HL Deb 02 May 2000 vol 612 cc945-56

4 p.m.

Lord Bach

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

"With permission, I should like to make a Statement on the violence and disorder associated with the so-called anti-capitalist demonstrations which took place over the Bank Holiday weekend in London and elsewhere.

"Yesterday's shameful violence was the culmination of a loosely organised series of events which took place from Friday to Monday. While all the events were broadly described as protests against capitalism, they were organised by a number of wholly disparate groups.

"None of the organisers was willing to discuss their preparations in advance with the police, who therefore made their plans on the basis of the best information obtained by them. The police response in London was a joint operation conducted by the Metropolitan Police Service, the City of London Police and the British Transport Police, using a joint command structure based in New Scotland Yard.

"The events held by protesters oil Friday, Saturday and Sunday passed off relatively peacefully, both in London and in other centres. As had been expected, however, the main challenge to public order occurred yesterday. In Manchester up to 400 protesters caused damage to shops and disruption to the tram system. Twenty arrests were made.

"The protests in central London began at around 10 a.m. when about 500 cyclists made their way to Parliament Square from Hyde Park Corner. By 11 a.m. about 2,000 protesters were in Parliament Square, many of them engaged in digging up the turf.

"The first incidents of violence were reported at about 12.25 p.m., when police and private vehicles were attacked by protesters close to Parliament Square. About an hour later 1,000 or so people moved into Whitehall from Parliament Square and demonstrated outside Downing Street, when missiles were thrown at police guarding the barriers. It was around this time, I understand, that vandals desecrated the Cenotaph and defaced the statue of Sir Winston Churchill.

"Shortly after 2 p.m. the Whitehall branch of McDonald's was attacked by a crowd of about 80 people. Some injuries to the police were sustained, as was serious damage to the premises.

"At about 3.15 p.m. there was serious disorder and violence in Trafalgar Square, including throwing of missiles at the police. At that point police in riot gear moved to contain and control the crowds in the square, which they continued to do for the rest of the afternoon. Separately, about 500 demonstrators crossed the river and congregated in Kennington Park, about a mile south, where missile attacks were made on the police at about 6 p.m. Meanwhile, from about 6.20 p.m., police began a controlled dispersal of the crowd remaining in Trafalgar Square. At around this time about 150 protesters attacked commercial premises and vehicles, including police vehicles, in the Strand. The crowds in Kennington Park were dispersed by 8.30 p.m. and a crowd off Waterloo Bridge was finally held at bay and dispersed by the police just before 9.00 p.m.

"I regret to have to tell the House that nine police officers were injured including one who was struck by a brick in his face. He was taken to hospital but thankfully there was no need to detain him. I understand that the police are aware of injuries to nine members of the public, all thankfully minor.

"I am informed by the commissioner that 97 people were arrested in the course of the day, on charges including public order offences and assault. A major investigation by the police to detect other offenders, including the perpetrators of the desecration of the Cenotaph and the defacement of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, is already under way.

"Everyone in our democracy has a right to demonstrate peacefully but no one has a right to demonstrate violently. Yesterday, there was a peaceful demonstration in London by over 2,000 people. That was organised by the TUC to commemorate international workers' day and to campaign for the saving of jobs at Rover's Longbridge plant and elsewhere in the West Midlands. But those peaceful demonstrators were physically denied their right to use Trafalgar Square by the mindless violence of the groups by then occupying the square.

"What was witnessed in central London yesterday was criminality and thuggery masquerading as political protest. In our democracy there is neither reason nor excuse for such appalling behaviour.

"A particularly shocking aspect of yesterday's events was the defacing of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and the desecration of the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yet without the sacrifice of the millions who gave their lives to defend our freedoms, no one yesterday would have been enjoying any right to protest at all.

"The fact that the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has already been cleaned up and, I am told, that no lasting damage has been caused to the Cenotaph is of little comfort to the public for the huge affront caused by this vandalism especially, but not only, to those ex-servicemen who served and saw comrades killed in both world wars.

"Planning by the police for the weekend's events took place over many months, and took account of all the contingencies which they could identify. The planning took into account the lessons learned from very serious violence which took place in the City of London in June last year.

"The police devoted greater resources-5,500 officers—to yesterday's situation than they have done for any comparable situation in the past 30 years. Knowing the determination of some of those involved to perpetrate serious violence and disorder, the police had to make a fine judgment that it was better to contain the trouble, as they did, in confined areas than seek to bar people from these areas, with a high risk of wholly unpredictable outbreaks of serious violence to the public as well as to the police and property virtually anywhere else in central London. The police had to make equally fine judgments as to precisely when and where to deploy police in riot gear.

"In our system of policing, these decisions are properly ones made by chief officers of police. For the avoidance of doubt, that will remain the situation after the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Greater London Authority and the mayorship come into being in early July. I want, however, to tell the House that the commissioner had and has my full support and confidence in the very difficult decisions which he and his colleagues had to take. As with any large policing operation, the commissioner will be reviewing what happened yesterday and will be discussing this with me. I shall, of course, be ready to respond to any recommendations he makes.

"I am sure that I speak for the whole House in offering our thanks and gratitude to all those police officers who dealt so professionally, diligently and courageously with the violence which occurred yesterday".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. Over the weekend, yet again, we saw the police having to deal with mindless thuggery. At least, that was what I thought at first, but it was not mindless thuggery. The people were well minded in what they did and it was highly politically motivated thuggery.

I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords in saying that I am pleased to hear that the injuries incurred by the police and those suffered by a number of members of the public were not serious. I doubt that any noble Lord can fail to be moved by the picture in many of today's newspapers—it was on the front page of the Daily Express—of five year-old Charlotte Rose, in the arms of a policeman, after being hit by a bottle. Not only did the police and their families have their May Day disturbed, but also many people who thought that they could come into central London to enjoy a day out had their day badly disturbed.

I hope that the press and television companies will make available the many pictures and film footage that they have taken so that the police can identify those criminals whom they have not yet identified and arrested. Perhaps the Minister can assure me that approaches will be made to those companies. It may also be worth while the police asking whether any members of the public, who took photographs on their day out in central London yesterday, have any photographs that may help the police to identify the culprits.

On the lead up to yesterday's events, were there discussions between the police authorities and the Home Secretary as to what kind of tactics should be undertaken? Did discussions take place on whether a "softly, softly" approach should be taken, at least at the beginning of the disturbances, in order, as the Minister said, to contain the demonstrators in small areas? I noticed a contrast with the way in which the police dealt with demonstrators during the recent visit of the Chinese president.

Is it true that English Heritage advised in favour of protecting the Cenotaph, but that that was rejected as likely to be inflammatory? I do not believe that the demonstrators needed anything to inflame them in their vandalism. Perhaps we should learn some lessons from that. Like everybody, last week I saw some footage of people saying what they would do in Parliament Square. Digging up a bit of turf does not matter one way or the other, although it seems to be an odd way to improve the greenery around us.

Clearly, yesterday's events were bound to be attended by a degree of violence. On the vandalism to the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, I do not suppose that Sir Winston would be bothered because he dealt with the greatest thug in the previous century. I do not suppose a few ghastly people demonstrating how badly behaved they can be would bother him too much.

Do the Government accept that the public will expect the courts to deal very severely with those who come up before them in regard to offences that took place over the weekend? How many of them, I wonder, are in receipt of benefits from the capitalist society and from the workers who pay their taxes against whom they demonstrated and whose day they so badly disturbed? Perhaps the Benefits Agency will look at the photographs to decide whether what certain people were doing comes within the definition of availability for work.

We have seen a number of such civil disobediences. Clearly, protest is part of democracy, but violent protest is not part of democracy. Stopping people by violent means from doing what they legally and legitimately can do is quite simply wrong and has to be stamped upon.

This is the second time that this kind of incident has taken place in London. In a big way we saw a similar disturbance in Seattle and in a more minor way— although just as serious—we have seen another anti-capitalist demonstration even more recently in America. Does the Minister agree with my right honourable friend Steve Norris—as I understand it, the only man who stands between the Prime Minister and Mr Livingstone—who today said that as mayor he simply would not permit such an event to become annual? Next year it should not be a matter of discussing tactics or containment, but whether such a demonstration of this kind should take place at all.

Quite clearly, the people who organised the event—it seems a bit of a contradiction to say that anarchists organise anything—had no intention of it being peaceful. They had every intention that it should be violent. Perhaps the Minister will consider saying that, "Two strikes and you are out; you have done this twice in London in recent times and should not be allowed to do it again".

4.14 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is right that we should spend some time discussing the activities of the vicious thugs who were involved in yesterday's totally unacceptable behaviour.

Although I shall try to avoid the response of all too many of us in the past of trying to make recommendations for changes to the law, one or two questions arise. First, is there a requirement to announce, in advance, what demonstrators propose to do? I recognise that yesterday a number of disparate groups were involved, but somebody organised the 500 cyclists who pedalled their way from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square. Clearly, that was organised, so should there be some form of statutory requirement that people who seek to take action of that sort should give several days' advance notice to the police?

Secondly, on the attitude of the courts—a point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—it is not for us to say what should happen in individual cases when particular persons appear before the courts. However, I believe it would be helpful if the Home Secretary were to ask the Crown Prosecution Service to report to Parliament on the scale of penalties imposed on people convicted of public order offences yesterday and in the previous disturbances in the City of London, so that we can be aware and so that future potential demonstrators can be aware of the penalties to which the) could be subjected.

Thirdly, I am sure that all noble Lords are gratified that there were not more police casualties and casualties among innocent members of the public. Will the Minister pass on to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police our congratulations to the police on what they did yesterday and good wishes to those police officers who were injured?

4.17 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their helpful and generous comments and for sharing with me their praise of the police for the way in which they conducted themselves yesterday. I shall do my best to answer the important questions that were asked.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked whether a request would be made for television and media companies and the public to give up photographs so that those responsible for these outrages can be identified. I am happy to say that the answer is yes, and I am also assured that the police themselves took great pains to ensure that there was video coverage of the demonstration. As we know, there is no better evidence than that of photographs or video, from which it is hard to escape.

On discussions between the Home Secretary and the commissioner, there were bilateral discussions and a special discussion some weeks ago. However, I am not in a position to be able to tell the House exactly what was discussed on those occasions.

With regard to the Cenotaph and the protection of monuments, discussions were held with the police about the protection of nationally important monuments in the area covered by the protests. I am sure that the bodies responsible for their upkeep will have taken full account of police advice in reaching their decisions on what to do.

In relation to the reference made to one of the candidates in the mayoral election—I do not want to go into the election this afternoon—it will not be up to whoever is successful on Thursday as to whether or not a protest march should take place. As the noble Lord knows well, the current law enables the commissioner and, outside London, district councils to apply for marches to be prohibited when serious public disorder is anticipated and to attach conditions to public assemblies. Whether or not to use the powers is an operational matter for the commissioner or the chief of police in any county.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is right that we have to be careful in relation to the courts. It is important that those who are convicted of committing offences are not only rightly convicted, but also rightly punished. However, as we discussed earlier this afternoon, under our system that must remain a matter for the courts to lay down and not for Parliament or the Home Secretary or the Government. I am sure that we all have our own feelings as to what should happen. I hope I have covered all the questions asked.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, one specific question I asked was whether or not a report could be obtained from the Crown Prosecution Service as to how the courts dispose of offenders who appear in relation to yesterday's events and also in relation to those who appeared in the previous riots in the City of London.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the question. The answer is yes; but the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service will also be observed.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, this matter has not only brought shame upon the perpetrators of this horrible behaviour, but also the fact that we have in our midst, calling themselves subjects of this country, people who can behave in this dreadful way, is a slur upon the nation.

Perhaps we can look a little more closely at the question raised in regard to the courts and the way in which they deal with these matters. Obviously, we cannot dictate what the courts should award those who are found guilty by way of punishment, but what the public may recognise as being a slight improvement is this. Knowing that violence was to be perpetrated, and knowing that for some considerable time, should not courts be pre-convened to deal with those matters, so far as they can, consistent with our systems of justice? In other words, why do we not set up courts whereby, instead of after a long delay when all these matters have been investigated and then for the very first time the perpetrators of the violence come before the courts, at the outset the people whom the police had seen behave in this violent way could be dealt with immediately. The courts would then decide what cases ought to be adjourned in order for a defence to be properly put. And, again, I hope that they would consider it proper to treat this as an emergency and allow short periods of time consistent with justice when there is a question of remand. The courts could decide immediately, in very bad cases, whether or not to remand in custody.

What is troubling in this matter is that we will go away after this discussion; Parliament will have dealt with it in both Houses and we will hear about cases brought before the courts in three, four or six weeks' time. Is that good enough?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the House knows that my noble friend speaks with tremendous experience and wisdom on these matters. I want to be careful what I say in response and he will understand why. As I understand it, the 97 who were arrested yesterday will have been brought before the court at some stage today. Whether or not the court has dealt with any who admitted guilt, I do not know. But, if they protest their innocence, they must be entitled, as my noble friend knows better than anybody, to prepare their defence. But I agree that it is important, from everyone's point of view, whether these cases are heard eventually in the magistrates' or the Crown Courts— much will depend on the charges laid by the Crown Prosecution Service—that they are dealt with as quickly as possible.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, first, when the Home Office is in a position to tell us, will the Minister undertake to advise us as to how much those vandals cost the taxpayer during the past 48 hours and in the run-up to the demonstration yesterday? Secondly— this is a matter for information—is he able to inform the House as to whether or not Mr Ken Livingstone expressed an opinion about the events of yesterday? If so, was that opinion supportive of the vandals or of the forces of right?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the first question is easier to answer than the second. Of course, once the cost is known—that may take a little time—I shall write to the noble Viscount and place a copy in the Library. There may be other ways of circulating that information to other noble Lords.

In relation to Mr Ken Livingstone, I have only read the press reports. But it matters not to me one way or the other what he had to say about this issue; his previous opinion was well known.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I have tremendous regard for my noble friend Lord Mishcon because he was my tutor. But is not the Minister concerned at his suggestion that there should be a separate entitlement to trial for those people? Should not the persons concerned be treated as equal before the law? That being so, is it not better for existing magistrates to determine whether or not they should be tried? They are entitled to put their cases before the bench, where there is sufficient reason so to do. That being so, does not my noble friend agree that the people concerned should attend before the magistrates; that the magistrates should determine whether or not they should be tried before that bench or somebody else; and the magistrates have the right at the present time to determine whether or not the case should be heard at that time or at some other stage?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and nothing anyone has so far said is against his premise. It is, of course, right that the more the public are affronted by an offence, the more essential it is that the law should take its proper course. That must happen in this as in every other case. I am sure that the courts of this country, whether magistrates' courts, Crown Courts or wherever the perpetrators end up, will ensure that those charged with offences receive a fair trial. It would be a disgrace if they did not.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister give the House an assurance that in future the Cenotaph will be protected against any acts of violence or desecration by such people? The Cenotaph is important to practically every family in the land. Whether or not it offends certain groups of protestors, it should be protected from damage.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. Of all the violent offences committed yesterday, speaking personally, I felt that the attack on the Cenotaph was the worst. I shall be careful in choosing my words here, but discussions were held beforehand on what should be done between those responsible for the Cenotaph and the police. My understanding is that advice was given by the police that the Cenotaph should have been fenced or boxed in. I am quite sure that if such a situation is ever again reached, the Cenotaph will be protected.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, what is the situation as regards my noble friend Lord Carnarvon's proposal that it should be an offence to wear a mask with the objective of wrongfully evading identity in public?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as always the noble and learned Lord has asked a pertinent question. Under the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, as amended this year by the Government, that Act has now been strengthened by the inclusion of new powers to enable the police to remove face coverings when a Section 60 order made under the Act is in force. Perhaps I may remind the noble and learned Lord that a Section 60 order empowers the police to stop and search for weapons and dangerous implements without the need to suspect particular individuals once the order has been invoked. I realise that that does not answer the noble and learned Lord's question about the suggestion that the wearing of masks should be an offence in itself, but greater powers are now in place. I understand that those powers were used yesterday in an attempt to identify many of the miscreants who were wearing balaclavas at the time they committed their offences.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, the Minister has referred twice to the bilateral discussions which took place between the police authorities and the Home Secretary. Can the Minister assure the House that no direction or request of any kind was made by the Home Secretary or anyone acting on his behalf which in any way persuaded the police authorities to desist from taking action or putting in place remedial measures that might otherwise have been implemented?

While I am sure that all noble Lords share the words of praise that have already been expressed by several speakers for the police on their skill and careful tactical planning, everyone—not only in this House but throughout the country—feels a sense of absolute disgust and shame at the desecration of the Cenotaph, the attack on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill and the destructive digging in Parliament Square. Those acts were deliberately designed to provoke and attack the established attitudes and adopted views of the people of this country.

In the light of what has taken place, will the forthcoming review endeavour to answer one most important question: where does the protection of public property end and the appeasement of anarchy begin?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I believe that I can give the noble Lord the assurance that he sought at the beginning of his contribution. We all share in the noble Lord's feelings about the offences that have taken place. However, I feel that it is important to stress that in not the slightest way has there been any move to give in to the forces of anarchy expressed yesterday. The police did a very professional job and the position could have been infinitely worse if they had not taken all the right decisions. I believe that the House is generally of the view—it has certainly been expressed today—that the police behaved admirably. Nothing was given to the anarchists and nothing will be given.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of a report in The Times today stating that the McDonald's in Whitehall was closed after a police warning and that the handful of staff present had to flee to safety through the rear of the building as chairs flew through the air? My noble friend cannot possibly be aware that I had breakfast in McDonald's in Whitehall yesterday morning—long before the violence took place—and that, as ever, I found all the staff to be extremely helpful, attentive and courteous. Will the investigation into the attack on McDonald's be pursued with the greatest possible vigour?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's contribution. I can assure him that the investigation into what happened at McDonald's in Whitehall will be pursued with the greatest vigour, as will all other parts of the investigation.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether it is still the Government's policy to be tough on crime and to be tough on the causes of crime? If that is the case, while addressing the judicial matters that have been discussed in your Lordships' House this afternoon, will the Government also look behind these events—along with violent incidents of football hooliganism such as that which took place in Istanbul—and question the reason why so many young people behave so badly, whether they are young men or women? Furthermore, will the Government look closely at the reasons why so many incidents of violence are taking place in our society today?

Lord Bach

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord I can assure him that of course the Government continue to believe in being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. However, I am not sure that on this occasion the noble Lord has chosen the best example. Certain youngsters, both male and female, get into trouble and then need help rather than punishment. However, I do not believe that that applied to those who were involved at the front of yesterday's demonstration.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the noble Lord clarify one point for me? I have read that, before the march began, the police were not able to secure from one particular group a degree of information about its intentions and plans. Normally the police would expect to receive such information. Is that the case, and if it is, can anything be done about it?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. As I said when I repeated the Statement of the Home Secretary, none—I repeat, none—of the organisers was willing to discuss their preparations in advance with the police. That of course goes against all the normal procedures followed by demonstrators of all kinds who have held their protests peacefully over many years in our society. Usually discussions between the organisers and the police take place, whatever their standpoint may be. However, these people were not prepared to hold advance discussions with the police. That might suggest to some that they were looking for trouble.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, as one who in the past has participated in many non-violent demonstrations, whether in relation to jobs, the environment or peace, like my noble friend, I regret that those who wanted to occupy Trafalgar Square to make their protest about the situation at Rover were not able to do so. Perhaps I may also say that I join with all noble Lords in condemning those who committed acts of violence yesterday and caused injuries to the police. I am sure that the House will agree with me when I say that I hope that those police officers who were injured—in particular one officer who was hit in the face with a brick—will soon be fit and back on duty protecting the public once more.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and I know that he has spoken for the whole House.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, in view of the fact that no one was prepared to discuss such arrangements with the police, could not the Government suggest to the in-coming mayor of London, when we know who he or she will be, that if such a situation arises again it would be desirable to close Whitehall altogether because the Cenotaph is there? I do not believe that anyone wants to see it boxed in whenever there is a demonstration. Further, bearing in mind the fact that 1st May seems to have been an inflammatory date in this matter, would the Government consider changing that holiday and perhaps granting an extra one at Whitsun?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I must remind the noble Baroness that this issue has nothing to do with the mayor. It is a matter for the commissioner and the Home Secretary, but operationally for the commissioner alone. With respect, I do not agree with the noble Baroness about 1st May. It is a day upon which many peaceful people wish to celebrate what they believe in. The behaviour of certain people on that date is an insult to those who want to celebrate May Day in a way that has been practised for many years.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, the noble Lord has already undertaken to provide information regarding the cost of yesterday's demonstrations, but can he confirm that all police leave in London was cancelled to enable the force to police the crowds? Will he further undertake to publish for the people of London the cost to them of just the policing element because the people of London will lose out in that respect as regards the funding for their police service? Yesterday was quite disgraceful and the people of London deserve an answer to that question. They will lose policing because of yesterday's demonstrations and they need to know that.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness who has great experience in such matters. Yes, I can confirm that all police leave was cancelled and that in due course the public can expect a response in terms of the cost involved.