The Mayor of London says he saved taxpayers millions by buying three German water cannon – but the Home Secretary says difficult issues around their use still “need to be considered properly.”
Mr Johnson has spent £90,000 on second-hand appliances used by the German police, and another £40,000 will be spent transporting them and refitting them for use by Scotland Yard.
The Mayor’s office said it had saved millions by buying the German machines now rather than waiting for a final decision by Theresa May, but critics say Mr Johnson has acted recklessly and failed to listen to evidence on the effectiveness of water cannon.
Speaking to reporters, Mrs May said the Metropolitan Police had started talking about water cannon after the August 2011 riots, but had only submitted their case to the Home Office for approving their use in March 2014. Mrs May added “I will be taking a decision, but I will be taking it on the right basis – there are difficult issues here, health and safety issues, that need to be considered properly.”
This is something I know is supported by the Prime Minister… we’re going to get on and do it Boris Johnson, London Mayor
A spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime said the German authorities had threatened to sell the cannons elsewhere if the deal was not done by July.
She added: “In order to secure them the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime has authorised the Met to proceed with procurement.
“Before they could be deployed here, the vehicles need modifications in order to make them suitable for use in London. By purchasing them now we are able to save over £2.3 million compared to buying new devices and ensure that they are ready as quickly as possible, subject to the Home Secretary authorising their use.”
Speaking during questions at London’s City Hall, Boris Johnson said his decision to buy the vehicles was not designed to put pressure on the Home Secretary, and described the idea that Mrs May might decline to approve their use as “highly unlikely”.
The London mayor dismissed suggestions that the decision to buy them was part of a proxy war between him and Mrs May as “absolutely nonsensical”, adding “this is something I know is supported by the Prime Minister, it is something I know is supported by people across politics, and we’re going to get on and do it.”
Mr Johnson also repeated an earlier pledge that he would be willing to test a water cannon from the point of view of a protester.
Water cannon have never been used on the British mainland, although they have been deployed in Northern Ireland.
But the Metropolitan Police concluded there could be a limited role for the tactic in the wake of the 2011 riots.
If they are licensed by Mrs May, an independent ethics panel, headed by barrister Lord Carlile, will look at when water cannon should be used. The Home Secretary has already ruled out providing central government funding.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are keen to ensure that the police have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets.
“Chief Constable David Shaw, as the national policing lead, has written formally to the Home Secretary to request that water cannon be authorised for use by the police in England and Wales.
“The Home Secretary is considering his request.”
Mrs May told reporters today that the Met had not submitted its case for water cannons to the Home Office until March this year, adding: “I will be taking a decision but I will be taking it on the right basis. There are difficult issues here – health and safety issues – that need to be considered properly.”
A Scotland Yard spokesman added: “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.
“Following learning from the riots of 2011 the Metropolitan Police requested that water cannon be made available to address a gap in public order tactics, allowing us to more effectively and safely tackle the most extreme disorder.
“We believe that as a tactic they would be rarely seen and rarely used on our streets.”
There is no evidence to defend the provision of water cannon in London. Caroline Pidgeon
Joanne McCartney, Labour’s police and crime spokeswoman on the London 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.”
Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat leader on the London Assembly, said: “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.”