Facilitating Peaceful Protest - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 17-28)


14 DECEMBER 2010

Q17   The Chairman: Welcome. For the record could you introduce yourselves, please?

Chris Allison: Thank you. My name is Chris Allison. I'm an Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police Service. I'm responsible for Central Operations, the Olympics and Paralympics, which means that part of my remit is the policing of public order demonstrations in London.

Sue Sim: Good afternoon. I am Sue Sim. I'm the temporary Chief Constable of Northumbria Police and I'm the head of ACPO public order.

Q18   The Chairman: Both these sessions will be focusing clearly on the issue of containment, or kettling. This was used by the police on 24 and 30 November and on 9 December. We have evidence that water and toilets were made available to the demonstrators, but would you acknowledge that all the guidelines were not always applied and used? We are aware of the ACPO guidelines in relation to necessity, communication, timescales, differentiation, welfare and release. Notwithstanding the very difficult circumstances, could you give your views on whether those guidelines were always applied?

Chris Allison: Thank you. Yes, I will give my views. It is important to stress that this is a Metropolitan Police operation. My colleague from ACPO can talk about the policy side, but I can talk about the specifics of the demonstrations.

I have listened to some of the evidence that I have heard before. You will understand that I may have slightly different views about what has been said. If you will forgive me, can I pay tribute to the men and women who were out on the front line at some of these demonstrations, and those who commanded them, for the way in which they dealt with very challenging and difficult protests? Some of the levels of violence they had to deal with, aimed at them, were some of the worst I have seen in the last 10 years of public order policing. I have been in the service for 27 years.

At the event on 24th we used a policy of containment. That was only put in place after officers at the junction with Parliament Street and Parliament Square came under attack. A number of protesters there started to dig up or remove all the railings that were around the gasworks at the bottom and started to attack police lines with a view to coming through. Those in command took the view that at that time, if the demonstration was allowed to move on unfettered, given the view that it was going to try to get to the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street, we would have seen widespread damage and disorder. As a result they put in place a containment and then, having ensured that it was both necessary and proportionate in the first place, tried to ensure that all the learning that has come out of G20 was put into place. A containment officer, a superintendent, was appointed very soon. As you say, toilets and water were provided. I have an email that came in from a journalist that talks about what he saw on that day. An individual who has been very critical of us in the past says that all the learning was put in place. Access for journalists was given to and through the lines. Vulnerable people were allowed out wherever possible.

I spoke to the superintendent again this morning. He and his staff officer, or his runner as they are called, went into the crowd themselves on a number of occasions to look for young and vulnerable people. A significant number of people were let out of the cordon lines. We appreciate that it took some time to release everybody out of it. They were trying their level best to do it, but the worry was about the disorder that would take place.

Communication with protestors is a key part of this. We fully accept that. As you may recall, having seen the pictures from the first demonstration, the officers in the initial stages were not wearing NATO helmets; they were wearing normal beat duty helmets. Only when disorder took place did they put the NATO helmets on, but as quickly as he possibly could, the superintendent running the containment took the helmets off and put the flat caps back on so they could start communicating with people one-to-one. They tried to use loudhailers—mounted officers with loudhailers and the loudhailers on the tannoy systems on our vehicles. There were some challenges with that, because every time the tannoy on the vehicle was used, it was shouted down by large numbers of people in the crowd, but they did try.

In summary, we have learnt a lot since G20. We understand people's right to peaceful protest. We have learnt from all the recommendations from this Committee and from the HMIC report. We were keen to ensure that we put them all into place, and we did on that day.

I shall make a couple of comments about the events on the 9th, which was a very different situation. As you have heard, we were keen to ensure that protesters had their democratic right and came to Parliament. It was an important part of that day. There was a vote taking place in Parliament. We accepted that protestors would want to get to Parliament Square and we wanted to do everything we could to get them here. Equally, we wanted to do everything we could to ensure that Parliament could operate without any interruption and the democratic process could take place.

When the protesters got to Parliament Square, as you have heard there was an incident where the crowd decided that they were going to take over the Green area. As a result, a number of them pushed down the Harris fencing. Then we saw very ugly and violent scenes at the south-east corner, where a significant number of people—this is no longer a minority—tried to force their way through police lines. This was a double-barrier system set up so that we didn't have toe-to-toe police officers and demonstrators. We had double barriers to ensure there was distance between the two so that there could be no allegation or suggestion of police violence, which I entirely refute. They came under attack at that place. Yes, there were people who brought with them snooker balls, golf balls and paint; yes, people used the Harris fencing and various bits to try and force their way through. The pressure was such that they buckled the double fencing so it became a single line and police officers had to hold that for a considerable time.

The crowd then turned their attention to the south-west corner, where they tried to move out down Victoria. The worry for those in command was that they would try and come round the back and attack Parliament down Millbank, again trying to stop the democratic process. While we fully accept people's right to peaceful protest, we do have to ensure that the democratic process can carry on.

At that time people could still leave down Whitehall. There were no cordons down Whitehall at all during those first two pieces of disorder. After a period of the second piece of disorder at Victoria Street, those in command put cordons across all five entrances, but we were still allowing people to leave down Whitehall provided that we were happy that they were non-violent and in small groups, and when it was practicable. If there was a large build-up, we wouldn't allow people to go until that large build-up had gone, because we didn't want, in effect, two demonstrations on two sides of a line of police officers, which became violent.

On that occasion toilets were brought up, but given that there was violence from within the crowd and they were setting light to anything that was inside the crowd, it was felt not safe to do so. We estimate that at the start 15,000 protesters came into Parliament Square. When we did the final move of protestors at 9pm on to Westminster Bridge to conclude the demonstration, there were only 4,000 there. To us, that shows that this wasn't a containment in the traditional sense. We were allowing people to leave provided that they were peaceful. We weren't holding large numbers of people. Sorry that is a long answer, but I hope it gives you what you are looking for.

Q19   Lord Dubs: I wonder if I could pursue the point about the kettling or containment. We have the difficulty that we are talking about four different demonstrations, but was it the case for the last two demonstrations that kettling was planned as a first resort, or was it always a last resort?

Chris Allison: Let me give you some reassurance. There were four different demonstrations. The times when it is suggested that we have used containment are the 24th and the 9th. There was a demonstration on the 30th, in the middle of those. On the 30th, right at the end of the demonstration we ended up putting an arrest bubble around something in the region of 200 people and 153 of them got arrested. That's an entirely different matter.

On both occasions, on the 24th and the 9th, when we put cordons around them it was a last resort. When the disorder broke out at the south-east corner of Parliament Square, we left Whitehall open for a good hour and a half to allow anybody who didn't want to be part of that protest and who wanted to be peaceful to leave without any challenge. We allowed that to happen. On no occasion was it a first resort; it was a last resort. We would far rather have people turn up, protest peacefully, have their say and leave the area.

Q20   Lord Dubs: What sort of communications were you able to have with the people who were being contained? Did the people being contained know that there was a way out through Whitehall? You say that part of the time they were able to go out that way and part of the time they weren't.

Chris Allison: On 9 December, we brought one of our very large warning and informing pieces of equipment up, which has been provided as one of our contingency plans. You can hear in the background, over a very large tannoy system, those in the crowd being encouraged to leave via Whitehall. When the march stopped there and we started seeing the scenes of disorder, you can hear officers on the tannoy system encouraging people to leave the area and make their way down Whitehall to go to where the protest should have ended, on the Embankment.

Q21    Lord Dubs: Thank you. What's your response to the comments we have heard earlier today, and on television, that people, including children, weren't allowed to leave and that they were held there in a pretty harsh way?

Chris Allison: I would say on both that wherever practicable we allowed people to leave. On the containment on the 24th, one of the key things for Bronze Containment, the superintendent in charge of that, was to try to identify young and vulnerable people and get them out. I know he had Jenny Jones, a member of the GLA, watching a whole load of his activity during that time. She witnessed him doing that sort of thing. He was keen to do it. He was making sure that all the officers on the lines were looking for those vulnerable people. Exactly the same is true of the 9th. There may have been occasions when individuals came to the cordon line and said they wanted to go out and were told they couldn't go out at that moment because the area further up the road was not clear, so there were worries about the crowd getting out. But I go back to my earlier comment: over the time that the cordons were in place, somehow about 11,000 people left Parliament Square, which shows that we had a porous cordon in place and we were allowing those who were vulnerable out of that area.

Q22    Lord Dubs: In the light of what happened, would you do things differently next time?

Chris Allison: We recognise that people have a right to peaceful protest. There are those who would say that maybe we shouldn't have allowed the protest to come to Parliament Square, maybe we should have used different tactics, maybe we should have identified all the people who came intent on causing violence. The challenge for us is that if we had done anything to prevent that protest getting to Parliament Square on the 9th, there would have been those who would rightly have said that we had stopped people having their right to protest peacefully and to be part of the democratic process. Our view was that it was very important that they were able to get here.

So no, I think we would still try to do whatever we could to allow those who want to protest peacefully to do so. I have heard comments in a number of places about our challenge of identifying those who are clearly violent and want to come on these protests to commit violence. It is slightly difficult. There is a big investigation going on in relation to all four protests. While I am sure there are individuals who are at the extreme end of radicalisation and there are people who come with the intention of committing acts of disorder, the sad fact is that the majority of the people we have arrested for some very serious offences until now have been students. If they end up being charged with those serious offences, this will change the rest of their lives. These are people who we probably wouldn't have identified at the start of the protest as being likely to get involved in acts of disorder, but for one reason or another they have done and as a result of that they will probably pay the price for the rest of their lives. Our view is that that is very sad. We want people to come and protest peacefully, but I will not and cannot accept that in some way the tactics that we have used justify violence by any person. They do not justify violence against property or against police officers. We are there to facilitate peaceful protest. We have not been attacking protesters. We have been defending lines wherever we've had to do it.

Q23   Lord Bowness: You will be aware that there has been criticism of the decision to contain or kettle the demonstrators despite their relatively young age and the presence of many children. It must be difficult, but do you have an option of tactics? Does the age of the demonstrators affect the tactics that you choose when policing a protest? Is there a different strategy when a large number of children are present? Part of the same question is how did officers on the cordon deal with parents who arrived asking for their children to be released from the containment? I won't ask you to comment on why they had their children in the containment when they were on the outside.

Chris Allison: On all these things, we look at who we are dealing with. We have to in any event. Once disorder has broken out, irrespective of the age of the crowd, we have a duty to ensure that we manage it as best we can. Then we have a duty to try to protect the vulnerable as quickly as we possibly can. That was in the minds of the Bronze Commander and the Bronze Containment on the 24th, when there was talk of there being a significant number of younger people there. We brought large numbers out because they were encouraging them to come out. We acted wherever possible when parents came up or reported stuff to us. I dealt with one individual who rang me for advice about some 15-year-olds who were caught inside a containment. They were in school uniform. I told that person to tell them to go to the front line, where the police officers were, identify who they were and they would be allowed out. That is exactly what happened.

It is a challenge, because sadly, some of these people, even at 16 or 17, became involved in disorder. Not all of them did; in fact the vast majority won't have done. Unfortunately, violence and disorder doesn't just kick in at the age of 18; for some people it kicks in a bit younger. Our job is to try to manage these protests for the benefit of everybody, while recognising that we need to protect the vulnerable during that time.

I sat at the debrief on the night of the 24th, in the early hours of the morning of the 25th. I looked in the eyes of the officer who had run that containment. He had worked his socks off that evening to try to do it as quickly as he possibly could, having made sure that all the lessons from G20 were included and trying to make sure that he got vulnerable people out of there. I could see the passion in his eyes.

Q24   Lord Bowness: Can I go on to the use of horses? You will know that there are conflicting reports of whether horses were used to charge demonstrators on 24 November. There is some video evidence that confirms the use of horses. Can you comment on the use of horses on that day? If the horses were charged at protestors, how does that fit with the need for policing tactics to be proportionate to the protests? Was the use of horses part of the strategy for dispersing the protesters at the end of the containment? Could I ask you to comment generally on the use of horses? Charging is a remarkably emotive word. If you use it in an old-fashioned military sense, it is people with drawn arms advancing to and into the enemy, or the crowd, or whatever the scenario is—the enemy in a military scenario, but the crowd in a police scenario. Horses, even trotting, in terms of moving people back, is a different situation. It would be useful if we understood the language that we are using when we talk about charging.

Chris Allison: We certainly don't use that language at all. What you are talking about is an active advance. I shall talk you through how we use horses in public order. They are a very valuable commodity, not just in public order but in general policing. They are out there and visible and people see them. We use them regularly at football matches to manage crowds. We use them in a number of ways. At football matches you will regularly see them mingling with crowds as the crowds build up on the approach to a game. You'll see them occasionally being used to block roads. If you've ever been to Wembley and gone down Wembley Way, we manage the crowds going into the tube station by having six horses that are parallel to the crowd, and then they turn across the crowd. That is a non-threatening way to hold the crowd back to allow us to clear the platform until the next lot go up.

We'll also use the horses in more challenging situations to hold lines. That's what you saw on 9 December in Victoria Street. When the first line of officers came under attack, they were reinforced by a mounted group who came up to that junction and in effect took the front line. On occasions, they would walk their horses into the crowd. Am I going to say that a horse is always perfectly under control? Sometimes when people throw some of the missiles and flares that we saw being thrown at them, the horses will rear up and then go back, which is a danger for the police officers who are in and around the area. That's where the horses were holding that particular line.

The active advance took place on 24th. We had a containment at the bottom end of Whitehall. Those managing it were trying their best to get rid of people and release them out of the cordons as quickly as they possibly could. North of that cordon was another group of protesters. I heard Mr Hardy talk about them as people who had come down and were being very supportive. A significant number of those people were being exceptionally violent. They were the very violent ones. A superintendent was responsible for moving that cordon up to the top of Trafalgar Square to enable us to release people from the cordons within the containment. But we can't release them when they've got nowhere to go, so we needed to clear that particular area. He moved them forward and after a while the violence was such on the level 2 officers that he had to bring the horses through, round the side of the line and the horses would walk through the crowd and would then come back the other side. The officers would take up and move it forward again.

When they came to the junction with Horseguards Avenue, there were concerns that a number of demonstrators who had been very violent went round the corner. There were roadworks there and they were picking up missiles. The officers at this time were not in possession of shields; they were just in public order equipment. He took the view that at the appropriate time, to get them past that junction so that they crowd couldn't arm themselves with missiles, it was right to use an active advance. An active advance is a line of horses some considerable distance behind the police line. They make their way up to the police line, at a trot. The police commander shouts "split", the police line splits and the horses go through the line. As they go through the line, they stop trotting and they slow down. It is very rare that we do this. We only do it when the crowd have somewhere to go to and the horses are not going to cause serious injury to individuals. By what I have seen and heard in the reports, they didn't, but we managed to achieve our end, because the protesters, seeing the horses, didn't want to be there any more, so they moved significantly faster northwards up Whitehall. As a result, we were able to take that junction and prevent them getting hold of the missiles. That is the one occasion that I am aware of when we used it. It is not a charge; it is an active advance. It is an ACPO-approved tactic that thankfully we rarely have to use, but it was used on that day because of the violence that the officers were dealing with.

Q25   Mr Raab: On 9 December, in relation to the planning you put in place and the communication you had with the organisers, did you discuss and think through a sliding scale of response measures? I am wondering what the concrete alternatives are to containment, given the situation that arose and what the risks were of not putting that in place. You have talked a bit about Cowley Street and the intention of the protesters to head down there. I wonder whether you could give us a clearer indication on both of those points.

Chris Allison: The alternative to containment is dispersal. Our sincere hope on the 9th was to get the protesters into Parliament Square so that they could say that they had been a part of that democratic process and they had their right to protest peacefully. We allowed them to go there. As I have mentioned earlier, our lines came under attack as a result of them deciding that they were not happy with where they were and they wanted to get into Parliament. I have no doubt that if those officers hadn't bravely defended the line, people would have tried to force their way into Parliament that day.

We put the cordons across the top of Victoria Street to stop a similar group going down Victoria Street and either coming round the back and returning via Millbank, which again would have seen significant challenges for us and significant disorder, or potentially even worse, as we have seen in other protests going back to 1993, 94 or 95, when you disperse people who have already become disorderly through an area of shops and high value property, they are willing to commit more acts of disorder, even if they break into smaller and smaller groups. Once that violence has boiled over, people feel empowered to do it. Those in command were concerned that you would have ended up with widespread disorder taking place, with shops being smashed and potentially people having a go at the glass on the BIS building, No. 1 Victoria Street.

When disorder has broken out, the alternative to containment is dispersal. The history of when you do dispersal in an area that is full of shops and property that doesn't belong to the people involved shows that they are quite willing to commit acts of disorder and damage it. That is very different from some of the challenges my colleagues face when they are dealing with disorder from people who are living in their own environment. You can disperse groups of people who are in their own environment, because generally they don't damage their own environment. My colleagues in Northern Ireland, who had to deal with this for a number of years, found that people don't generally burn down their own houses, but if there is a shop there that doesn't belong to them and disorder has already happened, they are more willing to do it. I am not saying this is everybody, but sadly, we have seen over these protests that it is no longer a small minority but a significant number of people being willing to commit those acts of disorder.

Q26   Mr Raab: On the 9th, the route was agreed and much of the problems seemed to arise when, rather than travelling along the route, the protest remained in Parliament Square. I wondered who you felt was responsible for the breach of the route. Was it isolated individuals or was there a concerted effort to remain there? Do you think the organisers bore responsibility? Related to that, once that happened, what contingency planning had you put in place? Is that when, in the commander's mind, containment comes into play? Do you have any other contingency planning for breaches of route?

Chris Allison: On the day, we sincerely hoped that everybody would follow the agreed route. I am not into the blame game. It has been said in this Committee and other Committees I have been to before. This is about the police service and the organisers working together. That's why, at that particular point, we ensured there was a PA system that we could use to encourage the crowds to make their way down the agreed route. That was used on a number of occasions. It is the responsibility of the organisers to ensure that they follow the agreement and that they put in place the necessary resource on their side by way of stewards and others to try and encourage people to follow it.

I have to pay tribute. On 10 November, the very first protest, which was a challenging day for a number of people, some of the stewards who were employed were absolutely magnificent. They tried their best to step in and to encourage people not to commit acts of disorder around Millbank. Stewards can work. I have seen it happen on a number of protests. There is an onus on the police service and the organisers to make sure that we fulfil what we have agreed. Sadly, on that day the protesters didn't. Sadly, they stayed. Our job then was to manage it.

Obviously, our contingency plan was that they were not going to leave Parliament Square, they may not go down Whitehall and they may not go to the Embankment. As far as we were concerned, our contingency plan was that if they went to Parliament Square and stayed there, provided that there were no acts of disorder, that was fine, because they would be peacefully protesting and we can manage that. We have to manage the traffic around and manage Parliament to ensure that it can still operate, but the contingency plan is that we have to manage it and then try to encourage them to go. We only ended up putting in the cordons after we came under attack. It is important that I say this. Police officers were standing behind double layers of barriers. They came under attack. They had to defend those lines. It was not any form of aggression from the police service.

Q27   Mr Sharma: You answered the question on the kettling procedures adopted. Surely many organisations that work with young people are very concerned that under-18s, who were exercising their right to freedom, were seriously subject to kettling procedures. What steps were taken and how can you explain that you have fulfilled your duty under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004?

Chris Allison: I talked about the passion that I saw in the eyes of the Containment Bronze officer who had looked after it. He worked very hard to ensure that every officer on every one of those cordon lines understood their responsibilities in those circumstances. We didn't want to put containment in, but we had to as a result of the disorder and our fear of what would happen. Because we put that containment in, we had to ensure that we were looking for vulnerable people. They could have included people of all ages, but certainly children. He encouraged them to talk to people by taking their NATO riot helmets off and putting their caps back on to explain to people. He personally walked into the crowd on a number of occasions, despite there having been severe violence. He had de-escalated it by taking the NATO helmets off when the violence stopped to ensure that we were able to communicate better. The fact that he and his runner walked into the crowd themselves looking for vulnerable people gives a good example of extent that we were going to to try to ensure that we were doing everything that we possibly could.

As I have said to this Committee before, the policing of public order is not an exact science; it is very challenging. We will look at every event and see if we can get it better. Our desire in all of this is to have a peaceful protest where people come, they say their piece and then they go home. That is what we would like on every occasion.

Q28   The Chairman: Thank you very much for your evidence today. We haven't covered everything. There are particular issues that we would like to have covered, but time is against us. However, we will write to you specifically on four issues: police intelligence; use of batons; treatment of disabled protesters; and the covering of police numbers. As we said to our earlier witnesses, if there are other issues that you would like to raise with us, we would be very pleased to receive a memorandum from you.

Chris Allison: I will certainly write back to you on all of those. Can I just make one point about covering up numbers, because this is an important issue of confidence? As soon as that matter was brought to our attention, it was given to the Directorate of Professional Standards, who are still looking into it. There is an explanation that sits behind it. We are working our way through it. It came out as a recommendation from this Committee, from the Home Affairs Select Committee and from HMIC and we have been at pains to ensure that every officer out there is wearing the numerals. We must have deployed something in the region of 8,000 officers on the streets during these recent demonstrations. I am aware of only one incident. The officer had been wearing her yellow tabard over the top of her protective equipment. That was not flame-retardant. As flares were being thrown at police officers, they were advised very quickly to take them off, because if they caught fire it could have caused them serious injury. As a result, because of the pressure of time she did not remember or get time enough to move her epaulettes on to her flame-retardant clothing. She is the only one that we are aware of. That is still being investigated by the Directorate of Professional Standards in the organisation. The commissioner and I have made it quite clear that officers will wear identification at all these demonstrations. I am not making an excuse about this episode, but the fact that there are no other reports at this time shows the extent to which intrusive supervision has been put in place by the service. We are determined to ensure that officers are accountable. They accept that they are accountable and therefore they will wear identification.

The Chairman: Thank you very much. In closing this session, I convey the good wishes of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to everyone who was injured, both protesters and police officers. Our very good wishes go to them for a speedy recovery.

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