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Dr. Harris: I am sorry that constituency work will not enable me to make a substantive contribution or hear the responses, butI want to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to our recommendation on the Public Order Act 1986, which was to remove the provision on insulting from section 5, and leave it alone in section 4A to protect people from direct insult. Does he believe that it is important to make it clear to people that there is no right not to be offended, that free speech sometimes means that sensitive people will be offended, and that if
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we allow people to make comments, for example, about gay people, if they are Christians, without the police coming up to them and questioning them, we must dilute the way in which the law operates at the moment? It is disappointing that the Government's response did not properly engage with the real problem or give good reasons for not proceeding along the lines that we have always suggested.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is a profound defender of the right of free speech, and he has made his point. The Government made some arguments in their response-for example, on people with disabilities-but having someone arrested for calling a police horse "gay" is ludicrous. Perhaps the police need better guidance, at the very least, on the use of law. The issue will continue to be debated, and needs to be.

The police have a difficult job in handling major public order incidents, often involving quick decisions aimed at protecting lives and property. By and large, they do an excellent job in balancing the competing rights of protesters, those protested against, journalists, bystanders and others, although as the G20 protests demonstrated individual protests can raise significant concerns.

We have aimed to assist the police by ensuring that they police protests in accordance with human rights. We are confident that the Government and the police now share our objective, based on a return to the British model of policing, including the minimum use of force. I believe that the police have already taken on board some of the lessons, based on the different approach to the climate camp last summer at Blackheath. We believe that the main issue is that the guidance and training available to police forces, commanders and officers have not taken sufficient account of human rights. Inconsistency between forces, some of which are ill-equipped to deal with major public order issues because of their small size, is also an issue. I hope that our successor Committee in the new Parliament will scrutinise action by the Government and ACPO to ensure that these problems are overcome.

Police accountability is also a major issue. Politicians should not influence operational decisions by police officers, but we were struck by the fact that clearly expressed ministerial views on how legislation, such as counter-terrorism powers, should be implemented did not appear to be influencing police action on the ground. A bigger role is being given to ACPO to ensure that police forces follow national guidance. We need to look closely at ACPO's developing role as a national policing agency and accountability mechanism, in what can be a specialist area of policing.

We have seen a clear commitment from the Government, ACPO, the police and all concerned to learn the lessons of what happened at G20 and earlier demonstrations. The real question is whether that commitment can be changed from a commitment in principle to different methods of policing when difficult demonstrations occur.

3.9 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): As the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, I have been directly involved in these issues for quite a long time. I should say right at the start that
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although I am still critical of the position that the police sometimes take, and of the positions that the Government often take, we have come a long way in the past few months.

It was entirely clear from my visits to the Heathrow climate camp, and subsequently from reports of what happened at Kingsnorth, that the police had immensely abused powers such as that to stop and search and that their intention was to disrupt the protests, rather than to maintain public order. There were also some rather extraordinary claims at Kingsnorth, with the police claiming through Ministers that injuries had been caused-the implication being that the protest had been violent and that the protesters had caused the injuries. It turned out that the injuries were health and safety problems and that police officers had injured themselves getting in and out of their cars, had suffered from toothache or, in one notorious incident, had been stung by a possible wasp.

Dr. Harris: A possible wasp?

David Howarth: Yes, I have always wondered what an impossible wasp would be.

Although the situation has now moved on, things did not improve to begin with. The hon. Member for Hendon said that I was involved in trying to bring the protesters and the police together for a meeting the day before the Bishopsgate climate camp. The climate camp was entirely peaceful, and the disorder broke out at a different demonstration, near the Bank of England. The demonstration at Bishopsgate remained entirely peaceful for a long time, and there was no serious police intervention until 7 o'clock, when the police suddenly surrounded the demonstration and pushed the demonstrators back. Eventually, after about 11 o'clock, the police threw themselves into an operation that basically involved violently breaking up the demonstration, even though people had shown no violent intent all day. In fact, for most of the day, the demonstration had looked like a festival, with songs, dancing, seminars and food stalls.

What most disturbed me was my phone conversation with a senior Metropolitan police commander at 11 o'clock. I asked, "What are you doing? Why are you following this tactic?" and he replied that section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 had been invoked, on the grounds not that there was violent disorder or serious damage to property, but solely because there had been serious disruption to the life of the community. The question then is what that disruption was. Why did the disruption suddenly start in the evening? What is more, we are talking about the City of London, where, as everyone knows, nothing much happens after business closes.

As the hon. Member for Hendon said, the police attitude seemed to be that any demonstration on the street was technically illegal and technically disruptive because it was technically obstructing the highway. That, apparently, justified any action, no matter how disproportionate, to break up the demonstration. It was entirely over the top; it was not just unnecessary, but dangerous. The lives and limbs of the demonstrators, and indeed some police officers, were put at risk simply to clear the streets, as if that was a justification. However, we have moved on.

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Mr. Ruffley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Howarth: May I just finish the point? I do not want to break off without saying what the improvements have been.

First, we have had the report from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which clearly moves in the direction of saying that the right to peaceful protest-not technically lawful protest-should lie at the heart of the police approach. That is an enormous and important advance on the part of the police.

Secondly, we had the Tamils' demonstration, which was policed in an entirely different way. Of course, it could be argued that it would have been unreasonable and dangerous to have policed it in any other way in the circumstances, but lessons had nevertheless been learned.

Finally, we had the Blackheath climate camp, which has not been mentioned-[Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for Hendon if he did mention it. The attitude of the police there was very different, and communication between them and the protesters was much better. Although there were still points of tension, what happened at Blackheath was a vast improvement over what had happened at Bishopsgate and Kingsnorth.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) if he still wishes to intervene.

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman has answered my question.

David Howarth: On the Committee's report, there are still points at issue between the Government and the Committee. The hon. Member for Hendon was right to start and end with the communication and dialogue between the police and the protesters. I am not sure about the police, but the Government have not quite grasped the importance of communication in defusing situations and in reminding both sides why they are there. The protesters want to protest, and the police want to ensure that the protest does not become disorderly or violent. If the two sides stay in communication, they will remember that, rather than getting into a conflict about the process, about who said what and about the policing itself.

I return to the meeting that I organised between the police and the climate camp protesters on 31 March last year. The police seemed unwilling to engage directly with the protesters, while the protesters were reticent about telling the police their plans. The Committee rightly picked up on the unwillingness on both sides to communicate, but it has not quite picked up on the reason why the protesters were unwilling to communicate their plans to the police.

That unwillingness came from the protesters' previous experience, particularly at the Heathrow climate camp, where they believed that the police had tried to disrupt the protest once they became aware of the protesters' plans. For example, the protesters believed that the police attempted to persuade landowners in the area not to allow protests on their land, even though the protesters were trying to go about their business of protesting in a lawful way by asking for permission.

That is the key point. The lack of trust that built up over the years between the protesters and the police caused the protesters' reticence about talking to the
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police. That reticence is still there because of that lack of trust. The situation is very brittle and fragile. Given where we are, it would be easy for the progress that we have made to be undermined by a further breakdown in trust as a result of other incidents. Examples include the pre-emptive action by the police at Ratcliffe power station and the use of pre-charge bail conditions against both protesters there and protesters who came into this building. That appeared to be an attempt to make it unlawful for protesters to organise protests or to communicate with one another.

Documents in which ACPO issues guidance and includes environmental protesters in a list of terrorists have also come into the public domain. Such instances tend to undermine the degree of trust that is slowly being built up between peaceful protesters and the authorities. I urge the Government to bear that in mind in dealing with policy. If communication starts to break down again, the whole thing will go into reverse, regardless of what the reports say. Reports are one thing; practice on the ground is another.

I should mention in passing that I agree with the Committee on the need to review the status of ACPO. One of the themes of my life last year was coming up against ACPO over and over again, as if it were not just a regulator of the police and a kind of alternative inspectorate, but a kind of legislator. ACPO policy seems to have the same force within the police as secondary legislation.

We need to get a grip on ACPO and its various subsidiary agencies, which deal with domestic extremism. At the very least, we need to subject it to the Freedom of Information Act and treat it as a public authority, to go back to another of the themes of the hon. Member for Hendon. Ultimately, we should say that if it is to be a sort of national policing body, it needs a national-level accountability mechanism.

Dr. Harris: I think that it is true that ACPO has never responded to the Government by saying, "No, we don't need this law," and I do not think that the Government have ever said they disagreed with ACPO about whether a law was needed. That is part of the problem. ACPO is a natural lobby, and it should be treated as merely a lobby; it lobbies Governments for the police to have as many powers as possible, and Governments seem very willing to give them those powers.

David Howarth: Obviously, we must listen to the police when they talk about what powers they feel they need, but we must go back to what the hon. Member for Hendon said, which I think my hon. Friend agrees with, about the key point being that the powers should be narrowly drawn. They should not be over-broad, and should be specific to the need. We should not rely on the rather odd argument that the police can be given sweeping powers-but that it would be unlawful for them to use them contrary to the Human Rights Act 1998, and therefore it does not really matter that they are sweeping.

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman is developing an interesting argument, as always. Am I right to suppose that he thinks that the tripartite structure of British policing should be radically redrawn, given his concerns about ACPO?

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David Howarth: I am sure that what we do not need is a system of directly elected sheriffs, which would mean that we were in great danger of breaking up something very important in our constitutional policing structure-the fact that operational decisions about who should or should not be arrested remain with police offers and are never influenced directly by politicians. The issue that I am raising at the moment is about what happens to the anomalous national bodies that do not fit, and never will fit, into the existing structure. We need something specific to deal with them.

Mr. Dismore: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is developing a theme from my report. It is bizarre that ACPO should be a limited liability company; presumably, it is required to file accounts at Companies House as an annual report but not to give an annual report to Parliament. Perhaps there should be a statutory body that would report annually to Parliament about its activities.

Personally, I have a lot of confidence in ACPO's new head, Sir Hugh Orde, whom I met when he was the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He has a forward-looking approach to many of the relevant issues.

David Howarth: Yes; I agree on both those points. The appointment of Sir Hugh Orde is an excellent one, and I look forward to a great deal of progress under his leadership.

The hon. Member for Hendon mentioned kettling-or containment, depending on which side of the issue one is on. One of the areas of most concern is a police tactic that I think can legitimately be called kettling. It happens when containment is pushed in on the demonstrators. The demonstration is contained in a smaller and smaller area; that raises the pressure and the temperature, and it is kettling.

Throughout the debates on the issue-and the hon. Member for Hendon may be right about there being exceptional circumstances in which containment is necessary to prevent further harm-that aspect of the tactic has never been properly explained. I have seen it, and have seen film of it, and it seems inexplicable to me. It always leads to more trouble and raises the temperature. It always increases the risks for all concerned.

As for media reporting, the Committee came to the conclusion that although accounts of the run-up to the G20, for example, included a good deal of ramping up of the expectation of violence, that was largely down to the activities of the media and not the police. However, the problem was that the police did not take the opportunity to reduce the temperature. It was being raised by the media, but what was the police response? I have still not seen a satisfactory answer from the Government, or from the police via the Government, to the Committee's point about that. It seemed very specific to me: the media strategy of the police should be aimed at calming everything down, and taking active steps to do so.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government's position, which seems to be the same as the police position, is that current regulations on police numerals are sufficient, because under those regulations it is already a disciplinary matter not to wear them? If so, that does not seem adequate, because we know that the current regulations have been ineffective at making sure that police officers wear their numerals clearly when on
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duty at demonstrations. Behind the issue is culture, and its somehow being acceptable for police officers on duty at demonstrations to be what someone called a designated hitter, with the job of applying violent methods so that they are hidden and unattributable. I think that that lies behind the numerals issue, and we need to address it.

The Committee rightly raised the question of protests around Parliament, and further legislative action is being taken in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill-to which we shall return on Report, so I do not want to say much about the matter now. The Committee was rightly concerned; not only had the previous powers been removed, but new ones, which were vague, unclear and possibly very broad, had been introduced.

I would go further than the Committee. First, there is an argument that all the powers already exist to ensure that there is access to Parliament. Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 and all the legislation about demonstrations already give the police sufficient power to do what we want them to. Even if that is not the case, the only gap is specifically about what the police can do when access has been blocked. However, the new version that has been passed in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which we should revisit, seems to keep the regulation in place in advance of any trouble. That is still prior restraint of demonstrations and assemblies. I fail to see the justification for having extra prior restraint around Parliament, as opposed to extra powers to clear the way and ensure that Members of Parliament can get into the building.

The most disturbing aspect of all incidents such as the climate change camp and other demonstrations, and the confrontation between the police and demonstrators, has been the excessive use of counter-terrorism powers against those demonstrators. I do not deny that there has been progress, but I was disturbed to hear what the hon. Member for Hendon said about the Government's response to the Gillan case. This is about the abuse of stop-and-search powers. More than that, it is about whether it is legitimate at all to have stop-and-search powers that can be exercised without any reason or underlying evidence, but merely on a hunch. The Court was absolutely clear on that. Its conclusion was that section 44 is not an adequate law because it does not give people sufficient advance knowledge or warning about what the powers of the police are, and when they will be used. It gives the police a vast opportunity to act arbitrarily.

Paragraph 84 of the judgment says that

we are getting up to half a million-

Mr. Dismore: My understanding is that one of those who was stopped under section 44 was Admiral Lord West of Spithead, who is a Government security Minister. I hope that he would not be suspected of any terrorist activity.

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