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What are the Implications of Introducing Water Cannons to the Met?

Boris Johnson – a bit of a Marmite character – love him or hate him, yesterday his decisions to introduce water cannons to London’s streets were met with serious criticism, particularly as he had failed to read the report prior to the meeting at London’s City Hall.

It was the third Question Time of 2014 and Budget Day, a day when the UK government presents its intentions for budget spends to a legislature and seeks approval.

Regarding this, Mr Johnson was outnumbered when the issue of whether to fund water cannons was brought up.

He ignored the concerns of his Assembly and relied on suggestions from London’s Met Police force to instead prepare a proposal to put forward to Home Secretary, Theresa May.

Although Mr Johnson’s position as Mayor of London grants him a certain level of interference within London’s Met Police Office, in reality, he only provides them with their annual budget and list of priorities.

Therefore, he is not actually in charge of Police actions, so it would be up to the Home Secretary to decide whether it is necessary to introduce water cannons as a means of Police controlling protestors during serious bouts of public disorder.

The water cannons prove controversial as they can be dangerous if people come into direct contact with them, and they raise various human rights issues, as Labour MP Andrew Dismore suggested. The introduction could curb our freedom of expression through intimidation.

Furthermore, despite Mr Johnson’s protestations that the water cannons would be employed only in specialist circumstances, i.e. severely unmanageable situations, Mr Dismore claims: “If you’ve got [the tools], the temptation is there to use them”.

He says: “It will be an operational decision and not a political one”, so in fact if the water cannons were to be introduced, Mr Johnson would actually have very little or no authority to control their usage. In other words, it would be up to the Met to decide how and when the water cannons would be used.

Labour MP Jeanette Arnold revealed: “60% of Londoners are happy with what the Met are doing now” and that it seemed unnecessary to introduce such extreme (and expensive) methods when they were not widely believed to be useful.

She also concluded: “Water cannons are useless with fast-moving riots”.

Concerns over dealing with violent demonstrations have increased since the 2011 London riots, when the Met Police were outnumbered and struggled to control attacks throughout the city, largely because of the speed at which these protests were organised.

Furthermore, water cannons are expensive, with groups of three provisional ones costing up to £200,000 and new models estimated at around £600,000 to £1 million each. [1]

The Assembly urged the Mayor not to incur any expenditure on water cannons in 2014/2015.

However, Mr Johnson persists that he acts as a spokesman for the Police, as he has been advised by the Met Head Office to put forward the motion.

But Conservative MP Tony Arbour said: “The police were not unanimous on this matter. They did not all accept the content of the report. If there is a way in which Londoners can be guaranteed protection, then I feel we are failing that… The risks and costs in a single day of rioting are less than the cost of introducing the water cannons. Our responsibility is not vitiated.”

There was great disappointment among Assembly members as Mr Johnson remains determined to purchase water cannons to satisfy the senior Met’s demands.

However, most concerning was the fact that Mr Johnson was making such decisions without even consulting the latest report about the water cannons, assembled by London’s Police and Crime Committee and presented to him by the Assembly.

Many felt that by not reading the prepared report, Mr Johnson was failing to comply with his statutory duty, leading few to question whether he was fit to run as the Mayor of London.

Amongst the bickering and inarticulacy of MPs as they disputed the motion, it emerged that Mr Johnson’s prime concern with water cannons was the effect they would have on public property, not considering their effect on public support.

Other alternatives to control public disorder were offered in the form of SmartInk and Sound cannons (which were used effectively during London’s 2012 Olympics), yet Mr Johnson’s limited knowledge of either topic due to lack of preparation, meant the discussion was cut short.

Green MP Jenny Jones said: “The Mayor failed in his duty to consider the views of London, in favour of prioritising wholesale rates of the Met.”

She criticized him for authorising Met support, and expanded by saying: “Police do not need any extra tools for their so-called-toolboxes.”

Her comments and that of the other Assembly members encouraged Londoners to engage further in the local community and share their intelligence surrounding local crimes and violence, as this is also an alternative to the introduction of extremist methods.

There were also fears that if water cannons could be introduced into our society, what extreme measure would we turn to next?

Despite Mr Johnson’s inaccuracies and jokey behaviour, as Lib-Dem MP Caroline Pidgeon said: “Once the water canon is introduced, it cannot be reversed.”

If Mr Johnson succeeds in changing London’s method of policing, without regards to the safety and opinion of Londoners, he is at risk of losing his public support.

Throughout the discussions, Mr Johnson failed to mention the petitions currently circulating in public against the introduction of water cannons. When he presented his case in front of Theresa May, he did not mention the 50,000+ signatures collected against this motion.

Labour MP Joanna McCartney stated that these signatures will be presented to Ms May, but also said: “Knowledge on water cannons is debatable in the general public.” It is unsure whether there is enough coverage of the motion for people to truly understand what is at stake.

The worry is that Mr Johnson’s ill-informed opinion is endangering our democracy as he is not suitably fulfilling his role as elected Mayor of London, if he does not even read the report sent to him concerning the leading topic of discussion before Question Time.

Labour MP Valerie Shawcross said: “It is important to recognise the dangers of ‘yes-man’ politics, as otherwise it can lead to bad management.”

And this is a worry with Boris Johnson – a Marmite character – you want him to know the ins and outs of the motion before he changes our method of policing on the streets of London forever.

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