Session 2010-11
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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 917-i

House of commons

oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Home Affairs Committee

Policing of TUC March on 26 March 2011

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Lynne Owens

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 43

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 29 March 2011

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Mr James Clappison

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Bridge Phillipson

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Lynne Owens, QPM MA, Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Assistant Commissioner, thank you very much for coming to give evidence. My apologies for keeping you waiting but the evidence of your colleague, Mr Yates, was so fascinating that members of the Committee were probing, as they do.

Thank you for coming in and may I begin by asking you to pass on our thanks to the thousands of police officers who were able to police the TUC march on Saturday. It must have been a huge operation, involving a huge number of people. You were the Gold Commander, I understand, and we are most grateful. Would you pass on our thanks to them for what they have done? What we were seeking is an update from you on what happened on Saturday and to perhaps help us by taking further what the Home Secretary said yesterday with regard to her desire to respond to any demands that you had or any requests that you had to help you.

I think what the public now see is the tale of two protests: the peaceful protest that seems to go off with families participating and the usual protests that some of us were used to in the past, followed by a pattern that shows a very, very violent protest in which police officers and others are injured, in which property was damaged by criminal activity. Do you sense that there is now a pattern to these public order issues as far as demonstrations are concerned?

Lynne Owens: Thank you, Mr Vaz. I very much appreciate this opportunity to appear before you today. If I could just correct one thing that you said in your summary; I wasn’t the Gold Commander for the event on Saturday; the Gold Commander was Simon Bray who is a Commander with the Metropolitan Police Service. However I am, of course, an Assistant Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police Service and have responsibility for public order policing. I also want to say thank you for the comments that were made in the House yesterday. We were very grateful for the support of both the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary and, indeed, other Members of the House who spoke in praise of the policing operation, and both my staff and I are very grateful for that support.

In terms of the events as we saw them on Saturday, we did have between 250,000 and 500,000 people peacefully protesting in London. Regrettably there were significant groups of anarchists who chose to behave in a criminal manner. I think it is perhaps a more helpful description rather than to talk about two separate events as two interconnected events, because what did happen is that the anarchist groups that then caused, or attempted to cause, chaos in London often embedded themselves back in the march and they used both the march, and indeed shoppers who were in Oxford Street, going about their business, as some sort of shield for their criminal behaviour and their criminal activity.

Perhaps I could give you some of the intelligence picture in advance, because there has been some ill-informed commentary based on best guesses rather than the actual intelligence or information that we were working on at the time. In advance of the event there was some information on social media and other sites, and what we understood was various premises were going to be targeted: the Palace of Westminster, national and local government buildings, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, New Scotland Yard, Bush House, Congress House, the British Museum, the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs, world banks, the International Monetary Fund, Royal Courts of Justice, Shell building, the BAE HQ, Vodafone stores, the Arcadia Group stores, about seven or eight of them, Boots the Chemist, museums and galleries.

Q2 Chair: But not Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz?

Lynne Owens: I give you that long list for exactly that reason. The description was very wide and what we did see in London at the weekend-

Q3 Chair: Where did you get this information from?

Lynne Owens: Primarily from social media and other sites that are generally accessible. But what we had was 4,500 police officers covering that broad range. If you remember, the march was due to go from the Embankment and end up in Hyde Park, so it was a very, very significant operation in which we were clear that we would support peaceful protest but we would take very robust action against those who committed criminal behaviour. What happened on Saturday is that we arrested over 200 people, by far the highest number of people that we have arrested at a public order event for some time, and we were very pleased that 149 were charged the following day, which we would say is evidence of our attempt to police protests, when people do engage in criminal behaviour, in a robust manner.

Q4 Chair: Indeed. But people are getting fed up, aren’t they? I saw a quote from the head of the West End Retailers Association about the fact that people who are not identifiable are able to perpetrate this violence. Can I refer you to section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act where, of course, an officer can remove an item of clothing that seeks to conceal the identity of a person, not so much stop and search but stop and expose. Should we have used this power a little bit more in order to find out who these people are running around with balaclavas?

Lynne Owens: On Saturday we did use 60AA. As you rightly say, it is a power to ask people to remove their face coverings. We did instigate that legislation and, of course, one of the challenges is it is a power to ask them to remove. As you will have seen from the footage that you have seen on television, many of them are simply wearing large handkerchiefs around their faces. So they can remove them. We don’t have the power of confiscation, so they remove them and then they can carry on on their way.

One of the things that we have been examining is that what we saw on the day was anarchists turning up wearing black clothes; they didn’t operate as an autonomous block, always moving in that one big group. They split off into splinter groups of under 20 and over 500, so at different times you had different numbers of people moving round, and we also saw them changing their clothing. So sometimes they were wearing black, they had rucksacks on their back and they could change out of their clothes and suddenly look like a normal shopper, wearing jumpers and coloured tee-shirts and other things. So for the whole time they were there they didn’t-

Q5 Chair: This was all deliberate?

Lynne Owens: Absolutely.

Q6 Chair: But what I couldn’t understand is we had some excellent policing of the demonstration and then suddenly you switch to television cameras and photographers outside the Santander building basically-of course they can’t go and arrest people-watching while these criminals destroyed the windows at Santander and other premises. How come the media and the photographers knew that this was going to happen and obviously had to stand by and watch it happen while the police were not there?

Lynne Owens: The police were there, we were there in huge numbers, 4,000-

Q7 Chair: No, at these particular incidents.

Lynne Owens: As I have just explained, the coverage we had in the streets of London on Saturday was huge. It was an immense footprint that we were covering.

Q8 Chair: No, we are very grateful, we understand that. But in particular incidents that we saw on television where people were standing in front of some of the shops there were no officers there but the media was there. How do the media know before the police?

Lynne Owens: If you look at the footage, if you look on YouTube or any other place, what you will see is that there were hundreds of thousands of photographers, whether they be citizen journalists or professional photographers deployed at the time.

Q9 Chair: Hundreds of thousands of journalists?

Lynne Owens: I couldn’t give you an accurate number, Mr Vaz.

Chair: That sounds like a lot.

Lynne Owens: It depends how you apply the definition. Almost everybody that was at the protest had a camera and a video phone. If you look at the footage that you have seen-

Q10 Chair: But they are not journalists, are they, if they have a video phone?

Lynne Owens: Some of them are citizen journalists; some of the coverage you can see on YouTube and others. I am not sure that it is helpful to get into a debate about the level of photography. If you look at Santander, if you watch that footage from start to finish, what you see is damage caused to the premises. Within seconds, and it is seconds, police officers arrive, and in fact you hear the person in the premises shouting, "Police, police" as we then enter the premises and you see a police officer robustly grab somebody who pulls out a press card and says, "I’m press, I’m press".

Q11 Chair: A final question from me before colleagues join us. What I said to the Home Secretary yesterday was that we should have a big and open discussion about what you need. Are there top asks from you, from Government and from Parliament? What more do you need in order to police these protests even better than you did on Saturday?

Lynne Owens: I had a very good and helpful discussion with the civil servants in the Home Office yesterday in the Public Order Section. What we have agreed is that we are going to review our tactics, but perhaps more importantly we are going to review the tactics of the anarchists, over the next few days. If, having done that, I form the view that we don’t have the appropriate powers then we will engage in a constructive debate. But we are early in that process at the moment, so I would not want to appear before you today and make ill-thought-through requests without having had those conversations.

Chair: Of course, we understand that perfectly.

Q12 Mark Reckless: Ms Owens, thank you for the work the Met did over the weekend and also congratulations to you on the open and reassuring way that you have dealt with the media on this. I know certainly many of these bloggers will appreciate the sort of recognition that they have a journalistic sort of role, even if they don’t have the press card. I would just like to ask you in the context of my remarks just now rather than in a critical way: do you feel there is an issue with the Met’s ability to get intelligence on some of these so-called sort of anarchist groups, and can you see ways in which you may be able to improve that sort of pre-warning intelligence network?

Lynne Owens: I think we are seeing a changing face of protest. We have not had protests in London for over five years of the scale that we have seen since the end of last year. We did do, contrary to all the commentary, a fairly significant amount of pre-event work on known groups of people, and indeed a number of arrests were made as part of that process. Do we now need to build on that intelligence picture? Yes, we do. It is why the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities. I think it is interesting, and perhaps somewhat ironic, that we find ourselves in this position where we are being asked questions about intelligence pictures where less than a month ago we were being asked about whether it was proportionate to deploy undercover officers in public protests and public order situations. So I think there is something for the police service about getting the balance right. We do need to improve the intelligence picture, but our ability to arrest over 200 people at the weekend gives us a very good starting point in terms of building that picture.

Q13 Mark Reckless: Is that indicative of a sort of shift in approach for the police? I have understood previously why the police have stood back, not made arrests but taken photographs and then when appropriate prosecuted afterwards, although that does lead to these sort of media images and feedback and knock-on impact perhaps on tourism or in confidence in policing, and so on. Had you consciously decided before this protest to take a more proactive approach of increasing arrests and sitting back a bit less and intervening a bit more?

Lynne Owens: Absolutely. I was very clear with my command team in advance that my expectation was that we would absolutely facilitate the peaceful protest-and you saw that between 250,000 and 500,000 people peacefully protested through London-but where there was unlawful violence exhibited on the streets of London we would take very robust action because that isn’t acceptable behaviour. It is important to us that people are prosecuted for those sort of behaviours because we recognise the impact on the British economy, on the safety of individuals and on businesses.

Q14 Mr Winnick: Needless to say there are no apologists in this House for thuggery. We were all shocked by what we saw on the television screen. What I want to ask you is regarding the complaints of the organisation-if it is an organisation or group-UK Uncut. They occupied Fortnum & Masons. I am not saying what they did was right, but they occupied it. As far as one can tell, what they stated was that there was absolutely no violence on their part and they claim that they were told if they came out they would not be arrested because there had been no violence on their part, and they were arrested. Could you comment on that?

Lynne Owens: Yes. I have to be quite careful about what I say about Fortnum & Mason, because some of the people who have been charged have been charged from that venue. But what I would say is that some of the commentary we have seen, which is trying to draw a very clear line between anarchists and UK Uncut, isn’t as simple as we saw it operate on the day. The very fact that we have charged that number of people with aggravated trespass hopefully is an indication to this Committee that we do believe, and we have the support of CPS in believing, that significant criminal offences were committed and it is not a truism to say they were unmasked and they were acting peacefully.

Q15 Mr Clappison: Fortnum & Mason presumably would otherwise have been open for business on Saturday and they had their business disrupted, if nothing else. Without commenting about particular offences by people, was there damage caused in Fortnum & Mason?

Lynne Owens: There was damage caused on the outside. I think you will have seen the wide coverage of it, and it is our current understanding that people consumed some of the goods that were in the store, so in other words theft.

Q16 Mr Clappison: I saw a report in a Sunday newspaper, I have to say, about coverage that the BBC had given to UK Uncut before this took place. Do you have any view on that?

Lynne Owens: We have the BBC coverage and it will form part of our case.

Q17 Mr Clappison: I think the comment was BBC giving publicity to UK Uncut in advance of the demonstration and interviewing them about what they intended to do and so forth.

Lynne Owens: I haven’t seen that part of the footage. I did think it was interesting last night that there was a spokesperson for UK Uncut, who appeared on Newsnight, who was not prepared to condemn the violence and indeed suggested that they were, rather than one movement, just a group of individuals. I think that is a different stance from that which we are seeing reported in some media today, and of course as the Metropolitan Police Service we would always condemn violence and would hope that other people who wanted to peacefully protest would do likewise.

Mr Winnick: You would expect anyone involved in protesting peacefully and orderly, if they were so doing, to make it quite clear they are opposed to violence.

Q18 Dr Huppert: Firstly, let me say that I share the concern about the allegations that the police lied to some of the occupiers there. I assume that you will be looking into what happened and if police did lie to people, then that wouldn’t be considered appropriate.

Can I move on to the broader issue, because I had the privilege of seeing you a few weeks ago at the Joint Commission on Human Rights where we had a very detailed discussion with you and the TUC about the plans for this. It is very interesting to compare before and after and have a look through the comments. Firstly, in terms of the planning for the operation, with hindsight do you think there is any more that you or the TUC could have done to arrange the whole protest better?

Lynne Owens: No, in terms of the main process that is why we are saying we think it is a successful operation. We are clearly saddened that some criminals chose to come to London and cause damage, but the operation was a success and much of that was due to the planning that we had with the TUC.

Q19 Dr Huppert: It is slightly alarming that what seemed like a very good protest-I think the atmosphere in that session was suggesting it would be a peaceful protest and be successful-seems to be being undone by UK Uncut and other groups of thugs. Do you think you will need to change how you deal with groups like the TUC? You were asked about what would happen, breakaway groups, and you said, "We’re planning for a peaceful protest and hope to work with the TUC" but you do have a plan to respond robustly. How much resource will you be able to spare on peaceful protests and facilitating those, which is very helpfully what you said that your aim was, and dealing with side actions?

Lynne Owens: I think what this has shown to us is that that balance is a very difficult thing to get. You have to remember if you are moving between 250,000 and 500,000 people through the streets of London, there is a public safety issue alone in terms of the volume of people who you are trying to move through the streets. So I don’t think we would ever be in a position where we would be able to leave that amount of people unassisted, unaided, and going back to my earlier point, let’s not forget that the march was being used as a shield. The anarchists did put themselves in and out of the group at different times.

Q20 Dr Huppert: Both you and Commander Broadhurst said, very helpfully, that your aim was to facilitate peaceful protest. Can we be reassured that nothing that has happened on the 26th will change your mind on that? You still consider your role to be to facilitate peaceful protest?

Lynne Owens: No, I think one of the sad things that came out of Saturday is that we did see that there are groups that can organise themselves in a way to make their voice heard in a peaceful way. We will always continue to facilitate peaceful protest but we will be equally robust with those who choose to come and commit criminal behaviour such as we saw on Saturday.

Q21 Mr Clappison: A rather extraordinary question, the first part of it anyway, from Dr Huppert. Would you agree that those who came to London, the hundreds of thousands of people who very peacefully demonstrated and members of the TUC and their families, they have a reasonable expectation that they can come to London and have a protest conducted peacefully without it being disrupted, that shoppers can have a Saturday afternoon without being disrupted, that businesses, including Fortnum & Mason, can remain open for business on a Saturday without their business being disrupted by criminal activities and that the police do not have any power to give people an immunity from criminal prosecution who criminally disrupt any of those peaceful activities?

Lynne Owens: Absolutely.

Q22 Bridget Phillipson: Liberty played a role as special observers at the march on Saturday. Can I ask have you received any feedback from Liberty on that and do you feel this has been a worthwhile experiment?

Lynne Owens: Liberty have made it clear from the very beginning they were independent observers, acting on both our behalf and that of the TUC. I have had a conversation with them and I am aware that they, as we agreed prior to the event, are going to do a report, which they are hoping to publish. We expect to get that in the next couple of days.

Q23 Bridge Phillipson: If that proves to be positive, is this something you may look to continue in the future?

Lynne Owens: Absolutely. We are always open to external scrutiny through many bodies and if it has been a useful process it will be something that we certainly would be prepared to consider.

Chair: Including us.

Q24 Mark Reckless: Your strategy appears to have been to deploy at pretty short notice groups of officers to where violence was breaking out. There may be an inevitability about that, given the numbers of the people and the limits of resources of the Metropolitan Police Service. I just wonder, did you encounter any particular difficulties in that, whether through the sheer numbers of people you were having to get through and in particular with the communications systems, for instance Airwave? Did they perform satisfactorily on this occasion?

Lynne Owens: One of the things that we are going to be picking up in our debrief is the speed with which we were able to deploy. Airwave was effective. We were supported by mutual aid forces, forces from other counties, and one of the challenges of the Airwave network is our ability to join it together. So there was a financial implication of that Airwave build, but on the actual day it worked effectively. It is more about deployment on the ground and I want to make sure that we do our very best. As I say, in this instance, from all the media coverage you have seen, if you watch it to its final end rather than when it chooses to be cut, you will see that in many instances we were there on or very near to the offences happening, hence we were able to make the number of arrests we have. We have charged people with offences outside Topshop already.

Q25 Mr Winnick: I am pleased that you confirmed that the huge demonstration was entirely peaceful, was it not, entirely peaceful?

Lynne Owens: Yes.

Q26 Mr Winnick: Arising from what Mr Clappison said, the police have no complaints at all, presumably, about the mass demonstration?

Lynne Owens: The main demonstration proceeded very peacefully and we were very pleased with it.

Q27 Mr Winnick: In condemning, without any qualification whatsoever, the violence, would it not be true to say that London has experienced over a century or more violent protests, often with far more justification, if there could be any justification for violence, than the hooligans on Saturday; Bloody Sunday as it became known in 1886, a bit before my time, and other events? What I am saying to you is that London has survived such demonstrations in the past, so what happened on Sunday is not particularly unique, however much we rightly condemn it.

Lynne Owens: London has and will continue to survive major demonstrations, but it can never be acceptable that people think they can come to London to cause damage.

Q28 Chair: But that is not what Mr Winnick is saying. He has already said it is unacceptable but the fact is that there have been violent protests before. The difference is we have the mass media telling us what is happening within moments of it happening.

Lynne Owens: That is absolutely true and we also have some commentaries that aren’t necessarily informed about the policing operation that are equally unhelpful.

Q29 Mr Winnick: Downstairs in our Library, which you obviously wouldn’t have seen, there are displays of violence by women for a very, very justified cause, where they smashed windows and the rest, so what I am saying to you is what happened on Saturday was not particularly unique.

The next question and the last question, Chair, if I may, is that bearing in mind what is going to happen in April, the obvious event that will be so much publicised, are the police satisfied they can deal with outbreaks of violence?

Lynne Owens: Yes, absolutely. Of course the events of this weekend give us a new approach to the intelligence picture, which I have already detailed, and we will be preparing to police any protests on the day of the royal wedding very robustly, but what we should remember is it is a different sort of event. It is a security event, which will give us different powers under terrorism and other legislation, and we now have a much broader intelligence picture about the sort of protest activity that we can expect and we will be delivering a safe royal wedding for the royal couple and for this country.

Q30 Chair: Therefore is there an urgency in providing your wish list to the Home Secretary? I know you didn’t want to be stampeded into giving a list to her but with the royal wedding just a few weeks to go, if you will require more resources or additional powers you would need to get that in pretty quickly, wouldn’t you?

Lynne Owens: We absolutely understand that. The planning meetings have been happening for the royal wedding for a long period of time now. We will review those plans in the context of this weekend, and we will reengage with officials if we need to.

Q31 Chair: Does that apply to the Olympics as well, which is going to be an even bigger event?

Lynne Owens: Absolutely.

Q32 Dr Huppert: Can you just clarify what powers you will have available to you for the royal wedding that you didn’t have on 26 March?

Lynne Owens: If we have a reasonable suspicion-I shall just check my wording-if a chief officer reasonably believes an act of terrorism is going to take place then we can ask for authorisation for a specified area for no more than 24 hours for a stop and search power. We haven’t yet decided whether we are going to use that power but that is something that we may consider for the royal wedding.

Q33 Dr Huppert: So you might do that for the whole central London area? How large an area would you consider?

Lynne Owens: We haven’t made that decision yet. It is a power that is available to us and we will consider it in this review of tactics that I am currently carrying out.

Q34 Dr Huppert: Are there other powers that will be available to you as it is a security situation?

Lynne Owens: I don’t think it is an issue, in broad instances, of other powers but I think there is a debate about the public tolerance of risk, and I think the public tolerance of risk, and therefore the application of the Human Rights Act, might be different for the royal wedding than it might be for what should have been a peaceful protest on Saturday.

Q35 Chair: One point, the cost? The public obviously always wants to know the cost of these things. Do we have an estimate as to the cost of policing the demonstration last Saturday?

Lynne Owens: I don’t have the final costings for you. We costed it in advance at around £2 million.

Chair: £2 million?

Lynne Owens: Yes. We now believe it to be more than that because of the length of time that officers had to spend on duty because of the significant violence that was used. So we will be reworking the costings on the hours that the officers actually had to work. I had very brave officers, many of whom worked in excess of 24 hours on Saturday.

Q36 Chair: But this must be very difficult for you at a time of cuts in the police service of up to 20 %. Where will this additional money come from?

Lynne Owens: It clearly puts pressure on the Metropolitan Police Service budget and it is up to us to manage our budget within the budget that is allocated to us by the Mayor and Central Government.

Q37 Chair: Would you be in a position in the future, perhaps because of resources implications, simply to say no to people if they come to you and say, "We want another protest"? If it costs £2 million a time, obviously this is a very big demonstration, it is going to put you under even greater pressure, isn’t it?

Mr Winnick: Shut down democracy, Chair?

Lynne Owens: I think the challenge for us in policing is that just articulated by your colleague.

Chair: Who is much more articulate than me.

Mr Winnick: He had his tongue in his cheek, I hope, otherwise we will have to chuck him out.

Lynne Owens: But compounded with that, of course, is the fact that these criminals actually broke away from the march. They weren’t necessarily part of the march. I know that one of the things that business have suggested to us is could we have routed the march in a different way but, of course, the criminals left the route of the march. They went somewhere else.

Q38 Chair: Will you be talking to those businesses about what they suggest?

Lynne Owens: We absolutely will, yes. Of course.

Q39 Chair: If perhaps they suggest you don’t allow a march to go down anywhere near the shopping district, you would need to take that into consideration?

Lynne Owens: Yes.

Q40 Dr Huppert : It is clearly a shame that what was supposed to be a peaceful protest went wrong in that sense, and I absolutely appreciate the efforts of the police who had a huge job to run a very large march, mostly extremely successfully. Just to clarify, because there have been allegations, as there always will be in this sort of thing, if people have allegations that they were misled by the police or that something else happened, would it be made very clear to them how they could complain? Presumably you would agree that it is not appropriate for the police to lie to people, to mislead in any way like that, and I am sure you wouldn’t expect police officers to behave like that. Is that correct?

Lynne Owens: In terms of complaints, as you know from the evidence I previously gave, we were giving out leaflets on the day that included instruction about how people can complain. I can advise that so far we have received only seven public complaints, which in the context of the significant violence that we saw is low. None of those things have been investigated yet. I wouldn’t expect police officers to deliberately mislead or deliberately lie and that would be subject to investigation, but I stress the word "deliberately".

Q41 Chair: Were there any undercover agents involved in this?

Lynne Owens: I am afraid, Mr Vaz, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny whether we did deploy undercover officers on this occasion, for their own safety and for the safety of future events.

Q42 Chair: But if there were, then, bearing in mind what happened last time before this Committee, the Gold Commander would have known?

Lynne Owens: Absolutely.

Q43 Chair: Can we end where we began by asking you to pass on our thanks to the Gold Commander and all the officers who policed the demonstration so well? We are most grateful to them, and extremely grateful to you for coming in at such short notice to update us. If there is any information that you wish to give to us in the future on this, please don’t hesitate to write to us. Thank you very much.

Lynne Owens: Thank you.

Mark Reckless: Could I please declare an interest as a member of the Kent Police Authority, specifically because I have had involvement with public protest and some of the legal issues I was discussing earlier. Thank you.

Chair: Indeed. He is not offering to come and help you next time. Thank you very much.