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Demonstrations in Central London

4 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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    "I am informed by the commissioner that 97 people were arrested in the course of the day, on charges including public order offences and assault. A major investigation by the police to detect other offenders, including the perpetrators of the desecration of the Cenotaph and the defacement of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, is already under way.

    "Everyone in our democracy has a right to demonstrate peacefully but no one has a right to demonstrate violently. Yesterday, there was a peaceful demonstration in London by over 2,000 people. That was organised by the TUC to commemorate international workers' day and to campaign for the saving of jobs at Rover's Longbridge plant and elsewhere in the West Midlands. But those peaceful demonstrators were physically denied their right to use Trafalgar Square by the mindless violence of the groups by then occupying the square.

    "What was witnessed in central London yesterday was criminality and thuggery masquerading as political protest. In our democracy there is neither reason nor excuse for such appalling behaviour.

    "A particularly shocking aspect of yesterday's events was the defacing of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and the desecration of the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yet without the sacrifice of the millions who gave their lives to defend our freedoms, no one yesterday would have been enjoying any right to protest at all.

    "The fact that the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has already been cleaned up and, I am told, that no lasting damage has been caused to the Cenotaph is of little comfort to the public for the huge affront caused by this vandalism especially, but not only, to those ex-servicemen who served and saw comrades killed in both world wars.

    "Planning by the police for the weekend's events took place over many months, and took account of all the contingencies which they could identify. The planning took into account the lessons learned from very serious violence which took place in the City of London in June last year.

    "The police devoted greater resources--5,500 officers--to yesterday's situation than they have done for any comparable situation in the past 30 years. Knowing the determination of some of those involved to perpetrate serious violence and disorder, the police had to make a fine judgment that it was better to contain the trouble, as they did, in confined areas than seek to bar people from these areas, with a high risk of wholly unpredictable outbreaks of serious violence to the public as well as to the police and property virtually anywhere else in central London. The police had to make equally fine judgments as to precisely when and where to deploy police in riot gear.

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    "In our system of policing, these decisions are properly ones made by chief officers of police. For the avoidance of doubt, that will remain the situation after the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Greater London Authority and the mayorship come into being in early July. I want, however, to tell the House that the commissioner had and has my full support and confidence in the very difficult decisions which he and his colleagues had to take. As with any large policing operation, the commissioner will be reviewing what happened yesterday and will be discussing this with me. I shall, of course, be ready to respond to any recommendations he makes.

    "I am sure that I speak for the whole House in offering our thanks and gratitude to all those police officers who dealt so professionally, diligently and courageously with the violence which occurred yesterday".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish : My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. Over the weekend, yet again, we saw the police having to deal with mindless thuggery. At least, that was what I thought at first, but it was not mindless thuggery. The people were well minded in what they did and it was highly politically motivated thuggery.

I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords in saying that I am pleased to hear that the injuries incurred by the police and those suffered by a number of members of the public were not serious. I doubt that any noble Lord can fail to be moved by the picture in many of today's newspapers--it was on the front page of the Daily Express--of five year-old Charlotte Rose, in the arms of a policeman, after being hit by a bottle. Not only did the police and their families have their May Day disturbed, but also many people who thought that they could come into central London to enjoy a day out had their day badly disturbed.

I hope that the press and television companies will make available the many pictures and film footage that they have taken so that the police can identify those criminals whom they have not yet identified and arrested. Perhaps the Minister can assure me that approaches will be made to those companies. It may also be worth while the police asking whether any members of the public, who took photographs on their day out in central London yesterday, have any photographs that may help the police to identify the culprits.

On the lead up to yesterday's events, were there discussions between the police authorities and the Home Secretary as to what kind of tactics should be undertaken? Did discussions take place on whether a "softly, softly" approach should be taken, at least at the beginning of the disturbances, in order, as the Minister said, to contain the demonstrators in small areas?

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I noticed a contrast with the way in which the police dealt with demonstrators during the recent visit of the Chinese president.

Is it true that English Heritage advised in favour of protecting the Cenotaph, but that that was rejected as likely to be inflammatory? I do not believe that the demonstrators needed anything to inflame them in their vandalism. Perhaps we should learn some lessons from that. Like everybody, last week I saw some footage of people saying what they would do in Parliament Square. Digging up a bit of turf does not matter one way or the other, although it seems to be an odd way to improve the greenery around us.

Clearly, yesterday's events were bound to be attended by a degree of violence. On the vandalism to the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, I do not suppose that Sir Winston would be bothered because he dealt with the greatest thug in the previous century. I do not suppose a few ghastly people demonstrating how badly behaved they can be would bother him too much.

Do the Government accept that the public will expect the courts to deal very severely with those who come up before them in regard to offences that took place over the weekend? How many of them, I wonder, are in receipt of benefits from the capitalist society and from the workers who pay their taxes against whom they demonstrated and whose day they so badly disturbed? Perhaps the Benefits Agency will look at the photographs to decide whether what certain people were doing comes within the definition of availability for work.

We have seen a number of such civil disobediences. Clearly, protest is part of democracy, but violent protest is not part of democracy. Stopping people by violent means from doing what they legally and legitimately can do is quite simply wrong and has to be stamped upon.

This is the second time that this kind of incident has taken place in London. In a big way we saw a similar disturbance in Seattle and in a more minor way--although just as serious--we have seen another anti-capitalist demonstration even more recently in America. Does the Minister agree with my right honourable friend Steve Norris--as I understand it, the only man who stands between the Prime Minister and Mr Livingstone--who today said that as mayor he simply would not permit such an event to become annual? Next year it should not be a matter of discussing tactics or containment, but whether such a demonstration of this kind should take place at all.

Quite clearly, the people who organised the event--it seems a bit of a contradiction to say that anarchists organise anything--had no intention of it being peaceful. They had every intention that it should be violent. Perhaps the Minister will consider saying that, "Two strikes and you are out; you have done this twice in London in recent times and should not be allowed to do it again".

4.14 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is right that

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we should spend some time discussing the activities of the vicious thugs who were involved in yesterday's totally unacceptable behaviour.

Although I shall try to avoid the response of all too many of us in the past of trying to make recommendations for changes to the law, one or two questions arise. First, is there a requirement to announce, in advance, what demonstrators propose to do? I recognise that yesterday a number of disparate groups were involved, but somebody organised the 500 cyclists who pedalled their way from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square. Clearly, that was organised, so should there be some form of statutory requirement that people who seek to take action of that sort should give several days' advance notice to the police?

Secondly, on the attitude of the courts--a point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish--it is not for us to say what should happen in individual cases when particular persons appear before the courts. However, I believe it would be helpful if the Home Secretary were to ask the Crown Prosecution Service to report to Parliament on the scale of penalties imposed on people convicted of public order offences yesterday and in the previous disturbances in the City of London, so that we can be aware and so that future potential demonstrators can be aware of the penalties to which they could be subjected.

Thirdly, I am sure that all noble Lords are gratified that there were not more police casualties and casualties among innocent members of the public. Will the Minister pass on to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police our congratulations to the police on what they did yesterday and good wishes to those police officers who were injured?

4.17 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their helpful and generous comments and for sharing with me their praise of the police for the way in which they conducted themselves yesterday. I shall do my best to answer the important questions that were asked.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked whether a request would be made for television and media companies and the public to give up photographs so that those responsible for these outrages can be identified. I am happy to say that the answer is yes, and I am also assured that the police themselves took great pains to ensure that there was video coverage of the demonstration. As we know, there is no better evidence than that of photographs or video, from which it is hard to escape.

On discussions between the Home Secretary and the commissioner, there were bilateral discussions and a special discussion some weeks ago. However, I am not in a position to be able to tell the House exactly what was discussed on those occasions.

With regard to the Cenotaph and the protection of monuments, discussions were held with the police about the protection of nationally important monuments in the area covered by the protests. I am

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sure that the bodies responsible for their upkeep will have taken full account of police advice in reaching their decisions on what to do.

In relation to the reference made to one of the candidates in the mayoral election--I do not want to go into the election this afternoon--it will not be up to whoever is successful on Thursday as to whether or not a protest march should take place. As the noble Lord knows well, the current law enables the commissioner and, outside London, district councils to apply for marches to be prohibited when serious public disorder is anticipated and to attach conditions to public assemblies. Whether or not to use the powers is an operational matter for the commissioner or the chief of police in any county.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is right that we have to be careful in relation to the courts. It is important that those who are convicted of committing offences are not only rightly convicted, but also rightly punished. However, as we discussed earlier this afternoon, under our system that must remain a matter for the courts to lay down and not for Parliament or the Home Secretary or the Government. I am sure that we all have our own feelings as to what should happen. I hope I have covered all the questions asked.


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