Response to Police Minister’s statement on public disorder at student rally

Below is Ed’s response in Hansard to the Police Minister’s House of Commons statement on the public disorder at yesterday’s student demonstration in London.

Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice for coming to the House and for giving me an advance copy of his statement. Let me start by agreeing that the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental part of our democracy, which is supported on both sides of the House. Tens of thousands of students and lecturers came to London from across the country yesterday in coaches and with banners, placards and whistles to exercise that right and to make their voices heard about the Government’s controversial plan to triple tuition fees.

However, the Minister is right to say, as the Prime Minister said in Seoul last night, that the vandalism and violence that we saw yesterday is completely unacceptable. It was perpetrated by a small minority of thugs who hijacked what was planned to be a legitimate and peaceful demonstration, and in so doing denied tens of thousands of students and lecturers the right to have their voices properly heard.

The Metropolitan police has told me that the National Union of Students worked closely and co-operatively with it before and during yesterday’s events, as it has in the past. The president of the NUS was right yesterday to describe the actions of that small minority as “despicable” and designed to “hijack a peaceful protest.” As the Minister said, there have been 50 arrests so far. Labour Members are clear, as he is, that there is no excuse for such criminal behaviour, and that those responsible must be brought to justice.

It is the job of the police not only to tackle crime, and to protect to the safety of our communities, but to keep public order as they ensure that the law-abiding majority can exercise their democratic right to protest and make their voices heard. The police ensure that thousands of major events and demonstrations pass off peacefully every year, often in difficult circumstances. I am sure that all hon. Members will want to join me in commending, as the Minister has done, the hundreds of officers involved in yesterday’s events, and particularly the small number outside 30 Millbank and Millbank Tower early yesterday afternoon, for their bravery and dedication.

When things go wrong, it is vital to ask questions, to find out what happened, and to learn lessons for the future. We welcome the urgent investigation that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, ordered late yesterday, and his straightforward and responsible admission that those events were “an embarrassment for London” and that there are lessons to be learned. The Met has acknowledged that there was an operational failure, and it seems sensible and appropriate in this instance that it conducts the investigation and reports to the independent Metropolitan Police Authority.

I am sure that that investigation will look at a number of issues, including whether sufficient officers were on duty to police what was expected to be a peaceful demonstration, when estimates of the size of the demonstration were revised upwards from 5,000 to 15,000 and then to 25,000 demonstrators; why the Metropolitan police made the judgment that the demonstration would be peaceful; whether there was any intelligence to suggest preplanning of violent action; whether sufficient back-up was available, and how quickly it was available and able to be deployed; and how operational decisions were made about which buildings to protect.

Wider questions were raised by yesterday’s events that go beyond the direct operational responsibilities of the commissioner and the Metropolitan police, and are rightly matters for the Home Secretary and the Government. Let me ask the Minister whether, given the clear failure of intelligence in this case, the Home Secretary will assess whether the gathering of intelligence by the police and wider security services was sufficient, and sufficiently well co-ordinated. Will the Home Secretary be discussing the procedures for assessing risk and intelligence in advance of such protests to ensure that in future the full risks are understood in advance?

Given that yesterday and on previous occasions, mobile phones and social networking have been used during demonstrations to co-ordinate actions and build momentum during demonstrations, is work under way by the Home Secretary and her Department to support the police in responding to this new challenge and to consider what wider public order issues are raised?

Given that the demonstration was against a controversial aspect of Government policy and that police officers were deployed outside the headquarters of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, did the Home Secretary or her advisers have any advance discussions about possible risks with the Metropolitan police and lead party officials? Was there any pre-warning or planning for staff in those political offices, and are there wider lessons to be learned?

Will the Minister tell us at what time he and the Home Secretary were alerted to the fact that elements in the demonstration were at risk of becoming violent, that they had become violent, and that a serious public order incident was under way? Will the Minister also tell us what plans the Home Secretary has to update the House following the conclusion of both the Metropolitan police investigation and the wider investigations that I hope she has started?

Finally, as the Minister said, the root of yesterday’s events was the fault of no one but a small minority of violent demonstrators whom we all roundly condemn. They are a timely reminder of how we are all reliant on the police to maintain public order and to ensure legitimate and peaceful protest. Let me ask the Minister and the Home Secretary whether they are confident that the police will have the resources that they need in the coming years to deal with threats to our national security, to tackle organised crime, to ensure safe and successful Olympics and Paralympics, to continue visible neighbourhood policing in all our communities, and to ensure public order at major events without—

Hon. Members: Cheap.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The shadow Home Secretary will be heard.

Ed Balls: I will repeat the question, because some hon. Members did not want to hear it. I am asking for assurance from the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and the Home Secretary that they are confident that the police will have the resources they need in the coming years to deal with threats to our national security, to tackle organised crime, to ensure safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic games, to continue to provide neighbourhood police visible in all our communities, and to ensure public order at major events without stretching the thin blue line to breaking point.

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Posted November 11th, 2010 by Ed's team

One Response to “Response to Police Minister’s statement on public disorder at student rally”

  1. John Bracewell says:

    Every time a demonstration degenerates into violence, it seems it is never the fault of the organisers, their demonstration having been infiltrated by violent activists. Given that demonstrations do no good, very few of them actually result in any policy changes, should not future organisers take the likelihood of violent extremists overturning their protest seriously and cancel the event before it takes place? It is illuminating to remember that violent protests are the hallmark of periods when the Labour party are in opposition, there were similar occasions when Labour were in government when protests should have taken place, for example, when the Labour government refused to give the people the EU Referendum they were promised but the ‘Tory Toffs’ are far better behaved than the ‘Labour Louts.’ It appears that although now in the minority, the country is going to be subject to Trade Union bullying through strikes, inconvenience of street marches and a few violent protests thrown in for good measure. It seems that Labour supporters not only cannot behave properly, they seem to think that their views are all that matter and they will impose them on the people of the country even though they have no mandate, having lost the last election. In a democaracy what is wrong with verbal protest in meetings without organising street marches which are counter-productive anyway?

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