HC 1456 Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Tony Baldry MP

I am writing further to the Chair of the Select Committee’s letter to Parliamentary colleagues inviting them to submit evidence relating to the Select Committee’s inquiry.

I enclose a copy of a letter that I have sent to the Chief Constable of the Thames Valley—Sara Thornton (Annex 1)—together with an article from the Banbury Guardian.

I hope that my letter to the Chief Constable is self-explanatory.

I appreciate that the Select Committee is going to have to be considering a whole number of aspects of the Policing and Police’s response to the recent public disorder.

However, I hope the Select Committee will pay particular regard to the impact of social networking and, in particular, the use of Facebook.

It is extremely alarming that a 14 year old boy using Facebook can, within a very short space of time, generate an instant crowd that all too easily turns into a mob and in this case did cause some criminal damage and almost certainly would have caused more serious criminal damage if it hadn’t been for the speedy intervention of the Thames Valley Police locally.

26 August 2011

Annex 1

Firstly, on behalf of my constituents, I should like to thank the Thames Valley Police and all the Thames Valley Police Officers for all that they were doing both nationally and locally during the recent disturbances and I would particularly like to thank Inspectors Steve Duffy and Neville Clayton for helping ensure that matters didn’t get out of hand in Banbury.

I enclose a copy of the front page of last week’s Banbury Guardian, which I think clearly highlights a new phenomenon in terms of maintaining public order and that is of the exploitative use of social media and social networking sites.

In my experience from the time that I was practising on the Oxford/Midlands circuit, serious public order offences such as affray were invariably alcohol based punch-ups between large numbers of youths—usually of different factions (punks versus skinheads etc)—which were not necessarily pre-planned but which had simply got completely out of hand.

It is a crazy situation where any 14 year old boy is now able to use social networking sites to incite and organise a public disorder.

Clearly that is an offence and I see that the Courts are already imposing deterrent sentences of four years’ imprisonment in similar cases but I suspect that every Member of Parliament in due course would be interested in ACPOs’ views on whether there is any specific action or powers that need to be given to the Police technically to cause social networking sites, which may be reasonably thought to be inciting of a criminal offence, to be taken down.

As we both know, it is not always easy to mobilise significant numbers of Police Officers at “short notice”.

Policing public order has largely been based on the ability to reasonably predict events on the basis of information or intelligence but unchecked and uncontrolled abuse of social networking can clearly easily lead to “mob rule” not just in terms of mindless public order riots in town centres but one could well imagine a situation whereby local residents, either rightly or wrongly, believe someone living in the neighbourhood was a “paedophile” or that they decided to take the law into their hands for some other reason and used social networking to mobilise a large number of people at a particular place at a particular time and I think it is clear that people acting in a crowd take on the mores of a mob and people in a crowd will very often do things that they would never dream of doing as a single individual.

Prepared 22nd December 2011