sometimes easier to let Peers know what is happening on the ground but sometimes these things flare up very quickly. In a way, that is part of the point of the tactics that the demonstrators use. It is not always possible to predict exactly when things will happen. Once noble Lords are inside the House, the Annunciator very clearly lets Peers and other users of this House know which Gates are open and which are closed. However, it is a useful suggestion that my noble friend makes.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I know that it is 30 years since I was last involved in riot control and that the Falls Road is not the same place as Parliament Square but, to amplify the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, a word has crept into the vocabulary about what is going on in policing. It is “kettling”. Can the Leader of the House explain what it means? I hope that it does not mean trying to contain a crowd in a space because, in my experience, one of the things that a crowd always needs to know is where it can go to, as do the people controlling the crowd who need to try to encourage them to go there.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has made a good point. I do not like the word “kettling” either. I am not entirely certain either where it came from or exactly what it means but the word that the police and the Government use is “containment”. It is a tried-and-tested method of trying to contain those who are indulging in public disorder and disobedience. Part of the process is designed to allow people to cool off and, as I said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, there was an exit to encourage those who wished to leave peacefully to do so. Yet it is often difficult to anticipate what is happening on the ground. The police have a difficult job to do and various means at their disposal to try to deal with the crowd as effectively as possible. Sometimes it does not go according to plan.

My Lords, I want to make two brief points. First, on the containment or kettling that has just been mentioned, since this is a matter for police operations, would it be appropriate to ask the Independent Police Complaints Commission, when it looks at the incident, to examine whether kettling—or containment—is the right policy for a large demonstration? My second point, which has not been raised, is: how do we protect the statues around Parliament Square and in Trafalgar Square? It is a shame that there are those who deface the statues of some of those people who gave us the democracy on the basis of which they are protesting.

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first point I am sure that the IPCC will want to examine all aspects of this demonstration and to test the tactics that the police used on that day. While so many of those are of course operational matters for the commissioners, I am sure that it will look at that. On protecting the statues, it is difficult for me, standing at this Dispatch Box, to disagree with my noble friend but I dare say that the police cannot instruct that every single statue in central London be boarded up every time there is a demonstration. Yet something clearly went wrong on Thursday and it is for the police commissioner, the IPCC and the police, in all their internal reviews, to take a view on what happened and, I hope, to make sure that it does not happen again. Let me re-emphasise that if those demonstrators who came along had come for genuinely peaceful reasons, none of this would have been required. The blame for the violence lies entirely with those who came to central London to perpetrate it.

My Lords, I continue to declare an interest as someone who was formerly elected deputy president of the National Union of Students. First, does my noble friend know whether the police have any estimate of the number of non-students taking part in the events? Secondly, on the basis of the degree of organisation shown by those who were not students, does he agree that “anarchist” is perhaps becoming a contradiction in terms?

My Lords, there was a nice joke at the end there about anarchy and organisation. I note my noble friend’s interest. I am sure that when he was vice-president of the NUS, he would not have organised a demonstration such as this.

As for the direct question about how many non-students were in the crowd, I do not have that estimate, but it is clear that there were those present who were not only interested in violence but displayed thuggish behaviour, came from gangs, were well organised and splintered away. We shall have to wait for the review to see what those figures might be.