Facilitating Peaceful Protest - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-16)


14 DECEMBER 2010

Q1   The Chairman: Good afternoon and welcome to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and this evidence session dealing with the human rights issues surrounding the policing of the recent demonstrations against the rise in student tuition fees and against education cuts in general. Before I ask the witnesses to introduce themselves, I invite my Committee to declare any interests.

Lord Bowness: I declare a slightly indirect interest in that I have a very close relative who is a member of the TSG in the Met.

The Chairman: Could the witnesses introduce themselves, please?

Aaron Porter: I am Aaron Porter and I am president of the National Union of Students.

Simon Hardy: My name is Simon Hardy. I am a member of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts.

Q2   The Chairman: I thank you both for coming before us today at such short notice. Could I begin by asking both of you to give us a brief account, from your own perspectives, of how protests were policed on each of the recent demonstrations? In particular, could you identify examples of good and bad police practice and of good and bad student organising practice? Could Mr Porter begin, please?

Aaron Porter: Thanks very much, and thanks also for the opportunity to give evidence here this afternoon. The easiest way for me to proceed is to be clear about the fact that there have been four significant student protests, on 10 November, 24 November, 30 November and 9 December. If time permits, I will briefly outline the key points from each of those in turn.

The 10 November protest was organised jointly by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union. The key points to highlight here are largely around the way in which the numbers surpassed expectations for all of those in attendance. The NUS had been working closely with student unions to try and ascertain the numbers in attendance. Our intelligence had suggested that we were looking at between 17,000 and 20,000 people in attendance. Through that process we had worked closely with the police. We had met with them on a number of occasions to jointly agree the way in which the event was going to be stewarded and policed, and on the setting of the route. It is worth outlining that we had proposed several routes and the police agreed the final route for 10 November, which went past Millbank.

Clearly there is an issue with regard to getting an accurate assessment of the number of people likely to attend these marches. I think it's fair to say that in a new age where social media largely dictate the way these events are advertised, the number of police in attendance on 10 November did not meet the number of people that we expected. It transpired that around 50,000 people attended on 10 November. The key issue here is around intelligence and how we can work together to ensure that we get more appropriate numbers.

Clearly, there were serious issues of violence that came to Millbank after the protest that we had organised on 10 November. Our stewards had been briefed and they met the requirements of that briefing, but there were suggestions that there were not sufficient numbers of police outside Millbank and perhaps there were question marks around intelligence and the appropriateness of identifying 30 Millbank as a possible flashpoint.

I will move on, with greater brevity, to 24 November, which was an action organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts. It was not organised by the National Union of Students, although many of my members were in attendance. The issue where we have greatest concerns was the use of kettling by the police to constrain those in attendance. I believe that was an unnecessary use of force. I don't believe it was conducive towards helping to manage a calm and peaceful protest. I do accept that, given the events of 10 November, the police would understandably have looked to change their tactics, but I believe that kettling was unnecessary. There are suggestions that there were also horse charges towards certain groups. I was not in attendance personally on 24 November, but I have had reports and it has been suggested to me by some students that there were instances of unprovoked police aggression. Clearly that is something that I would be keen for the Committee to pick up.

Briefly, on 30 November—another action organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts—the biggest concern for us is to be clear about whether the route that was allegedly jointly agreed by the organisers and the police was stuck to. There were issues involving protesters appearing to run away from the police. It is important for us to understand what motivated that. I understand that if they were kettled on 24 November, they may have wanted to avoid being kettled again on 30 November.

Finally, on 9 December, two separate actions were organised. There was a lobby of Parliament and a vigil, organised by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union. That passed off without any incident and I am not aware of any arrests. There was a separate march organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, which went from the University of London union to Parliament Square, where protesters were kettled. Again, I restate my concerns that were evident on 24 November, but I have an additional concern around the intelligence from the police. Given that there had been three previous protests, what steps were taken to identify potential troublemakers? Clearly there were some people who had arrived on each of the protests intent on violence. What steps were taken to remove them to allow those who wanted to protest peacefully to do so?

I apologise for the length of my contribution, but I think it was important to break each of the four up and outline my key concerns with each.

Simon Hardy: Before I begin, I would like to draw to the Committee's attention some comments that have allegedly been made by the police, or people who are using an unofficial police blog discussion forum in relation to some comments that I made at a press conference on 10 December. On a website called inspectorgadget, which provides a forum for police to discuss their operations and activities, someone posted a video of me at a press conference condemning the police violence against the demonstrators and making various political points about that. The forum then has a number of police—or people who may be police and were using an unofficial police forum—who proceed to make a series of comments about how they would like to hurt me by punching me repeatedly on the floor, stubbing flares out in my face and aiming for my eyes. All this seems to be connected to the fact that they disagree with some of the comments that I made about demonstrators having the right to defend themselves against what I see as illegal and unnecessary police violence. I wanted to bring that to your attention, because it is indicative of some of the problems that we face as protesters in the way that the police treat us and their attitude towards us. I would like to hear from other police in this room on what they think about those comments.

Quickly, I want to start off with a general concern that we have about policing in Britain today, because a lot of the discussions that are happening now, especially the discussions yesterday in Parliament about perhaps using water cannons or pre-emptive arrests of so-called ringleaders before demonstration—

Q3   The Chairman: Can I halt you at that point? Could you address the question that I asked you specifically rather than in general terms? It is about the four demonstrations. Time is against us.

Simon Hardy: The point I want to make is a brief one, about how and why there are problems with the policing of the demonstrations. I then wanted to draw that specifically to some of the issues. This is a political movement that has responded and emerged because of what is happening in Parliament and because of the way that people see the Government as illegitimate. People are being radicalised by the actions of the police and by the fact that the Government has basically said that it won't listen to the demonstrators. If we get drawn into an argument that the only way we can deal with these demonstrations is through more hardline policing and violence, that is deeply problematic. I just wanted to draw that to the Committee's attention.

As organisers of some of the demonstrations where there has been quite serious police violence against us, we have some criticisms. Number one, of course, is kettling, or, as the police call it, containment. We obviously have very serious concerns about that. I echo what Aaron Porter said. The excessive, cruel and unusual form of kettling that occurred on 24 November, which saw demonstrators, some of whom were very young, kept in freezing cold conditions on Whitehall until half past nine or ten o'clock, has radicalised people further within this movement. I have been at student organising meetings where we have discussed the 30 November and 9 December demonstrations. The overwhelming feeling from students who came to those meetings is that they did not want to be kettled. They were terrified of it. Therefore they are looking at ways of being able to demonstrate without being imprisoned on the streets by the police for hours on end.

Our second concern is about violence from the police. Numerous videos have already emerged and some eyewitness accounts. I have printed off some emails and newspaper reports that I am more than happy to quote to the Committee, which show the police batoning students without cause, punching students who had their hands in the air, kicking students who were on the floor and making horse charges. There were around 43 protesters taken to hospital on 9 December. One student, Alfie Meadows from Middlesex University, had to undergo a three-hour brain operation after having a stroke after being hit by a police truncheon. This is a very worrying way of dealing with student demonstrators.

There are two quick final things that we also have problems with. One is police covering up their numbers. Video has emerged from the 9 December demonstration of a female police officer in riot gear whose numbers were not on display. Denis O'Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, told the Commons last April after the G20 that it was utterly unacceptable for officers not to be wearing their numbers, and yet this is still happening. The police also wear balaclavas even when there is no need to do so.

The final thing is lying. The police lied. One of the chief police officers said that there was no horse charge on 24 November. There was. Footage has emerged that there had been a horse charge against demonstrators. They lie when you're in kettles. I have lots of evidence of students stuck in kettles who were told by police to go to the other end where they would be allowed to leave, and then they were not allowed to leave. Police told demonstrators a number of different things, and this creates a real sense of mistrust in the police, when they trap people in kettles for so long.

Q4   Lord Dubs: Can I turn specifically to some aspects of the kettling that went on? For the sake of brevity I am going to put some of my questions together. Could you say something about the children—that is to say, anybody under 18 who was there? What sort of communication was there between the police and those people who were being contained? Were there any individual requests to be released and how were they handled? What about water, toilets and medical assistance? Lastly, in the statement made to both Houses of Parliament yesterday in relation to 9 December, the Home Secretary said, "A cordon was placed around Parliament Square, but throughout those who remained peaceful and wished to leave via Whitehall were able to do so." Do you agree that they were able to, or not?

Aaron Porter: I should be clear that for 24 November I have to refer to accounts from students I have spoken to who went on the protest, because I was not present on 24 November. I have been told by a number of students who were on the protest that there were instances of aggression from the police to those clearly under the age of 18 and that there was no adequate provision—or indeed any provision—of water or toilet facilities specifically on 24 November. There were serious issues about the nature of the containment or kettling on 24 November.

My understanding is that on 9 December there were opportunities for people who wanted to remove themselves from containment and that was afforded. That would indicate that the Home Secretary's statement was accurate.

Simon Hardy: On 24 November there was no provision for food. The police told the media that they were handing out water to people in the kettle. That wasn't apparent to me. If they were handing out water, it was not widely known about by the people in the kettle. The police claim to have provided toilets for people. Again, that was not widely known. The toilets might have been there, but no one knew about them. The police weren't communicating with us adequately. When the chief steward at that demonstration tried to talk to the commander in charge, he said that he was distinctly unhelpful and did not provide her with the information she was looking for.

On the 9 December demonstration, the kettle, which began around half past three, alternated between being total, meaning that no one could leave at any point, and various other kettles being formed where people could leave, but then they would end up in another containment area. I can draw the Committee's attention to a report from the BBC News website under the headline "Caught up in Demo Violence". It is an interview with Rachel Bergan from Barnsley, who is 17-years-old. She says that the police let her go out of one kettle. "According to Rachel, after begging in tears to be let out, she and her friends got through one police line but were then halted by another." She goes on to say, "We were traumatised at this point. We were crying. We'd been hit by police for just wanting to go home. We were begging to, please, just let us go home. They showed no mercy whatsoever […] I managed to break away. [When the police came at us again] I was pushed into a ditch by a police officer and when I tried to get out of the ditch he pushed me back in. I turned around to see a group of my friends on the floor getting beaten by police officers." She described these friends as "17-year-old slim girls" who were beaten with batons by police for trying to leave the kettle on 9 December.

Q5   Lord Dubs: My next question is about the use of horses. Could you say something about that? You have referred to them already, on 24 November and 9 December. Were they charging the crowd, or were they simply used to hold the crowd back?

Simon Hardy: On 24 November, I was stuck in the kettle. The horses were used slightly further up the road. I didn't see it myself, but I heard people in the kettle saying that horses were being used. People were outraged. At this point another solidarity demonstration had emerged towards the Trafalgar Square end, with trade unionists and parents who had come down and were concerned about their children.

Horses were used. On the YouTube video that I saw, which was taken by a protester, the police moved at speed into the crowd. I stand to be corrected, but I gather that that is not standard procedure. On 9 December, the police again moved their horses at speed into the crowd to break up a mass of demonstrators and then followed it up by hitting people with shields and batons towards one of the exits from Parliament Square.

Q6   Lord Bowness: In connection with both 24 November and 9 December, can you tell us what communications you had with the police before the demonstrations? Did you know who your contact points were? Perhaps you could describe how you felt that dialogue worked.

Simon Hardy: On the 24 November demonstration, I am not aware of what communications were had with the police. I wasn't involved in helping to organise that demonstration in terms of what happened in London. For 30 November, I went to Scotland Yard with another student organiser to arrange a route with the police from Trafalgar Square down to Parliament Square. The demonstration did not follow that route because, as the crowd was assembling at around 12 o'clock in Trafalgar Square, a line of police and vans blocked off Whitehall. The crowd reacted to that by beginning an impromptu and spontaneous demonstration that took off down The Mall and then ended up round Victoria and Hyde Park Corner and Tottenham Court Road. That was entirely in response to what had happened on 24 November. People were again terrified of kettling. They saw so many police and they assumed that that was going to happen. There were attempts to negotiate that route with the police in good faith on 30 November, but because of what happened on 24 November, things worked out differently.

On 9 December there were several negotiations with the police about the route of the march. It was requested that we should be able to have a rally in Parliament Square. The students felt that it was their democratic right to be outside Parliament as the tuition fee increase was being debated in the House of Commons. We were told that that would not be possible for various reasons, either because Parliament Square was too small for the numbers that the police expected or because the GLA, who I gather owns the patch of grass outside Parliament, was unwilling to remove the fences from the Green because the grass was still growing. This, of course, created a sense of anger from students that the GLA and apparently the police seemed to be prioritising regrowing the grass after the democracy village over the students' democratic right to protest outside Parliament. That is why, when the demonstration got down to Parliament Square on 9 December, students didn't want to carry on to Victoria Embankment, but instead wanted to stay where they were.

Q7   Mr Raab: I am interested in the ability to disseminate some of the information about the protests with those participating before and during. In relation to the demonstration on 24 November, we had reports of some groups of students running from one place to another. Was that a tactic, was it something that just happened within the context of the demonstration, is it something that you feel you have no control over? In relation to 9 December, I have a similar question. We talk about the kettling. I understand that that started with the build-up within Parliament Square. That itself, and the protesters remaining in Parliament Square and not moving on along the pre-agreed route, was one of the things that precipitated the problems, whoever's fault they are. I wondered what your views were on the changing of tactics in the course of those two demonstrations and the extent to which that created problems for the police, as well as how you might address it in the future.

Aaron Porter: Specifically for the demonstrations on 30 November and 9 December, given the kettling on 24 November, there was significant anxiety that I have been made aware of from students that that would happen once again. A number of protesters certainly decided that they would try to avert that if they saw the police shaping up to create a containment once again. Clearly, I would be of the opinion that the organisers of a responsible student demonstration should try to be as clear as possible that it is vital that those on the protest should stick to an agreed route that has been set before. There is certainly a responsibility on the organisers to convey that message.

I can only speak as being part of the organisation that oversaw one of the actions on 9 December. We felt that we were clear that our protesters had stuck to the route that we had organised, although we were not part of the march that went from the University of London union down to Parliament Square.

In the age where students are largely picking up information about these protests through the internet, we should use information on the protests themselves to make sure that individuals are aware of what the route is and why they should be sticking to it.

Q8   Mr Raab: Mr Hardy, can I put the same points to you?

Simon Hardy: You are asking about the changing police tactics and how we disseminate information to the demonstration?

Mr Raab: For example, on 9 December, we have just talked about the kettling or containment in Parliament Square. That arose, at least chronologically, after the breakdown in the pre-agreed route, which was to move on towards the Embankment. I accept what you have said about the democratic right to protest outside Parliament, within limits, but this went further. The agreed route was breached. To what extent do you guys have responsibility for that practically, either at the outset or as the protest is proceeding?

Simon Hardy: We have to be absolutely clear that if the great majority of people on a demonstration want to do something, all the stewarding teams in the world will find it very difficult to stop them. That is effectively what happened on 9 December. The majority of students who turned up on that demonstration wanted to go to Parliament Square.

Q9   Mr Raab: Did you actively try to stop them or urge them to carry on to the Embankment along the agreed route?

Simon Hardy: In our capacity as stewards, what we could do was very limited. The National Campaign against Fees and Cuts and the other movements that have emerged have limited resources, although clearly the actions that we are calling have popular resonance. In a sense it is an abdication of duty on the part of larger organisations such as the National Union of Students to provide us with the resources and help that we need to facilitate those demonstrations. Unfortunately, the NUS chose not to back the demonstration from the University of London union down to Parliament Square, and instead focused on something on Victoria Embankment, which as far as I'm aware was much less popularly attended. Those are the issues that we have in trying to organise those demonstrations. I want to be absolutely clear that the reactions of the students since 24 November, particularly on the demonstrations on 30 November and 9 December, are a direct response and reaction to what the police did to us on 24 November.

Q10   Mr Raab: I think people might have greater understanding that in the heat of the moment certain students reacted to certain specific tactics, but to suggest that the disorder or violence on one protest is a legitimate response to actions by the police on a previous one sounds as though you were coming back for revenge. Can I ask you to clarify that point?

Simon Hardy: It is absolutely not revenge. If anyone was carrying out any kind of revenge, it was the police on 24 November, in revenge for what happened at Millbank.

Q11   Mr Raab: I am asking you about the attitude of the students in your movement.

Simon Hardy: The attitude of the students coming on 9 December was that they wanted to protest. They felt it was their right to go to Parliament Square. They knew that the police would be violent and had been violent on previous demonstrations. That is why students started to turn up, for instance, in hard hats. Some students even made shields in the shape of books to protect themselves from baton blows and riot police.

The Committee has to ask itself why. Students weren't doing that at the initial demonstrations but they have started to do it at subsequent demonstrations. There is a cause and effect chain here. We have to understand and appreciate that it is a response to how people view what is happening in Parliament and how people view the actions of the police in particular on 24 November.

Q12   Mr Sharma: Everybody who saw the demonstration had mixed views. Do you take any form of responsibility for the disorder that took place? And what lessons have you learnt from 9 December to see that it is not repeated in future?

Simon Hardy: The responsibility lies with those people in power for the feelings of students and people who are organising these demonstrations. As far as I'm concerned, students have the right to demonstrate and to protest without fear and without having collective punishment imposed on them, which is what a kettle is; it is indiscriminate in who it traps in a particular area. They have the right not to be charged by horses or to be punched and kicked by men and women in uniform, who in the end have the full weight of the law behind them, whereas 14, 15 or 16-year-old students turning up on demonstrations have violence inflicted upon them by the police, and increasingly so. I gather from an article in the Telegraph today that the police want to have an even harder line on the student demonstrations in the future.

Our responsibility is to facilitate protest, to make sure that it happens and to defend demonstrations from police violence and media witch hunts. That is what people are concerned about today, because the response of British society and the establishment to these demonstrations has not been very conducive to dialogue.

Q13   Mr Raab: I wanted to ask Mr Porter the same question that was put to Mr Hardy about what level of responsibility you felt that you, as one of the organisers, had for the violence that we have seen on some of these protests.

Aaron Porter: Clearly, there is a dual responsibility here. Clearly there is a responsibility of the organisers of protests to ensure that there is a mutually agreed route. In the run-up to the 10 November demonstration that we organised, we met three times with the police and agreed a route. We outsourced the required health and safety arrangements and risk assessments to a professional organisation that had dealt with other events previously—Alex Burrow Events Ltd.

The organisers of a demonstration have a responsibility to try to ensure that those on the protest stick to the agreed route and act in a responsible fashion. I believe that we met all those requirements in the organisation of 10 November. I do believe that some people who came intent on causing violence had infiltrated our march on 10 November. It created scenes that were beyond our control, although we had met everything that we needed to do. I agree with Simon in so far as protesters should have an expectation that they are treated in a fashion that maintains and protects their human rights. I believe that there have been some infringements on subsequent actions, as I have already alluded to, but on the NUS protests we have worked sufficiently closely with the police and had a constructive relationship with them to ensure that we have discharged our responsibilities.

Q14    Lord Bowness: We are talking about responsibility. Mr Porter has just indicated a very reasonable sense of responsibility on the part of the organisers. To use words similar to the ones that you have used, given that people have infiltrated these demonstrations intent on violence, leaving aside for a moment the theory about Mr Hardy's reference to 14 and 15-year-olds and their democratic right, do you think it would be responsible to suggest that parents should not bring young children or permit them to participate in something that even you as the organiser acknowledge is likely to be infiltrated by people intent on trouble?

Aaron Porter: In truth, we have an unprecedented level of anger about the Government's proposals on tuition fees. Those of school and college age feel most uncomfortable about the proposals. There would equally be something irresponsible about the National Union of Students trying to prevent those people from legitimately voicing their concerns. The responsible thing to do is to have a constructive and honest relationship between the organisers of protests and the police to facilitate the overwhelming majority of people who want to protest peacefully. But I also believe that there needs to be sufficient intelligence to ensure that those who are intent on violence are not allowed on to the protest if, as some did, they come armed with snooker balls, smoke bombs and other things that make the policing for the majority of people incredibly difficult.

Simon Hardy: It is wrong to say that we should even consider putting aside democratic rights to protest for school students—

Q15    Lord Bowness: Forgive me for interrupting, but I didn't say put it aside.

Simon Hardy: You said in theory we should put it aside.

Lord Bowness: Mr Hardy, I said just put it to one side for a minute for the purpose of my question. I accept the democratic right. I asked you whether you thought that it might be a responsible thing to do, given that all sorts of people acknowledge that on these demonstrations there are people intent on trouble. I said it was just for the purpose of answering that question. Please don't try and misinterpret my question in a political fashion.

Simon Hardy: I reject utterly this narrative that demonstrations are being hijacked by minority organisations. This is a mass movement. It is democratic, it is legitimate and it is increasingly radicalised by what it sees going on in the Houses of Parliament and with the policing of demonstrations on the streets. It is right that school students, college students and university students should come on the protest. They should be joined by their parents if they want to come. We have already been joined by trade unionists and pensioners and others. It is an absolute democratic right in this country that we can protest and make our voice heard against injustice that we feel is going on in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The police need to ask themselves a question. If they want to make the demonstrations more violent and increase the police repression, it is only a matter of time before we get another Ian Tomlinson or another Blair Peach on the demonstrations. On 9 December, thankfully Alfie Meadows didn't die, but someone in his situation could be hit by a policeman's truncheon or knocked over by a horse and could be killed on these demonstrations. The responsibility lies in what is going on in Parliament to redress how people feel, how angry they are and why they are demonstrating. It is the responsibility of the police not to criminalise these demonstrations and violently attack them.

Q16   The Chairman: Thank you very much. I thank you once again for coming today. I apologise for the short session. If you feel that there are issues that we have not covered, we'd be very happy to receive a memorandum from both of you.

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