HL Deb 19 November 1985 vol 468 cc487-9
Lord Inglewood

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many German water cannon have been brought into this country over recent years; what training has been carried out in co-operation with a German police team; and what are their plans for the use of water cannon in areas where there is risk of major disorder.

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

My Lords, two water cannon were borrowed for six months in 1982 from West Germany for examination by Home Office scientists and the police. Four West German police officers came to London for a fortnight to familiarise operators with the use of the machines. Two prototype vehicles have since been built in this country under contracts awarded by the Home Office. We are considering, particularly in the light of the recent riots, whether they have a role to play in dealing with public disorder.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, that is a very satisfactory first reply to this Question. However, considering the controversy which there is bound to be and the fact that there cannot be very many of us who have had experience of these water cannon, would it not be good if a party were organised of Members of this House who were interested to go to Hendon, or wherever it may be, to learn how effective they are?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think the important point is that the examination of these machines by those who are looking at them takes place fully first. I do not think I can really commit myself here at this Box to any visits by my noble friend or any others at this stage.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can the noble Lord give us further and better particulars of these German water cannon? What qualities have they that British water cannon, if any, do not possess? Is there some special attraction of the German police which is now coming forward with approval in the Home Office?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, it is true that in years past we had our own water cannon, and they were used in the early 'seventies in Northern Ireland, as the noble and learned Lord will remember. We have not used them at all regularly since then, but the Germans and other nations have. It was important that we looked at current ranges of vehicles.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I and, I feel sure, other noble Lords are relieved to know that the Government are proceeding with great caution in this matter? Is the noble Lord also aware that there are grave objections to using water cannon in the narrow streets of our inner cities, as distinct from open spaces? Is he further aware that, to my knowledge, the only water cannon used by the RUC in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s were not used later for that very reason, and, as far as I know, have been scrapped?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right, there are difficulties in their deployment in narrow streets, with parked cars and that sort of thing. However, I am sure that the most important matter is to prevent the situation arising where this kind of measure is necessary in the first place.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that fires have been one of the major features of the riots in our inner cities, is there any hope that the use of water cannon might have the double purpose of suppressing riots and also minimising the amount of fire-raising that is carried out?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think the major difficulty is that water cannon do not carry the necessary quantity of water with them to suppress fires in the way that my noble friend would like.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, further to the question put to him by his noble friend, will the noble Lord bear in mind that well-fed, well-clothed and well-housed people tend not to riot?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the fact is that we have been faced with riots. As I said just now in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, it is important that we make every effort to prevent the kind of situation occurring in which in any sense it might be necessary to use measures of the kind for which water cannon were designed.

Lord Carver

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister not agree that it is preferable to give the police the option of squirting people with water rather than be forced to use CS gas or fire plastic bullets at them?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, yes, I think the noble and gallant Lord is right in saying that one can think of a scenario in which drenching with water would be preferable to the use of either CS gas or plastic bullets. However, I still stand by what I said: that it is important that the situation should not arise at all.