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4 Feb 2010 : Column 178WH—continued

Mr. Dismore: We are not talking about one case. We are talking about one case in which a mediator appeared, a series of cases, and the lessons from Northern Ireland. The difficulty, as my hon. Friend says, is that we must
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build trust between the two sides, but there is no trust. How can that process start unless somebody kick-starts it? So far, the police have not shown themselves capable of doing so.

Meg Hillier: I disagree. In the vast majority of cases, there is trust between police and protesters. If we went down the path of suggesting that we need a third party as a routine matter of course because there is no trust, it would undermine the police and their training. One could also say that it would let the police off the hook of having to deal with communications. The police officers whom I deal with in my constituency, who pride themselves on their contact with the community and how they deal with protests and demonstrations, would be insulted by the idea that another party needed to come in and do that for them.

Mr. Dismore: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Meg Hillier: I do not want to give way again, because we are going around in circles. We may have to agree to disagree on this point.

My hon. Friend's general characterisation of riot police might inform his position; it comes from the perspective of the protester. I can give an example of my own. One nice sunny day, my children and I were heading to a park in north-east London. It happened to be the day of the London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham. As we entered the tube station on our way back, large groups of drunken fans were chanting at each other. Police in riot gear were keeping them apart, and I must say that I was grateful for their presence. It depends on one's perspective. I do not see a problem with having police present to maintain peace. We do not want riot police on the streets all the time, but it is important that they are there.

We need to balance consent and maintaining the safety of officers and the public. It is important to emphasise that normally, of course, officers do not wear riot gear. It is rare that we escalate to protective clothing and gear, although it is important that it is available.

Mr. Dismore rose-

David Howarth rose-

Meg Hillier: I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend misunderstands the position. The difficulty with police in riot gear is that it can sometimes provoke rather than calm things down. HMIC identified in its work that there is nothing in between to de-escalate confrontations. We start from ordinary policing and end up in riot gear, but there is nothing in between. Police can escalate, but have no training to de-escalate. That is what has been missing so far.

Meg Hillier: I do not wish to trivialise what my hon. Friend says, because I know that he says it with some feeling, but although it is easy to talk about a halfway house, I am not clear how practical it would be to implement something between ordinary daily uniform
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and riot gear. Is he suggesting a third uniform? Perhaps he would like to elucidate, as I am not clear what he is proposing.

Mr. Dismore: It is not about uniform; it is about policing tactics. I suggest that my hon. Friend consider what happened in Northern Ireland. I mentioned the assistant chief constable in Northern Ireland, who personally led a march through one of the most difficult areas in the country to prove that it could be done without everybody being kitted out like storm troopers from "Star Wars".

Meg Hillier: Again, the judgment needs to be made on the ground by the commanding police officers.

Mr. Dismore: It was.

Meg Hillier: In that situation, the decision was made, but my point is that the decision must be made at operational level with due regard to the health and safety of the policemen and women who put themselves every day in the line of defence of the general population, and who sometimes put their lives at risk. It is important that we give that balance.

David Howarth: Will the Minister give way?

Meg Hillier: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I wish to move on. We had a lot of discussion of stop and search under section 44 at protests and, although I have quite a lot of time, if I do not make some progress, I risk missing some of the important points raised.

It is important that stop-and-search powers are used for the purposes specified in relevant legislation. When police stop and search a protester, they must always specify on what legislative grounds they are conducting the search. All police powers to stop and search derive from various statutes including section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Stop-and-search powers should be used only in that case, but it is not right to say that stop-and-search powers should never be used against protesters. Stop and search can be deployed in a particular area if authorised on the basis of a reasonable belief that incidents involving serious violence might take place in the locality in a police area and that authorisation is expedient to prevent their occurrence, or that persons are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in the police area without good reason-

Mr. Dismore: Like clown suits.

Meg Hillier: We can always find examples-sadly, there are examples-of where the powers have not been used clearly. I welcome the support of Her Majesty's Opposition on the issue.

Let us be clear that there is a real threat of terrorism in this country, but such powers must be used properly. We have it on House of Lords authority that stop-and- search powers are lawful and continue to be good law domestically. Lord Carlile has consistently stated in his annual review of terrorism legislation-both last year and the year before-that he is not in favour of repealing
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section 44. In his judgment, sections 44 and 45 remain necessary and proportional, according to the key principles of policing protest, to deal with the continuing and serious risk of terrorism.

The European Court of Human Rights judgment is not final, and the UK will not be required to implement it by amending the law, pending our appeal to the grand chamber. We hope to persuade the Court that our domestic court's assessment is correct and that the powers are compatible with convention rights.

It is important to emphasise that the effectiveness of section 44 powers cannot be measured simply in terms of the number of arrests resulting from stops and searches. The purpose of the policy is also to act as a deterrent to terrorists. Since mid-2009, however, stop and search in the capital dropped 40 per cent. after the Metropolitan police responded to concerns, including from the community, by changing how the tool is used. I have welcomed clarification given to constituents and locally about how section 44 is used, but I have learned from talking to my local police in Hackney that it is a valuable way to ensure that we are all safe.

In all matters of policing and human rights, we must balance the rights of the individual stopped or the protester against the rights of the wider community as well. It is about balance. It is important that we do not forget that when we discuss protests, we are not talking only about those who choose to protest but about the people whose lives their protests can disrupt.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon discussed the balance between public and private space. We are committed to working with ACPO and wider stakeholders on the issue. We are tackling it in a revision to ACPO guidance and a Home Office code by July this year, as the White Paper outlines.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the amount of legislation and the need for clarity. One substantive change has been made to the Public Order Act 1986 in the past 10 years: the number of people constituting an assembly changed from 20 to two. The change had the full support of the police service, and the Government will constantly review the law-[Laughter.] But that is only one change. My hon. Friend said that too many changes had been made to the law. The Government will constantly review the law and consult widely before introducing any new legislation. That includes consulting the police and making changes at their request.

The Government understand the complexities of modern policing and the judgments that police must make daily. In the arena of public order policing, the police must balance a number of competing rights, as I have said, and it is important that the legislative framework is clear to assist the police in carrying out their role. We will continue to work with ACPO to provide proper understanding and application of the law. As I have said, it is not good enough just to have law or guidance; it must be understood and implemented at a practical level by officers on the ground, at the sharp end of policing.

Hon. Members have mentioned protest around Parliament. As they will be aware, we have introduced measures in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to repeal sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. The framework governing
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protests will be the same around Parliament as everywhere else in the UK, except that police will be given tightly defined powers to maintain access to Parliament.

We believe that our provisions reflect the Joint Committee's recommendations on the need to maintain access to Parliament, although we are aware of its concerns that the Government's provisions on access lack clarity. We have provided Parliament with the draft text of an order showing what requirements must be met in relation to maintaining access to the Palace. We hope that it will address those concerns, and we look forward to hearing the Committee's views.

The Government's intention has always been to come up with provisions that allow the police to maintain access to Parliament in a way that does not disproportionately restrict protest, that is clear to those wishing to protest in the area and that is commensurate with Parliament's expectations. We welcome the continuing debate on the matter during the passage of the Bill and hope to bring Parliament clarity on the consequences of our proposals. We are confident that there will be plenty of time to debate the matter on Report.

The hon. Member for Cambridge raised the issue of identity numbers. I will write to provide him with information on the frequency of discipline and the reaction of the police to the loss or covering up of identity numbers. Perhaps we can discuss the matter after the debate and come up with suitable wording.

We discussed section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and I will clarify the Government's position. We agree with the Joint Committee that there is no right under English law not to be offended. Such a right would undermine the right to freedom of expression. We must get away from the idea that section 5 is about simply preventing people from causing offence-that misrepresents the law.

Although protecting freedom of expression is key, it must be balanced with the need to ensure that people, especially vulnerable members of society, are protected from gratuitous insults. I am worried that amending the offence as the Joint Committee proposes would send the wrong message that it is acceptable to insult someone.

David Howarth: I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon can no longer be here because he has a particular interest in this proposal. If he were here, I am sure he would ask the Minister whether by "gratuitous insults" she means somebody deliberately and intentionally causing alarm and distress. If so, that is covered by section 4(1)(a) of the 1986 Act. It would therefore not be affected by the suggested amendment to section 5.

Meg Hillier: Although this is not my normal area of work in the Home Office, I have looked at the issue closely because it interests me. One challenge, which was backed up by our consultation, is that removing the word "insulting" from the scope of the offence would send a signal that insulting a person is acceptable. That would have a negative impact on vulnerable members of society.

We believe that the best way to address the difficulties highlighted by the Joint Committee is to produce clear guidance and training for police on the use of section 5, which highlights the importance of human rights
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considerations in relation to freedom of expression. We intend to develop guidance in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will be aware that our response states that we are happy to share the draft guidance with the Joint Committee.

The right to freedom of expression, as contained in article 10 of the European convention on human rights, is an essential foundation of a democratic society. Although it concerns the Government if police officers use powers inappropriately in a way that impacts on a person's right to freedom of expression, we believe that the way to address that is to give officers targeted guidance, not to change the law.

The courts have upheld that section 5 of the 1986 Act contains the necessary balance between the individual's right to freedom of expression and the right of others not to be insulted and distressed. Section 5 is engaged only when the words or behaviour are "threatening, abusive or insulting". It is possible lawfully to express views in public that some consider offensive without being threatening, abusive or insulting and, therefore, without contravening section 5.

The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned Kingsnorth climate camp. Home Office Ministers have given undertakings to Parliament that the lessons that can be learned from Kingsnorth will be identified and shared. The former Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) apologised for unwittingly providing inaccurate information to the House about bee stings.

David Howarth: I think it was wasp stings. I put it on the record that I accepted at the time and still accept that apology. The circumstances in which the hon. Member for Gedling came to make that statement have never been clarified entirely, but I accept that it was unlikely to have been his fault.

Meg Hillier: I will pass on the hon. Gentleman's repeated acceptance of that apology and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling will be pleased. I am pleased that Kent police published the ACPO review into Kingsnorth and that the HMIC has picked up on the lessons in its report, "Adapting to Protest-Nurturing the British Model of Policing". Indeed, Kent police are holding a symposium on public order next month to learn the lessons. I am sure the hon. Member for Cambridge will be interested in the outcome of that.

The hon. Gentleman was critical of ACPO and asked whether it should continue to exist in its current form. We believe strongly that ACPO is an important part of the policing landscape. We welcome the fresh thinking from HMIC and the new president of ACPO and his team on ACPO's role and on how ACPO can have the best possible partnerships with the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities. We look forward to discussing any formal proposals that emerge from ACPO in due course. Parliament will have a role in any such proposals.

The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about whether ACPO is accountable enough. Constitutionally, ACPO is part of the tripartite leadership for policing. It works in partnership with Government and the Association of
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Police Authorities to co-ordinate the direction and development of the service. It is not anomalous, but fits into a well-worn structure that brings together the key leads of the 43 police forces in England and Wales so that there are common standards. It is an independent organisation made up of representatives of the 43 police forces.

ACPO is instrumental in advising the Government on how to tackle serious and ongoing threats that put the public at risk. As such, on behalf of the whole service, it leads on the executing of major national projects aimed at developing the capacity of the service to meet the challenges of the rapidly changing world. Although policing is not my main area of work in the Home Office, I do work with ACPO leads. As a Minister, it is helpful to have access to experts in the area who have ready access to a network of other experts in the field. That enables Ministers to receive good advice from people who know what it is like to be a working police officer. It is important to have that mix and not just to make decisions from behind the Minister's desk in Whitehall, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds characterised it.

The hon. Member for Cambridge raised the issue of the police's role in relation to the media. The Joint Committee took evidence which showed that the police give the media measured briefings. I therefore disagree with his characterisation. I see that he disagrees with me.

David Howarth: The point I was trying to get across was the Joint Committee's original point. It was a criticism not of what police said to the media in briefings, but of what action the police took to calm the situation having seen what the media made of those briefings.

Meg Hillier: We are asking the police to do a great deal if they are to be held responsible for the headlines in certain newspapers. Speaking as a Home Office Minister, I can say that Government policy is often crudely misrepresented. I can do my best to change that, but I cannot tell a journalist how to do their job. We have a free press in this country. Whether or not we agree with the press, we have to allow it to do its job. We are in danger of overstepping the mark with regard to what the police can actually achieve. I am sure that police press offices up and down the country work to calm things down, but we have a free press and we must allow it to work unfettered.

The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned containment. I would be grateful to hear from him examples of where police have moved in and closed an area so that we can raise them with ACPO. If he provides information to the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, he will look into it. The hon. Gentleman also raised forward intelligence teams. The ACPO review of guidance on their work to date will be forthcoming.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the Wood case. That did not go against the Government, as he said. The case was brought against the Metropolitan police, who welcome the clarity that the judgment brings. It is important to put that on the record. As I said, we agree that photography can be a valuable intelligence-gathering tool, but it raises human rights issues. It is important that those issues are tested in the courts.

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