Met admits policing of student protest was 'an embarrassment'

Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson condemns 'thugs and louts' and says he didn't plan for violence

Increase in tuition fees
Police clash with demonstrators outside Millbank Tower. Photograph: Ian Nicholson/PA

Britain's most senior police officer was tonight forced to admit he was "embarrassed" that his officers had lost control of the capital's streets in scenes reminiscent of last year's G20 demonstration.

Promising an immediate inquiry, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, condemned what he called "thuggish, loutish behaviour by criminals" and conceded his officers had failed to plan for violence.

"It's not acceptable, it's an embarrassment to London and to us and we have to do something about that," he said. "I think we've also got to ask ourselves some questions. This level of violence was largely unexpected, and what lessons can we learn for the future? We are already doing that and asking those questions. Certainly I am determined to have a thorough investigation into this matter."

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said police should ask how a small minority of students had "shamefully abused their right to protest".

"This is intolerable and all those involved will be pursued and they will face the full force of the law," Johnson said. "The Metropolitan Police commissioner has assured me that there will be a vigorous post-incident investigation. He will also be reviewing police planning and response."

Last night, Scotland Yard's press bureau told reporters they expected "nothing out of the ordinary" from today's march, and repeatedly played down suggestions the event was comparable to the G20 protest.

A Met source said: "You're saying this is going to be the biggest demonstration of the year. But it has not built up anything like the G20 demonstrations – you can't draw a parallel there. This is a demonstration, we deal with them all the time."

The source added: "They [the NUS] are saying there will be 20,000 [protesters]. I could say, 'I'm going to do a march tomorrow and there will be 50,000 people out there.' But there may not be."

The Met's press bureau refused to put out substantial details of its policing plan, claiming it was not necessary for an event of the anticipated scale. Other sources revealed police had been expecting fewer than 15,000 protesters, and had only drafted in 225 officers to steward the event

Those numbers turned out to be woefully inadequate, and a thin line of constables with minimal protection tried in vain to defend the entrance to 30 Millbank alone. It was about an hour before reinforcements from the specially trained territorial support group (TSG) arrived. Several of those officers were taken away from the scene bleeding.

The Met's public order policing unit, known as CO11, was roundly criticised after its policing operation at the G20 demonstration, when there were chaotic clashes with protesters and an attack on the newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, who collapsed and died. Controversy over the Met's handling of the G20 prompted two parliamentary inquiries and a national review of public order policing tactics by Sir Denis O'Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary.

Asked whether the loss of control of the streets was embarrassing, Sir Paul replied: "Well the one thing I would say is that it must have been an awful time for the people trying to go about their daily business in those buildings. I feel terribly sorry that they have had to go through what must have been quite a traumatic experience.

"We are determined to make sure that sort of thing does not happen again on our streets. I'm clear on that, the Met is clear on that."


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