Douglas Hurd – 1985 Speech on Inner City Riots

Below is the text of the statement made by Douglas Hurd, the then Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 21 October 1985.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the recent disorders. During the past six weeks there have been three serious riots — in the Lozells road area of Birmingham, in Brixton, and Tottenham. Four people have died, one a police constable who was savagely killed. There have also been disorders in Liverpool, Leicester and Peckham in south London. Many police officers and others were injured. There were appalling attacks on the police with petrol bombs and other missiles, and especially in Birmingham and Brixton there was extensive looting of and attacks on shops and cars.

All responsible members of our society will condemn the disgraceful criminal behaviour which has occurred and all responsible members of our society will applaud the courage and dedication of the police in doing their job of maintaining and restoring order on the streets and the housing estates of our major cities. Public order is essential for the maintenance of a civilised way of life and for the safety of individual citizens—on that there can be no compromise. So far 700 people have been charged with offences arising from the disorders.

The riot in Brixton was triggered by the tragic shooting of Mrs. Groce, and the riot in Tottenham followed the death of Mrs. Jarrett after a search had been made at her home. These police operations are being investigated by senior officers from other police forces under the supervision of the independent Police Complaints Authority. These arrangements will ensure that they are fully investigated and that any necessary action is taken. In the case of the Lozells road riot, the chief constable of the west midlands is preparing a report which will be published. Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary is being associated closely with the preparation of that report.

So far as police operations are concerned, although the other disorders were serious enough, the riot at Tottenham stands out for the problems which it presented to the police. In that riot, a police officer was killed, firearms were used and the police had to face a ferocious barrage of petrol bombs and other missiles. The design of housing estates like that at Tottenham poses particular difficulties in such circumstances. The Metropolitan police commissioner is urgently reviewing the tactics of the force on such occasions. There must be no no-go areas in any of our cities.

The riot at Tottenham was the first occasion in Great Britain when the chief officer of police gave authority for plastic baton rounds to be used if necessary, though in fact they were not used. Plastic baton rounds and CS gas were made available to the police in Great Britain for public order use following the riots in 1981. They may be used only in the last resort, where conventional methods of policing have been tried and failed, or must from the nature of the circumstances be unlikely to succeed if tried, and where the chief officer judges such action necessary because of the risk of loss of life, serious injury or widespread destruction of property. That threshold was reached at Tottenham. The commissioner had my full support in making it clear that such weapons would be deployed if similar circumstances arose in the future.​

Other matters need to be looked at. The defensive equipment introduced in recent years—helmets, shields and protective overalls — proved its worth. Without it there would have been more serious casualties. The Metropolitan police are acquiring more shields and other defensive equipment. We have to consider whether any further equipment is required, and that is being done. There may be lessons to be learnt in relation to police training and deployment. The commissioner is pursuing these matters and I am in close touch with him. I shall ensure that any lessons learnt are disseminated nationally.

This Government have done more to meet the needs of the police than any in recent history. Since 1979 the Metropolitan police have increased in strength by nearly 4,500 officers; and other forces in England and Wales are stronger by a similar number. Including civilians, strength has increased by some 12,000. Even after a welcome intake of recruits, the Metropolitan police still have scope to increase strength by about 300 within its present establishment of 27,165. I support the commissioner in his efforts to make good this shortfall as quickly as possible. The force’s reorganisation should, in addition, release 200 officers for operational duties; and I have authorised an increase of nearly 50 in the civil staff ceiling next year for further civilianisation.

Following my predecessor’s announcement in July on drugs, I have told the commissioner that I am prepared in principle to agree to an increase of 50 officers in the establishment next year specifically to strengthen his efforts against drug trafficking. Taken together, these steps mean that there will be a substantial strengthening of the Metropolitan police in the months ahead. Beyond that I have set urgent work in hand to assess where there are specific needs for further increases in the Metropolitan police establishment, and I shall consider applications from provincial police authorities on the same basis—namely, that the police should have what they need in the fight against crime.

In recent years, much effort has been put into establishing good liaison and consultation between the police and the community in inner city areas, particularly, for example, in Brixton and Handsworth. These disorders must be—I know that they are—deeply depressing for those community leaders and police officers who have put so much effort into establishing a better understanding. But it would be wrong to assume that these efforts were misplaced. On the contrary, they must be continued and redoubled if the police are to protect and serve the community efficiently.

More broadly, the Government will continue their strong commitment to urban regeneration. The urban programme has more than tripled, from £93 million in 1978–79 to £338 million in 1985–86, and there has been substantial expenditure in all the riot areas. The Department of Employment and the Manpower Services Commission are spending more than £100 million in the partnership areas, and my Department plans to spend some £90 million in 1985–86 through section 11 grants.

We must ensure that the very substantial sums that now go, and will continue to go, to inner city areas are spent to the best advantage and directed to the real needs of the people who live there. The city action teams have been set up to improve the co-ordination and targeting of ​ Government programmes in the partnership areas. We shall do everything to ensure that our objectives in the inner city areas are achieved.

These disorders are shocking events. It is of paramount interest of us all, young and old, people of all ethnic backgrounds, that public order should be maintained. I acknowledge—we all acknowledge—the social problems which exist in these areas, but it is no solution to loot and burn shops which serve the area or to attack the police. Mob violence must be dealt with firmly and effectively and criminal acts punished according to the criminal law. The police should have the support of all of us in striving to maintain order and uphold the law. It is their first priority. It is the Government’s also.