Nick urges students to think twice before attending demonstrations
Q: Most of the questions on the blog were about the policing of the student demos. Here's a flavour of them. "Why is it apparently OK for the police to use mass arrests of children in sub-zero conditions as a collective punishment to chill dissent?" (from VoxAC30) And: "What is the justification for not allowing people to leave a demonstration?" (from AnnaMLP) What can you say to people who were either involved in the demonstration last week, and the kettling, or saw it on telly and thought 'that's not the right way to police a protest'?
A: Well, we saw what happened the week before, didn't we, when, by the commissioner's own admission, the police weren't prepared and there had been a failure of intelligence and serious damage was done. There was also serious violence, and we were very lucky that someone wasn't killed. I think the general view was that the police needed to be better prepared.
I think the police have a difficult job to do here, in terms of the balance that they have to strike. We must ensure that people have the right to protest peacefully - in fact, the coalition government is committed to restoring that right of peaceful protest - but equally we need to make it clear that violence and criminal damage is totally unacceptable.
The police's job is to prevent those things and to uphold the law and keep the peace and, in my judgment, what they were trying to do was to prevent further criminal damage and ensure that people were safe, including the demonstrators themselves.
Q: But are you comfortable with the police using kettling as a tactic?
A: These are operational matters for the police. They will use containment as a last resort where it is necessary to ensure public safety and, in this case, my view is that the alternative may have been that protesters may have committed more serious criminal damage and perhaps violence.
I went down to the demonstration in Whitehall to have a look, both at the police tactics and what was going on, and I saw the aftermath of the criminal damage that had been done to the police van. We all saw the pictures on our television of people who were smashing windows.
Police officers have been injured over the course of the last few demonstrations, and this resort to violence and damage is totally unacceptable.
The smashed-up police van
Q: Can I ask you about the van, because there are theories about why it was left there. For example, someone on the blog (vanplant, at 11.26) asked: "Was the smashed-up van at the 24th November demonstration in London deliberately left there by officers?"
A: I'm sorry, is this a serious suggestion that the police vandalised their own van?
Q: Why did they abandon it? It seemed a curious thing to do.
A: It is totally unacceptable for people to vandalise property, to daub graffiti all over a van, in the way that they did. For whatever reason the van was there, it is totally unacceptable. The rest of us don't decide, just because a van has been left in the middle of Whitehall, that that is some kind of licence to damage it. This behaviour is inexcusable. Criminal damage like this, deliberate criminal damage, the resort to violence, is inexcusable.
We are determined to protect the right to peaceful protest. People must be able to make their point if they want to. That has been a fundamental principle of our democracy. I myself, in the past, before I became a member of parliament, have demonstrated in Parliament Square. I think it is important that we uphold these rights. It is not necessary to resort to violence or intimidation or criminal damage. Those that do so will find themselves subject to the full force of the law.
Q: I'm not contesting that, but was it appropriate for police to leave a van in the middle of Whitehall?
A: I have no idea why the van was there, but it doesn't justify damage to it.
The use of police horses
Q: What about the use of horses - another issue that has been raised? Someone (greendragonreprised, at 12.10) asked on the blog: "Why are police on horseback charging at law-abiding citizens in London's streets?" Were you happy with the use of officers on horseback at the demonstration last week?
A: Well, police horses are used in situations of crowd control, including football matches and so on, in order to help the police deal with demonstrators or when trouble arises.
These are operational matters for the police. They know that they have to keep within the bounds of the law themselves and use appropriate force. Most members of the public who saw the appalling scenes of violence and criminal damage from the first demonstration that took place here in London, who saw the fact the police officers were injured in that demonstration, who saw the fact that it was lucky somebody wasn't killed when a fire extinguisher, it appeared, was thrown off the top of a building, will have been supportive of the police taking steps to ensure that similar violence and criminal damage does not take place in the future.
Q: One of things that seems to have annoyed people was the sense that the police did not tell the truth about what happened. This was put by another of our readers (Timsimmons, at 11.07am) who said: "Ask him if it's OK for the police to lie about the horse charges."
A: Can I say that I don't accept the premise of these questions. There are perfectly proper routes to take if people have complaints. They can make complaints in the appropriate way. It is the job of the Metropolitan Police Authority to hold the Metropolitan police accountable for their performance, the MPA and the mayor.
There is also a complaints procedure, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, in relation to serious complaints.
It is important to understand that ministers do not run the police in our country. We set the framework of laws under which the police can operate, but the police are accountable to the mayor and the MPA. If people have allegations that they feel there was improper policing, then there are routes that they can [take to] make those allegations. I don't accept the premise of these questions, which is that you start from the position that the police lied.
Q: I think what that person is referring to is something reported in this Guardian story. It's about the incident with the officers on horseback going into the crowd. At one point a Met spokesperson said: "Police horses were involved in the operation, but that didn't involve charging the crowd." Then, after footage appeared on YouTube of this incident, a Met spokesperson subsequently said: "The use of police horses to disperse and distance the crowd was an appropriate and proportionate tactic at that time in the given circumstances."
A: I'm just going to repeat that we have a whole set of procedures and safeguards to ensure that our police forces are accountable for the way in which they operate. Ministers do not interfere with operational decisions of the police.
It is right that our police are held accountable for their performance. It is the job of the mayor and the MPA to hold the police accountable, and there is a formal complaints procedure if people think that they have specific grievances. But, as to the general, I think that the police have a difficult job to do in ensuring the balance between facilitating peaceful protest, which I am extremely anxious that they should continue to do as part of the fundamental basis of our democracy, and ensuring that people do not resort to violence and damage and intimidation.
Advice to students
Q: Just one more on this. We've got the vote on tuition fees next week. What would your advice be to someone who wants to come to London to protest but who doesn't want to get trapped in a police kettle for five hours on a freezing Thursday afternoon? Would you advise people to stay away? Or, if they come, how can they protest without getting involved in this kind of incident?
A: People should always feel that they can their point in a peaceful manner, and I want to facilitate peaceful protest. But I think that anybody would sensibly, having seen what happened in the first march, ... be aware that there are individuals who are seeking to exploit these demonstrations for their own ends, who are willing to resort to violence and criminal damage.
And therefore anybody joining one of these demonstrations must take care, and must go on them knowing that there are people who have now, on successive weeks, demonstrated that they attempting to take the law into their hands in this way.
Q: When you say "take care", do you mean stand at the back, or not come, or not stand next to anyone with a mask on?
A: If you know, having seen the scenes on the previous week, that there is a group of people who are bent on violence, on causing criminal damage, on intimidation, on breaking the law, any of us would think twice, wouldn't we, about whether we wish to be associated with those people.
I'm strongly in favour of people's right to protest peacefully, and that must continue, and the police must facilitate it.
Directly-elected police commissioners
Q: When Tony Blair's government legislated for directly-elected mayors, there was a famous case when someone stood as a monkey and - to his surprise - got elected in Hartlepool. When your mechanism for elected police commissioners is in place, would you be happy to see joke candidates like that stand for election?
A: Come on, what kind of a question is that? I've only been an MP for five and a half years, but I've learnt not to answer hypothetical questions. And certainly not questions the premise of which is something that I simply do not accept will happen. This is a really important democratic reform ...
Q: As was having directly-elected local mayors.
A: And I think that what has happened, with a greater accountability and a stronger link with local people that we now have with the creation of the mayor with responsibility for policing, is popular in London. I think it has helped deliver what the public want. I think it has strengthened the links between the police and the public.
For instance, in London Boris Johnson stood on a platform of wanting to tackle knife crime and of wanting to put uniformed police on public transport. He sat down with the new police commissioner and they delivered that. I think that's what Londoners wanted.
I think that this will be a popular reform. I think people will appreciate the fact that they have a greater say over how crime is tackled in their local area. And, as we move towards elections in 2012, there will be a lot of interest in who's standing.
Candidates for election as police commissioners
Q: Have you met people already who have expressed an interest in standing as an elected police commissioner?
A: I'm amused by the fact that some of the police authority chairman who are simultaneously saying that they object to this reform are also quietly preparing their run for office.
Q: Can you tell me who they are?
A: No. I think the debate will move, and move on. Of course we are discussing the principle of this reform. The House of Commons will shortly vote on this. As the elections come into view, increasingly people will be focused at the local level on who will stand. I think that will create a lot of interest.
How the elections will work
Q: Do you expect them to be party political battles? Or do you expect them to be dominated by independents, wearing monkey suits or otherwise?
A: We've said that we won't stop parties from fielding candidates. I think that would be wrong in principle, and not deliverable in practice. So the parties will be allowed to field candidates.
But we're also very keen that independent candidates should stand. It may be that independent candidates will attract public support. I certainly would not have a problem with that. I think what's important is that we have high-quality candidates who are standing. These are big jobs.
Police and crime commissioners are going to be answering to electorates outside London in England and Wales that vary from 400,000 at the smallest to two million electors. They will be responsible for the supervision of police forces, but also for driving down crime in their wider areas. I think there will be great interest and it will be important that we attract really good candidates.
Q: Will they be the sort of contests where the Conservative party has to put up a candidate, because it's like a local election and if you don't put a candidate it looks as though you're not in the game? Or do you think there will be cases where local Conservative parties do not put candidates because there are good independents?
A: That's a very interesting question. We have not had second reading of the bill yet. I'm sure political parties will start to reflect on this.
This will effectively be a national election in 2012 in England and Wales. One can see lots of ways in which parties might try and attract high-quality candidates, for instance through open primaries, which my party is very interested in anyway.
I'm really pleased that the conversation we are now having is about how we are going to attract high-quality people because I think that is how the debate will move on.
Q: So would an open primary would be the ideal mechanism for selecting a candidate?
A: I'm a strong supporter of open primaries. We did run them successfully in some seats where we selected people, and there are lots of attractions in broadening the process and involving the public more generally.
Q: Are you in favour of first past the post for Westminster?
Q: But the elections for the police commissioners will use a form of the alternative vote [the supplementary vote system, which allows voters to indicate a first preference and a second preference]. Why?
A: Because that's the system we use for mayoral elections.
Q: Why is it right for police commissioners but not MPs?
A: You'll have to look back at the debates that were had at the time this system was introduced.
Q: But we've got a public debate on AV for Westminster coming up ...
A: You're not going to draw me into a discussion on AV. We have a system that operates at the moment in London. That is electing the mayor. I think it makes sense to have the same system.
Police commissioners and demagoguery
Q: The standard objection to having elected police commissioners is that it will encourage demagoguery. Someone on the blog (crilie, at 9.55am) put it like this: "Professional judgment will be hampered by a natural tendency to bend to populist opinion." What do you say to people who are concerned about that?
A: I say "trust the people". I say that the public are entitled to vote for the candidates who they think will best represent their views. I say that I reject the rather elitist argument, the very elitist argument, that says that somehow the public can't be trusted, and that there's a view about how to do things which is that "somebody knows best", somebody who really oughtn't to answer to the public in any way. I just think those are very anti-democratic arguments. I think they are very bad arguments.
Q: Then can I put to you a different version of this argument. This is from another reader on the blog (DVisacrime, at 12.45pm). He or she says "there are many unpopular policies which must be followed by police leaders which may not fit into what the 'community' would regard as important" and that domestic violence is a good example. "The police have dramatically improved their performance in this area but will they maintain that focus ... in the world of the [elected] police commissioner?"
A: Well, in case anyone hasn't noticed, this elected government is pursuing things that aren't always popular because we are doing things that are in the national interest. That's our responsibility.
The point about policing is that it's a monopoly service. The police have to answer to someone. They will answer to a politician. The question is, where that politician is located? Are our police effectively going to answer to a national politician, which is what increasingly has been happening, as power is centralised, as you get the diktat from Whitehall, with micro-management, with bureaucracy encouraging the culture of box-ticking and compliance and everything that has bedevilled public services and policing over the last few year? Or are police forces going to answer, as in my view they should, to the local communities of which they are part?
Police forces sprung out of local communities. They are meant to answer locally, in part, to police authorities.
But the problem is that these police authorities are weak and invisible. Ninety-six per cent of the public cannot name the chair of their police authority. So what's known as a tripartite arrangement _ a balance between the chief constable, operationally independent, the police authority and the home secretary _ has been distorted by the previous government's centralism and by its attempt to impose a kind of bureaucratic accountability.
I want to rebalance the tripartite. I'm not saying the home secretary doesn't have any role. I think the government has a continuing and important role, in particular in relation to the fight against crimes at a national level, where forces have to cooperate, serious and organised crime and so on. But I do think, particularly in relation to local crime, the volume crime that affects most people, I think it's right that forces should answer to their local community.
Chief constables being sacked
Q: The ultimate power that a commissioner is going to have will be the power to get rid of a chief constable. Do you expect to see more chief constables sacked or replaced once you've got this framework in place?
A: I think the point is that you will get a much clearer line of accountability to the directly elected individual than you do at the moment.
There will be a strengthened link, as is taking place in London. The people's priorities will be more clearly reflected. And the elected police and crime commissioner will be able to hire and fire the chief constable.
By the way, that happens at the moment with police authorities. But there's no reference to the public in that. The public aren't part of that process. It's not done in relation to any sense of what the public's priorities are, or what the public thinks.
I think you've got to look at London as the example. The fact that we had a democratically elected mayor in Boris Johnson, who had a mandate, who wanted to take action in relation to knife crime and so on, who decided that he could not work with the existing commissioner of the Met.
And, whatever the legal position, the fact is that the commissioner had to go. Now, you tell me, in London who is disappointed by that?
Q: Is that something that we are likely to see more of once this framework is in place?
A: I'm not saying that. I'm saying the public will effectively be involved in this process. The public are locked out of all of this at the moment, yet policing is something that is absolutely essential to their lives. How their neighbourhood is policed, how anti-social behaviour is dealt with.
I think the public are entitled to have a say in all of this. And they will have a say through their elected individual.
And, in my view, the changes that we are undertaking will be a really positive thing for the good, innovative cops that I see up and down the country as police minister. Because it's going to mean for them - and here's the deal - they are going to be held to account in a manner that is more clear, with more direct accountability.
But the deal is that they will also get more space, with more professional freedom, less interference from Whitehall, less bureaucracy, less form-filling, less of the kind of unnecessary and burdensome compliance.
This week we had Bill Bratton, who came over from the US to talk to us [Bratton gave a speech to Policy Exchange and wrote this article in the Daily Telegraph] - one of the world's greatest crime-fighters indisputably, having uniquely been chief in both New York and Los Angeles. He drove down crime in both cities, with rather fewer resources in Los Angeles - talking about the strength by which he was held to account in different ways in both cities, but also talking about the importance of being able to manage his resources and deploy them in a way that he thought would fight crime best.
Police having operational independence
Q: You talk about officers having more freedom. But officers aren't entirely sure how this is going to work. Sir Hugh Orde [the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers] said in evidence to the Commons home affairs committee: "I think we need to understand what happens when the chief says for operational reasons, 'Much as I would like to do that, I don't think I can'." How will that work?
A: Well, we're clear. We must protect the operational independence of the police. That's been a fundamental principle in our system. No politician can tell a police officer of any rank who to arrest. That's very important.
But the police must be held to account. That means ensuring the right arrangements. It is the police chiefs who will take the decisions over deployment, who will run the force. They are the managers. But they have to be held to account by a politician.
Now, previously the politician has been sitting up here, in this office. We're saying, actually it would be better if that were a locally-elected politician. We agree with Acpo [the Association of Chief Police Officers], who say that we shouldn't, in the bill, try to define operational independence.
There is a lot of case law around this. I believe that almost all of the time these issues will be settled by a discussion between the police chief and by the politician. Under the legislation, they have to draw up the plan together. The plan will then be how that area is policed.
When you look, for instance, at Boris Johnson, he made his pledges on knife crime. He made his pledges about police officers on public transport. You could legalistically argue that was cutting across operational independence.
But what does he as a sensible mayor do? And what does Paul Stephenson, as a sensible police chief, do? They sit down together and they work out how to deliver it. Because Paul Stephenson knows that that's what the elected politician, as the representative of the public, wants. And Boris wants to be able to work together with a police chief to deliver it. They have a commonality of interest.
I think it's quite hard to say exactly where the line will fall. And Hugh Orde agrees with me, because we've naturally discussed this a lot, that 99 times out of 100 this will be settled by the chief and the police and crime commissioner sitting down together.
Police commissioners and political advisers
Q: According to the Daily Telegraph, you told a private meeting last month that in your opinion "the first thing a directly-elected individual will do is appoint a political adviser". Ed Balls has said that this means they will have political spin doctors and that this is shocking.
A: I think Ed Balls has been left with a bit of egg on his face, because he might have taken the trouble to have read the bill before he went around yesterday saying that the police and crime commissioners are going to be able to appoint political advisers.
It's specifically ruled out in the bill. We are legislating so that police and crime commissioners can't appoint political advisers. If he had just taken the trouble to have read the bill or the response to the consultation beforehand, he would have seen that.
And I have to say that we're not really going to be taking lectures from Ed Balls, of all people, about spin doctors.
Q: What Labour say is that although the bill says staff will be "politically restricted", the same condition also applies to people who work as political advisers in local government.
A: But the bill says politically restricted posts will not be permitted. You may not, for instance, be a member of a political party. And also the appointments are on merit.
Our intention is absolutely clear. Police and crime commissioners are not to have political advisers. We do not wish to see the politicisation of policing.