UK Politics

England riots: Police could get wider curfew powers

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionTheresa May: "Too often in the past, police have been damned if they do and damned if they don't"

Ministers are considering introducing new area-wide curfew powers, in the wake of last week's riots in England.

Theresa May said police would be given new powers to tackle gangs and new guidance would be issued to English and Welsh forces on public order policing.

The home secretary said politicians would always back the use of "robust" policing that was legal and reasonable.

Meanwhile Acting Met Commissioner Tim Godwin rejected claims officers had held back in London when rioting began.

Giving evidence to the Commons home affairs committee, he said: "I don't believe for one second that the men and women of the Met were timid, which is an accusation that's been levelled at us which I have refuted but, more important than that, the vast majority of the people that make up this city, the Londoners, refute that."

He also told MPs that suggestions that politicians and police had been "at loggerheads" were unhelpful and had been "overplayed".

In other developments:

Rioting which began in Tottenham, north London, last Saturday spread over the following days to different parts of the city as well as parts of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Gloucester and Bristol.

'Damned if they do'

On Tuesday, Mrs May praised the bravery of those on the front line but said that she had been told that some officers had felt "because of criticism of police tactics in the past" police had felt "damned if they do and damned if they don't".

She told the audience, which included police chiefs: "As long as you act within reason and the law, I will never damn you if you do."

Police chiefs themselves had not wanted to use baton rounds and water cannon, instead relying on a surge of officers and "robust policing" alongside community support.

But she said "strong, enforceable powers" were needed to help police deal with anti-social behaviour, gangs and criminality.

She said dispersal orders - which allow police to move on groups of people from certain areas - had been used "to good effect" and were part of anti-social behaviour measures which were being reformed to make them more "effective and enforceable".

Police would get stronger powers to enforce gang injunctions and remove face masks, she said.

And ministers are considering new curfew powers - to allow "general curfews" to be imposed on a specific area in England and Wales, rather than being linked to specific individuals, and to allow them to be imposed on more youngsters aged under 16.

"It's clear to me that as long as we tolerate the kind of anti-social behaviour that takes place every day up and down the country, we will continue to see high levels of crime, a lack of respect for private property and a contempt for community life," she said.

"So we will make sure the police have the powers they need. But we also need to be clear that when they use them, and when they deliver the kind of robust policing that worked this week, they have the support of the politicians and the public."

She also made clear that the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner will be a British officer - following speculation that a US crimefighter, such as former New York police chief Bill Bratton could be considered for the role - saying she had "no time for the pessimism which says we cannot find from amongst our ranks a tough crime fighter, equipped to lead the Met".

Mrs May has written to Sir Denis O'Connor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, to ask for clearer information to be provided to police forces in England and Wales about the size of deployments, tactics, when it is appropriate for other police forces to provide help and "an appropriate arrests policy".

He warned earlier this year that more than two in five forces were unprepared to help police major protests.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionKevin Hurley, a former public order commander, says heavy-handed tactics "risk disaster""

And Mrs May took issue with critics who say the government's planned 20% cuts to central police funding would lead to thousands of police officers' jobs being axed. She said the cuts actually amounted to 6%, when other sources of funding were taken into account.

But Paul McKeever, of the Police Federation - which represents rank and file officers in England and Wales - said the speech was a "real slap in the face" for police, as Mrs May was "ploughing on ahead regardless with cuts which everyone in the police force say are detrimental."

Campaign group Big Brother Watch raised concerns about the possibility of "blanket curfews" saying they ran "contrary to any concept of a liberal and democratic values".

And Labour leader Ed Miliband said the government's determination to press on police cuts was worrying: "The lesson the public wants them to learn is that visible, effective policing increases public confidence and increases safety on our streets. That is why they should rethink their police cuts."

Police tactics

Police last week defended their handling of the riots, rejecting suggestions from Mrs May and Prime Minister David Cameron that restoration of calm had been due to political intervention.

But Mr Godwin told the home affairs committee the relationship between police and Mr Cameron and Mrs May had been "very supportive" and differences had sometimes been "overplayed".

"The perception of us at loggerheads is not helpful in terms of responding to the situation we are confronted with," he said.

But he added that it was "sometimes forgotten" that decisions were taken "in the heat of the moment" without the benefit of hindsight.

Mr Godwin said there had been no "pan-London" order not to arrest suspects - but said it was ultimately a decision taken locally, as making arrests could mean taking two or three officers - and a van - off the streets. The Met had a history of gathering evidence to make arrests later, he said, and it was a "numerical decision".

"It depends how many [officers] you have. On the Monday night, as assets started to flow in, we were arresting more as the night went on and then, after that, it's the relentless pursuit of those that follows."

Police had doubled the number of officers on the streets of London on Sunday but had not expected the "unprecedented" extent of disorder which subsequently broke out across 22 out of the 32 London boroughs on the Monday night, he said.