HL Deb 15 July 1981 vol 422 cc1250-7

3.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Home Office) Lord Belstead

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

"Mr. Speaker, with permission, 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 honourable gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook 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.

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

That, my Lords, is the Statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating in the House the Statement of the Home Secretary. I am sure that the House will welcome the first part of the Statement, that the police should be provided with sufficient means of protecting themselves. Indeed, in the House on several occasions noble Lords have spoken of the need in particular for fire resistant overalls and other wear and for special helmets to protect the heads of officers, many of whom have been so grievously injured, and also of the need for more effective shields. But more questons are likely to arise about the circumstances in which the other type of weaponry, if that is the right way to describe it—

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)


Lord Elwyn-Jones

Yes, equipment. I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord. As always, he is most helpful on these occasions. Namely, CS gas and plastic bullets, can be used. This will introduce a new dimension into the English scene. The noble Lord may have seen the observations in a statement attributed to Mr. Terry, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is reported in today's Guardian: that there is a worry throughout the police forces that they might be turning to what might be seen as the Continental system of offensive policing on behalf of the Government rather than protective policing on behalf of the community. Another fear among police officers, said Mr. Terry, is that the appearance of the new weapons on the streets might lead to an escalation in the violence of rioters. I have no doubt that serious thought will be given to those observations.

With regard to CS gas, may I ask the Minister what type of CS gas is to be used? Is there a standard type, or is there a more or less offensive—I mean offensive to the nostrils of the body—type? Perhaps we might obtain some guidance about that.

With regard to the use of plastic bullets, in a situation short of the civil war which we have in Northern Ireland where real bullets are used against the police, will there not be a proper repugnance about the use in this country—in the present situation, at any rate—of guns by the police, just as there will be about the use—in present conditions, at any rate—of CS gas? Both are liable to cause indiscriminate harm to innocent bystanders as well as to the wrongdoer. One can well imagine the appalling consequences which might arise from, say, the accidental killing of a child on the streets of one of our cities. Perhaps, therefore, the noble Lord could elaborate upon the circumstances, which the Home Secretary is to discuss with chief officers, in which authorisation for the use of this equipment, to use the neutral phrase of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, though one could think of more fierce words, could be applied for.

Obviously, we want the police to be properly protected. As to the use of water cannon, what the experience in Germany and indeed in Northern Ireland, has been about the use of water cannon and its effectiveness perhaps the noble Lord can tell us. There is danger—I will not put it more strongly than that—as again another chief constable has apparently said, that the new weaponry comes too soon and that the scale of rioting is not yet large enough to justify such a response.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, while agreeing that the police must have the equipment necessary to defend society and to defend themselves, will the noble Lord not agree that those misguided persons who would like to promote rioting in this country have a vested interest, not only in escalating violence, but in escalating the response to violence, and is this not one of the great dangers of the present situation? Has not Northern Ireland taught us that it is virtually impossible to retrace one's steps once one has taken a step forward in response to violence?

While I would distinguish between the selective use of water cannon—and indeed CS gas—in certain circumstances, will the noble Lord enlarge upon the need for the use of plastic bullets in the present situation? It seems to me to be an unacceptable response to the present situation.

Another point on which I should like to ask the noble Lord a question is that: while I think every law-abiding citizen would agree that once one has a riotous situation it is first of all necessary to restore confidence in the security forces and in law and order, nevertheless would it not be more acceptable to the community at large if the Government expressed understanding of the underlying causes of the present discontent and the hope of remedying that situation?

The last question that I want to ask is this: in the light of the fact that some innocent people have been injured in the riots, would it not be an appropriate moment to call attention to the provisions of the Criminal Injuries Act and the procedure by which innocent people who have been injured may obtain compensation without necessarily the apprehension of the wrongdoers?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if I may, I shall reply to both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who in essence both said the same thing, in the sense that the noble and learned Lord spoke of a new dimension in the English scene and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, spoke of those who wished to promote violence wanting to see an escalation of response. The reply I give to both noble Lords is that the decisions which have been made about equipment are precisely directed to promoting public confidence in the ability of the police to deal with a wave of violence of a new intensity, and the fact that the police must have equipment available to them to use as a last resort will, I give an assurance to both noble Lords, in no way reduce police efforts to enhance day by day ordinary contact between the police and the public, on which we all know the real value of policing in this country depends.

So far as concerns CS gas, which the noble and learned Lord specifically asked me about, of course this is a substance which has been available for some years. I only know of one form of CS gas—there may be others. What I do know about is that it was used, in the last resort in a most serious situation on Merseyside; in a situation which did not, so far as I know, cause any lasting harm to anyone but it dealt with that situation on that particular occasion. Chief officers would employ it only against violence which could not otherwise be contained and it would be delivered only by officers who would be fully trained in its use and in its effects.

So far as the very serious matter of plastic bullets is concerned, here again I join with both noble Lords in expressing my right honourable friend's extreme distaste in having to consider this matter at all, but plastic bullets would only be used as a matter of last resort and would only be used by officers who would be fully trained.

With regard to water cannon, as I understand it, there are two types available through the Ministry of Defence. I should prefer not to speak specifically about them this afternoon because I expect that my right honourable friend may have more to say in another place tomorrow and anyway, from the point of view of your Lordships' House, the police themselves are deciding what in this particular respect would best meet their needs.

Finally, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, the noble Lord asked me whether the Government should not look more closely, in the Statement being made, at the underlying causes. This is a matter to which I know my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will wish to address himself in the debate tomorrow, but nothing can excuse the criminal violence which started in Toxteth some nine days ago and which we have seen repeated in other parts of the country. The effects of that can be relieved, but no more than relieved, by the criminal injuries legislation to which I referred specifically when I repeated the Statement following the Toxteth disturbances.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, while welcoming the noble Lord's statement, which is a great deal better than the very weak statement on the same subject which was issued as a press handout after a meeting not long ago, may I ask that, while speed is obviously important here, we should see no panic, because what is necessary is considerable study to make up for the wasted years during which not enough attention has been paid to the whole question of street disorder and the means which are necessary to combat it, which ought to have been apparent to us from what we have seen on the Continent.

I was glad to hear the noble Lord say that tactics are as important as equipment and that no equipment is for universal application. As one of the probably few Members of this House who have had instruction in the use of the water cannon, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will consider the types of water cannon available on the Continent, particularly Germany, as well as those which happen at this time to be in the North of Ireland, and will he ensure that, at the end, the final outcome is a system which is common to all our forces?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords—

Lord Denham

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, will forgive me, my noble friend at this stage normally answers questions one at a time, so perhaps the noble Lord would ask his question after that.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, will allow me, I do not know to what statement my noble friend Lord Inglewood was referring at the beginning of his supplementary question. I am not aware of any weak statement which has been made as a result of these very serious matters which started to occur nine days ago.

So far as the effect of equipment is concerned, may I simply add to what I said to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that I think upon having the right equipment for the police depends, at the present time, the confidence of the general public and upon the confidence of the general public depend, once again, better and closer relations between police and public, upon which so much depends for good policing in this country.

The noble Lord asked me a specific question about water cannon: I repeat that it is the police service themselves who are now looking into the choices of water cannon and I think this is a matter about which we should rely upon their professional judgment.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, in fact the noble Lord has answered my question, so I will put it briefly. Is the noble Lord aware that, according to all the evidence, public opinion is determined that the police should have everything they need to control riots, and what is important (which is well explained in the statement) is that this should be used only under the very strictest supervision and as a last resort?

Lord Belstead

Yes, my Lords, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for putting those points to me.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, may I ask a simple question? Reference has been made to the use of lethal weapons by the police and various speakers have sought to safeguard against that possibility, but nobody has mentioned the possibility of the use of lethal weapons by rioters. In those circumstances, what are the police expected to do? Are they to refrain from using plastic bullets or CS gas or weapons of that kind? Has that consideration occurred to the Home Secretary?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, and indeed I think my right honourable friend's thinking is exactly the same as the noble Lord's thinking upon this.

A noble Lord

I do not think so.

Lord Belstead

Well, I have mistaken what the noble Lord said. I understood the burden of the noble Lord's remarks to be that if those who are rioting are availing themselves of weapons of various kinds is it not then important that the police should be equipped to be protected? I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that that is what he said, and therefore my right honourable friend's thinking is exactly the same as Lord Shinwell's on that particular matter. But it goes one step further, indeed two steps further. If the police are properly protected they can take positive action to end the riots which are causing such misery to law-abiding people. From that comes the further point that once that has been achieved we may be able to get back to the close connection between the police and the community upon which, I repeat, so much depends in this country for good policing.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is not perhaps the most important word in the Statement "available" because this applies to the defensive equipment which is very definitely needed at this moment, but "available" does not mean that the offensive weapons will necessarily be used.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, again I would not wish to add to what my noble friend has said.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I think there are no differences between any of us on the desirability of the police being fully protected by all available means. I think perhaps where the difference—

Several noble Lords


Lord Jenkins of Putney

May I ask the noble Lord to accept that there is no difference between us about the question of the complete desirability to provide the police with every possible protection. There is, however, a difference of emphasis when we move on to the question—

Several noble Lords


Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am sorry; I ought to know this after 15 years in another place. May I ask the noble Lord to accept also that there is a difference of emphasis between us when we move into the question of retaliatory action by the police. Is the noble Lord aware that CS gas was abandoned some time ago in Northern Ireland because it was felt to be too dangerous? Is he further aware that water cannons were described by the Northern Ireland press office as being worse than useless? Is he further aware that people in Northern Ireland have been killed by plastic bullets? When we move into this area, is the noble Lord aware that some of us feel that great caution needs to be used before any freedom of action is allowed in that way, and that this is a matter which should remain firmly under the control of the Government?

Lord Belstead>

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks of retaliatory action. I think it is important to say that my right honourable friend sees the need for positive action being made fully practicable for the police by the provision of the right equipment. We know that our police forces in this country, if they are properly equipped, even in these very difficult circumstances, can take positive action to end the misery that is being caused by these riots. With regard to all the various pieces of equipment the noble Lord mentioned in the second part of his supplementary question, I should like to underline once again that the Statement makes it quite clear that the very greatest care will be taken by chief constables, who are operationally responsible—the Government, of course, are not operationally responsible in these matters—before considering the use of these things only in the last resort.

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords, would my noble friend do everything that he can to assure senior police officers that the country is solidly behind them in trying to put an end to these riots? I understood, from the comment from a chief constable to which Lord Elwyn-Jones referred, that there was some worry that the Government might be responsible for bringing in this new equipment or these weapons. Is it not absolutely certain that there is no division between the police and the community with regard to this? The community are the people who need protection, and the chief constables are the only people who can use these weapons.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, again I would not wish to add anything to what my noble friend said at the end of his supplementary question. So far as his initial remarks are concerned, I think what he said will be much appreciated by the police.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us in all parts of the House would react much in the same way as he has done; namely, towards greater severity. But will he reflect that in most countries of the world where there are fiercer police there are also fiercer riots, and which is the chicken and which is the egg it is often hard to tell. Let him dwell on that with some care. Further, does the noble Lord understand that many of us would be a great deal happier if there were some indication that the Government intend to concentrate a good deal more strongly than appears to be the case at first sight on the underlying reasons for these very regrettable and dismaying disturbances, and that this is nothing to do with plastic bullets or water cannon.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this, of course, was a Statement requested by the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the right honourable gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook, and it was to be on equipment, paving the way for the debate in another place tomorrow. That is why the Statement does not go into the causes. But I repeat—I hope the noble Lord and the Government can meet on common ground about this—that however worrying the causes may be, nothing, but nothing, can excuse or in any way condone the appalling violence we have seen in the last nine or 10 days.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister accept that I understand the relationship between the Home Secretary and the chief constables, but would he also not agree that, in view of the very great importance of exercising the strictest control if it were to come to a question of using plastic bullets, in no matter what area of the country, this is a matter which really would be such a new departure in England and Wales that the Government, and the Home Secretary, should be consulted before any chief constable were to have resort to these weapons?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, at the very end of the Statement there are the words "I shall be talking"—meaning my right honourable friend will be talking—"to chief officers about the circumstances in which such authorisation should be given", and that authorition referred to plastic bullets and the use of CS gas. I know that the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will be taken into account in any discussions which my right honourable friend will have.

Lord Pargiter

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that the object of providing the police with greater protection is in order to enable them to move into the crowd instead of standing distant from them, as they have to at the present time, in the light of petrol bombs and things of that kind. In those circumstances having regard to the anxiety there is about the use of plastic bullets, if the object of the police is to get into crowds and break them up, plastic bullets used in those circumstances would be very dangerous. In those circumstances, would it not be wise to lay less emphasis on plastic bullets and leave them very much in abeyance, and see what arises from other actions before there is any question of the possible use of plastic bullets?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think there is no disagreement between the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, on this matter. The noble Lord has put in very clear terms what I have referred to as positive police action in these very difficult circumstances. So far as other pieces of equipment are concerned, what the Statement is saying is that these should be available but only used as a last resort. That was the intention and the only intention.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I think, with respect, that we have had a good run on what is a limited, though important, Statement, and I suggest that we go on to the next business.