UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 40-i

HOUSE OF LORDS

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

JOINT COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS

 

 

POLICING AND PROTEST

 

 

Tuesday 9 December 2008

MR VERNON COAKER, MP, and MR CHRISTIAN PAPALEONTIOU

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 69

 

 

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Joint Committee on Human Rights

on Tuesday 9 December 2008

Members present:

Mr Andrew Dismore, in the Chair

 

Lester of Herne Hill, L.

Morris of Handsworth, L.

Onslow, E.

 

John Austin

Dr Evan Harris

________________

Memorandum submitted by the Home Office

 

Witnesses: Mr Vernon Coaker MP, Minister for Policing, Crime and Security, and Mr Christian Papaleontiou, Public Order Unit, Home Office, gave evidence.

Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon. We are about to enter into our last evidence session on our inquiry on policing and protest and we are joined by the Home Office Minister of State for Policing, Crime and Security, Vernon Coaker, and by Christian Papaleontiou, who is from the Public Order Unit at the Home Office. Welcome to you both. It is good to see you again, Vernon. I hope we can reach the same sort of agreement as we did when we were doing people trafficking.

Mr Coaker: I hope so. We made a lot of progress there together so let us hope we can make some progress with this as well.

Q2 Chairman: Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Coaker: I welcome the opportunity to come here this afternoon. I have read much of the deliberation of the Committee. You were kind enough to intimate at the beginning that we worked on human trafficking. I see us working together and will look very carefully at the recommendations and the issues that come out of the Committee's report to help them inform the work that we do, to pass better law and look at how we balance all of these various issues together. I see it as a very constructive thing.

Q3 Chairman: Do you think the police should be principally concerned with facilitating protest or controlling it?

Mr Coaker: I do not think it is a choice between the two. I think it is essential that the police facilitate protest and enable that to happen. As in any democratic society, protest is the life blood of that society. The rights of people to demonstrate, to protest, to say that they do not agree with something or they do agree with something are absolutely essential and facilitating people to be able to do that, whether it is through negotiation, liaison enabling roads to be closed or enabling things to take place is absolutely essential. Alongside that, there are the other issues of protecting the public. In facilitating protest, the police also have to have regard to other objectives, one of which is to ensure that other people can go about their lawful business and not be interfered with in an undue way. Also alongside that, we have to make sure that the police have regard to crime, to the reduction of harm and those sorts of issues. It is a balance between the two. In facilitating protest, that is an essential part of the police's work and that of course will be done taking those other objectives into account.

Q4 Chairman: Why do you think demonstrators have such a negative view of the police when it comes to the way protests are managed?

Mr Coaker: I do not think the majority of protestors do have a negative view of the police. If you look at a lot of protest that takes place, a considerable number of people are able to protest. They join demonstrations; they join marches. They protest outside of different institutions and the majority of those people, I think, think that they work closely with the police and they facilitate that protest. However, we all know - and many of us here will have been on demonstrations - that sometimes things go wrong and sometimes there are things that have happened which are mistakes, things that have not worked as well as they should do. Sometimes therefore people will have a negative view. Some of the protesters in some of those well documented cases that we have seen sometimes will have that negative view. Also alongside it, what we have to do is to make sure that we get that dialogue between people so that we have that trust between the police and those who would protest.

Q5 Chairman: Do you think that changes in policing style - for example, turning up in riot gear - get people annoyed and make them feel intimidated and that has contributed to part of the problem?

Mr Coaker: The police certainly have to be aware of the impact of not only their style of dress but also the kit that they wear and the way they treat people, the way they deal with people. All of those things are essential if we are going to have harmonious and good relationships between those who are protesting and indeed the police. If it is inappropriate for the police to turn up dressed in riot gear and it is not that type of situation, that may well not help, fairly obviously. Similarly, if the police do not treat others with respect, hard as that is at times, of course that will impact on the situation. The guidance that the police put out would normally be that the way they are dressed and the way they deal with people should be appropriate to the situation that they are dealing with.

Q6 Chairman: In that context, can I ask you about Kingsnorth, which was a peaceful protest? If you have read the evidence, you will have seen that we heard quite a lot of accounts from those involved. They thought the police were heavy handed, that they had changed their tactics from what had been agreed in advance, things had been seized when there was no real reason to seize them. They were taking people's names and addresses. People there felt they were being intimidated as a result of over-policing. Do you think the police went over the top?

Mr Coaker: First of all, I think it is important to say that the police believed, because the demonstrators had said it, that they were intent on closing down the power station at Kingsnorth. Therefore, in that sense, the police were rightly concerned about what people were intent on doing. The risk assessment and the intelligence they had showed to them that there was a clear threat to the power station, which was an important part of the infrastructure of the country. Having said that, I know you had the ACPO lead Sue Sim here and I think she has written to you to say that the MPIA are conducting a "lessons learned" from Kingsnorth. The MPIA have not yet concluded that particular piece of work. In respect of that, I want to see what that report says with respect to Kingsnorth and, if this is helpful to the Committee, I will go to meet with Sue Sim, meet with ACPO, look at the lessons that can be learned from Kingsnorth, get a proper assessment of what did take place there and, if necessary, we can look at the guidance that people put out to the various police forces across the country.

Q7 Chairman: That would be helpful. We may come back later on to some of the issues about inconsistent approach. From what you have said, part of the issue is you may have a very tiny number of people bent on causing trouble in a huge demonstration. That has often been the case. Why should you police a demonstration in a way that affects the vast majority of perfectly peaceful protestors, in a way that treats them all as though they are anarchists bent on causing havoc?

Mr Coaker: The guidance would say you should not do that. What you should do is to try to police the demonstration and the protesting in an appropriate and reasonable way. I would expect and hope that the police in dealing with protests will not go to the lowest common denominator but will look at the way in which demonstrations can take place. We have massive marches sometimes in London, massive demonstrations. The vast majority of those go off peacefully and work well. There may be some people on the fringe of it who may cause a problem but often the police will not allow that to affect the general way in which that particular demonstration is policed. However, they will make a risk assessment and clearly if they believe, even though they are small in number, that those people may have a disproportionate effect and impact on public safety, they may well come to a different view. From my own personal experience - I am sure many others in this room have been on demonstrations - the demonstrators themselves are often sick and tired of those who would seek to piggy-back on their demonstrations for their own particular good and sometimes have concerns about that as well.

Q8 Chairman: When you do this review, when you get the report from Sue Sim, would you meet with some people who organised the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth to hear their point of view like we did?

Mr Coaker: Certainly I will meet with people to discuss any particular issues that arise out of demonstrations. I am perfectly happy to do that. Let me give you an example of what I am prepared to do. You had the journalist, Jeremy Dear, who came and spoke to you and he raised certain issues that he was having with respect to the NUJ and the photographers being asked by the police to stop photographing, cameras allegedly being taken away and those sorts of things. I asked Jeremy to come and see me and we met with one of the superintendents in the Public Order Unit. We sat down and had a discussion. We came to some different conclusions. They shared their various experiences and, as a consequence of that, some of the guidance to police officers dealing with photographers has been changed. People have been reminded that photographs can be taken and Jeremy and others have been invited to come and meet with the police and see it from the other side, to talk to them about the way that they are policing demonstrations. I think that is the sort of confidence and trust that you can build up if people speak to each other and are reasonable. It may also be helpful if I share the letter that I wrote to Jeremy following the meeting that we had together, subject to Jeremy's agreement and the police's agreement, which lays out some of the things that we have done and some of the clarifications we have made in order to try to ensure that people's right to protest in a reasonable and proper way is maintained.

Q9 Earl of Onslow: One used to be told as a child that fair words butter no parsnips. Most of what you have said I have found very satisfactory but there are niggling worries in the back of my mind. You said you think the police are reasonably well looked at by the public. I am not totally sure that that is right. I know this may be anecdote or hunch but I seem to hear people complaining more about rude policemen. I was laughed at by my fellow Committee Members before you came in because I think they look extremely scruffy. I do not see why policemen should look like road members. It takes away respect from them. Everybody wears a yellow jacket now. Police should look like police and they should be respected as such. On the other side, sometimes you have seen them go over the top on political correctness. The perfect example was when those two police assistants walked away from somebody who was drowning because of health and safety. It should not have crossed anybody's mind. I accept this is only hunch but it is a hunch which I think is quite widely spread. On the one hand, they are getting more oafish and, on the other hand, they are getting more politically correct. If you take those two things, that is extremely dangerous from, if I may say so, the extraordinarily sensible and accurate thing that you were saying about how these problems should be solved. It is admittedly hunch but how would you react to what I have just said? I hope it is not just an old man.

Mr Coaker: It does not matter whether you are young, middle aged or old. It depends whether it is sensible or not. I do not think they are just the words of an old man. It is somebody who is concerned about this and wants to try to contribute to how we deal with it. It is important that the police dress appropriately. If police turn up in riot gear, if you exaggerate it often makes the point really well, but you would not want the police turning up in riot gear automatically to an old people's home or to a demonstration. It is the appropriateness of the dress that is important, I think. Sometimes when the police go to different raids they dress in an inappropriate way. Similarly, if they are at a civic function. For example, the police came to Remembrance Sunday a few weeks ago in really smart dress uniform. I think it is the appropriateness of the dress that is important. With respect to the kit they wear, of course the police are protecting themselves as well from the small number and minority of protestors who may wish to cause them harm.

Q10 Chairman: Is there not a risk that that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Mr Coaker: Yes. I appreciate that. That is fair comment. If you are not careful, it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is where the control, command and importance of those who are in charge of what is happening are extremely important. Frankly, sometimes reviewing what has happened - as is currently taking place with respect to Kingsnorth - should not be seen as something that is a bad thing. It should be seen as: "Did we get this right? Is this something that we can learn from?" One of the areas that we are looking at - maybe we will come on to this later on - is about what causes some of the angst amongst people. It is things like the SOCPA regulations within the vicinity of Parliament. Sometimes people make a generalised remark because there are one or two particular things that they are concerned with, that they do not like or they think are troublesome. There are some people who think that the police do not get it right with respect to protests and sometimes there are a lot of people who think they got it particularly wrong with one or two examples that we could quote. Generally, I think the police facilitate protest in this country. Sometimes it does go wrong but I think the majority of people respect them for the way in which they try and get that balance.

Earl of Onslow: All the demonstrations I have been on have been beautifully policed.

Q11 Dr Harris: On this question of what you do in a Kingsnorth situation where there is a minority hell bent on, as the teacher says, spoiling it for everyone else, you say that it is reasonable to try and ensure that you police the extremists, as it were, without taking it out on everyone else. I think that was the principle. To what extent is cost a factor? For example, if it would have cost more for them to have policed the perimeter more strongly at Kingsnorth than it cost them to search everyone and confiscate every tent peg from everyone who came into the Climate Camp - which rather undermines the general approach of camping, I think - do you think it is reasonable that they should bear a higher cost in order to preserve the right of peaceful protest without over-policing of everyone in that situation? Old ladies had their umbrellas taken.

Mr Coaker: Some of the individual things that you mention would no doubt come in this MPIA review if it is specifically related to Kingsnorth. The proper policing of a demonstration or a march or a protest should be based on the risk assessment and the intelligence that the police receive. They should make the operational decision according to that. They should not - and I do not believe that they do - make it on the basis of cost.

Q12 Chairman: Can I put the point to you that they raised with us on the question of costs from the reverse position? One suggestion that was put to us was that the police turn up with all this riot gear and expensive equipment to justify the budget of having the stuff in the first place when it was not needed, the suggestion being they put in this application for all this money to have all this expensive kit and they have to be seen to be making use of it.

Mr Coaker: I have not seen any evidence of that. We kit the police out to do the job that we would all want them to do. It is an important point that Dr Harris made and policing a demonstration should be on a risk assessment basis, rather than a cost basis.

Q13 Lord Morris of Handsworth: We can all agree that constructive dialogue is essential for good relationships. How would you encourage greater dialogue between the police and protestors?

Mr Coaker: I used the example I was going to use earlier on with respect to Jeremy Dear and the NUJ. A lot of the time there is good dialogue which takes place. I know one of the suggestions is to make it compulsory but I would not make the dialogue compulsory. I think what we have to do is encourage that trust, that confidence, so that people will negotiate and discuss with each other. If you are going to have a march, you have to give prior notice to the police anyway, so the negotiation will take place anyway because of the prior notice around the march. Clearly, there is not prior notice with respect to assembly but most of the time assembly will result in a discussion taking place. Given the fact that, if you have a march, you have to give notice and therefore dialogue takes place, the importance is to make sure that that dialogue is of good quality and that there is trust and people listen to each other and take action appropriately.

Q14 Lord Morris of Handsworth: The Jeremy Dear dialogue was specific to the issues about cameras and you have shared with us how you responded to that. We are thinking not just about exercising the requirement to give notice but, on the day when the protest may be taking place for example, what are the steps that can be taken to improve the dialogue between the police and the protestors?

Mr Coaker: One of the things you would expect to happen is, where a demonstration or a march or whatever is taking place - I have seen this myself and I am sure you have as well - the best examples are when the police commanders are talking to and discussing with those who are leading the demonstration or the march and there is cooperation that takes place between the two. That is what you would expect to see as part of that notification to key people whom you could liaise with in order to ensure that everything passes off peacefully. On a broader point, of course, one of the things that the Association of Chief Police Officers is doing at the present time is also inviting protestors to come to their conferences, to come to police training, to talk to them at those conferences to get a more general sort of dialogue going on with respect to all of this. Certainly I think those sorts of initiatives are very welcome and very important. That sharing of each other's experience is essential to build and encourage that trust.

Q15 Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Obviously the media are the eyes and ears of the public and it is very important that they are able fairly to report the way in which demonstrations are handled by the police and others. You will know, because they met you in October, that the National Union of Journalists who also wrote to the Home Secretary earlier are very concerned in particular about the Forward Intelligence Team which they say targets journalists who are legitimately covering protests. Their evidence to us was quite worrying because they give chapter and verse. They say - and they have probably said it to you - that they are concerned about surveillance of journalists by that team, about denying reasonable access to protests, about ordering photographers or camera crews away from marchers, moving photographers into marches, preventing journalists from leaving demonstrations, not recognising press cards, assaulting journalists, using stop and search on journalists, seizing journalistic material etc., and arresting journalists unnecessarily. Those are obviously serious and specific. You have met them and you told us you had a letter which we can see, but what concrete measures can you put in place, including perhaps public guidance, to address what looks like a rather serious problem?

Mr Coaker: The fact that that has been said is extremely serious and something that is of concern which is why I wanted to meet Mr Dear together with the police in order to try to overcome that. You ask about guidance. We have revised the guidance, making it clear. With your permission, Chairman, perhaps I may quote from the letter because it may help the Committee. "We have addressed this directly in the revised guidance making it clear that the Terrorism Act 2000 does not prohibit people from taking photographs or digital images. The guidance also makes it clear that former memory cards may be seized as part of a search but officers do not have a legal power to delete images or destroy film." There are also some changes with respect to the Forward Intelligence Units to try to reassure journalists and photographers of their rights to report and photograph what is going on. It is absolutely fundamental and I agree absolutely with the point that you are making. Notwithstanding sometimes the need for police officers to take action, even against an individual journalist or an individual photographer, we must not under any circumstances unwittingly put ourselves in a situation where photographers, journalists or others may feel that they do not have the right and do not believe that they can pursue their professional job and the public interest. That is why I thought it was so important to meet with Jeremy Dear and hopefully, as a consequence of that, we will be able to reassure. I know you sent much of this out to journalists and photographers within the NUJ to try and reassure them about that. Mr Dear has been invited to ACPO to go and talk to them but also to be with the police during some of the demonstrations while they are taking place to see what is happening and to advise the police on some of the procedures that they may change.

Q16 Lord Lester of Herne Hill: In terms of concrete measures, first of all, will the revised guidance be made public and, secondly, how will you monitor to make sure that the guidance is implemented in practice?

Mr Coaker: What I did say to Mr Dear was that I would meet him again in a few months or whatever to ask him what his actual impression was of the changes that had come as a consequence of the changes that we have made.

Q17 Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Will we see the changes?

Mr Coaker: The letter will help. The changes I think will be reflected in whether Mr Dear and his colleagues actually say that, as a consequence of that meeting and the changes to the guidance, changes to the actions of the Forward Intelligence Units, there is greater confidence amongst photographers and journalists to pursue their proper trade. On the guidance, it is not my guidance but let me talk to the police and see what the issues are about. I do not want to mislead the Committee and say yes when it is not my guidance, but certainly I think it would be a good thing.

Q18 Earl of Onslow: We touched briefly on Lord Lester's point about preventing journalists from being journalists at demonstrations, sometimes using the Terrorism Act. Is it not rather hard sometimes for the police not to follow the example of the arrest of the gentleman in the Labour Party for doing what one should do to all ministers, which is to shout at them because it is good for their souls if nothing else, and for instance the confiscation of the Icelandic Bank assets using terrorism legislation? The government itself has misused, I would suggest, terrorism legislation on more than one occasion and it is that that is worrying. How do you expect the police not to follow the example?

Mr Coaker: Counter terrorism should be used exactly ----

Earl of Onslow: It should be used for terrorism, not for a general catch all.

Chairman: We are talking about journalists here.

Q19 Earl of Onslow: That was a supplementary question to the journalist point. How can we expect the police not to follow an example led to them by their elders and betters?

Mr Coaker: The government's view is that counter terrorism legislation should be used with respect to counter terrorism. That is our position and that would be appropriate whatever the circumstances and wherever it took place.

Q20 Dr Harris: Can I ask whether you think there is a general right not to be offended?

Mr Coaker: Sometimes that depends on the context. It is a very difficult question to say yes or no to. Should somebody be offended if they are racially abused?

Q21 Dr Harris: That is already a crime. I will rephrase the question because obviously I accept your point. Outside of explicit, unlawful acts - for example in the public order area - specifically around incitement to racial hatred or incitement generally, is there a free standing right, if you like, not to be offended? If so, should the police be seeking to protect people against infringement of that right?

Mr Coaker: We define in law certain things that are against the law. You have very clearly laid them out. I think it is difficult to say that there is an absolute right not to be offended by anything that currently is not against the law. If you went back a few years, there are things that are against the law now that were not against the law. I think it is extremely difficult. Having said that, I think we do have to accept that different people have different standards as to what is offensive or not. Therefore, to sometimes have absolutes is quite difficult. For example, some people would be offended by somebody swearing in their company. It would not offend me, generally speaking, depending on where it was. If it was a dinner party it might do but if it was on a football pitch it would not. It depends on the context.

Q22 Dr Harris: Swearing at someone can fall into an abusive situation. I was not talking about that. Let me get to a specific because it came up in the earlier evidence. There was a protest in Trafalgar Square that was cleared by the police about free speech. It was in the wake of the Danish cartoon situation and people argued that it was wrong that journalists and people who were cartoonists were being intimidated because of a religious cartoon. That is, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Therefore, there were all these speakers saying, "No. We should have the right to publish this." It was not Brick Lane. It was Trafalgar Square and there was a small group of people clapping the speakers. I will declare an interest. I was one. Peter Tatchell was another. The Freedom Association were another. The police arrested someone for wearing a t-shirt with one of the cartoons on, on the basis that someone had said they were offended by it. In the evidence session we had, which I believe you have read through, the Met person said he was in the control room and was aware of this and said he thought it was legitimate to arrest someone for wearing that t-shirt if it offended someone. I question whether that is the job of the police.

Mr Coaker: That is why I said I do not think it is an absolute right in the sense of not being offended. I think some of it depends on the context. Section five may well be something that we will come to later in the Public Order Act, but that does have within it a clear power for the police to take action if somebody complains to them about something which they find offensive. It is a matter then for the police to decide whether that is something that is appropriate to act against. It is very difficult to sit here and say in every circumstance that something somebody has complained about is something that the police should not take action against because why should they be offended about it.

Q23 Dr Harris: Because there are direct consequences of that. Clearly people who are easily offended will therefore through the police inhibit the speech and actions, non-violent, non-inciting actions of other people, simply on the basis that they happen to be more easily offended. It is quite hard, I imagine, to offend you and I but there are some groups of people who are easily offended. Why should they be protected at the expense of other people's right to speak short of specific offences?

Mr Coaker: It is not something that somebody would automatically be arrested for, but it would be something that the police officer in that circumstance would make a judgment about, if somebody has complained to him or her about it. This is something that you raised, again, I know because I saw it. Somebody may be arrested for something similar but the Crown Prosecution Service may then decide that it is silly, inappropriate and not something that they want to pursue.

Q24 Dr Harris: That is the gay horse example. That is another section five example. I do not know who was caused distress and alarm by one of my constituents asking if the police horse was gay. It is no help to that person who has been arrested, finger printed and DNA'd, albeit it hopefully not now having their DNA retained, if the CPS somewhere down the line says it is okay. There is still an infringement and a chilling effect of that law. Do you accept that, if the police are just allowed to interpret that section five of the Public Order Act as widely as they like, there is a real threat that protest and free speech could be limited unacceptably?

Mr Coaker: I do not think section five should be used arbitrarily. It is an important power that the police have. There have been instances. Dr Harris, you have raised some of them. I have read one or two examples in the evidence that has been given. Again, in the spirit of trying to be helpful with respect to this and working with you as I have done before, my intention is to meet with ACPO. I will take some of the examples that have been used from the Committee and see what sort of guidance and better support could be given to police officers with respect to the use of section five. I am quite prepared and happy to do that.

Q25 Lord Lester of Herne Hill: ACPO have produced in the past very useful guidance for Metropolitan Police staff for dealing with media reporters, press photographers and television crews. That is I think being revised or has been. From the Home Office point of view, you would have no objection, would you, if ACPO were willing to have that guidance made public?

Mr Coaker: No.

Q26 Dr Harris: To what extent should the concerns of businesses and bystanders about a peaceful protest affect the policing of a protest? In other words, if a protest is otherwise lawful and has been agreed, should the complaints of businesses and bystanders affect the way the police police it in terms of restricting it?

Mr Coaker: Part of what the police have to do is to balance up the right to protest and the rights of people as well however to go about their lawful business and not to be impacted to too great an extent. That is quite a difficult balance to strike. Of course people should be able to protest. Of course people should be able to demonstrate, but people are also free under the law to go about their lawful business. It may well be for example that people around object to the protest. They have human rights. They have a legitimate view about a protest. Should it be a bar to it? No, but certainly again it goes back to the point Lord Morris made. Part of it is negotiating, discussing and trying to come to a reasonable balance.

Q27 Dr Harris: What is the human right engaged by someone objecting to someone else's protest?

Mr Coaker: The right of them to go about their business without being impacted on by something happening outside.

Q28 Dr Harris: Which article is that?

Mr Coaker: The right to pursue your own life without interference from others. Is it five?

Q29 Lord Lester of Herne Hill: It is the rights of others you are talking about. You are saying you have to balance the rights of protestors against the rights of others.

Mr Coaker: Yes, that is right, but it should not mean that you then automatically stop a protest from taking place. There are all sorts of examples we could use where people have protests and they might stop me going somewhere on a train or a plane. If you are trying to balance that out, what right does somebody have to stop me doing something in order that they can protest? I think that is quite a difficult question to answer sometimes.

Earl of Onslow: For instance there was a case of someone wearing a Countryside Alliance t-shirt being rude to Mr Blair at the Royal Norfolk Show and they were arrested and charged. There was a case of the police charging somebody for reading out names at the Cenotaph. All of these are incidences where issues of police discretion ----

Chairman: The Cenotaph was a different issue altogether. It was a SOCPA issue.

Q30 Earl of Onslow: There are police powers for discretion and it seems to me nobody but a complete BF would arrest somebody for going up to a policeman and saying, "Is your horse gay?" This is what brings the police into disrespect. This is going back to my previous point and I think the same applies over the other two incidents. I have here in front of me the fact that there have been allegations that the policing of a demonstration can be altered by whether the police have some view on it. For instance, there was a case whereby a group of Conservative Party campaigners dressed as Father Christmas with Gordon Brown masks were holding a banner outside Downing Street. The police said it was a publicity stunt so they did not have to have permission to demonstrate. Even though I am a Conservative sometimes, it does seem slightly dodgy. If you are going to arrest somebody for reading out War Memorial names but not for dressing as Father Christmas, do you see what I am getting at? There is a lack of judgment floating about somewhere. A number of witnesses have complained that the policing of protest in different areas is inconsistent. Do you think this is due to discretionary powers in legislation or differences in police practices? If it is discretionary powers, I think that is a good idea. If it is due to police practices, I think it is not a good idea.

Mr Coaker: I agree with what you have said. There are 43 police forces and there will be discretion for those in their areas. Sue Sim, as the Deputy Chief Constable, has been trying through the ACPO public order guidance to get greater consistency across the country in terms of how demonstrations are policed. ACPO have tried to do that through the training of police officers when they join the service through their probationary training, through their intermediate training, and also through various public order command courses that the police run to try and ensure that there is this consistency and you do not get some of this unwarranted difference, which as you say is not due to discretion. It has to be said as well that the NIPA is also trying to bring about greater consistency with respect to the policing of protests across the country. I think that would be a good thing. It goes back to the point that you and Dr Harris were making before about the use of section five. You do get these examples that are brought up which do sometimes make people wonder whether the power was used appropriately. I will take those examples back, talk to the police about them and see whether we can clarify and get some guidance out of it.

Q31 Chairman: The two key examples here are SOCPA ones. We were told by the police that the SOCPA rules are absolutely clear. You have to apply for permission to do your demonstration and the permission is not going to be unreasonably withheld. We have two different issues. We have a bunch of Tories dressed up as Father Christmas with Gordon Brown masks with protest banners. Maybe the police did not want to nick more MPs - I do not know - but this is described as a publicity stunt. It actually sounds more like a demonstration to me. You have somebody who is reading out names at the Cenotaph, which is a publicity stunt but it is treated by the police as a demonstration. That is inconsistent enforcement of the law entirely the opposite way round. Those two cases really do highlight the inconsistencies that appear. If the police have discretion on these cases, why was not the discretion exercised sensibly? We were told in relation to reading out of the names that they were told quite clearly they had to apply for permission. They refused to do so. In this other case, quite clearly if they are politicians, they should know the law absolutely clearly because we all know what the SOCPA rules are, I would have thought, in this building. They do not bother to apply, despite what the law says, and yet they are treated entirely differently.

Mr Coaker: The Cenotaph case was upheld by the court. Discretion is important and does happen in different circumstances across the country, but there is a need for greater clarity about how some of the powers of the police are used and how the officer on the beat uses the powers he has available to him.

Q32 Chairman: This SOCPA thing is mandatory. There is no discretion, we were told by the police. The rules are absolutely clear. You have to apply for permission. If you get permission, fine. The chances are you are going to get it unless there is something really peculiar about it. You told us that if the person who read out the names at the Cenotaph had applied for permission they would have got it but they were making it effectively a publicity stunt to say that they opposed SOCPA and that is why they did that; yet the other one is treated differently. Either there is one rule which says quite clearly you apply for permission - if you do not, you get busted - or there is not.

Mr Coaker: My understanding of it is that, even within the SOCPA rules, the police can give warnings. They do not have to go straight to an arrest of somebody. As you know from the response we have made to the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, we have announced our intention to do something about the SOCPA rules anyway.

Q33 Dr Harris: The question the Chairman is asking is whether there should be an exemption for publicity stunts. Mark Thomas - I do not know whether you would call him a politician - the activist and comedian, gives another example where, when Gordon Brown and Nelson Mandela unveiled the statue in Parliament Square and read some speeches, they did not need to get permission. When he stood there and read exactly the same speeches as a one man pronouncement, he had to get permission and clearly the police decided that the Prime Minister and Nelson Mandela were not demonstrating.

Mr Coaker: The key difference is that Nelson Mandela and Gordon Brown, when they were unveiling the statue or whatever they were doing, were not demonstrating in Parliament Square. With others, even if it was a publicity stunt, people were looking as to whether they were demonstrating.

Q34 Earl of Onslow: Publicity stunts are allowed.

Mr Coaker: I take the point. Was it a publicity stunt or a demonstration? That is where you start dancing on the head of a pin. I personally see lots of things as publicity stunts and they are quite amusing. You would not stop them because that is part of the life blood of democracy, to use humour and caricature in order to make a political point. That has been done through the centuries. It is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Are we saying somebody is using that to demonstrate or simply as a publicity stunt?

Q35 Chairman: If the woman who came to read out the names in Trafalgar Square dressed up as Father Christmas, that would have been all right?

Mr Coaker: No, it would not.

Q36 Dr Harris: Mark Thomas gave the example of a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin, holding a placard in the SOCPA area saying "Not allowed/aloud". He was arrested. That is a publicity stunt. I think the point is that the police are able under the current law to pick and choose. We are asking whether you think the law should be either more relaxed or more specific.

Mr Coaker: Obviously with respect to SOCPA, we have announced our intention to change the law anyway. If you are asking about ----

Q37 Dr Harris: Will you take the opportunity to clarify the position?

Mr Coaker: With respect to the Public Order Act which will apply to the area around Parliament as well as to the rest of the country, I have already said to the Committee to try and be helpful that with respect to section five, which is the power the police have which is causing some of the issues to be raised that we are raising here, I will raise this with the police, talk to them about the issues that have been raised by the Committee and see whether we can bring greater clarity and certainty to some of these issues.

Q38 Dr Harris: I have one more example of different approaches. It is about the Oxford Union which one week had a visit of the President of Pakistan. They created a cordon round the Oxford Union to ensure he was able to get there and speak. I suppose that is appropriate. No one is arguing that is not appropriate. The same with the Chinese leader. The protestors were kept way back so that there was no imposition against him. There was a protest against the President of Pakistan. Later in that term, there was another meeting on free speech where there was a protest seeking to stop it. It was the clear intention of the protestors that they would not allow the debate which involved David Irvin and Nick Griffin debating free speech with me and a couple of journalists. They did not want it to go ahead and no cordon was put round resulting in the protestors being able to get inside, having a sit in and preventing the speech going ahead, intimidating the students and indeed the speakers who were trapped inside the building and could not have their meeting as they planned. The police defended that by saying it was only their job to ensure that the protest outside was peaceful. It was the job of the private building to ensure that there was no trouble inside, even though they policed it so that people could get in. They said, because they needed to make no arrests, it was a success. I wanted to ask you whether (a) you think that sort of differentiation is justified based on the police's opinion of the merits of the two groups of people - I do not think I disagree with them about the odiousness of Mr Griffin - and (b) whether the right of people to debate, especially debating free speech, is something that they should consider as an outcome, whether that has been allowed to go ahead or whether they are just allowed to say, "It was a good policing incident because we did not make any arrests."

Mr Coaker: That is a very important question. I take the point about you not defending the other individual involved. That goes without saying. The police's job is to try and ensure that you facilitate free speech. I do not think there should be a judgment made on the merits of whoever is speaking necessarily. I think the issue is about security of the people who are involved. It is about ensuring that free speech is maintained and that includes the right of people to speak balanced against the right of people to protest. I think there are some quite significant issues that have arisen out of the example you have just given and I would hope the police would look at it.

Q39 Earl of Onslow: Arising out of my original question, surely on this issue of police discretion, if in doubt, the police should give the offensive person the benefit of the doubt. After all, free speech is really about me being offensive to you. That is what you do not like and what you might get cross about. Me saying, "Mr Coaker, you are the greatest statesman since the Emperor Justinian" is not free speech. Free speech is being rude about people, arguing with people. Unless that offensiveness is going to cause a riot, they should on the whole always allow the offensiveness.

Mr Coaker: It is difficult to judge every single, individual case but, as a principle, defending freedom of speech is important, even if somebody sometimes is saying something that other people do not like or pushing the boundaries. In fact, sometimes it is only because people have pushed the boundaries that change has occurred. I know the Committee is wrestling with this. Everybody agrees with the right of protest and everyone agrees with the balancing rights as well. The issue is where they rub up against each other and how you ensure that, in the interests of ensuring public order, you do not undermine the right to protest but, on the other hand, in allowing the right to protest or to say things that are beyond the accepted norm, you do not cause the undue offence that none of us would want.

Q40 John Austin: You have reaffirmed the government's intention of repealing sections 132 to 138 of SOCPA. In earlier evidence, the government have said to us that this was a matter of constitutional renewal and it was not because of the government's feelings that there was a compliance problem on human rights grounds. I notice, unless I have missed it, that the Constitutional Renewal Bill is not in the Queen's Speech this year. If you are going to do it as part of constitutional renewal, when do you expect to bring in the repeal of 132 to 138 of SOCPA?

Mr Coaker: We expect that to come in this session. We think it is an important part of the constitutional renewal and in the response that you will have seen to the document in managing protests around Parliament there was general recognition in the responses that we had to that that it was unpopular.

Q41 John Austin: Which Bill will it be part of?

Mr Coaker: The Constitutional Renewal Bill.

Q42 Chairman: That is not happening.

Mr Papaleontiou: The programme of constitutional renewal was referenced in the Queen's Speech. We will be taking forward measures which will be addressed.

Q43 Chairman: It is somewhere towards the back end of the queue. Why can you not take it as part of the Law Reform Bill?

Mr Coaker: My understanding was that we were changing this with respect to the SOCPA clauses and we were amending those in this session of Parliament. I will go back to the Department and clarify that. I have been briefed to say that to the Committee. That was my understanding as well but I will go back and clarify that with the Department and write to the Committee to make sure that I am not misinforming you.

Q44 Chairman: That is helpful but if it looks as though the Constitutional Renewal Bill is going to be at the back of the queue for the parliamentary year, we may need to carry the Bill into the next year, which may mean it gets alongside of the General Election, that is not very helpful. It is a relatively minor reform in terms of drafting so I will put it to you again: we know there is going to be a Law Reform Bill. Why can it not be part of that? I ask it in a rhetorical way.

Mr Coaker: I cannot answer that because I do not know, having been told that we are going to take this forward in this session, whether there is some other Bill that I have not thought of that it is going to be part of. What I need to do is to check this so that I properly inform the Committee of what the intention is.

Q45 Chairman: It could also go in the Policing and Crime Bill, could it not?

Mr Coaker: It is the Policing and Crime Bill which I am taking forward, as I think you have probably just been told. This is an extremely important measure. It is important as a statement about our country and protest. Therefore, it is an important legislative change that we need to take forward. My own personal commitment to it is something that is there. I will find out what is happening and come back to the Committee so we can properly inform you how we are moving on that.

Chairman: It would be very helpful if it could get into an earlier Bill. I certainly feel an amendment coming on.

Q46 John Austin: Apart from the regulation of protests around the House of Commons, there is the issue of access as well. There was some question as to whether the Public Order Act was adequate for the purpose. Can I ask you what options the Home Office is actually looking at for changes to the Public Order Act to deal with protests around Parliament?

Mr Coaker: We obviously want to remove the SOCPA provisions but we do know that session orders are passed by Parliament at the beginning of each day and it is important that Members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords can gain access. Part of the changes that we will make will be looking at how we can ensure, notwithstanding the changes I have said we intend to make with respect to taking those clauses out, that Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords and others, can access Parliament. We will look at that, not only in terms of accessing when Parliament is sitting but when Parliament is not sitting as well.

Q47 John Austin: Will there be an opportunity for adequate discussion of the options that you might be considering?

Mr Coaker: Yes. There will be. It will be my intention to ensure that we negotiate and involve members of this House in terms of what action there should be. We will have a full, frank and open discussion about how we bring that about.

Q48 John Austin: Very often we have a very last minute opportunity of commenting on proposals.

Mr Coaker: You are right to say that. That is not my intention. Everybody will be pleased about the withdrawal of the SOCPA provisions but alongside that there is a recognition however that there is a need to ensure that we can access Parliament.

Q49 John Austin: Can I come on to comparisons with the situation in Northern Ireland? Clearly it is a very different situation and I am not advocating it for the mainland, but could you say what lessons the Home Office has drawn from the experience of policing protests in Northern Ireland and in particular the attention which has been paid in Northern Ireland to addressing human rights issues in regulating protests?

Mr Coaker: It is a very different situation in Northern Ireland but even there they have demonstrated that the human rights sensitive approach is not something that means you cannot have a strong policing approach and you cannot resolve difficult issues. It sometimes seems that you are either somebody in favour of human rights and therefore weak policing or you are somebody who is not in favour of human rights and in favour of tough policing. I think the lesson we can learn from Northern Ireland is that you can have a tough approach to difficult problems but you can do that in a way which also ensure that the rights of individuals are respected as well.

Q50 John Austin: The PSNI does have dedicated human rights lawyers who are involved not only in the training of police officers but also are available for police officers making decisions on protests to consult with. When we had ACPO and the Met Police here, it was clear that in England there is not that same availability. Do you think the British police forces would benefit from doing the same as in Northern Ireland?

Mr Coaker: What is important is that they have access to human rights advice. My understanding is that not only now are human rights issues incorporated into their training but also alongside that the police do have access to human rights advice. I would be a strong supporter of ensuring that the police have access to that advice and that they take it strongly into account when they are making the decisions that they do with respect to protests.

Q51 Chairman: When we visited the Metropolitan Police Control Centre last week, they told us that when they had major operations they would have a human rights responsible person advising the gold commander and the civil commander, but that person was a uniformed police officer themselves, which begs the question about the independence that we see in Northern Ireland. Would you like to have a look at the Northern Ireland model as opposed to for example what happens in the Met, which is also a good example, bearing in mind the volume of work that they do, to see whether the Northern Ireland experience ought to be transferred to the capital?

Mr Coaker: I will have a look at that. I think the Committee probably knows more about the Northern Ireland model than I do but I will certainly whether there are lessons that can be drawn from it. I do reiterate the point I made to Mr Austin. I do think the importance of what Northern Ireland has demonstrated is that you do not have to choose between strong, effective policing or the human rights approach. You can marry the two.

Q52 Chairman: Can I come on to the use of counterterrorism powers and the policing of protests? Obviously it goes back to the Walter Wolfgang protest at the party conference. How can you make sure that the counterterrorism powers are used appropriately for counterterrorism and not for policing protests?

Mr Coaker: By keeping it constantly under review so that counterterrorism legislation and powers are used appropriately. I give you the example of section 44 which, as you know, is the stop and search power available under counterterrorism legislation. There has been some disquiet about that and you will know again that the Prime Minister announced a year ago a review of the use of stop and search under section 44. As a result of that review, changed guidance was published and if Lord Lester were here he would be pleased that has been published. It is public, so that people can see it. That was published about ten days ago on 28 November. That is an example of the scrutiny, diligence and oversight that we should make sure we have so that counterterrorism legislation is used for the purposes it is designed for and does not, with the best intentions, the best will and without malicious intent, spill over into other policing areas. I think the section 44 example is a very good example of the way that can be done.

Earl of Onslow: There have been distinct impressions - I cannot needless to say call one to mind now - of the police using counterterrorism powers as a convenience tool. For instance, the policing of the anti-arms trade people. The police were using counterterrorism powers which seemed to me excessive and I know there have been others but I cannot immediately recall them, apart from the Icelandic banks.

Chairman: That has nothing to do with protest.

Q53 Earl of Onslow: We were also talking about the over-use of the Terrorist Act and it is something that frankly worries me quite a lot.

Mr Coaker: I take the point. That is why it is important to have oversight. Of course, the courts have oversight of it if there is inappropriate use of legislation. The Earl of Onslow will know that the defence contractor issue that he is referring to was upheld by the courts.

Q54 Chairman: Can I move on to cyber protest using the internet, trying to jam people's phone lines, fill up email boxes and all that sort of thing, using the internet generally? Have we the right laws to deal with that sort of protest or do we need additional civil or criminal law to monitor or control it?

Mr Coaker: We need to ensure that we recognise that what is illegal offline is illegal online. We need to use the law that exists with its full force perhaps a little bit more powerfully than we do. Others here may be bigger experts on the internet than I am but one of the things that even people who recognise that more needs to be done with the internet will say is that it is an extremely difficult thing to do. If you look at child exploitation, we do a lot here but sites are just posted elsewhere. You have to have blocking mechanisms which are technically very difficult. I know what the police do and what others do is to try to pursue the law with respect to hosting of sites and what appears on the internet but they also try to get behind it with respect to the criminality, in terms of seeing who the individuals are, so that we do not have a situation where people can act with impunity on the internet. I do not meet all the time with the NUJ but I did meet with the NUJ and some of our colleagues in Parliament about for example issues with respect to Redwatch on the internet, which I know have been of considerable concern to some of our colleagues. The approach of the police there was to look not just to bring the site down, which they did once and it reappeared the next day, but to get behind it to see whether there was a way in which they could identify who was responsible and use the criminal law against them.

Q55 Chairman: In your Green Paper, "From the Neighbourhood to the National, Policing our Communities Together", at paragraph 4.20 on page 59, you say that you propose to develop a new three year quality, diversity and human rights strategy for the Police Service in partnership with policing partners. That is obviously a very welcome announcement. Can you tell us what you are thinking about in terms of this, what it might include and how things might change once you do that?

Mr Coaker: The initial intention is particularly to look at the issues with respect to policing in terms of equality and diversity and to do more. Some progress has been made. You will know that I recently did a piece of work for the Home Secretary on how we encourage more diversity in the police force, not only in terms of recruitment but in terms of retention and progression. In the first instance much of the work we will do will be about that, because it is extremely important - we would all agree with this - that the police force reflects the communities it serves and we need to do more work on that. That will be the immediate piece of work in terms of the strategy but we also recognise that human rights are an important part of the work that we do and that the police do. What we need to try and understand is how we can incorporate that more effectively into some of the training that is done and some of the decisions that are made about balancing up the various rights that we have been discussing for the last hour and a quarter or so.

Q56 John Austin: Can I raise the issue of tasers and the announcement by the Home Secretary of additional funding to buy another 10,000 tasers for frontline officers? Could you tell us briefly why the Home Secretary has decided to increase the availability, given the very real human rights concerns about the use of tasers?

Mr Coaker: This has not been a rushed decision. We introduced tasers for authorised firearms officers in 2003. They were used by a very small number of police officers. Just over a year ago in September 2007, that was then extended and not just limited to authorised firearms officers but extended to officers who had training in a certain number of forces. I think it was ten additional forces. As a consequence of that extension to these officers, it was reviewed in terms of what the effectiveness of tasers had been, both in terms of police effectiveness but also in terms of what the consequences had been for medical or other issues that may have arisen. That was observed all the way through. The trial was successful. The police believed it was successful. The medical opinion we had back was that the taser had not caused any particular problems. As the Home Office we made the decision that in terms of helping to give the police an additional resource, to make it available to them under very strict controls and guidance, subject to the desire of the Chief Constables to use them in their particular area, it was a proportionate and appropriate extension of the equipment that could be made available to police officers on the front line to deal with very difficult situations. When they were used during the trial period, they often were not used in a huge number of cases in terms of being fired. They were drawn considerably more. What actually had the impact on the situation was the appearance of the red dot on the individual who was causing a problem. I do not know whether it is because people have seen lots of films and seen red dots appear - I do not mean this as a sarcastic remark - but the red dot had a significant impact. The taser helped resolve a situation which was dangerous for the police officer, dangerous for other members of the public and dangerous for that person the police were trying to deal with much more effectively than some of the equipment that either had been or is available to the police.

Q57 Lord Morris of Handsworth: Is there any monitoring about the longer term impacts? I accept what you say about the medical knowledge as it is today. What about three, four or five years down the line?

Mr Coaker: Our intention is to continue the medical monitoring of the use of tasers and also to continue monitoring with ACPO and others the use of the taser in an operational sense.

Q58 Lord Morris of Handsworth: Will your findings be published?

Mr Coaker: Yes.

Q59 John Austin: You have given an explanation of the Home Secretary's rationale for increasing deployment of tasers. The day after the Home Secretary made that announcement, the Metropolitan Police in their statement said that they did not plan to use more tasers because it could cause fear and damage public confidence. How would you respond to the Met's response?

Mr Coaker: My understanding is that that was a statement by the Metropolitan Police Authority, not the Metropolitan Police. I stand to be corrected but I think that is right.

Q60 John Austin: We should talk to Boris?

Mr Coaker: No. It is just a statement of fact. I think tasers are going to be used under very strict guidance. The officers will be trained. The reaction we have had, not just from police officers but generally from members of the public is that this, as an alternative to either CS spray or in worse situations firearms themselves, is a proportionate and reasonable response. I hope that the Metropolitan Police Authority reflects on what they say, talks to its police officers and sees that this is a proportionate, responsible way forward.

Q61 John Austin: Our inquiry at the moment is about the policing of protest. When we had ACPO and the Met here we did ask about the potential use of tasers in policing protests, possibly if there was a feeling that there was a risk of violence. We had a reply today from Sue Sim which the Committee has only just received, which talks about the deployment of specially trained units. She says in her letter, "The deployment of STUs is very clear and must be when officers or the public are facing or are likely to face serious violence. It is my personal view that I do not see any situation when STUs would be deployed to a protest. Indeed, the very nature of taser is such that it should not be deployed against large numbers of people and officers are trained to use other options when dealing with these situations." Would you therefore concur that the use of tasers is wholly inappropriate when dealing with protests?

Mr Coaker: I agree absolutely with what the Deputy Chief Constable has said in the letter to you. I cannot envisage a situation in which taser, which has a very short range anyway, irrespective of the moral argument around it, practically would be something that would be useful. I cannot see a situation in which it would be appropriate to use taser to control demonstration or protest.

Q62 John Austin: Where would the guidance on that come from? Would that come from the Home Office or would different police forces be able to interpret it differently?

Mr Coaker: The joint guidance with respect to that would be ACPO/Home Office. Ultimately we would be involved in that but in the end it would be ACPO guidance.

Q63 Chairman: Can I ask you about the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on DNA last week? Obviously it is a very recent decision but the implications are pretty wide from the human rights point of view and we can understand where they are coming from. How long do you think it will be before the Home Office makes its mind up about what it is going to do about resolving this quite important decision?

Mr Coaker: It is a very important decision and something we need to reflect on. I cannot say to you exactly how long it will take. I have tried all the way through to be helpful so I am not trying to be unhelpful now. I cannot give you a realistic answer to that, other than to say we will deal with it diligently.

Q64 Chairman: I am sure you will. The question is really I suppose whether you believe it needs primary legislation or whether it can be dealt with more quickly as it was in Scotland.

Mr Coaker: I do not think it needs primary legislation. If I am wrong I will write to the Committee.

Q65 Chairman: I will be writing to the Home Secretary about it, I expect, so a letter will be winging in her direction very, very soon. Going back to the terrorism issue, I have been reminded that in Northern Ireland the police service there made it absolutely clear to us that counterterrorism legislation would never be used against ordinary protestors. Can you give us the same assurance here?

Mr Coaker: I do not think counterterrorism legislation should be used other than to deal with terrorism. Sometimes it is difficult however in certain situations for the police not to use counterterrorism powers in a situation where you might have a protest but a protest that could be used by terrorists in order to bring about a terrorist attack. I say that to be open and frank. If I give you one example, if you have a big protest near a big power station or airport, I think it is very difficult to say that under no circumstances should the police in those situations ever consider using a counterterrorism power when we all know it is perfectly possible for the legitimate protestors to be infiltrated by one or two who may have other desires. We should not use counterterrorism measures automatically or except in a very limited set of circumstances where the intelligence tells you that you may have a threat which you need to deal with.

Q66 Chairman: In those circumstances - if we are talking about an airport perimeter or whatever - what you are saying effectively is that counterterrorism powers should not be used unless there is clear intelligence that there is a terrorist problem?

Mr Coaker: Yes.

Q67 Earl of Onslow: That is a totally different thing from the police slightly using it as a catch all. Somebody might have infiltrated the thing so they were going to use those powers anyway.

Mr Coaker: They will make a risk assessment. I would not expect counterterrorism legislation to be used to deal with public order or protests.

Q68 Earl of Onslow: I do not think anybody would criticise in any way if the police had a smidgeon of evidence that somebody with terrorist inclinations was involved and they should not under those circumstances use terrorist powers, but one would I hope think that, unless they had some evidence that that was going to happen, they would not use terrorist powers.

Mr Coaker: I think that is fair comment. Their intelligence will sometimes lead them to make a risk assessment about situations as well.

Q69 Chairman: Thank you very much. Thank you for coming and talking to us. I hope we can work collaboratively on this as we have in the past.

Mr Coaker: Absolutely. I have a couple of letters to write, which I will do. Thank you very much.