HL Deb 02 April 1990 vol 517 cc1124-35

4.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement about the disorder in central London on Saturday 31st March, which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"It is with a sense of outrage that I make this Statement today, outrage which I am sure is shared by all Members of the House. Right honourable and honourable Members will have seen on television some of the acts of criminal violence and viciousness which occurred and which no decent person could fail to condemn without reservation.

"At the end of the day's event 339 people had been arrested for public order and other criminal offences, including riot, affray and criminal damage. Three hundred and seventy four officers of the 2,198 deployed in the police operation were injured, of whom 58 required hospital treatment. Several officers were knocked unconscious. Others received head injuries, and one officer sustained a fractured jaw and is still in hospital and has either had or is about to have an operation. Eighty six members of the public have reported injuries, some being in no way concerned in the demonstration but bystanders who were attacked by the mob. Forty police horses were used. Twenty were injured. There have been about 250 reports of damage to property but the full extent of it has yet to be assessed.

"Turning to the day's events, at about noon the demonstrators wishing to take part in the march began to assemble at Kennington Park, and at 1 p.m. they set off. More or less at the outset a group tried to take over the head of the march, but the police and stewards prevented them. As, however the march went up Whitehall, small groups began to leave the main body and congregate opposite the entrance to Downing Street. A group sat down, partly obstructing the remainder of the march and encouraging others to do so. Most marchers carried on. Another group attempted to pull down the barriers and break the police line. Some arrests were made and further officers were called up in support, but the troublemakers refused to move on and increasingly the police line came under violent attack from missiles. Meanwhile the remainder of the march had been halted at the bottom of Whitehall and a previously agreed diversion was set up which sent them up Bridge Street, Victoria Embankment and Northumberland Avenue.

"The police had by then brought in mounted officers to help move the hard core of troublemakers up Whitehall and into Trafalgar Square; and when this was achieved a cordon was set up on the junction of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. This cordon, however, came under severe attack from people in the square.

"At 4.40 p.m. the rally ended and most of those assembed dispersed peacefully. But about 3,000 troublemakers remained behind, the hard core having assembled near the building site at the corner of Northumberland Avenue. Scaffolding was dismantled and used as missiles. As police officers cleared demonstrators from the site, the site huts were set alight. South Africa House nearby was attacked, a window broken and a small fire started. Officers protecting the front of the embassy came under severe attack. Mounted officers were brought in to help; and using officers with protective clothing and mounted officers the police set about dispersing the troublemakers, who split up into four groups each of which then went on the rampage, looting shops and causing damage to property and vehicles, even attacking a car with people inside. It was not until later in the evening that they finally dispersed.

"All responsible members of this House and the country at large will wish to condemn unreservedly the disgraceful criminal behaviour which occurred. All responsible members of society will wish to join me in paying tribute to the police for the courage and restraint which they showed in dealing with some of the most ferocious violence we have ever seen on the streets of London. I should also like to thank the ambulance and fire services for the part which they played during and in the aftermath of the disorders.

"The police are now going to make every effort to bring to justice those who committed these appalling crimes. A team of 100 officers has been set up to take charge of this major criminal investigation. There is plenty of evidence available in the form of photographs and film to enable those responsible to be identified and I hope that all sections of the press and television will co-operate to the full with the police in the investigation.

"I have called for a full report from the commissioner on the day's events and he will be reviewing what lessons are to be learnt from what occurred.

"The right of peaceful demonstration is one which I shall always defend. But the scenes in our capital city on Saturday had nothing whatsoever to do with peaceful demonstration. Clearly a large number of people set off bent on violence. There can be no justification whatsoever for the savage and barbaric acts which millions saw on their television screens not just in Britain but sadly around the world. A clear message must go out from this House that those responsible should be brought to justice."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, we thank the noble Earl the Minister for his courtesy in repeating this solemn and sad Statement. One could be forgiven for being near to tears when looking at the television screen and seeing what happened in our country and in the centre of our capital city. Football hooliganism is the enemy of football; political hooligans are the enemies of our democracies and our freedoms. They are the enemy, too, of the political decencies that we cherish in this country. Therefore all of us, as the Statement says, every Member of this House wherever he sits, will join in the condemnation of what took place and echo the words that our law has to be seen to be fully enforced against those who are guilty of conduct of this kind.

We must be careful of one thing, if I may respectfully say so. In his Statement the Secretary of State talked about the freedom to demonstrate and freedom of speech. I must say that I was very impressed by a statement made in the editorial of this morning's Times, which I venture to repeat: However peaceful in intent, such gatherings have offered to society's violent substratum the cover of crowds and a cause. Police, public and property are thus placed at risk. When risk turns to reality— as it did on Saturday— the call to limit reasonable freedom of speech and assembly can be strong. It must be resisted". We are not going to give a victory to those responsible for those ghastly disorders over the weekend.

The Minister mentioned that an inquiry was to take place under the aegis of the commissioner. I understand that very well, but I wonder, because of the seriousness of this happening, whether he has in mind any wider inquiry than merely that of the police. If it is to be a police inquiry only, can we be assured that it will have the widest possible range in order that we may all know the organisations responsible for that violation of our rights?

I say that especially because I understand that on lunchtime radio an organisation, of which I personally know nothing, claimed not only some sense of responsibility but used words of glorification of what happened on Saturday. I have mentioned that organisation (to which I do not intend to give any publicity at all) to the noble Earl and I hope that its claim— if that is the right word to use but I should have thought that it was an admission of guilt not a claim— will be fully looked into by the commissioner.

I have only one other remark to make. From these Benches we join in the tributes that have been paid to the courage of the police and the speed with which the fire service and ambulance people helped them on what was a grievous national occasion.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in thanking the noble Earl for repeating this Statement. This has been a shocking episode. It was frightening for the tens of thousands of people peacefully out shopping on a Saturday afternoon. It was frightening for the staffs of the shops, some of which were invaded by numbers of looters. It is an extraordinary situation when on a Saturday afternoon in London people had to cower under the tables of restaurants to protect themselves from a wild, rampaging mob. I very much hope that the noble Earl will pass on through the commissioner our very best wishes to all the police officers who were injured on Saturday afternoon. The police, ambulance service and fire brigade carried out their duties with a high degree of competence, and I believe that we should recognise that fact.

Perhaps I may raise two matters for the noble Earl that I would describe as operational questions. I recognise that the commissioner will be involved in examining very carefully what happened on Saturday afternoon; but clearly a new problem has been created in that rioters moved into many parts of the west end of London very nearly at the same time. It is an extremely difficult situation for the police to deal with. No doubt that will be reviewed by the commissioner.

Secondly, I very much hope that the review by the commissioner will take into account the views of the British Transport Police. I have received complaints that on Saturday afternoon when some of the disturbances had reached their peak around Charing Cross Station, British Railways terminated its trains at Waterloo. It did not disclose why it was doing so, and a substantial number of people walked over Hungerford Bridge to find themselves in the midst of a small-scale riot. I hope that this particular matter will be reviewed by the commissioner and by British Railways.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl that I very much welcome the fact that there has been no suggestion of an amendment to the law. There have been calls— I believe they are mistaken— for a return to the provisions of the Riot Act. Those issues were reviewed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, at the time both of the Red Lion Square disturbances and the Brixton riots. In my view, there is no case for a return to the provisions of that Act, which were repealed in 1967.

Most of us recognise that a very difficult situation confronted the police on Saturday afternoon. In a democracy it is absolutely right that people should have the opportunity to demonstrate peacefully, and that the people who are involved in a peaceful demonstration should be protected from those who wish to create serious disturbances. But, having said that, one has to recognise that as a result of what happened, a large number of innocent people were injured and very substantial damage was done to property. To pick up the point made by the noble Earl at the end of the Statement, what was seen on television screens abroad, not simply in this country, unhappily did grievous damage to the reputation of this country.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Harris of Greenwich, for their reaction to the Statement. It is a most unpleasant Statement to have had to make. All of us feel a sense of great shame and indeed outrage at what has happened. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked whether there would be any wider inquiry into what has happened. The best answer I can give is that in the view of the Government the only inquiry is a criminal inquiry investigating who was responsible for the criminal acts which took place. That is the main cause of the inquiry. That is what the commissioner will be undertaking. It will be up to the commissioner to make the inquiry as wide as he wishes.

I have no doubt that if claims to violence were made over the radio with a sense of gratification, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon said, with the distress that has been caused, that merely serves to point out the type of people with whom we are dealing in society. If those people can be found— and perhaps they can be found through the television coverage, photographs and so forth, of the event— then of course the commissioner will do his best to see that they are brought to justice.

I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Harris, for their congratulations which they asked me to pass on to the police. I willingly do so. I sometimes think that we do not realise how lucky we are in this country to have the police that we have. What they are sometimes subjected to is beyond belief. It is intolerable. There are those who tend to criticise the police. We should remember that they are after all human beings, members of society dressed up in blue, trying to help protect the law. When they have missiles thrown at them— scaffold poles, concrete— and when they are spat at, it is intolerable. When one reads some of the reported articles about police officers, if they are correct, it is quite alarming. One was said to have been "never so frightened in all my life. I thought that I was going to be killed. I feel battered, abused. I have been beaten before but never so badly as this." Those are terrible sentiments.

Another group of officers thought that they would be burned to death after a rag was stuffed inside the petrol cap of their car. An officer on horseback was reported as saying, "A rioter actually waited until I lifted my protective visor. At first I didn't know what had hit me; then I realised it was a brick." I believe that any society would find such happenings intolerable.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to the rioters in various parts of London. Obviously that will be a matter which the commissioner will wish to consider. I am glad he felt that there was no need to amend the law. The Riot Act was repealed a short while ago. Frankly, I believe, under the circumstances, that if anyone had tried to read the Riot Act it would have been quite pointless.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the horrible injuries suffered by so many of our gallant police— to whom my noble friend has very properly paid tribute— can he say whether the Government are satisfied that the equipment which the police possess at present is adequate and sufficient for dealing with such situations; or are the police being asked to tackle very serious disorder and violence without adequate defensive equipment for themselves? In particular, will consideration be given again to the suggestion made after earlier troubles that water cannon, which can have in every sense a cooling effect on riots and rioters, ought to be considered, at any rate to deal with major troubles of this kind?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that the equipment which the police have is extremely good. It is always being updated. Of course there is an endless demand and there must be a limit to any amount spent on equipment. However, I have no reason to believe that the equipment which the police were given on Saturday was anything other than totally adequate.

Water cannon has been considered from time to time but was not thought appropriate for two main reasons. First, the instruments are extremely ungainly. It is heavy equipment for going down streets. Once it has gone down it cannot necessarily turn round and it blocks the street. Once it has run out of water it is absolutely useless.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I should like to associate myself completely with what has been said by the noble Earl, by my noble friend Lord Mishcon, and by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. However, I should like to ask one or two questions about what took place, as seen with a sense of shame and revulsion by all who watched it on our screens.

With regard to the review to be conducted by the commissioner, perhaps I may ask what consideration was given to the routeing of the procession? The first question that occurred to me was: why was it allowed up Whitehall? Why did it not go via Northumberland Avenue? Was any consideration given to re-routeing? Clearly, as much of the objection and revulsion is directed against No. 10 Downing Street— let us be frank— it seems to be rather inviting those who wish to make trouble to do so if they are routed almost past No. 10 Downing Street. I therefore ask that that matter be considered very clearly.

It leads me to a second question. It is not the first time that we have had these difficulties. Let us not have too short memories. During the Vietnam troubles there were at least two processions as large as this. The first caused immense trouble and became out of hand. The second, some months later, did not. I wish to put on record that despite some of the doubts that have been aroused about the difficulties of the police, I have every confidence in the capacity of the police to control such a demonstration provided that they are properly operationally led with a good tactical plan. I ask the Minister to review carefully whether such a plan was in existence last Saturday. When I read some of the varied accounts, I wonder whether the same consideration was given to the matter.

I claim no personal credit for what happened at the time of the Vietnam war, but a special section was set up. It was led by a very distinguished police officer who prepared a plan and discussed it with those who were going to march, who knew what he would do if there was a breakaway— as we thought we knew that there would be— and who knew how to handle it. If the House will permit me to say so, it was a success that redounded to our credit around the world. Telegrams poured into this country on the following day. Some noble Lords will recall the occasion about which I am speaking when some believed that there would be just as much trouble as we have had.

Will the Home Office or the commissioner dust off those old files and review the necessary tactical and operational requirements? It is almost certain that a group of people who owe no allegiance to any party— and I hope that that will be remembered by all who speak about the matter— and who are only out to destroy our democratic practices, will certainly take advantage of creating mob rage. When the mob becomes enraged anything can happen even if that was not the intention. Will these issues be reviewed again and a tactical plan of operation drawn up?

I finish as I began. I am absolutely confident that there is nothing that the police cannot handle, if they are properly led and if there is a proper tactical plan. I ask the noble Earl to express what I am sure is the regret of all of us at the injuries that the police suffered on Saturday.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I shall certainly pass the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, to the police. I am indeed most grateful for them. I should emphasise that the organisers co-operated wholly with the police. There was a plan. Indeed, as the Statement shows, when matters were found to be going wrong an alternative route was chosen in the middle of the operation. There was a plan. Clearly, the commissioner will wish to satisfy himself whether the plan was adequate or whether there should have been any improvements. The noble Lord asked whether we would take the files, dust them down and see what was in them. I would just remind him that that is essentially the commissioner's responsibility.

The noble Lord referred to the processions concerning Vietnam. I would remind him, in no way disrespectfully, that they took place 25 years ago when violence of the nature that we see now was not part of our society. The fact that nowadays violent bodies seem to wish to attach themselves to perfectly law-abiding demonstrations is a relatively new facet and is a changing one. I see the noble Lord is shaking his head. I will accept that he means by that that he does not wholly agree with me, but I assure him that in my view the nature of the violence which attaches to demonstrations now is a fairly new facet of which all of us— indeed, all those who set up the marches in the first place— must take account.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister saw the notices which appeared in various parts of London prior to the date of the march inviting the public to attend and saying that it would be peaceful. In view of the fact that it turned out not to be peaceful, perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether it has ever been considered that the organisers of marches of that type should be asked to give a guarantee before the march takes place that the march will be peaceful, so far as they are able to do so.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can understand the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Gridley, but I think what he asks would be impossible. The organisers intended the demonstration to be a peaceful one, but no organiser can be wholly responsible for those who attach themselves to something which they have organised.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I had not intended to intervene but in view of something which the noble Earl said I should like to point out that the earlier riots to which the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, referred were just as dangerous and violent as the one which took place last weekend. My memory also stretches back to the Blackshirt riots which took place in the 1930s.

I utterly condemn what happened the other day and I yield to no one in my admiration for the police, but the fact is that affairs did get out of control for a time, as a woman constable admitted on the box. There are lessons to be learnt in what happened not only on Saturday but on previous occasions. I am sure that the commissioner, who is primarily responsible, will be conducting such an inquiry in addition to the criminal investigation to which the noble Earl referred.

Perhaps I may add as a postscript that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, was too modest when he said that he made no personal contribution to the improvements which were achieved on the occasions to which he referred.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am entirely happy to accept the strictures of the noble Lords, Lord Allen and Lord Callaghan. I can assure the noble Lord that the commissioner will be looking at the entire method of policing that demonstration to see what lessons may be learnt, as well as there being a criminal investigation.

Lord Somers

My Lords, when those who organised the disorder have been identified and finally arrested, does there exist any suitable punishment for them? Could they be deported; or in what way could they be dealt with?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I really think that is a matter for the courts.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, we share the revulsion felt by the noble Earl and all Members of the House over what happened and the disgraceful scenes which we all witnessed on television. Many of us in this House do not approve of the community charge but we accept that it is now the law of the land and therefore we must abide by it. But we also accept that we still have the right of peaceful demonstration and opposition, as I hope we always shall. It was quite obvious that a few hundred people decided on a premeditated attack and to use the occasion for their own ends. The violence, bordering almost on anarchy, of what we saw on television horrified all those who witnessed it. It must have been even more terrifying for those who were there.

I hope the perpetrators will be identified fairly quickly, that they will be brought before the courts without too much delay and, if they are proved guilty, that they will be given exemplary sentences. We share with others who have spoken our appreciation of what the police, fire and ambulance services did on that occasion, and we send them our good wishes for much more peaceful activities in the future.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for those remarks. I shall see that they are passed on.

Earl Nelson

My Lords, as one who has served in the Metropolitan Police at the time of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, I wholeheartedly support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, said.

I am amazed that we hear of surprise and disbelief about what happened in our capital city on Saturday afternoon. Who was surprised? Were the organisers surprised? I suggest that they were not. Were the police surprised? I suggest that they were not. Were the public surprised? Again, I do not think so. Were the MPs who actively support and encourage the non-payment of the poll tax surprised? Again, I suggest that they were not. Why should we be surprised about this? We have had ample warning of what was going to happen. There have been umpteen demonstrations in our town halls, city halls and civic centres up and down the country for many weeks. The only surprise is the fact that nobody has been killed. If we go on the way we are I suggest that it is only a question of time before that happens.

The organisers of the demonstration publicised the fact that it was safe for women, children and old people to attend. However, in view of what went on, can the Minister tell us what guarantees they gave to the Metropolitan Police or the Home Office, or how they were able to convince them in view of everything that had gone before that the march could possible be peaceful? I also ask the Minister how many of those who were arrested were foreigners and, indeed, how many came from outside the capital.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can understand the concern of my noble friend Lord Nelson. We are all concerned, but I think that to say that nobody was surprised is overstating the situation.

I cannot tell my noble friend the origins of those who have been charged; nor do I believe that that would necessarily be corrrect. Obviously we have to wait to see whether those who have been charged will be prosecuted and what will happen. I should like to commend, if I may, the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who said that they may not like the community charge but they accept the law of the land and they accept also the right to demonstrate. That is absolutely correct.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that we all condemn the vicious and murderous violence which took place in London at the weekend? My noble friend Lord Mishcon referred to the programme "The World at One". I urge the noble Earl to look at that programme and consider what was said. The person who was being interviewed was a member of an anarchist group, who confirmed that his group together with other anarchist groups— some 3,000 people— was responsible for the violence. What is more, he was allowed to incite further violence on that programme. For that reason I hope that the noble Earl will look at the programme and decide whether it was wise and reasonable for the BBC to make the air waves available to a representative of such a group for him to confirm violence and to incite further violence at some future date.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I shall certainly make a note to listen to the programme. I think I can only listen to a wireless programme and not see it! If it were considered to be wrong, it would not be for Ministers to be the arbiters. It is for the BBC to decide what programme to put on and what not to put on. However, what your Lordships have said this afternoon indicates that those people are prepared to stand up and say such things. That shows that there are people who are out to disrupt society and to ruin and abuse the police, which is shocking. At least those people have come out into the open so that we know where they are and apparently the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, knows who they are.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, turning to a slightly differest aspect of the matter, can my noble friend tell me what, apart from insurance, pension schemes of the police and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, are the sources of compensation available to innocent members of the public who may have suffered personal injury or damage? What are the remedies available to those who have been hurt or damaged in the course of an incident of this kind?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the receiver of the Metropolitan Police will make available compensation in respect of houses, shop or buildings or their contents under the riot damages legislation of 1986 within the area in which he is satisfied that the riot has extended. He will issue guidance for potential claimants, and notification of the intention to claim should be made to the receiver within 14 days of the event. Claims should be made against insurers in the usual way, even if a person believes that he may be eligible for riot damages. Under the Act compensation does not apply to personal injury or damage to vehicles. Claims in respect of personal injury may be made to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in the usual way.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I also totally and unreservedly condemn the violence of Saturday. I condemn it for its own sake. I condemn it as violence. However, I also condemn it because it sabotages the widespread revulsion and anger against the poll tax being peacefully demonstrated by people from all over the country.

I join with the noble Earl in paying tribute to the police, the fire service and ambulance service. I am glad to hear him say that the stewards were co-operating and keeping the demonstration peaceful. I pay tribute, as I hope he will, to the impossible work of the stewards.

There is one particular question I should like to ask which follows a question raised by my noble friend Lord Callaghan. On Friday I was talking to some of the people involved in this demonstration. Having taken part the previous weekend in a demonstration in Trafalgar Square with far fewer numbers, when they told me the numbers they expected, I replied by saying that there was no chance of their being accommodated in Trafalgar Square.

They told me that they had applied to the police to change the venue for the demonstration to Hyde Park, which would have been much safer than Trafalgar Square. I do not know whether that happened. I am simply passing on what I was told. I know that the noble Earl cannot give me an answer this afternoon, but I ask him to make inquiries about that request and to communicate to the House and to me personally whether it was made and whether it was turned down by the police, as I was told.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is clearly up to the commissioner to decide where the marches and so on should take place. I do not know whether that venue was suggested or whether it was acceptable. That is a matter which is the responsibility of the commissioner.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, with respect to the noble Earl, I hope that he will not, as he has twice this afternoon, continue to say that the decision is the sole responsibility of the commissioner. The Home Secretary has a responsibility for preserving law and order. Without interfering with the commissioner's responsibilities, is it not the responsibility also of the Home Secretary— and that responsibility has been carried out on many occasions, irrespective of party, by Winston Churchill onwards and backwards— to discuss such matters with the commissioner and offer his opinion as to location, route and so on?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not wish to hide behind the commissioner. However, Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 empowers the police to impose conditions on a demonstration such as the route and the number of participants. Their imposition is an operational matter for the judgment of the police. Under Section 13 of the 1986 Act, the commissioner may seek the consent of my right honourable friend to impose a ban on a march. Therefore, it is for the commissioner to decide the route and not my right honourable friend.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, we have now gone beyond 20 minutes from the time that the initial reply was made to the Front Bench spokesmen. I suggest that we now proceed to the second Statement.