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Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his customary courtesy in letting me see it in advance. I should also like to associate the Opposition with his tribute to the police involved. I also add our best wishes to those innocent members of the public who were injured in yesterday's demonstrations.
Did English Heritage make any proposals to safeguard the Cenotaph before the demonstrations? If so, what consideration was given to those proposals? If they were rejected, why and on whose advice and authority?
Does the Home Secretary agree that all those who are charged with offences arising from yesterday's activity should face exemplary sentences? Does he agree with the proposal of the Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty, Steve Norris, who has called for a ban on that assembly in future years, given its record this year and last year; or does he incline more towards the views of the other candidate for the mayoralty and think that the reaction of the Livingstone camp to last year's City riots is nearer the mark? It is a straightforward question: does the Home Secretary agree with the Conservatives and Steve Norris that the demonstration should be banned in future?
Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. Lady for her good wishes to those who were injured and to the police officers who policed such a difficult demonstration. She acknowledges in passing that fine judgments have to be made about the policing of demonstrations, but she then suggests that, with the benefit of hindsight, she is in a better position to make judgments than the chief officer of police was. [Interruption.] I shall answer all the right hon. Lady's questions, as I always do, but I must tell her that if she acknowledges that it was a very difficult situation and that fine judgments had to be made, she has to acknowledge it after the event as well as before and to back the judgment of the chief officer of police and his colleagues, as I do.
The police did not allow illegal acts to take place. They had to make fine judgments to prevent worse disorder and violence taking place. No permission was sought for this demonstration; indeed, so far as Trafalgar square was concerned, permission had already been granted to the TUC for a demonstration, and those peaceful protesters were kept out of Trafalgar square by what amounted to a wholly unlawful occupation of the square by the violent protesters.
It would have been a matter for the police's judgment--they would have had to seek my permission in certain circumstances--but the police might have decided to bar the whole of Parliament square, Whitehall and Trafalgar square to the protesters. If they had done so, the information available to the police was that those protesters would still have come into central London. This was a day on which the shops were open across the west end. The judgment made by the police, which I backed fully, was that the risks of uncontrolled violence right across the west end to shoppers, tourists and children, as well as to the police and to property, were much greater than what actually occurred yesterday in an event that the police were able properly and effectively to police, despite the serious damage and violence that was done.
The right hon. Lady asked whether there were meetings with the Commissioner. Of course there were. The issue of the policing of the demonstration was raised by the Commissioner and me at a series of regular bilaterals, and at a special meeting about three weeks ago. I was concerned to ensure that the Commissioner had the full resources and powers available to him. I did not wish to second-guess his judgments, but I wanted to satisfy myself that proper preparations were in place and, in particular, that--as far as it was possible to learn them--lessons had been learned from the events that took place mainly within the City of London on 18 June last year. Many of those lessons had been learned, including the need for there to be a combined control. That combined control operated at New Scotland Yard, as I saw when I visited there yesterday afternoon.
The right hon. Lady referred to the visit of the Chinese head of state. That was a demeaning comment. There is no parallel between the difficulty of policing what happened yesterday and the visit of the Chinese head of state,
The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament square is the responsibility of the Royal Parks Agency, and the Cenotaph is the responsibility of English Heritage. I understand that the police asked for both of those monuments to be boarded up, and decisions not to board them up were made by the agencies. I was not aware that those decisions were made, and the House will wish there to be more details about how they came to be made. However, the police told me this morning, in terms, that they had advised English Heritage and the Royal Parks Agency that the monuments should be boarded up.
The right hon. Lady referred to comments by the Conservative mayoral candidate. In the light of yesterday's events, this is not the occasion for swapping stories about candidates. That can be done outside the House. However, since the matter has been raised, I repeat that decisions of this kind will remain the responsibility of the chief officer of police. Whatever may have been said by candidates, the decisions of this House and the other place on the establishment of the MPA were clear. That is to say, the mayor's only power lies in proposing the budget--which has to go up, not down--for the Metropolitan police service. The MPA will replace my functions as the police authority for the Metropolitan police service, and it will operate in the same way as any other police authority.
Provision already exists in the law to ban processions, and other powers may be taken by the police. As for Greater London, the law makes it clear that a decision to initiate a request for any such ban lies with the Commissioner and the request goes, and will continue to go, direct to the Home Secretary. As with other requests for bans, if the Commissioner makes a request, I shall consider it with care.
Sir John Morris (Aberavon): As a former soldier, I deprecate the damage done to the Cenotaph and the Churchill statue. I recognise the fine distinction between the powers of my right hon. Friend as Home Secretary and those of the Commissioner, but I wonder whether, with hindsight, the right decisions were taken by the police. Will the matter now be further considered so that future difficulties may be avoided?
Ample statutory powers exist, but in well-organised demonstrations--I have taken part in some of them--proper liaison occurs between the organisers, the stewards and the police. It is not simply a question of damage in the west end, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, as opposed to damage in Parliament square and Trafalgar square. Demonstrations are successfully held in other places in London, such as Hyde park, with a minimum of damage, if any. With hindsight, does my right hon. Friend think that everything was done for the best yesterday?
Mr. Straw: It is my belief that the Commissioner and his colleagues had some extremely difficult judgments to make, and I back them fully on the decisions they made and continue to make in respect of the demonstrations. With respect, the sort of demonstrations that my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned are those run by people
I defer to, and back, the judgments made by senior police officers who had to make some extraordinarily difficult decisions. All such judgments would be much easier with the benefit of hindsight, but that is a luxury never available to the police in the heat of the operational moment. The way in which they policed the events yesterday was exemplary and a huge credit to the professionalism of the British police service. I might add that yesterday's events were better policed than similar events have been elsewhere in the world.