MPs condemn 'mindless' attacks on memorials

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The Independent Online

MPs from all sides united yesterday to condemn the "mindless violence" of anarchists who turned a peaceful demonstration into riots in central London over the bank holiday weekend.

In a sombre Commons statement, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, described as "particularly shocking" the defacing of the Cenotaph and Sir Winston Churchill's statue.

"What was witnessed in central London yesterday was criminality and thuggery masquerading as political protest. Everyone in our democracy has a right to demonstrate peacefully but no one has a right to demonstrate violently," he said.

Mr Straw said the "shameful violence" was the culmination of a loosely organised series of events taking place from Friday to Monday.

Nine police officers were injured in the violence, as well as nine members of the public, Mr Straw said. Ninety-seven people had been arrested on charges including public order offences and assault.

"In our democracy there is neither reason nor excuse for such appalling behaviour. A particularly shocking aspect of yesterday's events was thedefacing of the statute of Sir Winston Churchill and the desecration of the Cenotaph," the Home Secretary said.

"Without the sacrifice of millions who gave their lives to defend our freedoms, no one yesterday would have been enjoying any right to protest at all. The fact that the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has already been cleaned up and, I am told, that no lasting damage has been caused to the Cenotaph is of little comfort to the public for the huge affront caused by this vandalism."

Mr Straw said 5,500 police officers had been deployed to control the May Day demonstration - more than for any other comparable incident in the past 30 years. There would be a review of the operation and the day's events by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and the Government would respond to his recommendations.

"The Commissioner had and has my full support and confidence in the very difficult decisions which he and his colleagues had to take."

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, urged that those found guilty in the courts of offences connected with the violence should face "exemplary" sentences. She said: "There is a considerable amount of public concern about the amount of activity and disorder which was allowed to take place before the police decided it was the proper time for intervention. A lot of people will be perturbed by the contrast in the policing methods used during the visit of the Chinese President, when the mildest demonstration was restrained, and what happened yesterday when there was considerable restraint before intervention took place."

She asked whether English Heritage had put forward proposals to safeguard the Cenotaph before the demonstration and, if so, whether they had been considered by the Government, which should also consider banning similar May Day protests in future. John Morris, a former attorney general, said that, as an ex-soldier, he had been disgusted by the damage done to the Cenotaph and the Churchill statue.