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Demonstrations in Central London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:09 pm on 2nd May 2000.

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Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 4:09 pm, 2nd May 2000

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. Over the weekend, yet again, we saw the police having to deal with mindless thuggery. At least, that was what I thought at first, but it was not mindless thuggery. The people were well minded in what they did and it was highly politically motivated thuggery.

I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords in saying that I am pleased to hear that the injuries incurred by the police and those suffered by a number of members of the public were not serious. I doubt that any noble Lord can fail to be moved by the picture in many of today's newspapers--it was on the front page of the Daily Express--of five year-old Charlotte Rose, in the arms of a policeman, after being hit by a bottle. Not only did the police and their families have their May Day disturbed, but also many people who thought that they could come into central London to enjoy a day out had their day badly disturbed.

I hope that the press and television companies will make available the many pictures and film footage that they have taken so that the police can identify those criminals whom they have not yet identified and arrested. Perhaps the Minister can assure me that approaches will be made to those companies. It may also be worth while the police asking whether any members of the public, who took photographs on their day out in central London yesterday, have any photographs that may help the police to identify the culprits.

On the lead up to yesterday's events, were there discussions between the police authorities and the Home Secretary as to what kind of tactics should be undertaken? Did discussions take place on whether a "softly, softly" approach should be taken, at least at the beginning of the disturbances, in order, as the Minister said, to contain the demonstrators in small areas? I noticed a contrast with the way in which the police dealt with demonstrators during the recent visit of the Chinese president.

Is it true that English Heritage advised in favour of protecting the Cenotaph, but that that was rejected as likely to be inflammatory? I do not believe that the demonstrators needed anything to inflame them in their vandalism. Perhaps we should learn some lessons from that. Like everybody, last week I saw some footage of people saying what they would do in Parliament Square. Digging up a bit of turf does not matter one way or the other, although it seems to be an odd way to improve the greenery around us.

Clearly, yesterday's events were bound to be attended by a degree of violence. On the vandalism to the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, I do not suppose that Sir Winston would be bothered because he dealt with the greatest thug in the previous century. I do not suppose a few ghastly people demonstrating how badly behaved they can be would bother him too much.

Do the Government accept that the public will expect the courts to deal very severely with those who come up before them in regard to offences that took place over the weekend? How many of them, I wonder, are in receipt of benefits from the capitalist society and from the workers who pay their taxes against whom they demonstrated and whose day they so badly disturbed? Perhaps the Benefits Agency will look at the photographs to decide whether what certain people were doing comes within the definition of availability for work.

We have seen a number of such civil disobediences. Clearly, protest is part of democracy, but violent protest is not part of democracy. Stopping people by violent means from doing what they legally and legitimately can do is quite simply wrong and has to be stamped upon.

This is the second time that this kind of incident has taken place in London. In a big way we saw a similar disturbance in Seattle and in a more minor way--although just as serious--we have seen another anti-capitalist demonstration even more recently in America. Does the Minister agree with my right honourable friend Steve Norris--as I understand it, the only man who stands between the Prime Minister and Mr Livingstone--who today said that as mayor he simply would not permit such an event to become annual? Next year it should not be a matter of discussing tactics or containment, but whether such a demonstration of this kind should take place at all.

Quite clearly, the people who organised the event--it seems a bit of a contradiction to say that anarchists organise anything--had no intention of it being peaceful. They had every intention that it should be violent. Perhaps the Minister will consider saying that, "Two strikes and you are out; you have done this twice in London in recent times and should not be allowed to do it again".