My Lords, London’s police forces receive specific funding in recognition of the additional responsibilities that policing the nation’s capital represents. This includes protests directed at the seat of government, such as the recent Occupy protest.
I am grateful to the Minister. I am sorry that he cannot count the number of policemen guarding a fence, but perhaps I can help him. Last week, on several occasions, I counted at least 25 police officers standing around the fence which, on a 24/7 basis, would be 100 officers taken off other jobs. Is this really a good use of police manpower, protecting a nice piece of grass in central London?
My Lords, the police are doing this not of their own volition but because we asked them to do so. We passed the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, which said that that space should be available for peaceful protest and not for Occupy movements. That was something that we asked the police to do, and they did an excellent job in dealing with a very difficult situation.
Does the Minister agree that this is a terrible waste of time, energy and resources for the police force? Part of the problem is that you are asking them to police and enforce laws that are extremely repressive. It was a Labour Government who introduced the police reform Act, and you are now enforcing it. Is it time to ask your ministerial colleagues, perhaps, if they would repeal the worst aspects of that Act?
The noble Baroness is a Member of your Lordships’ House; she is free as a parliamentarian to propose any laws that she wishes; but the reality is that in 2011 your Lordships decided by an overwhelming majority that they wanted this law and they wanted this space for public peaceful protest.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will tell us that the number of police is an operational matter for the police, but I am also sure that Home Office Ministers are not entirely uninvolved in the policy. Does he agree that the lightest practicable touch is as much as we would want to see applied?
I understand the point my noble friend is making, but what is a light touch when you are faced with a protest that begins at 50, grows to 100, and then grows overnight to 150? The potential for that to get out of hand, and the risk to the public, is something which the police clearly take seriously, and they are right to do so.
The noble Lord will be aware that as a result of passing the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which this House did, the Home Office published specific guidance, which I have here and which I will place a copy of in the Library, stipulating exactly what was permitted, what was not permitted, what approval needed to be sought and even stating on page nine the enforcement actions which we would ask the police to do. Having done that, and having published it in this place, the police deserve our support.
Will my noble friend take to the police my feelings, at least, of congratulation to them on doing a difficult job rather well? The easiest way to reduce the manpower required would be for these objectionable people to cease their objectionable claim to occupy part of what is public land.
I am very happy to convey the sentiments of my noble friend to the police on the role that they do, which is incredibly difficult. The point has to be reiterated that one of the reasons that the police are taking the actions that they are, and why we passed the legislation that we did, was to ensure that Parliament Square is available for those who want to come to make a peaceful protest as part of a democratic society in which we want to live.
That is absolutely right. In fact, the guidance actually states that the first responsibility is with the Greater London Authority in conjunction with Westminster City Council, and it is the local authority representatives who made the first contact in the first instance; and the police are there only in support of the local authority.
The decision to erect the fence and the decision to heighten it were gradual decisions taken, in view of assessing the seriousness of the protest, by the Greater London Authority. Therefore, it will judge the situation in the round to see when it is secure to take those fences down. We all hope that it is as soon as possible.
My Lords, does the Minister not think that the situation had become unbearable before this was done? For example, when I was being driven past in my car in my full uniform, they came and stood in front of the car and I managed to stop an incident because my Royal Marine driver said, “Shall I re-educate them, sir?” and I said, “Not today”.