HL Deb 01 June 1981 vol 420 cc1054-6

2.47 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they propose to equip the police with adequate protective gear for dealing with mob violence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, in recent years a good deal of attention has been given to protective clothing and equipment for the police. In the light of recent serious disorders my right honourable friend the Home Secretary thought it right that there should be a further thorough examination of these matters. Accordingly, on 1st May he appointed a working group to review the work that had been undertaken previously and to consider whether any changes are necessary. The review is to be undertaken as quickly as possible, and we shall report the outcome to Parliament.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I should be very grateful if my noble friend could ask his right honourable friend whether he might consider issuing the police with fireproofed navy blue overalls, whereby their image in the public's eyes would not be reduced. Would he also consider that fibreglass helmets are of great use?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that the use of fire during disturbances is a particularly worrying feature and a dangerous development which we have recently seen. The protective shield which the police can carry, if the chief constable thinks it right, resists attack from burning petrol, and work is in hand on the possible use of fire-resistant materials for uniforms.

With regard to my noble friend's question about helmets, I should like to make the point that there is available a strengthened version of the police helmet with a polycarbonate visor, and various body protectors also, in addition to police shields. But of course these are all matters which are within the operational discretion of a chief constable in a given situation.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, have we no protective material against the fire bomb? Anyone who saw the policeman in Northern Ireland covered in flames—Clive James in the Observer pointed out how horrific this was—must have wondered whether the police have protective clothing, as well as the shields and the other things, to save them from these terrible flames.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the working group referred to in my original Answer which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary set up on 1st May and which consists of representatives of the Home Office, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, the police organisations and the local authorities, will, among other things, be looking most seriously into the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell—namely, the possibilities of further developing the use of fire-resistant materials.

Lord Reigate

My Lords, will this review cover the conditions and the equipment used by other countries?

Lord Belstead

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, might it occur to the Government that a fire bomb such as we have seen on the television being used in Northern Ireland possibly merits a real bullet instead of a plastic one? Should not those conditions really be met with greater severity than we are at present using?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I entirely understand the concern which prompts the question put by the noble Lord, but I think that it is worth noticing that when my right honourable friend the Home Secretary met police representatives before announcing the establishment of the working group on 1st May, they all agreed without any dissenting voice that any departure from traditional policing methods is undesirable.

Lord De Freyne

My Lords, would my noble friend not consider possibly bringing back into this country what was and is used in Northern Ireland—that is, the water cannon?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the use of equipment such as water cannon, can, of course, be effective in certain circumstances, but it could in the long term alienate the public from the police. As I have said, my right honourable friend has set up this working group, which includes representatives of all the police organisations and the local authorities, as well as the Government. I think that this is the right way to proceed and that we now ought to wait until those deliberations are over, when, as I have promised, my right honourable friend will be making a statement.

Lord Hale

My Lords, can the Minister say whether he could add representatives of the London Fire Brigade to the committee, since I understand that they did take special advice on the use of protective metal shields at the time when they decided to abolish the use of asbestos because it was dangerous to firemen?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is absolutely right in what he says as regards the knowledge which is in the possession of fire brigades generally, and I think that that relates, incidentally, to the use of non-inflammable materials for clothing as well. I assure the noble Lord that the working group to which I have referred will take most seriously any information which the fire service can give.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that if, when the deliberations of the working party are completed, the Government are asked to spend money on anything at all to do with helping the police, they will make that money available?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think that we have shown in Government that we will do everything that we can to support the work of the police. Now I think that we must wait to see the results of the deliberations to which I have referred.