HL Deb 21 June 1999 vol 602 cc690-700

5.32 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

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

"Madam Speaker, with permission I wish to make a statement on the deplorable outbreak of public disorder which occurred in the City of London last Friday which the whole House will want to condemn. I have today spoken with the Lord Mayor, Lord Levene, and the Commissioner of the City of London Police about the course of events. The Commissioner has told me that eight police officers had to be taken to hospital from injuries sustained.

"The occasion for the disorder was a so-called 'Day of Action' which had been planned by a number of disparate groups to coincide with the G8 Summit in Cologne. The City of London Police had been aware for some months that such a protest had been planned and information relating to the event had been widely available on the Internet.

"Organisers of demonstrations normally co-operate early and fully with the police to ensure that arrangements for a peaceful occasion are satisfactory to all concerned. In this instance, no co-operation was forthcoming: attempts by the police to discuss the arrangements were rebuffed by the organisers.

"The City Police none the less provided as much information as they could to those who live and work in the City about what was planned; how the police proposed to respond; and what precautions residents and business could usefully take.

"During the morning of last Friday. the demonstrations were generally peaceful. Around midday, however, a much larger group, soon numbering several thousand, began to assemble in Liverpool Street. After a couple of hours this crowd split into four separate groups and moved off.

"One of the groups then suddenly attacked the police in London Wall. At this point two members of the crowd were injured. The most serious injury was to a woman, who sustained a broken leg.

"The groups then converged on the LIFFE building in Canon Street. At this point a concerted effort was made to storm the LIFFE building, with demonstrators using scaffold poles and paving stones without regard to human safety. As a result of police action, the demonstrators then moved away from the area, but disorder continued over a wide area of the City and then in the Trafalgar Square area in the Metropolitan Police District.

"A high level police presence was maintained on the streets of the City and the West End immediately following the disorder.

"As a result of the day's disorder 16 people were arrested. The offences involved included criminal damage with intent, aggravated burglary, assaults on the police and on members of the public. Investigations are continuing. As is normal in such situations, the commissioner will be making a full report on the events to his police authority.

"I should like to place on record my appreciation for the way in which the City of London Police, supported by the Metropolitan Police and the British Transport Police, dealt with this wholly deplorable outbreak of violence, which was plainly premeditated. I would like to extend our sympathy and good wishes to the eight officers who were injured and taken to hospital. The refusal of the organisers to discuss with the police how the event was to be handled was wholly irresponsible. There can be no excuse for this kind of violence.

"At the moment, I have no firm information to suggest that a recurrence of these demonstrations is likely in the foreseeable future. None the less, I intend to hold further consultations with the Commissioner and the police service, to ensure that everything possible is done to protect the safety of the public and the businesses in the City and elsewhere in London.

"Madam Speaker, this country has a fine tradition of peaceful protest which is an essential part of any well-functioning democracy. The London Police—the Metropolitan Police Service and the City Police—have a fine record of co-operating fully with peaceful demonstrations. But the refusal of those organising this demonstration showed that they viewed with contempt peaceful protest and democracy in equal measure. They and they alone are responsible for what ensued. The whole House will join me in supporting the efforts of the police to ensure that those responsible for the violence are brought to justice".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.37 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary. I am sure that your Lordships will also support, as I do, the Home Secretary's condemnation of these disgraceful events; his expression of sympathy to those who were hurt, particularly the police officers; and his thanks to the police and, in some cases, to the civilians who were actively involved in resisting the rioters. It is clear that the blame for these events lies entirely with the rioters. As has been said, there is a tradition of properly organised, peaceful demonstration in this country which is well understood.

Your Lordships' will also wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Levene, the Lord Mayor, who went out on Friday incognito to see the situation for himself. It is good to see him in his place today. I am sure that it is a long time since a Lord Mayor of London has been so closely involved in such a hands-on way with a matter of this kind.

The Minister said that the commissioner of the City Police is to prepare a report on the events. Will that report be published? If so, can he say when that, is likely to be? Will the report include a review of the warnings given by the authorities beforehand? I saw—as, no doubt, did many of your Lordships—the warning on the parliamentary data and video network which appeared a day or two before the disturbances. I have also heard of some institutions which, as a result of the warnings they were given, told some staff to stay at home on the day. But, at the same time, it seems that the premises of LIFFE, for example, were dangerously exposed, although a wholesale invasion of the premises was successfully resisted.

The key problem to emerge from the Statement concerns the lack of co-operation between the organisers of the demonstration and riots and the police. The Minister listed several offences for which people have been arrested and charged. Has anyone been charged with holding the demonstration without obtaining the necessary police permission? It may be a little early, but I hope that some people will be charged with that offence.

Some noble Lords, including myself, have read in the newspapers that precedents for this disgraceful demonstration may lie with some of the road protestors and tree people and so on. Are those links clear and, if so, does that make it more likely that protests will be organised in future by those same people?

I am sure that the Minister agrees that the City's business was in part able to continue to make its massive contribution, as it does every day, to the economy of our country.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I am sure that we all agree with the Home Secretary's Statement that this was a deplorable episode of calculated and well-orchestrated violence against the police and private property. Subsequently, we heard yet again—I heard this on the "Today" programme on Saturday morning—the truly absurd suggestion that provocative behaviour by the police had led to the disturbances. That allegation. is made on virtually every occasion that a peaceful demonstration gets out of hand. It is patently absurd in the circumstances of this case.

The most disturbing element of the whole episode was the organisers' refusal to discuss their plans with the police. We assume that there will be a careful examination of the incident and the law relating to public demonstrations—in particular, the need for organisers to consult the police. None of us wants to limit the right of any members of the public to demonstrate. I normally hesitate before making demands to amend the law in the immediate aftermath of an episode, however deplorable. The general public, however, have a right to adequate protection from the conduct of rioters. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government share that view, as I am sure they do, and will take resolute action to avoid a repetition of that outrageous episode.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful, not for the first time, for the steadfast support of the noble Lords, Lord Cope of Berkeley and Lord Harris of Greenwich, which will be much welcomed by those with responsibility for the maintenance of law and order last Friday. I am grateful also for the sympathy that has been expressed for the injured police officers. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, mentioned the notable part played by the noble Lord, Lord Levene of Portsoken. I noticed that noble Lord was in his place and the House will wait with keen anticipation, to see whether or not he is able to intervene and assist us.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the report of the Commissioner of the City of London Police. As the statement said, that report would be from the commissioner to his own authority. In the usual way, any decision to publish that report in full or part ought to lie with the commissioner and the authority. Parts of such a report may better be left unpublished, for obvious reasons. I am sure that the noble Lord's point is well taken—that where possible, such reports should be published, other things being equal.

I anticipate that the Commissioner of the City of London Police will be applying his mind, as will the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and others, to the lessons to be learnt. It cannot be disputed that there was a co-ordinated attack on the LIFFE building, which eventually failed.

Permission is not needed for assemblies in a public place, as opposed to marches or processions. Conditions can be imposed on public assemblies but they are difficult to enforce if the organisers are not known. I suspect that the non-co-operation experienced was very much with that in mind. Your Lordships might agree. I know of no charge of holding a march or procession without a licence but again, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, is well taken.

I do not know whether or not there was a connection with those persons who indulged in demonstrations against road widening schemes. One needs to be cautious about saying anything at this stage. The last thing I want is someone to say that a trial had been prejudiced, thereby bringing about an acquittal, by my answering specific questions.

The City's business did continue and the markets were open. They bring enormous benefit to the whole economic wellbeing of this country. In many ways the best answer given to the protestors is that business did continue. That seems an important rebuff.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, indicated that these were well-organised scenes of provocative behaviour. I have no doubt that is so. I live in Clerkenwell, which is only a few minutes' walk from Smithfield, where the demonstrations seem to have begun. I travelled down Fleet Street, trying to return to the Home Office. There is no excuse for what was done. None at all. Speaking for my part, always having held the police in a high personal regard, my regard for them rose by the minute as I saw the patience with which they were dealing with people who are really just thugs.

There was a plain refusal to co-operate. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is right—the intention was to override the right of everyone else to go about their business in peace, order and security. There are lessons to be learnt, not least that one should remain steadfast and carry on with one's daily life and business so far as that is possible.

If there is any further intelligence from reports made to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, I will be more than happy to return to your Lordships with that information, either by letter or in the Chamber. If that is done by letter to any of the respective spokesmen, I will of course place a copy in the Library in the usual way.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Levene of Portsoken

My Lords. I declare an interest as the Lord Mayor of the City of London, and the City is my constituency.

Is the Minister aware that, despite the best endeavours of the demonstrators, firms in the City of London continued working normally throughout Friday and business was not disrupted? I spent three hours walking among the demonstrators, to see for myself exactly what was happening. I was appalled. This was not a demonstration turned sour by policing that was too heavy. Nor was it a demonstration that was hijacked by a violent element. The organisers always intended the demonstration to be violent. It was designed to create as much damage and disruption as possible. I saw the way in which its focus shifted and the deliberate way in which demonstrators went about their business. There can be little doubt that much energy had been spent trying to bring the City of London to a complete halt, but they failed.

Would the Minister and the whole House care to join me in congratulating all those in the City—those who work there together with our police force—who ran the gauntlet of the protestors to get on with their jobs? I saw ripped jackets, City workers being spat at, despatch riders and taxi drivers being assaulted, and endless demonstrators urinating in the street.

The majority of the 300,000 people who work in the City took those events in their stride. They continued with their work, which benefits this country and its economy so much. That needs recognition. People who work in the City are the first to give their money and time to others. They are the first to help others in need. They are the first to recognise the right to free speech. That which they had to suffer on Friday was beyond the bounds of what was acceptable.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am more than happy to endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Levene—which were prefigured by the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Harris of Greenwich. By and large, people did work normally, having the benefit of some of the warnings and advice to which I referred earlier. On the noble Lord's second point, I was particularly struck by what a good natured, good humoured and determined people we are. I did not see loss of temper in the streets, except on the part of the demonstrators. People appeared willing to make their way home in very difficult, disagreeable circumstances, and were full of fortitude. I think that we all echo the noble Lord's comment that the best response was not to he put off our right to carry on our daily work and our lives in the way we choose.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that in recent times Ministers have been very free in giving their opinions on the political affiliations of those responsible for violent crimes in London, even when those responsible have not been identified or apprehended? Would the Minister like to follow that practice today and give us his own view on the likely political affiliations of those responsible for this outbreak of violence?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as I think the noble Lord will agree, I am normally careful about not making assertions without proof. I try to follow that rule, not least because it is a particular irritation and mischief if trials are abandoned or aborted because it is suggested that there has been prejudicial publicity. All I can is say is what your Lordships know. Claims were made that these were anarchists and that the demonstration had something to do with ethical investment. I repudiate any claim of that sort. It does not seem to me that anyone holding a political view in a free country is entitled to behave in the disgraceful way in which many of those people behaved. It may be that more positive answers to the noble Lord's questions will be forthcoming when the trials are held—I simply do not know—but there is no justification at all, for political or apolitical motives, for behaving in a way that disrupts the lives of ordinary, decent people trying to go to work.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, do the Government have any plans to bring forward legislation to ban the use of masks in such demonstrations? My noble friend Lord Cope said—I know that the Minister agrees—that this country has a long history of peaceful demonstrations, but given what we have heard from the Minister, as well as from the other Front Bench spokesmen, this was certainly not a peaceful demonstration; certainly the police and others had already acknowledged that it would be a very unpeaceful demonstration.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to say that we have already delivered on that particular aspect. The House will remember that the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, raised the question of face coverings a short while ago. I promised to think about it carefully. We did think about it, and we therefore introduced an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill, as it then was, to ban in some circumstances—I am putting it crudely and paraphrasing the effect of the legislation— the use of masks and face coverings. As many noble Lords recognise, they have at least two vices: one is intimidation, plain and simple; the second is difficulty of identification. I remember mentioning in this House the particular menace sometimes of people who wear motorcycle helmets to intimidate and avoid identification. So, to that extent, I have already satisfied in advance the point raised by the noble Baroness.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister to take some care in rushing to the immediate judgment that the demonstration was all of one kind. I have nothing but contempt, which I am sure is shared by the whole House, for those who acted violently and clearly set out to act in a disreputable way in the course of the demonstration. However, I was on a No. 8 bus after walking from Liverpool Street in the early part of that morning, at a time when there were large numbers of people on bicycles with many decorations, disporting themselves in a peaceful, although, it must be said, temporarily obstructive manner. The atmosphere was extremely good. A policeman was cheered for the way in which he was directing traffic in order that the people on cycles could progress satisfactorily. I therefore have no doubt that there were different phases to the demonstration. I ask the Minister to recognise that although there were clearly some extremely malicious, dangerous elements who acted criminally and ought to be brought to justice, that may not be the case with regard to others who were involved.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I entirely agree that one has to look at the individual in a particular way, but I do not think that anyone can justify the attack on the LIFFE building for instance, or the attempted terrorisation of people who were just going about their lawful daily occasions.

In response to the particular point raised by the noble Lord, when I read out paragraph 5 of the Home Secretary's Statement, that point was made. I repeat: During the morning of last Friday, the demonstrations were generally peaceful". That accords with the noble Lord's experience as he described it. The Statement continues: Around midday, however, a much larger group, soon numbering several thousand, began to assemble in Liverpool Street … [and thereafter] split into four groups". So, I do not think that the noble Lord and I are in disagreement.

Lord McNair

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the events of last Friday were in stark contrast to the very peaceful demonstration which took place on Sunday against the proposal to reclassify food supplements as medicines, which was in the best tradition of British political protest?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes, I think that any peaceful demonstration, whether or not one agrees with its purpose, demonstrates what I sought to indicate earlier; namely, that we live in a peaceful society, in which views of all kinds are able to be propagated. That is the whole point of a democracy: that other people can peacefully demonstrate, so long as they recognise my right to go peacefully about my own business.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, I believe that this is the first occasion in our history on which a riot has been organised through the Internet. The Internet allowed various small groups of fanatics, anarchists and extremists to advertise what was happening in a very beguiling and misleading way and therefore broadened the appeal to a much larger audience of people, who were invited virtually to come to a carnival. It is not possible to stop this kind of activity on the Internet. However, I hope that one of the lessons will be that the police and the other forces concerned with public order in our society will be able to increase their surveillance and vigilance on the Internet. I am sure that this will not be the only time that the Internet will be used to summon such people together. I hope that some lessons will be learnt.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, they are extremely important lessons. The difficulty in terms of law enforcement is that we are often lagging behind a technology which the noble Lord, in a previous incarnation, did much to develop in the commercial life of this country. Without going into detail, I know that the police had that well in mind in the briefing documents. However, in regard to the Internet, it is rather like trying to grab an octopus that is many-headed. It is extremely difficult to deal with this in terms of law and legal jurisdiction. I entirely agree that that lesson must be learnt.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, having been in London on the day of the so-called "poll tax riots" in 1990 and having witnessed those riots at first hand, I was immediately struck by the similarity—as have been certain newspaper reporters—between those riots and the events that took place on Friday. As the Minister said, it was clear that the riots were premeditated and that one of their characteristics was the strength of the organisation behind them. In view of that fact, will the Minister assure the House that the connections between the organisation of these particular riots and similar outbreaks of violence are looked into thoroughly? If there is a connection on the organisational side between the riots on Friday and those on previous occasions, we may not have seen the end of this kind of outbreak and there may well be a repetition at some future date.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as a purely personal response, I am bound to say that the same memory returned to my mind when I was travelling along Fleet Street, trying to get back to the Home Office. At the moment I do not know. It seems to me that any investigation by the relevant police authorities and any determination as to finalised charges by the Crown Prosecution Service would be obliged to take into account the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. At the moment I do not know, although the situation chimed in my mind, as it did in his.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether there will be sufficient resources in terms of surveillance cameras and people able to study them? Then they would be able to make the best possible use of that way of identifying the ringleaders. Is there a problem of resources?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I think not. When we came into office the resource in terms of CCTV generally was about 1 million cameras. As your Lordships remember, we have now increased that to 150 million. From my experience of going to control rooms and watching, it is a helpful tool, not only in the prevention of crime but also in the identification of criminals. Often there is the useful consequence that when the video is shown to the defendant and his lawyers, pleas of guilty tend to follow rather more often than when CCTV is not available. It is an important tool. That is why ever since the election the Home Secretary has stressed its usefulness and has been pumping resources into the schemes.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, last night there was considerable trouble at Stonehenge. Although it was not on the scale of last Friday's, I understand that the police are warning that there may be a good deal worse trouble tonight. Can the Minister assure us that the fullest steps are being taken and that sufficient police will be in attendance to prevent any trouble tonight?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am being as careful as I can in saying that I have no doubt at all that the Chief Constable of Wiltshire has those matters very much in mind. These are operational decisions which we rightly leave to individual chief constables. There had been problems earlier. If the problems recur this evening, one must trust the professional judgment of the chief constable and the professional expertise of her officers.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, I wish to pick up the point about technological developments and difficulties we have in introducing legislation to stay ahead of the game. CCTV has made remarkable steps forward in certain areas, but there is an element missing. The missing element is the requirement for the introduction of identity cards with photographs.

All governments hitherto have been loath to move in that direction. But in the light of a whole range of changes taking place, I wonder whether this is the time when the Government, reviewing the lessons of what happened last week, should start moving slowly to explore more positively the prospects of going in that direction.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, not for the first time my noble friend makes an important point. From memory I believe the cost of the introduction of such a scheme is significant. It is of the order of £450 million. I repeat what I said earlier, as an accurate reflection of the views of some chief constables: not all chief constables feel that that is the best use of such a significant resource. There are civil liberties questions which must be balanced in the scales which my noble friend describes. It is one of those questions which one needs to keep carefully under review: is the investment justified? Are the outcomes those which we wish?

Lord Harmsworth

My Lords, does the Minister join me in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Levene, on getting matters up and running so fast after the event? When the NatWest building was bombed, I was talking to one of his predecessors. I remember saying that in a perverse way how lucky it was that this happened in the City of London because no other local authority in the land would have responded so fast and effectively to the incident.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to make a positive response to the noble Lord's point. The noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Harris, and I paid ready tribute to the response not only of the City of London police and those who live and work there but of the noble Lord, Lord Levene. If a mark of leadership is to lead from the front, he led rather well.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I have heard that there will be another riot in a month's time. I do not know whether it is a rumour or whether there is positive evidence.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in paragraph 11 of the Statement the Home Secretary said: At the moment, I have no firm information to suggest that a recurrence …is likely in the foreseeable future". However, it is an important point in the context of the noble Lord's question that the Home Secretary then said: I intend to hold further consultations with the Commissioner and the police service, to ensure that everything possible is done to protect the safety of the public and the businesses in the City …[in] London".

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, is there evidence that there is a potent folk memory in certain political circles of the success of an extremist group in taking over a demonstration and assaulting and bringing down the Winter Palace? It launched a most momentous revolution with terrible consequences. Should we not bear that in mind when there is discussion about the responsibility for the metropolitan police in London?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I would not have as gloomy a view of 20th century history as that identified by the noble and learned Lord. The attack on the Winter Palace is wholly distinct: it was in the middle of a 'war, the whole of Russian society was collapsing and some aspects of daily life might have been objectionable. None of those obtains here. There is no reason for any violent protest in the City of London or any part of London. Those who indulged in violence were simply indulging in mindless, thuggish behaviour, to try to interrupt the decent conduct of decent people's lives. Though I normally agree with the noble and learned Lord, I do not believe I can on this occasion.