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Public Order

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020


The following Statement was given on Monday 8 June in the House of Commons.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on public order. Like all Members of this House, I was sickened at George Floyd’s tragic death. His treatment at the hands of the United States police was appalling and speaks to the sense of injustice experienced by minority communities around the world. I fully appreciate the strength of feeling over his senseless killing, the inequality that black people can sadly still face, and the deep-seated desire for change. I know that it is that sense of injustice that has driven people to take to the UK streets to protest.

This Government are clear that racism and discrimination in any form have no place in our society, and we will do whatever is required to eradicate it. Of course, there is more we can do. There is more that we should all do to combat inequalities across society, to support those seeking social justice and better life chances and to offer hope, but all too often, too many are confronted by despair. It is right in any democracy, in an open and free society, that we advance these issues in a constructive, sensitive and responsible way.

The Government understand the importance of the right to protest. In normal circumstances, a large and peaceful protest would not be of concern to the authorities, because we live in a great country where our right to protest and to have our voice heard is integral to our fundamental democratic freedoms. The right to come together and express our views peacefully remains one of the cornerstones of our great democracy. Members across the House share an enduring commitment to uphold liberty and freedom of expression, on the basis of respecting the rule of law. As our nation battles coronavirus, however, these are not normal circumstances, so to protect us all and to stop the spread of this deadly disease, any large gatherings of people are currently unlawful. We cannot afford to forget that we are still in the grip of an unprecedented national health emergency that has tragically claimed more than 40,000 lives, so the severe public health risk forces me to continue to urge the public not to attend future protests. The Government’s scientific and medically led advice remains clear and consistent. No matter how important the cause, protesting in large numbers at this exceptional time is illegal, and doing so puts everyone’s lives at risk.

Let me turn to an operational update. Around 200 protests took place across the country over the weekend, attended by over 100,000 people. As many as 137,500 people have now attended Black Lives Matter protests across the UK. While the majority were peaceful, a lawless minority of protesters have regrettably turned to violence. The worst violence flared in London on Saturday evening, with missiles and flares being thrown at police officers outside Downing Street. Officers in protective equipment were deployed to arrest the culprits and to clear the area. At least 35 officers have now been injured during the protests in the capital. I salute their bravery and wish them a swift recovery. The thugs and criminals responsible are already being brought to justice. This is a fluid situation, but as of this morning the total number of arrests stood at 135.

As the ugly tally of officer assaults shows, some protestors, regrettably, turned to violence and abusive behaviour at the weekend. This hooliganism is utterly indefensible; there is no justification for it. There is no excuse for pelting flares at brave officers, throwing bikes at police horses, attempting to disrespect the Cenotaph or vandalising the statue of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest protectors of our freedoms who has ever lived. It is not for mobs to tear down statues and cause criminal damage in our streets, and it is not acceptable for thugs to racially abuse black police officers for doing their jobs. The criminals responsible for these unlawful and reckless acts are betraying the very cause they purport to serve. These protests are about injustice, but by attacking our courageous police they are acting in a wholly unjust way.

When I became Home Secretary, I vowed to back the police. I said that I would stand with the brave men and women of our police and security services, and against the criminals. I stand by that today, proudly and without apology, because, as we saw at the weekend, we ask our frontline police officers to do the most difficult of jobs: to run towards danger to ensure that we are not in danger; to put their own lives on the line to protect the public; and to uphold the rule of law and the rights of individuals against the disorder that we have seen in recent days. By doing that, the police in our country give us all the very security we need to live our lives as we choose.

That is an essential part of our freedom, because violence, disorder and crime blight communities and society as a whole. So, the police need to know that they have a Prime Minister, a Home Secretary and a Government who stand with them and will give them the tools, powers and resources they need to keep us safe—and they do. Police funding has had its biggest uplift in a decade, increasing by more than £1 billion, and we are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers to keep our streets and our country safe. They will have my full support in upholding the rule of law, and in tackling violence, vandalism and disorderly criminal behaviour. I could not be clearer: I want to see the violent minority responsible arrested and brought to justice.

I agree with the many peaceful protestors that racism has absolutely no place in our society. Black lives matter, but police brutality in the United States is no excuse for the violence against our brave police officers at home. So, to the quiet law-abiding majority who are appalled by this violence and who have continued to live their lives within the rules, I say: ‘I hear you.’ To the police, who have been subject to the most dreadful abuse, I say: ‘You have my full backing as you act proportionately, fairly and courageously to maintain law and order.’ And to the criminal minority who have subverted this cause with their thuggery, I simply say this: ‘Your behaviour is shameful and you will face justice.’ I commend this Statement to the House.”

First, I express our sincere wishes for a full recovery to, I believe, the 35 officers who suffered injuries, as well as to a protestor who, I understand, was also injured. The violence and vandalism were unacceptable and can only be condemned. Police work involves the risk of danger to officers, but gratuitous and reckless attacks on the police of the kind we saw in London should not be accepted as a risk of the job. We pay tribute to the police officers who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.

When it comes to the statue of Edward Colston, I do not condone an act of criminal damage to remove it, but I will not miss a public statue of a slave trader. It should have been taken down many years ago.

The figures in the Statement suggest that one in 1,000 of those who participated in the demonstrations around the country have been arrested. The judicial process must now take its course. The figures indicate that it was a very small minority who besmirched significant peaceful demonstrations that might well have been larger but for the pandemic and social distancing. The Government’s own figures indicate that 999 out of every 1,000 who protested did so peacefully.

We can of course simply express criticism of those who demonstrated peacefully for breaching coronavirus regulations and guidelines, but there have been others recently in positions of real power and influence who have hardly set a shining example in this regard. We might do better to look at, and understand, what motivated the 999 out of every 1,000 peaceful, not violent, protestors to turn out on to the streets of many of our cities.

The brutal killing of George Floyd in America has been widely condemned and has also aroused strong passions around the world, including in our country, with protest demonstrations by, and in support of, black people in particular and ethnic minorities in general. The words “black lives matter” have struck a deep chord, reflecting strong feelings and indeed anger—anger about persistent and continuing injustice, discrimination, racism and being treated and regarded as second-class citizens, and with it a call for meaningful action to unite communities and confront injustices in our society.

Public Health England recently published its report on the disparities in the risk and outcomes of Covid 19, showing that black males are four times more likely than expected to die with the disease. Coronavirus has shone a light on inequalities that have long existed. Can the Minister say whether Public Health England made any recommendations in the light of the findings in its report? None appears to have been made public.

The Windrush review by Wendy Williams had damning findings and its recommendations need to be acted upon. When do the Government intend to come back to Parliament to tell us what action they will take in the light of the Williams recommendations?

A report nearly three years ago by the now shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, showed that black people make up around 3% of the general population but account for 12% of adult prisoners and more than 20% of children in custody. Those are disturbing statistics, and the Government should implement the report’s recommendations. In the last few days in particular, we have also heard and read testimonies from many people on how racism continues to have an impact on daily lives in our country.

The Home Secretary said in her Statement:

“I fully appreciate the strength of feeling over his senseless killing, the inequality that black people can sadly still face, and the deep-seated desire for change. I know that it is that sense of injustice that has driven people to take to the UK streets to protest.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/6/20; col. 40.]

We need to address that sense of injustice and deep-seated desire for change as a matter of urgency. Will the Minister now commit the Government to coming back to Parliament on a regular basis to report orally on the actions that have been taken, and are being taken, since each previous update to address that sense of injustice and deep-seated desire for change to which the Home Secretary herself referred? Now is the time to avoid divisive words and instead to listen, to learn and, above all, to act.

My Lords, this Statement is entitled Public Order and I declare an interest as being one of a small cadre of senior officers trained to lead the policing of disorder. Following my work as the police commander in Brixton—the so-called capital of black Britain—I accepted an invitation to address a University of Minnesota conference on the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans in the city where George Floyd tragically lost his life.

As the police themselves have said, and as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has just mentioned, the overwhelming majority of the Black Lives Matter protesters in the UK at the weekend were peaceful. There is justified anger about racism in the UK, in all its forms and in all parts of society, but there is a difference between explaining behaviour and justifying it. The appalling attacks on police officers and the damage to property cannot be justified, even though I understand that people are angry, that they feel they are not being heard, and that they believe demonstrating is the only way they can bring about change.

Policing by consent in the UK means policing with the support and co-operation of the public but when people refuse to comply with the reasonable and lawful requests of the police, officers have to switch from persuasion to the use of force, often instantly. That is difficult for individual officers and police leaders when peaceful protests turn violent. Often officers in ordinary uniform have to withdraw under a hail of missiles before officers in riot gear can replace them. It is not the police retreating or losing control of the streets; it is a necessary tactic but one that can lead to police casualties, and I send my best wishes to all former colleagues who have been affected by the violence they experienced this weekend, which, as I have said, was unacceptable.

In recent times police have deployed evidence gatherers—observers speaking into recording devices, and camera operators who record offences as they are committed—so that officers do not have to risk escalating the violence and depleting their numbers by arresting people at the peak of serious disorder. Instead, they investigate, identify and arrest those responsible after the event. It is a difficult operational decision whether to intervene at the time to prevent copycat offences, or to leave it until later, to prevent an escalation in violence and the risk of depleted police numbers being overwhelmed. But what it is not is the police allowing criminals to get away with it.

Of course, the coronavirus regulations prohibit gatherings of more than six people but this needs to be balanced against the human rights to free speech and the right of assembly, also established in statute. Unfortunately, following the Dominic Cummings fiasco, the Government are on very thin ice when people are apparently allowed to use their own judgment when it comes to obeying health regulations. Even Border Force officers are being told to “encourage” the completion of passenger location forms, and not to enforce the law on the quarantine of UK arrivals.

I have three questions that I would like the Minister to answer. First, in the light of these demonstrations, what health advice have the Government given to the police, and what PPE have the Government provided to ensure that officers are protected from coronavirus in such circumstances? If the Minister is going to say that the protests are illegal, that is clearly not stopping them taking place, and officers still need protection. Secondly, what action are the Government taking to acknowledge the justified concerns of those protesting about racism in the UK, to reassure them that they are being heard and that further demonstrations are therefore unnecessary? If the Minister is tempted to say, as one of her colleagues has suggested, that there is no racism in the UK, I remind her of the Wendy Williams report, the David Lammy review, and the disproportionate numbers of BAME people dying from coronavirus that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned. Thirdly and finally, what pressure are the Government putting on the police service to either address the disproportionality or explain why you are 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched in the UK if you are black than if you are white, and two-and-a-half times more likely to die in police custody?

If the Minister is tempted to mention knife crime, I refer her to Home Office research that shows a 10% increase in stop and search results in only a 0.01% drop in non-domestic violent crime. If the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, is tempted to say that it is an operational matter for the police, why is the Home Secretary publicly criticising operational policing decisions around the toppling of the statue of a slave trader in Bristol? If the Home Secretary can put pressure on the police to make arrests, she can put pressure on the police to address disproportionality.

I thank both noble Lords for the points that they have raised. I join them in wishing the officers who have been injured a full recovery. I understand that the figure to date is 62 and that 137 arrests have been made. I also join the noble Lords in condemning the violence. I can understand and totally concur that black lives matter but violence undermined what those people were trying to very peacefully protest about, as the noble Lords said. With regard to the destruction of the statue of Edward Colston, both noble Lords have condemned the violence, and neither are sorry to see the back of a slave trader. I can understand those points but there is a broader point about doing things in a democratic and peaceful way. Actually, that statue could have been removed years ago, had it been done in a democratic way.

It is sad that the story is no longer about Black Lives Matter but has been overtaken by violence. Behind this, of course, is the brutal killing of George Floyd; so awful was that video that I could barely watch it. Let us remember him rather than some of the violence, but we cannot escape from the need now to tackle it.

We also need to look at the public health dangers that were caused by people being far too close to one another. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about the disparities involved, with black men being more susceptible to coronavirus. No one is quite sure why that is, but it certainly seems to be the case. It is all the more worrying that so many people were gathered so closely together on Sunday.

The noble Lord asked me about the Wendy Williams report response and when Parliament will hear it. Wendy Williams was very clear, as I recall from when I read out the Statement about her report, that she wanted the Home Secretary not just to have a knee-jerk reaction to it but to take some time to reflect on it, and that is what she will do. The response will be with Parliament within the allotted time limit.

The noble Lord talked about racism continuing to impact lives and about the Home Secretary understanding the burning injustices that it inflicts upon society. She talked yesterday about a whole-government response to inequality and injustice. This does not just come down to one department; actually we are all responsible for it, and so indeed is society.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the overwhelming majority of people protesting peacefully, and of course he was right. He talked about how difficult it is for the police when a peaceful protest suddenly turns violent. Of course it is; they suddenly have to adjust to a different set of circumstances, often with absolutely no notice. He talked about body-worn video helping the police, and that is true: rather than making arrests at the time, they can go back to study the video. That helps from the point of view both of the police and indeed of anyone who is being accused.

The noble Lord talked about the health advice to those front-line police. The public health advice to front-line police is absolutely the same as that for any member of the public. We know that the police are well equipped with PPE, and they should deploy it as appropriate.

The noble Lord talked about acknowledging concerns about racism in this country. I acknowledge it—I came here in the 1970s as an immigrant—and I know the Home Secretary acknowledges it as well. We have made improvements in BAME recruitment to the police, but we certainly have not got there, and Sunday was almost an explosion of that frustration.

On the noble Lord’s point about black people being 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched, the most recent publication of stop and search figures for the year ending March 2019 showed that there were a total of 383,629 searches, resulting in 58,876 arrests under Section 1 of PACE and Section 60 of CJPOA. That is down from a peak of approximately 1.2 million stop and searches in 2011. Of course, the thing about stop and search is that it is designed to help those vulnerable people who might be at risk of attack themselves. However, for both Section 1 and Section 60 there is a larger proportion of those stopped and searched who self-identify as black or BAME.

We now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief, so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, I echo the sentiments of my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick. As someone who has both family and friends in the police, I know the amazing work that our police do every day in this country. However, does my noble friend accept that what we saw in the small incidents of public disorder were simply the symptoms of racism, not the disease, which results in the inequalities that the protests are about? We have had the Lammy review, the Williams report and indeed the race disparity audit, which reported back in 2017. Could my noble friend give words of hope and practical examples of what the Government are doing to deal with the disease of racism that feeds the inequalities which resulted in the public disorder?

I agree with my noble friend that what we saw on Sunday was a symptom of the frustration that people feel about racism, both overt and covert, within our country. We need more diversity in the workplace, in Parliament and in all sorts of areas of life. My noble friend will have heard the Prime Minister addressing the public yesterday about this and talking about how across government we need to drive this out. This is not about one particular department of government or one particular individual; it is about a public collective in terms of driving this sort of poison out of our society.

I have listened to what has been said in the House so far and read the debate that took place after the Statement that was made yesterday in the Commons. I acknowledge the balanced approach that Members of Parliament are taking to the very real problem that has arisen here. Does the Minister agree that what has been said about what happened indicates problems in relation to the rule of law, which is so important to uphold in order to induce a sense of fairness? Is it not also clear regarding some of the problems that exist, not only the matters that we are considering today but also Windrush, that it is time that more resources were made available to the criminal justice system as a whole and that a long-term report, perhaps by a royal commission, needs to be done into the criminal justice system generally so as to improve the sense of fairness?

I think the noble and learned Lord is right about the balanced approach and the importance of the rule of law. I respect those who very peacefully protested on Sunday, but of course that was completely undermined by those who just flouted the rule of law and those who put other people at risk of the virus when we are going through quite a critical stage in trying to wipe it out. The noble and learned Lord talks about more resources for the criminal justice system. From a Home Office point of view, our ambition to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers over the next few years is well on track to be delivered. I hope that, as he says, the whole fairness of the criminal justice system will lead to a public feeling of a more fair and equal society.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the causes of the protest and the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol was the failure to act on previous lawful representations about that statue and the frustration caused? Why is the Prime Minister now refusing to meet with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London? Why are the Government refusing to deal with legitimate BAME concerns, such as Windrush? Will the Government ever learn to start listening to peaceful representations, particularly from elected Members?

My Lords, the Colston statue is in Bristol, and therefore is a matter for the elected representatives of Bristol to deal with democratically. If people are not happy with the democratic process in Bristol, they can do something about it at the ballot box. If people want to make representations to Sadiq Khan about the various statues they may object to across London, it is for them to do so.

My Lords, it is 72 years since the arrival of the “Empire Windrush” and three factors have remained constant. Racism and racial discrimination are a reality in the lives of the black and ethnic minority community. Geographically and economically, they find themselves in the same place that was allocated to most of them when they arrived here. Institutions and organisations seldom take into account the diversity of our nation. Mrs May’s equality audit has taken us nowhere forward. Islamophobia prevails in our political structure. Violence will never be an answer; we need a political leadership that values the contribution of our black and Asian community. Where will this come from? Is it not time that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary spoke about the future of our multiracial Britain?

My Lords, I do not disagree with the noble Lord. Parliamentary representation and leadership within government have a long way to go, but we have certainly come a long way in the last few years, in terms of the leadership of our country. The culture is changing slowly but surely, and I am very pleased that our Home Secretary is from the BME community.

My Lords, I fully accept that there is much to do to make British society more equal and just, and I encourage the Government in their endeavours. But is my noble friend surprised that some of those who have been most critical of every easing of the lockdown have been prominent in supporting mass gatherings, risking a second wave of Covid-19? There is no getting away from the fact that these gatherings play fast and loose with the life chances of the most vulnerable.

My noble friend is absolutely right: it is perverse that those most critical of the easing of the lockdown should then put themselves in a position in which not only they, but those from BME communities, are at risk.

The Prime Minister and Home Secretary must follow through. Having recognised that issues of endemic racism exist, they should be firmly addressed. Why not establish a progress barometer or national ratings scheme for public bodies, eventually extending to the private sector? Moving on, does the Minister concur that the UK leads the world in its humane manner of policing, and exports its training internationally? Could we not offer such to one of our closest allies, or have we done so already?

To answer the second question from the noble Viscount first, it always strikes me, when I look at the police system we have in this country and at some of the methods that police have across the world, that we are lucky to have the police forces that we do. They run into danger, rather than away from it. They keep us safe and police by consent. We are incredibly lucky as a nation to have them. By a rating system, public and private, I assume he means a system of diversity. We already have that in place across government and we talk about it regularly, particularly when we celebrate International Women’s Day, when we also talk about other types of equality. The Government cannot criticise if they are not doing their job themselves, and there is improvement in diversity across all areas of government.

My Lords, what I find most disappointing about the Statement is that it focuses on the actions of the minority, whose violent behaviour we all denounce, and not on the reasons why thousands of peaceful protesters, supported by millions from their homes, were on the streets in the first place. Would the noble Baroness correct that missed opportunity today and set out what action the Government are taking to deal with the institutional racism that exists within our criminal justice system, as regards stop and search, arrests, charges and convictions?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. It is a shame that we are talking about the public order offences, which have completely overshadowed what people were trying to talk about in the first place, which was peaceful protest against the awful events that happened in America. The minority have made that impossible. The noble Baroness is right to talk about the wider point of stop and search. The Government will be working across the piece to address some of those injustices.

My Lords, will my noble friend commend the example of the organiser of the justified and peaceful protests in Glasgow Green, in his efforts to protect innocent protesters from the dangers of the virus? He tried his best to ensure that they were at proper distances apart.

Secondly, it is not for the Government alone to deal with this; it is a question for all the organisations in our country to deal with. The organisation that perhaps I know most closely in this country is the Bar of England and Wales, and I am glad to know that, in recent years, the number of those belonging to ethnic minority and black communities is increasing. Last time I saw the statistic, it suggested that the proportion of such in the Bar of England and Wales is about the same as in the general population.

My noble friend brings me two pieces of good news this morning. I am very pleased to note those statistics from the Bar of England and Wales. We do see improvements across the piece—in the police, in Parliament and in government departments—but there is a way to go. I am delighted that the organiser of the peaceful protest in Glasgow Green made sure not just that social distancing took place but that everything went off peacefully. That individual is to be commended.

My Lords, we are not the first society that has had to face uncomfortable truths about its past history or present injustices. Some have addressed them by inquiries of peace and reconciliation, which have allowed those societies to face up to those problems. Could the Minister consider developing the idea put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, of a royal commission that could look at these matters, with a duty of peace and reconciliation? I suggest there is a chairman readily available with the retirement of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. He would give confidence to both sides, while such an inquiry took place.

My Lords, one of the points made in the Commons yesterday was that deeds and actions will speak to issues like this the most loudly. A royal commission is one idea, but I think that across every stratum of society—from our democracy in local and national government to the institutions that serve government to the private and public sectors in our country—it is the collective effort that will make the real difference.

I have to confess that I am deeply dissatisfied with some of the answers we are getting today. It is no surprise that there is systemic racism in the police; it has been going on for decades and decades—the report into the Stephen Lawrence case made recommendations back in 1999. I am afraid that the noble Baroness did not answer the question put to her by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, because the people of Bristol have in fact tried to get rid of that statue many times, and democracy failed in that case. Will the noble Baroness please answer the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley: what are the Government going to do? The Minister has said that the Government are going to work across the piece, but what does that mean?

My Lords, I should say to the noble Baroness, who is also my noble friend, that if democracy failed in Bristol, democracy is failing in Bristol and it is up to the people of Bristol to vote in a more effective democracy. I do not think that there is one single answer to some of the systemic issues in what we have seen. We have to work across government and all the strata of society in order to make that cultural change.

My Lords, while I completely understand, not least because of my own experience in Northern Ireland, that the police often have to make very difficult judgments in public order situations, does my noble friend agree that it is none the less vital to public confidence that the law is still enforced? Is not one of the lessons we learned from what we saw in the summer of 2011 that this is more effective when it is done quickly?

I agree absolutely with my noble friend. It is not only best that it is done quickly, but it is what the public expects.

My Lords, when watching the violent destruction of the statue in Bristol on Sunday, I was struck by the absence of any police presence. Sir Robert Peel, in founding the police in 1829, stated that the basic mission for which the police exists is to prevent crime and disorder. Does the noble Baroness believe that the Avon and Somerset police force fulfilled that mission?

My Lords, the way in which the police organise themselves for various situations is of course a matter for the police. Reflecting on the words of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I think that it is quite often the case that, early on, things seem to be quite peaceful and then suddenly they get out of order. However, I am sure that reflections on the events on Sunday will lead to some lessons learned.

My Lords, no words are too strong to condemn those who hijacked the peaceful demonstrations, but I am very concerned about the size of the peaceful demonstrations and the fact that most of them did not find themselves conducted as they were in Glasgow. Will my noble friend please discuss with the Home Secretary the possibility of convening a consultation with all the responsible leaders who are concerned about these issues? Can they ensure that there are no more mass demonstrations which could endanger the life of the whole community, in particular those from black and ethnic minority communities? Could this be done as a matter of urgency and then clear guidelines issued?

I must confess that I found some parts of my noble friend’s question difficult to hear. I think that what he was saying—I hope that he will nod or shake his head accordingly—is that there are lessons to be learned from Sunday in terms of not holding mass protests where the lives of black and ethnic minority individuals in particular are put in danger because of the lack of social distancing. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it absolutely clear yesterday that the regulations are there to be upheld and that that should be the lesson from now on in.

Sitting suspended.