Patrick Mercer: We must restore police confidence

Officers have become risk averse

On Thursday, I watched the Commons heave a sigh of relief. It was as though a particularly nasty smell had wafted under MPs' noses, hung around longer than it should and then dispersed, thank goodness, so allowing us to get on with the serious business of summer holidays. But we might just as well have wrung our hands and reached the same conclusions that we did four days ago after the G20 drama or the university fees' riots last winter. For, as some of us have been warning, violent, public protest co-ordinated by social media tools is here to stay.

So what are we going to do about it? Clearly, prevention is better than cure, but while the economy, family structures, public attitudes and mores – what some would call Broken Britain – may be curable, that is not going to happen overnight. Similarly, while freedom of speech is vital, so is harmony and public safety, and perhaps there's a lesson to be learnt from what happened after 9/11. Much draconian and ultimately unused legislation was rushed on to the statute book after that disaster, but the thoughtful counter-terrorism strategy, Project Contest, took some time to devise, part of that project being the "Prevent" strategy.

We should take the existing work on gangs, knife crime, the gamut of social deprivation, roll them together and come up with a similar concept for solving the causes of unrest. While that matures, we are left with a bundle of new measures – laws to forbid the wearing of masks and the re-affirmation of the use of water cannon and baton rounds as examples – to allow our officers to hold the ring.

All of that will help, so long as the police have the confidence to use them. For instance, CS gas and rubber bullets are used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland with hardly a hair being turned. Yet such weapons have yet to be employed on the mainland, despite being available and sanctioned. I've used both in Ulster and their effect is salutary, but I cannot understand why we treat Irish thugs differently from English ones. And that's really the point. The G20s, uni fees protests and what we might call the Chav Riots of last week will continue unless the police have the confidence and the political backing to use the powers they already have.

On top of that, if Charlie Gilmour can receive a swingeing sentence for high-profile, if relatively slight crimes, so must the rioters. People loathe going to prison, especially for crimes committed on a whim, so let's see no more of the derisory sentences that courts are handing down to some rioters: if the coalition means what it says about deterrence and punishment, then the Justice Secretary needs to change his approach. Similarly, the e-petition says it all: cut benefits for those who are convicted. The simplicity is admirable.

After four nights of fraught nihilism, the gang leaders were probably exhausted (and God's water cannon, rain, helped), but what really told was police numbers. London was only swamped by dint of officers being drafted in from other forces, but such expensive efforts can only be sustained for a short time. While there are reforms to police practices that could make them cheaper and less bureaucratic, helmets on the street are crucial. That's why any cut to deployable police numbers must be resisted at all costs.

Britain has excellent police officers, but the last government's unreasonable scrutiny, excessive interference and "health and safety culture" have made them risk averse. Our officers already have the powers and tools to deter and control riots, but are they forced to spend all their time looking over their shoulders. If we want safe streets, we must restore police confidence.

Patrick Mercer, a former infantryman and BBC defence journalist, is Tory MP for Newark