November 11, 2010 9:03 am

Cameron condemns violence at student protest

David Cameron has condemned the violence that broke out at student protests and welcomed an investigation by Scotland Yard into its inadequate handling of the demonstration.

The comments from the prime minister, who watched the events unfold on television in Seoul, where he is attending the G20 summit, came as Britain’s most senior police officer described the violence as an “embarrassment” to London and the Metropolitan Police.

Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met Commissioner, will investigate why senior officers appeared not to have any forward intelligence about the intentions of a hardcore band of violent protesters who targeted the Conservative party headquarters in Whitehall.

The initial march of 50,000 students protesting against a rise in tuition fees was categorised by police as a low risk. A group of protesters broke away from the main demonstration, however, and smashed windows at the building housing Tory HQ, lit fires and threw missiles. Some stormed the building and managed to get on to the roof, where a fire extinguisher was thrown at police on the ground.

The police were forced to change their tactics on public order after last year’s G20 protests in London led to accusations of brutality against several officers. One man, a newspaper seller, died after he was shoved to the ground even though he was not involved in the protests and was walking away from officers.

The student protests have already raised the question among many officers about whether they have gone too far in adopting a “softly, softly” approach to policing protests. However, one former senior officer said a failure of intelligence was more to blame for Wednesday’s events. “These groups are usually all over the internet discussing plans so you’d have to ask why we were caught napping,” he said.

Sir Paul said: “I think we’ve also got to ask ourselves some questions. This level of violence was largely unexpected so what lessons can we learn for the future.”

Mr Cameron said the situation had been “extremely serious” and welcomed the decision to hold an inquiry.

“I could see a line, a thin blue line of extremely brave police officers, trying to hold back a bunch of people who were intent on violence and destruction . . . but as the police themselves have said, there weren’t enough of them.”

Police leaders have raised the prospect of a return to 1980s-style civil disorder on the streets of Britain as a result of the coalition government’s austerity measures. However, ministers have accused them of being “alarmist” as they seek to protect budgets, jobs and pay packages.

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