Home Secretary Theresa May has blocked the use of water cannon by London’s Metropolitan Police.
Oversight of the Met is devolved to City Hall via the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), however the deployment and use of water cannon on the UK mainland requires the Home Secretary’s permission.
In June 2014 MOPAC decided to buy three cannon from the German federal police before receiving Mrs May’s go-ahead and despite opposition from a majority of the London Assembly, including some Conservative members.
Assembly Members warn that the use of the cannon would change the nature of policing in the capital and have expressed concern over contradictory answers on whether Scotland Yard or the Mayor would have the final say over their deployment.
Mayor Boris Johnson and Scotland Yard have repeatedly vowed the vehicles would be “rarely seen and rarely used” but, despite insisting they’re an essential tool in the force’s ability to maintain public order, have been unable to give examples of which past incidents they would have been deployed to tackle.
Despite MOPAC initially suggesting the cannon would be available to officers from last summer, the vehicles have sat unused while Mrs May commissioned and considered a report into the safety implications of their use.
In March it emerged the Home Office had deferred a decision on whether to approve the cannon until after this year’s General Election, prompting accusations that Mr Johnson had wasted “vital” police funds on the cannon.
Speaking in the Commons, the Home Secretary said the assessment raised concerns that the cannon could cause “primary, secondary and tertiary” injuries to those they’re used against.
Mrs May also questioned the operational flexibility of the vehicles and said she was “acutely aware” of the potential for them to damage police relationships with the communities they serve.
MPs heard that, despite the work carried out on the Met’s cannon, a check of the vehicles had revealed “67 significant issues” which would still need to be addressed before they could be used.
The Home Secretary also said the advice she’d received “made clear that water cannon has limitations, especially in response to fast, agile disorder.
“This has been borne out by further discussion with chief constables, who raised the possibility that the vehicles may serve to attract crowds to a vulnerable location and noted that evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the deployment of water cannon usually requires significant advance notice – casting doubt on their utility in a riot scenario.”
“I remain unconvinced as to the operability of the machines under consideration. They are 25 years-old and have required significant alterations and repairs to meet the necessary standards.”
Speaking in the Commons Mr Johnson, who is also an MP in addition to serving as Mayor, defended the purchase which he said was made it the cause of “economy” because buying the 25-year old vehicles was cheaper than purchasing new cannon. He stressed the MOPAC’s decision had the “strong support of the Commissioner.”
Caroline Pidgeon, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the London Assembly, said the Home Secretary had made “a wise decision” and called on the Mayor “to apologise to London taxpayers for his foolish and costly actions.”
She added: “After carefully examining the evidence the Home Secretary has made a wise decision. Water cannon run the risk of innocent people being injured and would certainly undermine policing by public consent.”
Labour’s policing spokesperson, Joanne McCartney AM, said: “Water cannon are dangerous and bluntly indiscriminate weapons which have no place on the streets of our capital city.
“Boris Johnson’s militant posturing has already meant hundreds of thousands of pounds wasted on these now defunct weapons. It’s time for the Mayor to accept defeat and to sell off the water cannon before yet more money is unnecessarily spent on their upkeep.”
She added: “Refusing to give up the water cannon would show the Mayor is more interested in fighting with the Home Secretary than he in is taking London’s real policing needs seriously.”
Green Party AM Baroness Jenny Jones called on the Mayor to “sack” Stephen Greenhalgh, London’s deputy mayor for Policing, who she said had “ignored the 67 faults identified by the Home Secretary and the impacts these machines would have on policing by consent.”
“It was a rushed decision by the Mayor of London, badly made without any consensus that the machines were needed. He should not have spent the money on the water cannon, the expensive training and their adaptation.
“He bought second hand machines that the Germans no longer wanted because they were no longer considered safe.”