With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on public order. Like all Members of this House, I was sickened at George Floyd’s tragic death. His treatment at the hands of the United States police was appalling and speaks to the sense of injustice experienced by minority communities around the world. I fully appreciate the strength of feeling over his senseless killing, the inequality that black people can sadly still face, and the deep-seated desire for change. I know that it is that sense of injustice that has driven people to take to the UK streets to protest.
This Government are clear that racism and discrimination in any form have no place in our society, and we will do whatever is required to eradicate it. Of course there is more we can do. There is more that we should all do to combat inequalities across society, to support those seeking social justice and better life chances and to offer hope, but all too often, too many are confronted by despair. It is right in any democracy, in an open and free society, that we advance these issues in a constructive, sensitive and responsible way.
The Government understand the importance of the right to protest. In normal circumstances, a large and peaceful protest would not be of concern to the authorities, because we live in a great country where our right to protest and to have our voice heard is integral to our fundamental democratic freedoms. The right to come together and express our views peacefully remains one of the cornerstones of our great democracy. Members across the House share an enduring commitment to uphold liberty and freedom of expression, on the basis of respecting the rule of law. As our nation battles coronavirus, however, these are not normal circumstances, so to protect us all and to stop the spread of this deadly disease, any large gatherings of people are currently unlawful. We cannot afford to forget that we are still in the grip of an unprecedented national health emergency that has tragically claimed more than 40,000 lives, so the severe public health risk forces me to continue to urge the public not to attend future protests. The Government’s scientific and medically led advice remains clear and consistent. No matter how important the cause, protesting in large numbers at this exceptional time is illegal, and doing so puts everyone’s lives at risk.
Let me turn to an operational update. Around 200 protests took place across the country over the weekend, attended by over 100,000 people. As many as 137,500 people have now attended Black Lives Matter protests across the UK. While the majority were peaceful, a lawless minority of protesters have regrettably turned to violence. The worst violence flared in London on Saturday evening, with missiles and flares being thrown at police officers outside Downing Street. Officers in protective equipment were deployed to arrest the culprits and to clear the area. At least 35 officers have now been injured during the protests in the capital. I salute their bravery and wish them a swift recovery. The thugs and criminals responsible are already being brought to justice. This is a fluid situation, but as of this morning the total number of arrests stood at 135.
As the ugly tally of officer assaults shows, some protestors, regrettably, turned to violence and abusive behaviour at the weekend. This hooliganism is utterly indefensible; there is no justification for it. There is no excuse for pelting flares at brave officers, throwing bikes at police horses, attempting to disrespect the Cenotaph or vandalising the statue of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest protectors of our freedoms who has ever lived. It is not for mobs to tear down statues and cause criminal damage in our streets, and it is not acceptable for thugs to racially abuse black police officers for doing their jobs. The criminals responsible for these unlawful and reckless acts are betraying the very cause they purport to serve. These protests are about injustice, but by attacking our courageous police they are acting in a wholly unjust way.
When I became Home Secretary, I vowed to back the police. I said that I would stand with the brave men and women of our police and security services, and against the criminals. I stand by that today, proudly and without apology, because, as we saw at the weekend, we ask our frontline police officers to do the most difficult of jobs: to run towards danger to ensure that we are not in danger; to put their own lives on the line to protect the public; and to uphold the rule of law and the rights of individuals against the disorder that we have seen in recent days. By doing that, the police in our country give us all the very security we need to live our lives as we choose.
That is an essential part of our freedom, because violence, disorder and crime blight communities and society as a whole. So the police need to know that they have a Prime Minister, a Home Secretary and a Government who stand with them and will give them the tools, powers and resources they need to keep us safe—and they do. Police funding has had its biggest uplift in a decade, increasing by more than £1 billion, and we are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers to keep our streets and our country safe. They will have my full support in upholding the rule of law, and in tackling violence, vandalism and disorderly criminal behaviour. I could not be clearer: I want to see the violent minority responsible arrested and brought to justice.
I agree with the many peaceful protestors that racism has absolutely no place in our society. Black lives matter, but police brutality in the United States is no excuse for the violence against our brave police officers at home. So to the quiet law-abiding majority who are appalled by this violence and who have continued to live their lives within the rules, I say: “I hear you.” To the police, who have been subject to the most dreadful abuse, I say: “You have my full backing as you act proportionately, fairly and courageously to maintain law and order.” And to the criminal minority who have subverted this cause with their thuggery, I simply say this: “Your behaviour is shameful and you will face justice.” I commend this statement to the House.