HC Deb 15 July 1981 vol 8 cc1177-83
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make the short statement which was requested yesterday in advance of tomorrow's debate by the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on the equipment available to the police. Naturally, the whole House wants to see the police provided with sufficient means of protecting themselves and also of taking positive and effective action to deal with riotous behaviour.

To protect police officers, special helmets are being provided in increasing numbers; fire resistant overalls have been ordered; and so have more standard shields and new lighter shields. Better protection has assisted chief officers in adopting positive tactics to break up violent groups. It is firmly the view of the chief officers who have been most closely involved that their most effective approach lies in training their officers and developing their tactics for mobile and positive public order policing.

But there may be extreme circumstances in which further equipment might be required in dealing with riots. I have, therefore, decided to make available to chief officers, who alone are responsible for the conduct of operations, a range of alternatives.

Different types of water cannon are being looked at by police forces to see which might suit their needs. Additional protection is being provided for normal police vehicles, and the need for specially protected vehicles will be urgently examined.

This brings me to CS gas and plastic bullets. Neither I nor chief officers wish to see these used except in the very last resort and under strict control, but they should be available. Stocks of CS gas have therefore been reviewed, and appropriate groups of officers will be trained in the proper use of plastic bullets. They will be used only on the authority of the chief officer himself. I shall be talking to chief officers about the circumstances in which such authorisation might be given.

In opening tomorrow's debate, I shall be speaking on other aspects of these matters and about the implications for the penal system.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the House asked for this statement today so that the response to it in tomorrow's debate could be considered rather than made impromptu? In the light of that, I at least accept that the Home Secretary may want to incorporate in his opening statement tomorrow the answers to the questions that I shall ask him. I shall ask him four specific questions.

First, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us, either now or tomorrow, the type of CS gas that is to be made available, the rules governing its use and the risks that using it entails? Secondly, may we be assured that the various proposals associated with the right hon. Gentleman after his meeting on Monday evening—but which are not included in the statement—have been abandoned? Thirdly, how, if at all, do "new proposals" for using CS gas and plastic bullets—as the Home Secretary says, in extreme circumstances—differ from the procedures that operate now, were operated at Toxteth and applied before then? Fourthly, will the right hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance that the several chief constables who are opposed to the use of such materials and techniques will not be put under any pressure to adopt them?

Will the right hon. Gentleman prepare his speech for tomorrow's debate on the understanding that, although he is entirely correct to say that the whole House wishes the police to be provided with sufficient means of protecting themselves, some of us are deeply opposed to equipment and techniques that change the character of the British police force in a way that will break down their traditional relationship with those they serve and protect?

Mr. Whitelaw

It would be right to respond to some of the more detailed points in accordance with the reasonable proposal that the right hon. Gentleman has made. I shall, of course, take great care to reply in detail to the right hon. Gentleman's various points. However, there are two general points to which I should reply now.

The first concerns the position of the chief constables. I said in my statement that they alone are responsible for operations. That is crucial to the whole of policing in this country and will remain so. Nothing that I shall do at any time, in any circumstances, will put any pressure on chief constables in the conduct of their operations. That must go for all politicians at all levels in our society. It is extremely important. The equipment will be available. If chief constables do not want to use it, they will not. The decision will be entirely up to them.

Secondly, the House will know that the Government have stood firmly behind the normal community police service. It is vital that in that connection the role and position of the police should be preserved in our society. I strongly defend that. However, if we find ourselves faced with severe violence we are entitled to have the police ready and able to respond to it. I hope that overall we shall be able to make the conditions such that the traditional policing of this country will be preserved.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House is aware that this subject is to be debated tomorrow. I want to give a fair opportunity for questioning but also to be fair to the House in view of all the business that is to follow. I suggest, therefore, that a quarter of an hour for questions, if they are brief and to the point, should cover many hon. Members.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

If my right hon. Friend decides to reopen Rollestone camp, will he appreciate that that decision will be well received locally? Does he remember that on the last occasion it was the prisoners who lived comfortably and those who looked after them—soldiers and police—who had to live rough?

Mr. Whitelaw

It will be necessary to reopen Rollestone camp because of the general overcrowding of the prison system, quite apart from what has happened. What has happened makes it all the more urgent and necessary. Rollestone camp will be staffed on this occasion by prison officers. I am grateful to them for the way in which they have coped in difficult circumstances in recent times. The camp will be staffed by prison officers and, therefore, the situation will be different from the previous occasions when it has been used. I should make it clear that prisoners of all sorts, not just those associated with the riots, will go to Rollestone. It will depend on the suitability of prisoners to go there. They will include all sorts of prisoners serving different sentences.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the Home Secretary recognise that the extremists who have been at work in the recent riots have as their objective the destruction of the relationship of trust between the British public and the police? We should not play into their hands. Therefore, chief constables must be cautious, especially about the use of such things as plastic bullets which pose a potential danger to innocent bystanders, and must make a great effort in building up the community policing on which the relationship has long been based.

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall refer to many of those matters and their implication in my speech tomorrow. This morning I had the opportunity of having a short talk with some of the chief officers of police from the areas particularly affected. They are strongly of the view that the hon. Gentleman has put forward.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be greeted with great satisfaction in the country as a whole, but will he confirm that if it is shown that a change in the law is needed he will have no hesitation in putting proposals to the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

Any new law is a matter which needs careful study to ensure that any proposals that are introduced will help the police and the public in dealing with such problems. In the last 10 days we have all faced entirely new problems in our national life.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

Does the Home Secretary accept that it is welcome to everyone that the most extreme weapons will be used only in the most extreme circumstances? Will he consider before tomorrow the possibility of going further than he went today and reserving to his authority the decision to use extreme weapons?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall consider what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. I should like to discuss that carefully with my colleagues and listen to what right hon. and hon. Members say. Any of my predecessors would confirm that, although that is desirable in principle, circumstances can blow up on the spot very quickly, and even though the Home Secretary is constantly available he is not always in possession of the facts on the ground and it might put him in a difficult position if he had the final authorisation. But I shall consider it.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

To keep matters in perspective, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the vast majority of policing in this country will continue to be traditional, based on consent and not power? Will he confirm that the police did not seek the use of such equipment but that it was forced on them by those who make war on our society? Will he also confirm that the police will receive the best available training not only in the anti-riot equipment but in tactics and deployment so that they will not remain sitting ducks for brickbats and fire-bombs?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We must do everything we can. It is important, following what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, that we should seek to preserve the trust between the police and the community that they serve. Therefore, provisional policing methods are vital. If we have to rely, as we did, on the bravery of the young police officers, it is our duty in the House, and it is expected by the country, to ensure that they are properly equipped and protected for their dangerous task.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many Opposition Members, while accepting completely the need for the police to have proper protection, are concerned that it would appear that the Government are concentrating on dealing with the riots rather than introducing positive proposals to deal with the causes in areas where there have been outbreaks of violence? Accepting that looters and others later took advantage of the situation, can he give us an assurance that urgent measures will be taken to deal with the real problems rather than taking repressive action that in the long run will solve nothing?

Mr. Whitelaw

I promised the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) that I would make this statement today. I am glad that he pressed me to do so because he has been proved correct. At the same time, I said that I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment want to develop in the debate tomorrow our views and our plans on a wider basis. I shall, therefore, reserve those for tomorrow while accepting that we must enable the police to deal with the serious violence immediately and to restore public confidence. I accept and will develop tomorrow the other factors.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

What concern did the Opposition show about the use of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland? Although they may have had their views on the politics of Northern Ireland, they have never expressed concern. Do they think that the people of Northern Ireland are second-class citizens for whom plastic bullets are all right but that when a similar situation arises on this side of the water the appropriate measures should not be used?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am not responsible for what Opposition Members may say at any time. My hon. Friend's remark seemed to be addressed to them. In the interests of having a calm and constructive debate tomorrow, I should be wise not to be drawn further.

Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

I assure the Home Secretary of the firm support of my right hon. and hon. Friends for his measures and for any measures that will strengthen the hand of the police in these unprecedented times. Does he recognise—I heard what he said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)— that the Government will ignore the social factors at their peril and at the peril of the nation? Under successive Governments those factors have given rise to the problems that we now face in Toxteth and Brixton.

Mr. Whitelaw

I give the same reply to the hon. Gentleman as I gave to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). These matters will be developed by myself and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in tomorrow's debate.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

As experience in Northern Ireland with the use of CS gas has shown that it requires special tactics and special equipment, can my right hon. Friend assure me that those are available to the police?

Mr. Whitelaw

I made it clear, and I emphasise, that these weapons will be used only as a last resort. That is the view of the chief constables. It is nevertheless important that there should be training in their use. The police will have that training.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

The Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and various Ministers have correctly paid tribute to the bravery of the police, but will some Minister pay tribute to the bravery of the ambulancemen who do not have the elementary protection afforded to the police? They have called off their industrial dispute because of the riots, even though they have been shabbily treated by Governments of both parties. Their pay structure used to follow that for police pay. As they are in the thick of it, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that they are better treated from the point of view of pay? Will the right hon. Gentleman pay a tribute to them as they are just as important as the police?

Mr. Whitelaw

Without making any commitments of any sort, I gladly applaud the efforts of the fire service, the ambulance services, the law and order services, and many members of the general public, who have done a great deal, frequently in situations of great difficulty, to cool matters. I pay tribute to them all.

Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but is he satisfied that the present law gives police officers immunity against civil court actions brought by those who might suffer injury while anti-riot weapons are being used?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is one of the important legal matters that we are looking into.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Does the Home Secretary realise that, whatever may be the truth of the matter, a large number of those engaged in the recent disturbances sincerely believed that they had previously been subjected to unfair and discriminatory tactics? In that context, has not the relationship between the police and the communities concerned clearly already broken down? The measures that the Home Secretary has proposed today will do nothing to restore it and may exacerbate the position. Will he now acknowledge that the relationship between the police and the community is likely to be forfeited if these measures are introduced?

Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that he will try to deal with the causes, not the symptoms, and at least adopt the suggestion of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) and allow these methods to be used only with his specific agreement?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am certainly not prepared to agree in any circumstances that there can be any excuse for the sort of violence that we have seen on the streets. The hon. Gentleman sought to propose that there was an excuse. [Interruption.] If he did not, I am glad to hear it, but it sounded like it. I do not believe that there can be any such excuse. I have already said that some of the other matters will be discussed tomorrow.

I agree very strongly with what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said about trust between the police and the public. Every effort should be made in this House to cement that trust and not to make it more difficult to achieve. That effort must and will go on. Anyone who went to the areas concerned will know that many people in the communities were prepared to help the police all the time throughout the worst of the troubles. That should be said, too. Trust is, of course, very important, but in the final event it must be right to protect our police when they are protecting us.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

In order to help maintain the morale of the police in Greater London, will my right hon. Friend not only repeat that the Government intend that the Home Secretary shall remain the Metropolitan Police authority but assure the House that the police committee that has been set up by the Greater London Council has no official status, power or authority whatever?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer is "Yes" to both my hon. Friend's questions.

Mr. James A. Dunn (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

Is the Home Secretary aware that anything he may do to provide personal protection for the police will be welcomed and, indeed, supported on both sides of the House? Nevertheless, there are apprehensions, as he will know from his own experience in Northern Ireland. Does he recall that the use of water cannon and CS gas was rejected as operationally unpredictable and unsatisfactory? In those circumstances, will he cause those items to be reviewed as part of the equipment to be provided? Will he study more intently the need for one single authority to authorise the use of such weapons in any circumstances?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that I am correct in saying that in Northern Ireland it was not so much a question that the authorities decided not to use CS gas and water cannon but that rubber bullets would be more satisfactory. It is my apprehension about rubber bullets—an apprehension that is shared by many hon. Members—that leads me to the belief that it is right to provide a wide variety of equipment such as I am proposing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side of the House.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Is it not preferable that my right hon. Friend should adopt a firm and measured approach to these very serious problems and should confine the special measures which are necessary to the regular police rather than to any riot police force on the Continental pattern?

Mr. Whitelaw

There is no intention in the Government's mind to have riot police on the Continental pattern, but it is important that the mobile groups which all forces must have should have proper training and equipment for riot control. This they will have. It is also important that a large number of police officers should have training in all these tactics in case they are required on the streets.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Now that the Home Secretary has abdicated his responsibilities by handing full authority to chief constables, how can he give assurances, either to the House or to trade unionists outside, that these weapons will not be used against trade union picket lines or trade union demonstrators? In view of the record of the Government, as we proceed towards 3 million unemployed the Home Secretary should reconcile himself to the inevitability, as night follows day, of these weapons being used against peaceful demonstrators.

Mr. Whitelaw

It is in the nature of policing in this country—which I understood the Labour Party and its leaders supported strongly—that no politician, neither the Home Secretary nor any local politician, should have operational control of chief constables. There is no question of abdicating responsibility. It is a matter of carrying out the duties laid upon any Home Secretary by the Police Act 1964. That is very important.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about picket lines, I believe that in this House there is great and proper belief and trust in our chief constables. That is an important factor.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in spite of some of the views expressed on the Labour Benches, the vast majority of the people want the police to have all the aids and weapons necessary to enable them to fulfil their duties and keep the peace?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and I support his point of view.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

Does the Home Secretary recollect that yesterday the Prime Minister asked the Leader of the Opposition whether he supported the use of water cannon and CS gas? Is it not clear from the Home Secretary's statement today that he and, indeed, most chief officers of police do not support the use of CS gas and would wish to use it only in extreme circumstances? Does not that underline the point that partisan remarks on the issue of law and order do not advance one iota the cause of freedom or democracy?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. My statement about equipment for the police was perfectly plain. I made it clear—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has always made it clear—that use of these weapons will be a matter of last resort. That is also the view of the chief constables, as I made clear to the House.