Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to license the use of water cannons on the United Kingdom mainland.
My Lords, I am very grateful to have secured this debate and to noble Lords who are participating. My standing up to speak does not normally empty a room quite as fast, but I realise that this issue may not affect everybody.
This debate is about securing the licensing of water cannon for London, or perhaps for the whole of Britain—we do not know yet. I and many others have a lot of concerns about the use of water cannon. It is important to recognise that it is not just a London issue; it is of national importance. It could have an impact on many people UK-wide.
Boris Johnson, as the notional police and crime commissioner for London, is running an engagement with Londoners about water cannon, explaining why they are necessary, but his office has made clear that the response will not change the outcome. That is, the Met has asked for them, so the Met shall have them. In a recent letter, the Home Secretary appears to be under the impression that a proper consultation is going on with Londoners, but there most definitely is not. I would not want the Government or your Lordships to be misled on that.
I shall talk about three things—cost, use and potential targets—and I will pose three questions for which I should be grateful for an answer. In a sense, cost is not that much of an issue, because the Met budget, although reduced, is still £3.25 billion. I have been told that the Met hopes to buy second-hand from Germany at a cost of only about £30,000 each, so I guess that the total cost would be about £100,000, expecting the water cannons to last two to three years. New machines cost about £1 million each. However, then there is the cost of training, which must be ongoing over the years, plus storage in central London, plus maintenance. The Met recently had to be coerced into funding a £100,000 budget to continue the work of the Wildlife Crime Unit, which fights international organised crime networks that traffick endangered animals or parts of endangered animals.
Your Lordships may know that today, the UK is hosting a two-day international conference on the illegal wildlife trade, involving two future Kings of our country and world leaders from 50 nations invited by the Prime Minister, but the Met police has a team of five people going up against an illegal trade estimated to be worth £19 billion a year. If there is some spare cash in the Met budget, why is it prioritising a weapon that it will hardly ever use over a global economic crime with links to trafficking of drugs and people and even to terrorism, not to mention threatening some of the planet’s most iconic animals with extinction? I suspect that a lot of people would rather that it was spent there than on water cannon—or even on another priority altogether. I would be interested to know the Government’s view about the Met’s priorities.
As to the use of water cannon, what is their tactical potential and tactical limitations? Hugh Orde, who is president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and one of only two officers to have deployed water cannon says:
“Water cannon could act as an effective deterrent to stop protests gaining momentum … What it does, is buy you space, it keeps people apart, and people at distance”.
Is that really what London needs? In Northern Ireland, there was disputed territory of which two or more groups wanted possession to march in. That simply is not true of London. The sort of disorder that has happened in the past few years often involves small groups of people moving quickly, staying in touch by mobile phones and social media. Water cannon would be useless in that situation, as the police themselves have admitted. These machines are slow and not very manoeuvrable within our mostly narrow streets. They are heavy and take some stopping. They need wide roads or spaces to be effective.
There is a very big civil liberties concern. My fear is that innocent people will be affected, if not by being hosed down with water at a few degrees above freezing, perhaps by being deterred from protesting at all. Water cannon could stifle attendance at legitimate democratic protests, which the Met has a duty to protect.
Please do not believe anyone saying that they are not dangerous. In one famous example in 2010, pensioner Dietrich Wagner was permanently blinded by water cannon in Germany. He was part of a protest ride to prevent developers cutting down some trees. As well as suffering major bruising, Wagner’s eyelids were torn and on one side, part of his orbital bone, the bone which protects the eye, was fractured. He hopes to be here in London next week to speak out on the use of water cannon.
When would water cannon be used? Who would be the targets? We have been hearing that water cannon would be rarely seen and rarely used. When asked exactly when they would be used, the Met answers that they would not be used against peaceful protesters and they are obviously not for small-scale violent rioting in narrow places. They would be for people throwing petrol bombs, who obviously would not hide themselves in a large crowd of peaceful protesters, or the Met could pick them off, or something—a highly speculative scenario.
The Met have also claimed that water cannon could have saved the Reeves furniture store in Croydon, but that night there were fires in Clapham, Enfield and Peckham, plus rioting in a total of 22 boroughs. One set of three water cannon, broken up or deployed as a threesome, might have been deployed to one of the fires and may have got there in time to be useful, but would the Met have been able to use them to do very much else? That seems unlikely because of the travelling time alone, let alone co-ordinating with local police command and the fire brigade about the exact needs.
There is quite a lot of opposition to the use of water cannon, not all from the usual suspects. Of course, there is opposition from organisations such as Liberty but also from senior police officers. Five of the six largest forces in England and Wales said that they were against deploying water cannon on their streets and one police and crime commissioner dismissed them as being,
“as much use as a chocolate teapot”,
for quelling disorder. The noble Lord, Lord Blair, former Met commissioner, has written to me and has allowed me to read out the contents of his letter:
“Since I left office, I have deliberately not commented on matters which are for decision by my successors but in this case I am prepared to do so. Water cannon have proved useful in Northern Ireland to keep two identifiable and violent factions apart or to protect public buildings or particular community enclaves from sectarian attack. In my opinion, much more explanation needs to be given as to how they would be of use in public order situations including violent and non-violent participants or in deterring very mobile rioters carrying out widely dispersed attacks as in the 2011 riots. I am not suggesting a case cannot be made: but I do not believe it has been so far”.
The Government will probably say that this is an operational issue and they therefore have to listen to police advice. I realise that it is very hard for a party that is—or expects to be—in government to appear to look soft on law and order, and it is true that deploying these weapons will be an operational decision for the police forces owning them. Licensing them is most definitely a political decision, though, and doing a Pontius Pilate on this is really not good enough. So I ask the Government when they think these machines will be used.
There is something very ironic about the Met police justifying the purchase of these water cannon because of the 2011 riots, when it was Met actions that triggered the disorder. If the Met had not shot an unarmed man and had treated the Duggan family with more respect and professionalism, those riots may never have been sparked and the grumbling discontent of poverty and hardship may never have broken the surface in London and other parts of Britain. However, the Met did shoot an unarmed man, did not treat the Duggan family well and the rest is history, but water cannon would probably not have helped in any way.
We are told that the Met want water cannon by the summer, yet they admit that they have no intelligence about possible disturbances. Do the Government have such intelligence, or do they think the case has been made for the use of water cannon? My view is that the case has not been made, and the public must be convinced to be taken with the police, if we are still to have policing by consent. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to pause before licensing water cannon for anywhere on the British mainland.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Policing and as an adviser to technology companies that, as far as I know, have no interest in providing water cannon to the policing service in this country. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on securing this debate and giving us an opportunity to discuss what I consider to be potentially an extremely important issue.
First, though, we have to ask ourselves why we are discussing this at all. I am normally someone who is regarded as being supportive—some would say oversupportive—of the police service in this country, but I have to say that I have the gravest reservations as to why we are even talking about this. The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that I know many noble Lords will believe is the fount of all possible wisdom on many matters, told us on 23 January that it is because senior police officers now believe that the risks of future protests against the Government are so great, and those protests will be so large and difficult to control, that only the deployment of water cannon on the streets of mainland Britain will enable public order to be maintained. Indeed, according to the Telegraph,
“Police warn they expect water cannon will be required because ‘the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest’”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has said that the police have no specific intelligence on this. Maybe the Minister can tell us that he has intelligence about some future plan of the Government which will be so awesome in terms of the austerity measures introduced, or so offensive to the public, that this sort of response will be triggered. I do not doubt that there will be public protest about the Government. There will no doubt be public protest about the Government’s future austerity measures. But really? So large? So difficult to control? So far beyond anything that we have seen before? So much bigger? So much larger? More than the 250,000 or 500,000 who demonstrated against government cuts in public spending in March 2011? More than the 750,000 or 1 million who demonstrated against the Iraq war in February 2003? Water cannon were not needed then, so why do we envisage that they may be needed in the foreseeable future?
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has told us of the views of the noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, who is not in his place today. He also spoke to me. He says that he does not believe that the case has been made. His successor as Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, Sir Paul Stephenson, said in 2010, following the student tuition fee riots, that he was opposed to water cannon, saying that it would lead to an unsuitably paramilitary style of policing. Only two years ago, the present Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, warned of the limitations of water cannon in these sorts of situations.
Now we are told that the Metropolitan Police want this facility—but for what? It is actually quite difficult to work it out. Chief Constable David Shaw, who prepared a report on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, concedes that the water cannon would not have been a useful tactic, would not have been effective, during the August 2011 riots. That makes sense. Water cannon are effective at dispersing a large crowd, or at keeping two large crowds apart. That is the experience in Northern Ireland. However, the disturbances in August 2011 were not like that. Rioters were already dispersed. They were highly mobile. That was the problem. The police could not be in a sufficient number of locations quickly enough. They could not be everywhere all of the time. They could not respond to a rapidly moving situation, where crowds and individuals were moving from one place to another very quickly. Why would you want a water cannon to disperse a crowd that was already dispersed? Indeed, if anything, it would make your problem in policing that situation even worse. It would therefore have been no use in the August 2011 disturbances.
The ACPO report cites three occasions in the past decade on which water cannon might have been used: the Countryside Alliance demonstration in Parliament Square in 2004; the Gaza demonstrations against the Israeli embassy in 2008-09; and, potentially—it says “potentially”—the student protests of 2010. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Police are saying that water cannon would be rarely used and rarely seen. In fact, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley has given a pledge that the Met would never use them against protests, which would seem to rule out any of the three occasions suggested by the Association of Chief Police Officers. I am not suggesting for one moment that the Association of Chief Police Officers does not speak as with one voice with the senior leadership of the Metropolitan Police on all matters, but it seems that on this particular issue they were not entirely in accord.
What would have been the implications had water cannon been deployed on those occasions cited by ACPO? Let us consider the Countryside Alliance demonstration; a number of your Lordships may recall what that was like. During that, there was a point when the police were concerned that the demonstrators might break through their ranks and storm Parliament. That was a serious situation, which was eventually resolved by conventional policing—slightly messily, but it was resolved. However, the only way that water cannon might have assisted in those circumstances would have been if they had already been deployed, in advance of the police knowing that potentially they might lose control of the situation and that it was deteriorating. Who could have predicted in advance that the welly-clad, middle-class, pro-hunting brigade would be so violent on that particular day? The only way that the water cannon could have been deployed would have been to park them inside the precincts of Parliament, inside the Palace of Westminster, facing outwards. Does anyone really believe that that would have been sanctioned —in advance and on the basis of no intelligence that anything was going to happen—by Mr Speaker or the Lord Speaker? What sort of message would we have put out to the rest of the world? Imagine the images of the mother of Parliaments with water cannon firing jets of water out from New Palace Yard.
What about the student protests of 2010? The problem there was that an unexpected—I stress that—splinter group chose to attack Conservative Central Office. That was a break-away group which acted unpredictably. That there would be a break-away group may have been predictable, but what they would do and when they would do it was unpredictable. Therefore water cannon would not have been in the right place at the right time. Had their activities been foreseen, normal policing could have controlled the situation—enough police would have been surrounding Conservative Central Office. What if such activities are not foreseen? The break-away faction is a risk in all otherwise peaceful demonstrations, as it is mixed in with all sorts of ordinary demonstrators who are not planning to be as objectionable. Break-away factions are by their nature unpredictable—it is not possible to foresee when they will break away—so you will not have the water cannon deployed and in the right place at the right time.
What is this all about? Is it another mayoral vanity project? Maybe I am being too kind. What psychology is involved with a mayor who wants to have a large hose to douse the lower orders? I suspect that the timeline began with one of the Taliban-tendency Tory Back-Benchers, who said after the 2011 riots: “The Met needs water cannon”. The Home Secretary, who wishes to be the next Tory leader and therefore never says to a Tory Back-Bencher, “You are out of your tiny mind”, replied, “If the police think they will need them, we will consider it”. The mayor, who also wants to be the next Tory leader—possibly even more than the Home Secretary—but who certainly does not want to be out-righted by her and certainly also wants to curry favour with the same Taliban tendency, said to the Met: “Are you sure you might not need them?”. The Met said, “Okay—we’ll think about it”, and so the process starts. Before you know it we are in the process of buying three clapped-out German water cannon no one else wants, which no one knows when they might need to use, and we run the risk of them being deployed, which would make a difficult situation worse and further alienate those with a grievance.
British policing has a worldwide, proud record of managing public order events. Why are we trying to throw that away?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for enabling us to debate this issue. I agree with a number of remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, although unlike the other two previous speakers I shall try to avoid making party-political points.
During my 30 years of service for the Metropolitan Police I was involved in public order policing at every rank. I started off with the Grunwick trade dispute, was involved in the Lewisham, Southall and Brixton riots, and was later trained as one of a cadre of advanced, trained public order senior police officers. Not only was I trained in dealing with serious public disorder, but I have been involved in it.
It was following those incidents to which I have referred that the Metropolitan Police acquired and tested water cannon at its public order training centre, at that time in Greenwich, in the 1980s. We found that the water cannon we had were too slow and lacked manoeuvrability. They took too long to fill up from the mains water supply and, once full, the water lasted only a few minutes in use. It was decided that water cannon was not a practical option and the idea was abandoned.
There is one, and only one situation, where, in my professional experience, I believe that water cannon may be of use to the police service, and that is to create distance between large stationary crowds throwing missiles at, or in hand-to-hand combat with, police officers who are trying to hold a line. The only significant example I can think of, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, is the Countryside Alliance protest of 2004 where, in order to try to create distance between police officers and protesters who appeared to want to invade Parliament, terrible injuries were inflicted on the crowd by officers using batons. Water cannon might have been effective in reducing those injuries in those circumstances. While the injuries were regrettable, Parliament being prevented from carrying out its democratic functions when in session would have been worse.
However, the question has to be asked whether water cannon would have been used in such a situation, even if the Met had them available. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, rightly pointed out, the police on that occasion were caught out by the strength of feeling and the ferocity of the attack on their lines. They had no idea that what they believed would be a peaceful protest would result in such a determined effort to overrun them. If they had thought this might happen, they would have put police cordons at the entrances to Parliament Square and across Abingdon Street, and used a network of barriers as well as police lines to split and contain the crowd. If the crowd had been kept at some distance from its target, it would probably not have been so determined to surge into Parliament. My point is this: rarely do events happen on the UK mainland where water cannon would be useful. Those situations usually result when the police are surprised by the ferocity of the situation, and in such situations water cannon would not be deployed in any event.
We are supposed to be reassured by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the Mayor of London’s comments that water cannon would be,
“rarely used and rarely seen”.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, if they are rarely to be seen, they will not be on standby at every demonstration in case things get out of hand. This begs two questions: why, then, are water cannon used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and why is the Metropolitan Police Service asking for them now? I come to somewhat different conclusions on that from those of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. Water cannon are used in Northern Ireland reluctantly when, all too frequently, the police come under attack trying to enforce the route of a march, or when two communities attack each other at well known, traditional flashpoints. Such situations are, sadly, not rare and, sadly, predictable.
As Sir Hugh Orde, the former chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and now the president of ACPO, said in 2011, he used water cannon in Northern Ireland “with a heavy heart” when his officers were,
“being attacked by blast bombs and live fire”.
Quite frankly, even in the riots that swept London and some other cities in 2011, we did not see the level of violence that has been seen in Northern Ireland, and what we need is a proportionate response to violence on the streets. In 2011, Sir Hugh Orde said:
“What we have seen so far from these riots, involving fast moving and small groups of lawless people, is a situation that merits the opposite end of public-order policing”,
from the use of water cannon. I agree.
Sir Hugh Orde has carried out a rapid U-turn—something a water cannon is incapable of doing—by now supporting the use of water cannon on the UK mainland. Appearing before the London Assembly recently, he still described water cannon as “unwieldy” and “huge lumps”, but said that they could be used only in certain locations, such as:
“In Whitehall, outside Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, there are places where they can be used in terms of geography”.
The whole premise for the introduction of water cannon is to prevent the sort of disorder we saw in the 2011 riots. Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who has already been mentioned, said that water cannon would be of particular use when there was a clear target, citing the burning of shops in Croydon during the riots and scenes in Millbank during the student protests as examples. The Mayor of London, in the same meeting, in flat contradiction to the assistant commissioner, when asked about the London riots and water cannon, said that it,
“would not have made a blind bit of difference”.
Nor would he have authorised their use during the student protests. Despite this, he supports and is prepared to pay for Metropolitan Police water cannon. That does not seem to make much sense.
Let us be clear, policing in this country is based on consent—on the public co-operating with and working with the police. The police must do all they can to appear approachable, to be as much like ordinary people as possible, and to be citizens in uniform doing what we would do if we had their powers and training. What they must not do is appear to be some alien force that has so little respect that the only way they can maintain order is by force and the use of such weapons as water cannon.
Water cannon could usefully be deployed only in very rare situations, and even then the police are unlikely to have them available because these are situations that they were not expecting. Almost without exception, conventional public-order tactics coupled with good intelligence and pre-planning have been and will continue to be successful. Licensing the use of water cannon, their purchase and use on the UK mainland would be disproportionate and damaging to the reputation of the police service. Whichever way we look at it, water cannon are just not worth it.
My Lords, I shall, if I may, make a brief intervention in the gap. I served for 10 years on the Northern Ireland Police Authority and, as has been referred to, we deployed water cannon on a number of occasions—but rare occasions. The principal purpose of having them is to provide separation between two groups or between one group and the police. The reason for using them is to prevent having to move one step up: to using baton rounds, which can be lethal. Water cannon is a less lethal form of crowd control.
Mention has been made of August 2011. The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, as a Home Office Minister at that stage when we had a special sitting of this House, called a meeting to discuss reactions. People were talking about water cannons right, left and centre. In August 2011 they would have been utterly useless because they do not work with skirmishing or fast-moving crowds. They are of value only in providing space between the police and a crowd or between two crowds. They are not manoeuvrable and do not have the flexibility needed.
I suggest that there are occasions when it could happen. We have this sort of almost arrogant reaction that somehow policing in this country is so wonderful that we should not lower ourselves to the level of some of our European partners which use them in their street situations. I am afraid that things are changing. Public disorder will change in character over the years. We are not in the era of “Dixon of Dock Green” any more. I could not say that we should rule out water cannon, but I ask the Minister to consider, in discussions with ACPO and others, whether there would be a stock of UK-wide availability of water cannon, rather than each police service having to purchase its own. They could be drawn down from time to time. For instance, the Northern Ireland police has loaned water cannon to the Brussels police when farmers demonstrated, so that type of thing does happen.
Instead of having these expensive machines all over the place it might be better to have a national stock that could be drawn down in an emergency. They are for defending fixed points. They are a less lethal use of force than baton rounds, which we have to be extremely careful with. I, therefore, suggest that we do not get ourselves too worked up about this. It is a rare situation but it is not entirely unpredictable. If the police have availability, at least that is one step below using baton rounds.
My Lords, it is a tragic irony that we are discussing water cannon at a time when significant parts of the country are desperate for water pumps. However, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on securing this timely and relevant debate as the Mayor of London is currently undertaking what some would call a consultation, and he calls an engagement, on the use of water cannon in London. Water cannon have never been used in London or anywhere else in England, Scotland or Wales. But, as we have heard, they have had some use in Northern Ireland at times of extreme and violent disorder as an alternative to AEPs—attenuating energy projectiles or baton rounds—or at a stage before employing AEPs to try to avoid doing so. I understand that although the use of cannon is an operational decision by the police, the Home Secretary has to license their use in other parts of the UK before the police can purchase them or decide whether it is appropriate to use them.
The London riots of 2011 led to some consideration of whether water cannon could be used in similar circumstances. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has written to the Home Secretary saying that he is,
“broadly convinced of the value of having water cannon available to the MPS”.
He then states that he will undertake a “short period of engagement”, to confirm support in London. He adds:
“Should the engagement plan reveal serious, as yet unidentified, concerns I will, of course, take these into consideration and share them with you”—
the Home Secretary—
“before you make any decision to license this non-lethal tool”.
However, if we look at the views of ACPO in its useful report of 8 January 2014, in reference to the safety of water cannon, ACPO relies wisely on the evidence from the independent Science Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons. The term “less lethal” is used, as opposed to the “non-lethal” used by the Mayor of London, because ACPO accepts,
“that water cannon are capable of causing serious injury or even death”.
ACPO also stresses the training and experience of officers and that there have been no reported injuries when used by the PSNI.
I am not going to be alarmist over their use. I appreciate that they do not have to be used at full velocity and that officers are trained to use the cannon in different ways, from full jet to a diffused spray as a mist. I also know that to avoid medical problems, bizarrely, the water has to be heated before it can be used from a water cannon. However, I question why the mayor has informed the Home Secretary that this is a non-lethal weapon when ACPO clearly advises that it is less lethal. There is a difference. The risks may be minimal, but they must be accurately weighed up and taken into account.
However, other noble Lords have raised the crucial question for this debate: why would the Mayor of London want to deploy water cannon in London? I find the circumstances in which ACPO indicated that they might have been used extraordinary. I am very pleased to note that my noble friend Lord Harris referred to the Daily Telegraph as his source of information. I confess that I got the same quote from the Guardian. It could even have been in the Daily Mail. However, the newspapers clearly accurately report the ACPO justification for asking for water cannon because of the need to police protests resulting,
“from ongoing and potential future austerity measures”,
which was exactly the comment that raised concern with me.
Do the Mayor of London and the Government really anticipate that their policies will cause such widespread civil and violent disorder that there will be no alternative but to douse protesters with water? Apparently so, according to the Home Office spokesperson. In the same newspaper, possibly also in the Telegraph, they said:
“We are keen to ensure forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets. We are currently providing advice to the police on the authorisation process as they build the case for the use of water cannon”.
While admitting that the use of water cannon has little effect on the kind of fast, agile disorder that we have seen in London, the report gave examples, as previously referred to, of when they could have been used. One was the Countryside Alliance march of 2010. I bow to the superior policing knowledge of my noble friend Lord Harris and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and I am no particular fan of the Countryside Alliance given its obsession with fox hunting, as noble Lords will know. However, the idea that the Met, on that occasion, could have used water cannon against members of the Countryside Alliance would have done absolutely nothing to improve the perception of some on that march that it was a town versus country issue.
I cannot see how it would in any way have improved relations in the city to use water cannon on that occasion, or indeed during the student protests last year. There were those who behaved appallingly and dangerously, and there were some who behaved violently but it was a long way from the kind of violent disorder that we saw when cannons were used in Northern Ireland. For example, at the protests at Whiterock and the Ardoyne in 2005, the police were under fire from live rounds, cars were being set on fire and missiles were being thrown. That is a very different situation from those we have seen in London, whether with students or the Countryside Alliance. The scenes of protest seen in Brazil recently travelled round the world in real time. Following the Belfast protests last year, there was a huge fear of their economic impact and of an international reputation being destroyed. What impact would it have around the world to see London under siege and cannons being employed? What would be the impact on the economy of London, or on our visitors and tourists?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, the costs are well documented: you do not buy cheap cannons. However, the Mayor of London has indicated that although the Home Secretary has declined to contribute to the costs, he will find the money should she license the use of the cannon. Initially, there was some expectation that other police forces would have wanted to contribute to the costs of police cannon. That now seems unlikely. Already one police chief, as we have heard, said that they would be,
“as much use as a chocolate teapot”,
for quelling disorder and there was no support from five of the six largest forces in the country with the PCCs for Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Merseyside and Thames Valley all rejecting the plans. It therefore seems highly unlikely that they would be willing to share the costs.
Tony Lloyd, the PCC for Greater Manchester, remains sceptical. He said:
“No convincing argument has been made about how water cannons could improve policing or community safety … Before we moved anywhere close to using them on our streets, there would need to be a full and proper public debate about when they would be used, how they would be used and why they would be used. For example, they would have been completely ineffective on the streets of Manchester and Salford during the 2011 riots”.
The chief constable of Greater Manchester, Sir Peter Fahy, is in complete agreement with Tony Lloyd on that issue. Jane Kennedy, the PPC for Merseyside, where Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe once served, was also dismissive. She said:
“The chief constable, Jon Murphy, and I have considered the use of water cannon”—
so they have considered it—
“and believe them to be of limited value for Merseyside. I would not want to see precious resources diverted to purchase such vehicles when their value is yet to be proven”.
There is little support outside London on operational grounds.
The Mayor of London and ACPO have failed to convince their colleagues across the country that involving water cannon in policing demonstrations against the Government is a good use of resources. There are now 3,000 fewer police officers in London than when the Government took office and I wonder whether local police officers think that water cannon is the better use of police resources in those circumstances. London is a wonderful capital city. Like all cities, it has its problems but, in terms of policing priorities, I have not been convinced yet by the arguments put forward that water cannon are the answer. If the Home Secretary is to grant a licence and if the Mayor of London wants to use Londoners’ money to buy water cannon, the case needs to be far stronger than it is at present.
My Lords, I would like to conclude this debate by first thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for raising this Question. All noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have demonstrated their genuine interest in and concern about this issue. I know that the noble Baroness is concerned and she is therefore right to use this opportunity to raise the issue. We have heard a lot of interesting comments. I fundamentally disagree with her analysis of the cause of the August 2011 riots but I have been interested in the points made by noble Lords around the Chamber.
This Government are keen to ensure that the police have the tools and powers that they need to maintain order on our streets. The police, including the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service and Chief Constable David Shaw, the national policing lead for conflict management, have indicated that water cannon, alongside other tactics, may be of use in future in tackling the most serious disorder.
Policing in England and Wales is, however, firmly grounded in the principle of policing by consent. As such, it is quite right that that the introduction of new police tools and equipment is the subject of public and parliamentary debate. It is for this reason that I am pleased that the Lord Mayor of London—I am sorry, the Mayor of London, who is not a Member of this place; I apologise for that slip of the tongue—is engaging the public on the potential use of water cannon in the capital and why I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this matter here today.
There is a well established process in place for authorising the police to use equipment and systems that, without safeguards, have the capacity to cause harm. Tasers and attenuating energy projectiles, which we all know as baton rounds, have both been covered by this process, which includes a final decision on authorisation being made by the Home Secretary.
This process will be followed for water cannon. It would require a formal request for authorisation from the police and the submission of detailed operational, technical and medical information on the likely impact of the proposed system. This would include police statements setting out the justification for the use of water cannon and how they will be used. It would also include police guidance on the training and checks and balances in place to ensure that their use is effective and proportionate. A community impact assessment and an assessment by the Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons, commonly referred to as SACMILL, would help ensure that the risks associated with their use were properly identified, understood and mitigated. The Home Secretary would then consider carefully the request and the documentation presented to her before making her decision. Parliament would be notified of the Home Secretary’s decision, and the relevant documentation would be laid in the House Library.
So where are we in the authorisation process for water cannon? The police have indicated publicly that they would like water cannon and are developing the materials necessary to support a request for authorisation. A briefing document from the national policing lead for conflict management, Chief Constable David Shaw, sets out the way in which the police would use water cannon, the operational gap they consider would be filled, and the checks and balances that would be in place. This information is publicly available.
The MPS commissioner has declared his desire to have water cannon. The Mayor of London has said that he wants to enable Londoners to have their say before confirming his agreement. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, as a member of the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, is very close to this matter and is rightly ensuring that a wide range of views are sought and debated. This debate is part of that process. However, in the interests of transparency and informing the current debate, the police have made information publicly available on the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime website. I believe that some noble Lords will already have been advised of that link by my office.
Perhaps I could just respond to a few of the questions raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was concerned that the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, would take no notice of the London engagement programme. I will read an extract from the letter that he sent to the Home Secretary, which says:
“In order to confirm the support in London for the use of water cannon in the most extreme circumstances, I will be undertaking a short period of engagement … Should the engagement plan reveal serious, as yet unidentified, concerns I will, of course, take these into consideration and share them with you”—
namely, the Home Secretary.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about the sort of incidents in which water cannon might be used. The police have indicated that they want to have access to water cannon as one of their tools and tactics to deal with serious and violent disorder. The examples that they have given include defending a fixed and vulnerable or iconic location; separation of hostile crowds during demonstration or disorder; creating distance between police and opposing factions; and facilitating the advance of police resources and other emergency services to deal with life-at-risk incidents during incidents of severe disorder. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, demonstrated how they had been used effectively in Northern Ireland in those sorts of instances. So there is some value in water cannon to policing, and the police have explained that, if faced with the need to protect vulnerable premises or disperse a crowd, water cannon would be useful.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, drew attention to the use of water cannon on the continent, and quoted an incident in Stuttgart where injuries had been caused. It is not accurate to compare the use of water cannon in this country with the use in other countries, because the use of water cannon in Northern Ireland had no reported injuries. The regulatory regime for their use in this country would be determined by SACMILL, as I explained, to ensure that injuries were not the consequence of their use.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, also asked whether there would be an opportunity for water cannon to be used elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I have to emphasise that the position on this is for local police units, and we have heard that not all local police and crime commissioners and heads of regional police forces in this country agree with the Met on this issue. It would be unreal to see water cannon based here in London being shipped up to deal with activity somewhere else in the country; the timelines do not, to my mind, make that a viable proposition. So I think that we should disabuse ourselves of that particular idea.
The biggest challenge was presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asking me whether the Government believe that the police have made their case. The Government’s position is that they are keen to ensure that the police have the tools and powers that they need to tackle disorder on our streets. The Home Secretary will make a decision on the use of water cannon when she receives the authorisation package from the chief constable, David Shaw. At that point, she will consider the factors and she will no doubt consider things that have been said here in the debate today. But it is her decision and she will make it on the principles that she considers the right ones at the time.
It is important that we have had this debate. This is a serious issue and I thank the noble Baroness for bringing it to the House’s attention.