Scotland Yard will consider asking the Home Secretary to ban further student marches should the levels of violence which have marred the recent protests continue, Britain's most senior police officer said yesterday.
More than 180 people have been arrested after four protests in London against the Government's proposal to increase student tuition fees.
The most violent scenes were witnessed last week, when protesters clashed with police in Parliament Square. The clashes left 12 police officers and more than 40 protesters injured. The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall came under attack as they were driven to a charity event nearby.
Yesterday the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson spoke about a "sustained and serious level of violence". He said banning students from marching was a power he had not ruled out using. "It is one of the tactics we will look at and something we will keep under review, and if we think it is the right thing to do then we will do it," he said.
But he added that a ban could cause more trouble. Under the Public Order Act, the police can ask the Home Secretary to ban marches. Sir Paul said: "When you have got people willing to break the law in this way, what is the likelihood of them obeying an order not to march or complying with conditions on a demonstration? Sometimes putting that power in could just be inflaming the situation further."
The NUS president, Aaron Porter, said in response: "Peaceful protest is an integral part of our heritage and it is the responsibility of the police to help facilitate that."
The Commissioner also spoke of his worry that the continued protests are "stripping London out". He explained that almost 3,000 officers are being deployed to police the protests and it is leaving neighbourhoods in other parts of London vulnerable. Speaking about the suggestion that water cannons could be used to control crowds in the future, Sir Paul said that the force had ruled that option out three years ago but that officers were taking advice from colleagues in Northern Ireland about its efficacy in London. He added that currently the Met does not have a water cannon. Sir Paul refused to say whether "snatch squads" will be deployed immediately to arrest the most serious troublemakers. But he did say that, following Thursday's scenes in which monuments were defiled, police will consider boarding up potential targets for damage.
Sir Paul also revealed that he will be off work, possibly until the end of January, as he is due to undergo surgery for what is believed to be a non-cancerous tumour in his femur.