There were growing calls last night for the police to abandon the controversial use of "kettling" as student bodies announced a fresh day of national protests set for next week.
Thousands of demonstrators, some of whom were as young as 12, were penned in for up to six hours in near-zero temperatures on Wednesday evening as the Metropolitan Police responded to protesters converging on Whitehall and pockets of violence broke out in places within the crowd.
The calls for a further day of action next Tuesday, which could see more angry clashes in cities around the country, came as Britain's most senior police officer defended the use of kettling and called on the country's forces to prepare for "more disorder on our streets".
Using markedly bullish comments which indicate an abandonment of the softer policing methods that led to violent scenes outside the Tory HQ on Millbank a fortnight ago, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson announced that the "game has changed" in policing future protests. "The bottom line is we didn't get it right two weeks ago, and in my opinion we did get it right [on Wednesday]," he said. His comments came just hours before a group of students took over the entrance to the London constituency offices of Liberal Democrat deputy party leader Simon Hughes. A number of student sit-ins in protest at plans to raise tuition fees were still underway last night in Bristol, Newcastle, Oxford and London.
Critics have accused the police of using disproportionate tactics against student protesters, with particular concern over the use of kettling against young children and teenagers. A sizeable number of the crowd in central London were secondary school children, and although some were involved in violent acts against an abandoned police vehicle and a nearby bus stop, the majority remained peaceful.
In a terse exchange at a meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority yesterday, Commissioner Stephenson was confronted by Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones who accused him of "punishing the innocent". "When you imprison thousands of people, which is essentially what you did yesterday, you do have a duty of care to them," she said. "You punished the innocent. You kept people for nine-and-a-half hours. You punished innocent people for going on a protest."
Police forces defend kettling as a vital tool in helping them to restore public order during potentially violent protests. By penning a crowd into a single area, officers hope that a mixture of boredom, a lack of food and the need to go to the lavatory will reduce tension and allow the crowd to disperse non-violently.
But the heavy use of kettling during last year's G20 protests led to intense criticism that the tactic is a form of collective punishment which often makes a crowd more, not less, angry.
Commissioner Stephenson acknowledged that restoring public order was "not an exact science" and that the process of letting people out from the cordon on Wednesday was "frustratingly slow". But he insisted "water and lavatories were requested and delivered". He added: "It was a crime scene. We let out vulnerable people... we took off our helmets to calm people down."
However, eye-witnesses said there were still sizeable pockets of young people penned in as late as 9.30pm as the crowd built fires to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Emma Plouviez, a mother of two from Hackney, described how she had received a text message from her 16-year-old daughter saying she had become trapped for more than four hours.
Mrs Plouviez went down to the cordon and managed to talk her way in to retrieve her daughter and four friends but many others were still trapped. "They should have been let out," she said. "Most of the people I saw were young girls who weren't involved in any trouble and were very upset about what was happening to them."
Kat Craig of Christian Khan Solicitors, a law firm that is bringing a test case in the European Court of Human Rights on kettling, said the police could face legal action over penning children into a cordon. "The reports of young children and teenagers being kettled for up to five hours in the freezing cold are deeply concerning and likely to be open to legal challenge," she said. "It is widely accepted in both domestic and international law that detention of children must be a last resort and only for the shortest possible period of time.
"The law as it stands permits kettling if it is for a legitimate purpose. But the accounts from yesterday's protests suggest young, peaceful protesters were being marshalled into kettles from the fringes of the demonstration. If this is true, the kettle was not used to contain small groups of protesters who the police allege were behaving improperly, but to intentionally include those not suspected of any fault."
Student leaders have called for a further day of protests for next Tuesday. A coalition of unions and activists – including film director Ken Loach – are also holding a conference on Saturday to plan a "mass united campaign against cuts and privatisation".
Simon Hardy, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, called on police to exercise restraint in any upcoming protests. "The great majority of protests across the country [on Wednesday] passed off peacefully," he said. "The police let the demonstrators march through town centres and take part in some direct action. However, the actions of the Metropolitan Police yesterday were absolutely outrageous. It's a real scandal that the Met has taken these actions and we would urge them to change their tactics for further demonstrations."
11am (Wed) national walkout starts.
12.45pm London protest converges on Trafalgar Square.
1pm Kettling near Parliament Square and Whitehall. Police van attacked.
6pm Met Police say 15 people have been arrested. Mood inside kettle sours.
7pm Clashes break out as small groups of protesters escape kettle.
8.30pm Fires lit to keep protesters warm. A bust stop is burnt down.
9pm Police begin to let protesters out of kettle. Many are subject to a search.
10.20pm Whitehall cleared.
Italy: Meanwhile, on the continent...
Student unrest engulfed Italy yesterday as angry protests against university reforms caused chaos in major cities across the country.
Following attempts by students on Wednesday to force their way into the Senate building in Rome, protesters yesterday stormed famous landmarks including Rome's Colosseum.
Five or six students were hurt in violent clashes with police in Florence. The protests caused mayhem in other major cities including Milan, Palermo and Turin. Protesters say a reform Bill is a backdoor way of introducing swingeing cuts to higher education, but Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said the reforms would increase efficiency and raise standards.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies