Civil liberties campaigners and student groups have condemned comments by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who has declined to rule out a ban on anti-government protest marches in central London.
The Commissioner, Paul Stephenson, asked about the possibility of a ban, said, “That’s one of the options we have got. Banning is a very difficult step to take, these are very balanced judgments.”
He said marches could be banned subject to the approval of the Home Secretary, Theresa May. But he admitted that activists would be likely to march in defiance of a ban, which could “just be inflaming the situation further.”
Stephenson said he did not want a “paramilitary model” of policing, but said that a review is taking place of whether water cannon should be introduced.
Simon Hardy of the National Union of Students (NUS) warned Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights that if the authorities “increase the police repression” then it would be “only a matter of time” before a protester or passer-by is killed.
The controversy follows a series of protests against the government's decision to treble the limit on university tuition fees in England to £9,000 per year. The measure was narrowly passed by Parliament last week (9 December) after the Liberal Democrats split on the issue.
The vast majority of protestors remained peaceful, including most of those who broke the law. But acts of violence by a small number of police and protestors resulted in dozens of injuries.
One student, Alfie Meadows, required a three-hour head operation and the NUS say that he is lucky to be alive. Footage shows another protester, Jody McIntyre, being pulled from his wheelchair by a policeman.
There has also been strong ciriticism of police decisions to "kettle" protesters in small spaces, refusing to let them leave for long periods and thereby increasing tension and the possibility of aggression. A protest yesterday (14 December) called for an end to kettling, while the Young Greens have launched a petition urging the police to ban the practice except in cases involving rival groups of demonstrators.
Stephenson acknowledged that the “overwhelming number” of demonstrators were peaceful, but described others as “thugs and hooligans”. He dismissed criticism of police tactics during last week's protests.
Police said that 182 people have been arrested during four recent demonstrations against increased tuition fees. The policeman filmed pulling McIntyre from his wheelchair is facing an internal disciplinary investigation but is not understood to have been charged with a criminal offence.
Matt Horne, a Detective Chief Superintendent, said that the number of arrests is likely to increase as police study footage of the protests. He added, “I would urge those who turn up for protests to think about the impact this could have on their future careers”.
It is not clear whether Horne was suggesting that careers should be affected by lawbreaking or by simply participating in protests. His remarks are likely to anger students who consider that they are being principled by putting their values and compassion ahead of their careers.