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Demonstrations in Central London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 2nd May 2000.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip 4:00 pm, 2nd May 2000

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I should like to make a Statement on the violence and disorder associated with the so-called anti-capitalist demonstrations which took place over the Bank Holiday weekend in London and elsewhere.

"Yesterday's shameful violence was the culmination of a loosely organised series of events which took place from Friday to Monday. While all the events were broadly described as protests against capitalism, they were organised by a number of wholly disparate groups. "None of the organisers was willing to discuss their preparations in advance with the police, who therefore made their plans on the basis of the best information obtained by them. The police response in London was a joint operation conducted by the Metropolitan Police Service, the City of London Police and the British Transport Police, using a joint command structure based in New Scotland Yard.

"The events held by protesters on Friday, Saturday and Sunday passed off relatively peacefully, both in London and in other centres. As had been expected, however, the main challenge to public order occurred yesterday. In Manchester up to 400 protesters caused damage to shops and disruption to the tram system. Twenty arrests were made.

"The protests in central London began at around 10 a.m. when about 500 cyclists made their way to Parliament Square from Hyde Park Corner. By 11 a.m. about 2,000 protesters were in Parliament Square, many of them engaged in digging up the turf.

"The first incidents of violence were reported at about 12.25 p.m., when police and private vehicles were attacked by protesters close to Parliament Square. About an hour later 1,000 or so people moved into Whitehall from Parliament Square and demonstrated outside Downing Street, when missiles were thrown at police guarding the barriers. It was around this time, I understand, that vandals desecrated the Cenotaph and defaced the statue of Sir Winston Churchill.

"Shortly after 2 p.m. the Whitehall branch of McDonald's was attacked by a crowd of about 80 people. Some injuries to the police were sustained, as was serious damage to the premises.

"At about 3.15 p.m. there was serious disorder and violence in Trafalgar Square, including throwing of missiles at the police. At that point police in riot gear moved to contain and control the crowds in the square, which they continued to do for the rest of the afternoon. Separately, about 500 demonstrators crossed the river and congregated in Kennington Park, about a mile south, where missile attacks were made on the police at about 6 p.m. Meanwhile, from about 6.20 p.m., police began a controlled dispersal of the crowd remaining in Trafalgar Square. At around this time about 150 protesters attacked commercial premises and vehicles, including police vehicles, in the Strand. The crowds in Kennington Park were dispersed by 8.30 p.m. and a crowd off Waterloo Bridge was finally held at bay and dispersed by the police just before 9.00 p.m.

"I regret to have to tell the House that nine police officers were injured including one who was struck by a brick in his face. He was taken to hospital but thankfully there was no need to detain him. I understand that the police are aware of injuries to nine members of the public, all thankfully minor.

"I am informed by the commissioner that 97 people were arrested in the course of the day, on charges including public order offences and assault. A major investigation by the police to detect other offenders, including the perpetrators of the desecration of the Cenotaph and the defacement of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, is already under way.

"Everyone in our democracy has a right to demonstrate peacefully but no one has a right to demonstrate violently. Yesterday, there was a peaceful demonstration in London by over 2,000 people. That was organised by the TUC to commemorate international workers' day and to campaign for the saving of jobs at Rover's Longbridge plant and elsewhere in the West Midlands. But those peaceful demonstrators were physically denied their right to use Trafalgar Square by the mindless violence of the groups by then occupying the square.

"What was witnessed in central London yesterday was criminality and thuggery masquerading as political protest. In our democracy there is neither reason nor excuse for such appalling behaviour.

"A particularly shocking aspect of yesterday's events was the defacing of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and the desecration of the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yet without the sacrifice of the millions who gave their lives to defend our freedoms, no one yesterday would have been enjoying any right to protest at all.

"The fact that the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has already been cleaned up and, I am told, that no lasting damage has been caused to the Cenotaph is of little comfort to the public for the huge affront caused by this vandalism especially, but not only, to those ex-servicemen who served and saw comrades killed in both world wars.

"Planning by the police for the weekend's events took place over many months, and took account of all the contingencies which they could identify. The planning took into account the lessons learned from very serious violence which took place in the City of London in June last year.

"The police devoted greater resources--5,500 officers--to yesterday's situation than they have done for any comparable situation in the past 30 years. Knowing the determination of some of those involved to perpetrate serious violence and disorder, the police had to make a fine judgment that it was better to contain the trouble, as they did, in confined areas than seek to bar people from these areas, with a high risk of wholly unpredictable outbreaks of serious violence to the public as well as to the police and property virtually anywhere else in central London. The police had to make equally fine judgments as to precisely when and where to deploy police in riot gear.

"In our system of policing, these decisions are properly ones made by chief officers of police. For the avoidance of doubt, that will remain the situation after the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Greater London Authority and the mayorship come into being in early July. I want, however, to tell the House that the commissioner had and has my full support and confidence in the very difficult decisions which he and his colleagues had to take. As with any large policing operation, the commissioner will be reviewing what happened yesterday and will be discussing this with me. I shall, of course, be ready to respond to any recommendations he makes.

"I am sure that I speak for the whole House in offering our thanks and gratitude to all those police officers who dealt so professionally, diligently and courageously with the violence which occurred yesterday".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.