Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for policing has authorised the purchase of three water cannon despite not having permission from Home Secretary Theresa May to deploy them.
Earlier this year Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe asked the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) to buy three cannon from the German federal police.
Scotland Yard insists there is no evidence of a specific threat to the capital but says the vehicles would plug a major gap in its ability to tackle large-scale public disorder.
Senior Met officers, including the Commissioner, have repeatedly said the vehicles would be “rarely used and rarely seen”.
A majority of London Assembly members say the Met has failed to establish a genuine need for the purchase and have opposed introducing water cannon into the capital’s policing.
Some, including Conservative members, have also expressed concern over contradictory answers on whether Scotland Yard or the Mayor would have the final say over their use.
Although oversight of the Met is devolved to City Hall, the deployment and use of water cannon on the UK mainland requires the Home Secretary’s permission.
The Mayor wrote to Mrs May in March seeking the go-ahead to purchase the cannon but his deputy mayor for policing, Stephen Greenhalgh, has now authorised the purchase of the cannon ahead of the Home Secretary’s final decision.
In a document published on the City Hall website, Mr Greenhalgh confirms “it was the original intention to wait for the Home Secretary to taken a decision to authorise the use of water cannon”.
Mrs May has asked for a report into the medical implications of the cannons’ use.
The cost of the three vehicles is £91,305 plus £126,900 for “transportation and refitting the vehicles to make them fit for purpose for London”.
The City Hall document warns the time being taken by the Home Office risks another European force buying the vehicles and forcing London to make a more expensive purchase if the go-ahead is ultimately given.
The document justifies buying the cannon without Mrs May’s consent on the grounds that the rule requiring Home Office approval “relates to the approval for use, rather than purchase”.
It continues: “The impact of a negative decision from the Home Secretary can be mitigated by maintaining the option to resell the cannon. There is a proven demand for second hand water cannon and other European Forces have expressed an interest in the devices that we are seeking to buy.
“We would seek to take advantage of this to mitigate any losses in the event that no authorisation is granted.
“Even were it not possible to resell any devices the maximum loss per cannon would be £72,735. This compares extremely favourably to the addition cost of £797,000 should the German devices be sold elsewhere leaving only an option of procuring new devices.”
In a statement the Met said: “We welcome the deputy mayor for policing and crime’s decision to purchase three water cannon from Germany. We stress that these will not be deployed until or unless the home secretary authorises the use of water cannon in England and Wales.”
Commenting on the deputy mayor’s decision, London Assembly member Jenny Jones said: “Pre-empting the Home Secretary’s decision is rash and smacks of arrogance on the Mayor’s part, not to mention a possible waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when the Met is making huge cuts.
“It’s also ignoring the views of the vast majority of Londoners who don’t want water cannon. If the Mayor had actually taken the time to look his own consultation he would have seen 98% of people opposed the plans for water cannon.”
Baroness Jones added: “We’ve been told by police chiefs that water cannon would have been useless in the riots and yet still the Mayor seems fixated on giving the police this weapon.
“It’s an indiscriminate military weapon that risks injuring and distressing innocent bystanders and making things worse rather than containing situations. Water cannon have no place on the streets of London and I hope the Home Secretary sees sense.”
Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon commented: “There is no evidence to defend the provision of water cannon in London. After three hearings at City Hall the case against the use of water cannon was compelling.
“London Assembly Members, across the political parties have expressed their total opposition to one of the worst aspects of European policing being adopted in London. The Mayor’s refusal to listen or engage with evidence presented to him is shameful.
Ms Pidgeon said Mr Johnson’s earlier admission that he hadn’t read a London Assembly report criticising the purchase “sums up exactly why he is basing a decision on myth not fact.”
She added: “The adoption of water cannon, far from controlling public disorder problems, might actually provoke and heighten protests. We also know that water cannon runs the risk of innocent people being harmed for simply taking part in a protest.
“The Mayor’s obsession with changing the culture of British policing beggars belief. The Mayor looks set to destroy our proud tradition of policing by consent for good.”
Joanne McCartney AM, Labour’s Police and Crime spokesperson on the Assembly, said: “I’m deeply concerned that the Mayor is rushing the purchase of water cannon without a proper public debate.
“There is still confusion over the reasons behind the purchase of water cannon and exactly how the process of their deployment will work.
“To rush this through is typical of Boris’ slapdash approach to issues of crucial importance to Londoners. It is telling that 20 out of 25 Assembly Members – from all parties – voted against their purchase earlier this year.”