Anti-fees violence blamed on protesters

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The Independent Online

The police response to violent protests during the anti-fees march "clearly did not go to plan" but the blame lies squarely with those who carried it out, Policing Minister Nick Herbert said today.

More than 40 officers were injured as protesters occupied Millbank Tower in central London yesterday, smashing windows, lighting fires and throwing missiles from the roof.

Mr Herbert said police got the balance between dealing "promptly and robustly" with violence and allowing students to protest wrong, and will "learn the lessons".

The Metropolitan Police planned to deploy just 225 officers to the protests, but had to double the numbers sent to the scene as the situation developed, Mr Herbert said.

He admitted there was "a question about how and when they deployed" but insisted that the force "has sufficient resources" to deal with such protests, and will continue to have resources to deal with them despite the 20% police cuts outlined in the Government's spending review.

It was clear "a small hard core" among about 2,000 protesters near Millbank were "intent on violence", he said.

A total of 41 officers received injuries, and a "small number" were taken to hospital for treatment before being released, he added.

A thorough investigation, announced by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson yesterday, will include "an examination of why numbers and violence on this scale were not anticipated", Mr Herbert said.

"The police have to strike a balance between dealing promptly and robustly with violent and unlawful activity on the one hand, and allowing the right to protest on the other," he said.

"Clearly in this case the balance was wrong but these are difficult decisions and they are not taken lightly.

"Yesterday did not go to plan and the police will learn the lessons - but the blame and responsibility for yesterday's appalling scenes of violence lies squarely and solely with those who carried it out."

Answering questions in the Commons, Mr Herbert urged MPs to await the outcome of the review "rather than speculate on the intelligence failure".

He added: "Serious violence did take place and it's very fortunate that nobody was more seriously hurt, particularly when many of us saw on the TV scenes somebody throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of a building which really could have hurt and possibly killed those standing below."

Fifty suspected rioters have been released on bail as police begin to hunt for dozens more troublemakers responsible for attacking officers and ransacking buildings during the Millbank riot.

Teams of Metropolitan Police officers have begun scouring footage and photographs of more than four hours of clashes outside the tower block that houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party.

A hard core of protesters encircled by riot squad officers at the end of the riot were photographed and identified so they could be matched to any evidence of violence or criminal damage.

Sir Paul has admitted his force underestimated the number of people who would join the march and mistakenly categorised the event as a low risk to the capital.

Branding the violence an "embarrassment to London and to us", he pledged to examine what went wrong and apologised to those left inside 30 Millbank, who included senior politicians, for their "traumatic experience".

Prime Minister David Cameron earlier called for "the full force of the law" to be used against those responsible and welcomed the announcement of a full inquiry by Sir Paul.

Speaking in Seoul, he said those who opposed his plans to raise the cap on university tuition fees had a right to protest but insisted "violence and law-breaking" must not go unpunished.

The violence was sparked as a peaceful march involving around 50,000 students and lecturers protesting against a proposed fee hike and university funding cuts passed the landmark building on the River Thames.

Dozens of activists stormed 30 Millbank, a tower block housing the Tories as well as several Government agencies and private businesses, forcing hundreds of workers to temporarily evacuate the building.

A small group of police and security staff were forced to retreat as a mass of people surged forward, led by a smaller group, many of whom were masked, who stormed the building and smashed windows.

An angry stand-off ensued as a handful of police officers attempted to stop more people entering the building as up to 50 protesters ran amok inside, smashing windows and hurling missiles from the seventh-floor rooftop.

Mr Cameron said that as he watched footage of the Conservative office under attack, he was worried for the safety of friends and colleagues inside.

He added: "People who assault police officers or who smash windows or who break property are breaking the law and yes, those people I hope ... will be prosecuted. They should be.

"People long in our history have gone to marches and held banners and made protests and made speeches and that's part of our democracy. That is right.

"What is not part of our democracy is that sort of violence and law-breaking. It's not right. It's not acceptable and I hope that the full force of the law will be used."

National Union of Students president Aaron Porter said: "I think we have to accept that we have lost a lot of public sympathy and actually that does undermine our case."

London Mayor Boris Johnson said: "When people look back at what happened yesterday they will want to ask questions about the preparation.

"But it was not the police who were engaged in thuggery and violence. It was a small minority who were responsible. I hope they will pay a serious price for their actions."

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said: "We deplore the violence which marred an important demonstration which the tens of thousands of students who took part and their leaders had intended to be completely peaceful.

"It is right that the police are conducting a review of their preparations. Peaceful protests, as well as people not involved in the demonstration, need to be protected from disruption by violence."

Students and staff were protesting against Government plans to charge students up to £9,000 a year from 2012 - triple the current £3,290 fee.

Union leaders say the increase, and swingeing cuts to university budgets, will mean the end of affordable higher education.

Shadow home secretary Ed Balls said the vandalism was carried out by "thugs".

"The vandalism and violence we saw yesterday is completely unacceptable," he said.

"It was perpetrated by a small minority of thugs who hijacked what was planned to be a legitimate and peaceful demonstration, and in so doing denied tens of thousands of students and lecturers the right to have their voices properly heard."