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Water Cannon

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015

Question

Asked by

My Lords, there is an established process for the approval of less lethal weapons, including water cannon. This includes an assessment by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons—called SACMILL for short—a report from which has recently been received by the Home Office. The Home Secretary will consider the report carefully and issue a response.

Why is the Minister unable to say now that this policy is wholly dangerous and unworkable? Does he agree that water cannon can be dangerous, ineffective, expensive and alien to the British way of life? This is not a laughing matter at all. Is their use not opposed by a large majority of senior police officers, who think the policy is dangerous and not workable? Why is the Minister unable to say now that this is a policy too far and should not be pursued?

The noble Lord will be aware that we agree this could result in a very significant change in the nature of policing, which has a tradition of being by consent and with public support. When the report was submitted last March by the chief constable who is the national policing lead, the Home Secretary decided this needed to be looked at by the Centre for Applied Science and Technology—CAST—and SACMILL. Their report was received last week and the Home Secretary will issue a response, both on the science and on the ethics of whether this is something we want to see deployed on the streets of this country.

My Lords, I have a registered interest in policing. Does the Minister agree that no compelling case has been made, now or in the past, for the use of water cannon in London and that that is why all former commissioners, me included, have resisted calls for their use? In those circumstances, is it not wise for the Home Secretary to take her time responding to this issue? If there is a change of policy, it would dramatically affect the mood and tone of how police respond to challenging demonstrations or street disorder.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we should take our time, and that is what the Home Secretary is doing. That is why she commissioned the report and that is why she wrote to ask for further information. Of course, this came to the Home Secretary from the Chief Constables’ Council—from the operational side—last year and we are giving very serious consideration to it.

My Lords, we are not talking about a gentle spray from a garden hose here. Is the Minister aware that water has to be heated before it can be fired from a water cannon? Does he agree with the comments from ACPO that water cannon could be justified because of the need to police protests against the Government’s austerity programme, or does he agree with the late Bob Jones, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, who said that water cannon would be,

“as much use as a chocolate teapot”?

There is a well established procedure for considering these things, as happened with Tasers under the previous Government. A proposal comes forward—a request is made—and consideration is given to the scientific and medical implications of deploying the particular model. That is also placed in the context of a decision by the Home Secretary on the nature of policing and public consent.

My Lords, is it not very important when discussing the use of water cannon that one also says in what circumstances they should be used?

Yes, that is absolutely right. What we are talking about here is not peaceful protests that may take place on the streets but serious disorder where life could actually be at risk. It would be in very exceptional circumstances but, even so, it is something that needs to be considered very carefully and that is what the Home Secretary is doing.

My Lords, the operational deployment of water cannon is a rather arcane subject, but I can inform the House that it has only two purposes. The first is to keep a distance between protesters and a site that needs to be protected, and the second is to keep apart protesters who are going to fight. The Metropolitan Police has dealt with that for 150 years without the use of water cannon. Does the Minister agree that any question to which the answer is, “We should deploy water cannon in London”, is by definition the wrong question, and would he mind explaining that to the Mayor of London—the prospective candidate for Uxbridge and goodness knows what?

As the noble Lord well knows, this was discussed very seriously after the 2011 riots in the capital and elsewhere in the country. It came forward from the chief constables, not the mayor. It was a policing-led proposal but it is something that there ought be political oversight of, and that is the reason why the Home Secretary is putting through these requests for additional information and scrutiny of the decision.

My Lords, I wonder if the Minister could help me and perhaps help the House a little. Has the prospective Conservative candidate for Uxbridge actually ordered two water cannon or not? I am not clear about that and I would be grateful if the Minister could help us. Secondly, can he tell us that if the prospective Conservative candidate for Uxbridge purports to order two water cannon, the Home Secretary will veto it?

This decision was taken by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the current Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The Met decided to proceed with acquiring three water cannon because, I am told, although they cost £870,000 apiece it was able to get them for £30,000 and thought it was a reasonable decision to take at the time. However, that is something that the Met is answerable for. What the Home Secretary and the Home Office are answerable for is whether the decision should be taken to allow them to be deployed in the UK.