HC Deb 20 November 1956 vol 560 cc1705-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Godber.]

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

A fortnight ago, during consideration by the House of the Sessional Orders which normally are passed before any other business is taken, the House will recall that several hon. Members raised the question of the use of mounted police, particularly in dealing with demonstrations and large crowds. On that occasion a number of remarks were made with which I violently disagreed, but I did not feel disposed to take part in the discussion, firstly because the range of the discussion was limited very narrowly to the Order concerning the passage-ways outside the House, and particularly because there were matters which I wished to verify. I have since done that, and that is why I wish to raise this subject now.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) present, because it was he who raised the matter then, and I violently disagreed with one or two of his opinions. He considered that the use of mounted police was inefficient and provocative, and he suggested that they should be abolished. They are highly efficient in that they save manpower. The opinion was expressed in an article in The Times a few months ago that, from the point of view of controlling crowds, one mounted police officer was equal to 12 or 15 foot police. Some police authorities have put the figure as high as 20.

The uniformed branch of the Metropolitan Police is 4,000 short of establishment, according to the Report of the Commissioner of Police for 1955. Out of a total establishment of 18,000, that means that the branch is roughly 22 per cent. under strength. The mounted branch, on the other hand, according to the same Report, has a strength of 203 out of 210, which is about 3½ per cent. under strength. I suggest, therefore, that from the point of view of saving manpower alone, leaving out any other consideration, it is imperative to keep the mounted branch in being.

Demonstrations, of course, do not make the only kind of crowd in which mounted police are used. There are the crowds attending football matches, for instance, as I know from my own experience. I cite the Cup Final as an obvious example in my constituency. I recall the occasion in 1923 when the crowd broke into the ground at Wembley Stadium and order was restored apparently by one mounted police officer who appeared on a grey horse. That incident alone would justify the existence of the mounted police.

Nowadays, mounted police are used in Wembley to keep the crowds on the pavement, for example on Olympic Way, thus enabling traffic to move away quickly from events at the Stadium. They are also used to keep the crowds in queues outside Wembley Park Station so that there is order on the pavement as well as on the road. If there were no mounted police to carry out those duties, many more foot police would be needed.

There are the questions of mobility and visibility. I wonder what could be substituted for the horse to give the same visibility. It could only be some kind of car, higher than a normal one, and perhaps being the height of an armoured car. A motor car or motor cycle would be far more likely to cause injury among a crowd than a horse would. A horse will not trample on anyone unless it is frightened or attacked.

It is suggested that mounted police charge crowds. When I think of the word "charge", I think of the charge of the Light Brigade or the charge of the Lancers at Omdurman in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) took part. From what I have seen, mounted police do not usually charge into a crowd in that way. They either walk their horses or trot them. There is no question of cantering or galloping. I believe the horses are very highly trained, and so are their riders.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) has said that mounted police have to control their horses as well as the crowd. Many of us know that a trained horse is not difficult to control in normal circumstances. How much easier it must be for expert riders like mounted police officers to control horses which they ride every day. Control of their horses is absolutely second nature to them.

As to provocation, far from being provocative, mounted police at football matches or Royal processions are usually a source of great admiration. I suggest—I exempt hon. Members from this stricture—that the people who are provoked by mounted police are those who dislike being stopped by any kind of force from doing just what they want to do.

It has been suggested that crush barriers might be used as an alternative. They would have to be something that people could not climb over or get under, probably something like those which are erected in the side streets at Coronation time to keep crowds off the main route. It was suggested that steel tubes might be sunk into the ground, possibly to be raised automatically by the police. Such a method would be enormously expensive and completely inflexible. Foot or mounted police controlling a crowd at a football match are a flexible instrument.

We are also told that mounted police are never used elsewhere. However, I understand that there are 24 police forces in England and Wales and two in Scotland which have mounted branches. I believe that the total strength of the mounted police outside London is about equal to that inside London, so that we have some 400 altogether. The cities which use them include Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol and Glasgow. No doubt there are others. Presumably the chief constables concerned, like the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, consider their use essential. I believe mounted police are used abroad in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, New York and elsewhere. Perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary can give other examples.

The members of the mounted branch of the Metropolitan Police are very highly trained and superbly turned out. They are a body greatly admired and respected by the vast majority of the population. I believe their use is efficient and saves the employment of a great many foot police. They deserve our wholehearted support and not criticism. I hope my hon. Friend will give an assurance that there is no question whatever of their being abolished.

Lastly, I would pay tribute to the police as a whole, both mounted and foot, for the way in which they carried out a vast number of extra duties at the beginning of this month, when the Suez crisis was at its height and Hungary was being crushed. They had to keep crowds from the Soviet Embassy and handle the protest marches to this House and to Trafalgar Square, as well as perform the duties attaching to the State Opening of Parliament and the Lord Mayor's Show. Our thanks are due to them for the splendid way in which they carried out all these duties, some of them very onerous, and often in very difficult circumstances.

11.31 p.m.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

The hon. Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell) has just delivered almost a Ministerial defence of the mounted police, and with nearly all of it I found myself in agreement. I am glad that in these calmer moments it is possible to pay a tribute to the way in which the police carry out their normal duties.

I was an eye-witness, a very careful one, of the demonstration on the Saturday afternoon, and I got as near as I could to it. I did not want to go there a second time and be a "tramplee" of the Home Secretary's forces, and I did not want to get myself arrested. I want to pay a tribute to the work of the foot police in Whitehall on that afternoon. It was an astonishing contrast to see the turmoil and confusion on one side of Whitehall and the calm that existed on the other side.

I saw a short policeman in the gutter slowly waving his white mackintosh and saying to the people, with perfect courtesy, "Would you please keep moving" and hundreds and hundreds of people at once turning round and going the other way up Whitehall. There was here no question of large numbers of police, but of the comparative efficiency of this officer. The only criticism I make is of the use of the police and not of the individual police officers.

I raised my criticism on the very special case of dealing with peaceful demonstrations which attempt to approach Government buildings or this House and are largely composed of people who do not set out with malicious intent to cause disorder or to get themselves involved in situations which are frightening. The particular instance which I tried to raise with the Home Secretary was one which I saw. I am glad this opportunity enables me to say what certainly exercised your patience, Mr. Speaker, when I tried to put a supplementary question to the Minister.

On that Saturday afternoon there was an officer on a dapple-grey horse. As to technique, I cannot agree that it was a matter of walking. The decision as to what had to be done for shifting the thousands of people and keeping them moving was taken at a high level. As I walked down Whitehall, I was chuckling to myself and thinking "The police are extremely crafty. We shall all find ourselves in Parliament Square." It all happened in a contrary sense, because the police were driving people, who could not possibly move because of the press behind them. The idea of taking them section by section may appear very efficient on paper, but if anything goes wrong and people must veer round on other people and you start driving them back again, the crowd gets enraged.

A few yards from me I saw this officer on the dapple-grey horse wheeling round with other officers. He was moving the stern of his horse round just at the moment when a woman decided that it would be a sensible thing to make a run for the pavement. The horse knocked her down and walked over her, trampled on her. Thousands of people saw the incident and uttered their protests. It was obvious that this officer was going to be a marked man. I saw his embarrassment, the hasty conversation with his colleagues and the room made for him to get in among them out of the way. On the following day that horse was recognised, and it was on that horse that the more indignant demonstrators moved in their charges.

I think that that officer was in an impossible position. I am prepared to say that the actual incident of the woman was an accident. But it was inevitable in the circumstances. That is the point I wish to make, and I use the words "provocative" and "inefficient." My case is that the clearing of the crowd was not efficiently done, because that sort of action by the police enrages and frightens the crowd.

I believe that the job could more easily be done by foot policemen. I have no doubt that a foot policeman at a football match or a flower show is a different proposition. One can ask him what he wants one to do, but one cannot ask half a dozen horses which are trampling people down. I suggest that we shall have to come back to this question of the handling of peaceful demonstrations approaching Downing Street and Parliament Square, and of the use of this "Whitehall cavalry" as a weapon of political censorship in the hands of the Home Secretary for the suppression of political expression by the people on such occasions.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell) in this matter of the use of horses in the police force. I am very surprised to hear that a horse has actually trampled on someone. It is the first time I have ever heard of such a thing in the use of horses, particularly in the use of those specially trained horses of the police force. Even after the description that has been given to us tonight of what happened, I very much doubt whether the horse actually trod on the person, because that is the very thing that these horses are trained not to do. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to get any horse to injure a human being, because that is the last thing it wants to do.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

It might if it were frightened.

Mr. Gurden

Police horses are trained not to be frightened. They are taken through a very rigid course of training with all sorts of noises and demonstrations, and the like, so that they will rot be frightened in times of stress.

I should like my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to draw attention to another aspect of this matter. When this question was debated in this House on a previous occasion, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) referred to the attempts that were made by some people in the crowd to bring down the horses by throwing glass marbles on the ground. To people who do not know anything about horses that may appear to be amusing. I think it is an act of diabolical cruelty.

As I have said, these horses are trained to avoid injuring people, and their use in such circumstances is the kindest possible way of trying to clear a crowd, far kinder than the methods being used in Hungary at the present time. Horses are very long-suffering animals. There is no end to their patience and to their service to man. They will work and die for humans. I feel strongly that any act of cruelty to horses such as that of throwing glass marbles on to the ground is something to be deprecated.

I should like to hear from my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State that he will give instructions that people acting in this way should be prosecuted. Action ought to be taken against them. It is about the cruellest thing that can be done to a horse, and I believe that it is not the first time that it has happened. It is the sort of thing that could cause horses to panic and do damage. If anything could cause them to panic, this would be the most likely provocation. I hope that everyone will take note of what I have said on this matter, because it is extremely serious.

11.41 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell) has raised this subject, and the police forces concerned, principally the Metropolitan, will be grateful for what he said. He has concerned himself, as I shall, with the practical value of mounted police. That is solid ground, and it is very desirable to be on solid ground when discussing in this country the merits of the horse, irrespective of the rider. It has been said—I hope I may interpolate this—that, to get the best of all worlds, in America one should be a woman, in France one should be a man and in England one should be a horse. There is just enough truth in that to enjoin caution when one is discussing the merits of horses in this country.

The hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) spoke as an eyewitness of one occasion. Perhaps I may say that during the last 25 years I have been an eye-witness of the principal and most critical occasions on which mounted police have been used in London. I saw professionally all the unemployed demontrations in the early 30's, nearly all the occasions involving Mosley in 1936 and all the ceremonial events which attracted the largest crowds in those years. I must say—even if it were not my job to say so—that those events left me not only with admiration for the mounted police but with the conviction that they are indispensable for certain solid practical reasons. I am thinking mainly of London. My hon. Friend asked me about other places. There are 17 city and borough forces and four county forces with horses in the country, but their problems are not comparable with those of London. I have not much information about police horses abroad, and I do not think it would be relevant to our problem if I had.

I have clear recollections of the occasions on which I have seen mounted police most heavily engaged, and it is not simply a question of defending them for their forbearance, patience and skill, all of which were in evidence—I do not think the hon. Member for Paddington, North contests this—in the more recent events, despite allegations to the contrary and despite one account which appeared in The Economist and which I must say was not in accordance with the traditions of that paper.

Generally speaking, mounted police are a positive factor for public safety. That is because very large crowds, even those with harmless intentions, are not only unpredictable but can be self-destructive. Unless they are carefully shepherded they can inflict serious injuries on themselves.

Hon. Members have referred in this context to the use of crush barriers as an alternative. They are a valuable aid which can be used only to deal with a stationary crowd. What has to be said against them is that they are inflexible, and a very large crowd may become an irresistible force meeting an immovable object and so inflict damage on those on the outskirts of the crowd.

It has been said that mounted police are psychologically and politically provocative. I will not argue that; I think it depends on one's psychology. But they have a number of positive advantages to offset any such allegation, and I should like to mention one or two of them.

We think that trained mounted police are a better alternative to methods used in other countries which have been mentioned—fire hoses, tear gas, fire-arms, carbines and armoured cars. Undoubted- ly a few can achieve what many foot police cannot achieve. Notwithstanding the tribute which the hon. Member for Paddington, North paid to what the foot police did on a recent occasion, this remains true—without mounted police there are occasions when foot police might have to use their truncheons, and they might have to use them more often. They were not drawn on either of the recent occasions in London.

The second factor is that both men and horses are highly trained to deal sensibly and sensitively—and I stress, sensitively—with sudden movements in crowds. Mounted police have a height and a mobility which gives them an advantage over the man on foot; they can see what is happening before the man on foot, and they can get to a particular spot more quickly than he can. On occasions, they provide a flexible barrier, which can move as and when the crowd presses.

Thirdly, and this is in accordance with my own truthful observation, relations between the crowd and the mounted police are normally good-tempered. There are exceptions of course, but that is the normal relation. If we are to discuss psychological relationships, I think it is fair to say that a policeman on a horse is no more provocative than a policeman in a car—certainly in an armoured car, to which my hon. Friend referred—or on a motor-cycle. When tempers are roused and vented, and I think that that is inevitable on certain occasions, the chances are that they will be vented on the law in any shape. That is human nature, and there is little we can do about that.

It is quite fruitless to pretend that all those engaged in these demonstrations, whatever their source, have wholly innocent intentions. There are a few with mischief in mind. That draws a large crowd of onlookers—idle onlookers, it may be—and that leads to the danger. That is the dangerous combination in London, to which the mounted police are an effective counter. It is noteworthy, as I think I mentioned the other day in reply to a Question, that in the recent demonstrations—and it very often does happen—the police actually suffered more casualties than did the public.

Finally, I think this ought to be emphasised, although it has not been raised. The usefulness of the mounted police is not confined to demonstrations of a political character. They have become a part of London's ceremonial scene, but they play far from a decorative part only, because the crowds attending ceremonial occasions are not without an element of considerable danger—and I have seen it. Here, too, the mounted police can provide a margin of safety, for very large crowds out of control, simply by their own weight, can only be checked and dispersed by mounted men.

Perhaps I might just sum up. Against the allegation that the appearance of mounted police is provocative—which I contest, but it is at least arguable—I submit that mounted police have a number of functions which still make them indispensable. It is fair to say, on competent authority, that occasions may arise when, without them, it would be necessary to call in troops to aid the civil power. As for their abolition, about which my hon. Friend asked, I saw that the Commissioner of Police was reported in the Sunday Times as saying that without horses he would not be responsible for law and order in London. I think that that is not an individual view. I feel that it was the view of his predecessors, and that it is likely to be the view of his successors.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

In the few seconds that remain to me, I should like to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) said about the behaviour of the foot police on that occasion. I was present at the demonstration. It was extremely good-humoured, and the behaviour of the police was exemplary. The trouble started only when the mounted police were brought into use. It is indisputable that, but for the arrival of the mounted police, there would have been no trouble on that occasion. That was the view of member" of the Press, members of the party, and Members of the House. It is too late to discuss the psychological effect of the; presence of mounted police, but the hon. Gentleman should appreciate that henceforward we on this side will watch very carefully the conduct of the mounted police on any such future occasion in the Metropolis.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.