Policing of the G20 Protests - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

DAVID HOWARTH MP, MR CHRIS ABBOTT AND MS FRANCES WRIGHT

12 MAY 2009

  Q100  Gwyn Prosser: If the violence is almost part of a doctrine, would we not have expected far more incidents and far more complaints?

  David Howarth: What seems to happen in these demonstrations is, first of all, they are corralled, so they are surrounded and no one is allowed in or out. There is a question about the lawfulness of that corralling, whether it is done in line with what the House of Lords said in the Austin case. I am very doubtful that that was the case in the Climate Camp. A second part of so-called "kettling" is the police advancing very forcibly with riot shields and batons on the crowd to compress it into a smaller area. I think that is where a lot of the complaints are going to come from, from injuries that were suffered by that activity. Whatever you may think about the corralling, that second part of the tactic has never really been fully explained to me or anybody else. Why does that happen? What is meant to be achieved by it? It seems on the day, from the reports I had, it simply made the protesters angry, it caused a reaction, it caused tension and it seemed more than likely to result in violence.

  Q101  David Davies: How long do you think people should be allowed to demonstrate peacefully for on a highway before the police are able to use force to either compress them or remove them?

  David Howarth: Compressing in that forcible way I doubt is ever—

  Q102  David Davies: How long do you think that people should be allowed to do it for?

  David Howarth: That is an interesting question because we have the Tamil demonstration outside now and it has been going on weeks. The question is whether you would want to forcibly remove it. I would not.

  Q103  David Davies: So if people want to sit down on a road for weeks, you think that that should be allowed providing it is peaceful, do you?

  David Howarth: It does depend on which road and what the consequences are.

  Q104  David Davies: Let us say it is a major road through the City.

  David Howarth: There is this point about Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 which I think is at the heart of this. On the night of 1 April the police made it clear to me that they were dispersing the Climate Camp, not because of public disorder, which is the first leg of Section 14, not because of serious criminal damage, which is the second, but solely because of this third leg of serious disruption to the life of the community. Obviously that is a balance that has to be struck in every case.

  Q105  David Davies: So there is a point—

  David Howarth: There must come a point.

  Q106  David Davies: --- when the police could use force. What you are really arguing about is not whether the police are right to use force or kettling or rail track compression, it is the time, is it not?

  David Howarth: Absolutely, the circumstances. My main concern about the night of 1 April was exactly that, what the circumstances were.

  Q107  Chairman: Many of us have sympathy have sympathy with the position of the Tamil community. Are you saying that it is perfectly acceptable to block the road outside Westminster?

  David Howarth: It depends on the effects.

  Q108  Chairman: The effect is that London was brought to a standstill.

  David Howarth: I do not know whether that is true. One of the questions in all these instances is about the evidence base that is being used. I do not have the evidence and I do not think you do either about precisely what the effects are of the Tamil demonstration, but they seem to me to be far more serious in terms of traffic disruption than blocking 100 yards of Bishopsgate where it is only two lanes.

  Q109  Chairman: Is that acceptable? Traffic disruption is acceptable, is it?

  David Howarth: Some traffic disruption must be acceptable otherwise no one would be able to protest on the streets.

  Q110  Chairman: How long for?

  David Howarth: It is a matter of balance in every case. It depends on the level of disruption caused. You cannot give an absolute rule. Mr Davies is right, there will come a point in demonstrations where the demonstration should not be there any longer, it has caused serious enough disruption to the life of the community to be removed.

  Q111  Mr Winnick: Even if a demonstration was as peaceful as you can possibly imagine and there are no allegations of violence of any kind, if the demonstration is pretty large, which has often been the case of the Labour movement on various occasions certainly in the past, May Day comes readily to mind, would there not inevitably be traffic disruption?

  David Howarth: Absolutely. The question is whether any degree of traffic disruption justifies the removal of a demonstration, which I fear was the assumption being used by the police on the night of 1 April, at least that is what it seemed to me in discussions with them, or whether it has to be a question of judging the risks as they really are and putting some sort of value on the demonstration as well as on the degree of traffic disruption that is being caused. It has to be done consciously. I do not think you can say just because there is traffic disruption at 11:00 pm at Bishopsgate, in the middle of the City of London and the financial district, with one white van not allowed through, that is the end of the demonstration. You need to be able to think through the balance itself.

  Q112  Mr Winnick: You have spoken about the right to demonstrate, the very essence of our democracy, of that there can be no doubt. Are you clear in your own mind that there needs to be a sharp distinction between demonstrating, which can involve shouting and the rest of it, and outright violence against the police?

  David Howarth: Absolutely.

  Q113  Mr Winnick: I take it you condemn any form of violence directed against the police.

  David Howarth: Absolutely. My big distinction is between peaceful and non-peaceful protests. I think non-peaceful protests, attacking police officers, attacking other people, are utterly unjustified. We are perfectly correct in policing that in a tough way.

  Q114  Mr Clappison: You are obviously very learned in all these matters and probably in the law in these matters as well. Demonstrators have a right to protest peacefully and the police have to act within the law. Following on from what Mr Winnick said, I am a bit concerned by what you said at the beginning, where in your initial remarks you appeared to lay the blame on the police for raising the temperature in respect of these matters. I do not know about the Climate Camp demonstration and the Climate Camp cause, but it is apparent from any reading of recent history that G20 meetings have been accompanied by violence. They were in Seattle a number of years ago and they have subsequently. After this G20 meeting took place the same meeting went on to Strasbourg where there was very serious violence. I would ask you if you would reconsider the approach you are taking on this when talking about the police raising the temperature. There seems to me to be a reasonable degree of foresight that one can exercise in relation to history of these matters and some of the demonstrators who appear to take part on an international basis in G20 protests that violence takes place.

  David Howarth: I should refer you to what the police said at our meeting, which is that Commander Broadhurst himself expressed concern about the way in which the matter was being reported. He said basically it was the media's fault, but he did not like the way in which it was being reported and the expectation of violence being ramped up. He said that his officers read the newspapers, they listen to the news and that would make his job of maintaining discipline on the day more difficult. I do not think there is any doubt that there was a problem. There was a problem about ramping up the level of expectation and violence. The question is who was responsible for it, whether it was just the media or whether the police made mistakes as well.

  Q115  Mr Clappison: You said initially that it was the police who were raising the temperature on this. I think the record will bear that your remarks said that. Whatever the police may have said in briefings, I put it to you that given the history of G20 meetings there have been there appears to be a risk of violence, wherever they take place, because of the nature of some of the demonstrators who are attracted to the G20 meetings and the sort of protests that they want to make which result in violence.

  David Howarth: There are two responses to that. One is that the Climate Camp was not part of that.

  Q116  Mr Clappison: I drew that distinction.

  David Howarth: This is a very important distinction to draw. The expectations apply to everything, not just to the other demonstration. The second thing is that, even though what you are saying is right, that there was some risk of violence, what should be the police's strategy towards that risk? Should they be talking it up, talking it down or giving their best assessment of the risk? That is the question.

  Q117  Ms Buck: You implied that there was a significant change in attitude in terms of the policing, particularly when the police in riot gear appeared. Could you tell us what discussions you had at this stage on the day with members of the police command and whether you put to them that there was a change in behaviour with the arrival of either different police or a conscious change of tactics?

  David Howarth: That change at around seven o'clock happened when we had no colleagues there. Mr Brake at that point was kettled at the Bank of England. So we had no direct witnesses. I cannot speak directly about what happened at that point. Certainly earlier in the day when I spoke to police officers it was all very friendly. One police officer expressed to me a concern that there was too much beer being drunk and that things might get out of hand later because of that and I passed his concern on to Frances Wright, but I believe that action was taken within the Climate Camp to put that right. All I can go on are the secondhand reports that came to me later. I cannot claim to be an eyewitness to this. There does seem to have been a change in tactics around seven o'clock with more forcible tactics being used and police in riot gear being put to the front.

  Q118  Ms Buck: Did you speak to any police officers after the point of that change in attitude, what did you say to them and what did they say to you?

  David Howarth: I spoke at around half-past ten to 11 o'clock to the Silver Commander. I had previously tried to get in touch with the Gold Commander and the Bronze Commander and eventually talked to the Silver Commander. He told me that the police had basically said that this was the end of the demonstration, they were using Section 14 to call the demonstration off and they were going to disperse the demonstration because it was a serious disruption to the life of the community. I said to him, "Have you thought about the balance of risk, about using tactics that might endanger life and limb given the fact that that is what you are trying to do, you are simply trying to clear a bit of a city street at 11 o'clock at night?" and his response was not encouraging, he said, "Well, that's the kind of thing I will have to sort out in court."

  Q119  Ms Buck: Did you say to him that you had heard by this stage that there was already a change in police approach and tactics early on and what did he say to that?

  David Howarth: Yes. His response was entirely in terms of there were people we saw in there who should not be there who had come from the other demonstration. I obviously was not in a position to say whether that was true or not at the time, although eyewitness reports coming to me later, which I include in my letter, seemed to contradict that.


 
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