UK prime minister calls for urgent inquiry into student riot

Questions about why only 225 police officers were on duty as protest of tuition hikes spirals into a four-hour standoff in which the Conservative Party's headquarters were damaged.

LONDON // The British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday backed an urgent inquiry into a riot by students that led to tens of thousands of pounds in damage to a prestigious London office block.

Police were assaulted in the riot that started after a peaceful demonstration by more than 50,000 students turned violent on Wednesday afternoon.

A key part of the inquiry will look at why only 225 police officers were on duty to marshal the protest march through London - a decision that the capital's police chief admitted yesterday was "an embarrassment".

Mr Cameron, in Seoul for the G20 summit, called on "the full force of the law" to be brought to bear on the rioters, who were taking part in a protest march against the coalition government's decision to raise the cap on tuition fees for university students from its current £3,200 (Dh18,950) to £9,000 a year.

Mr Cameron said the students had a right to protest but that "violence and lawbreaking" would not go unpunished.

"People long in our history have gone to marches and held banners and made protests and made speeches, and that's part of our democracy. That is right," he said in an ITV interview.

"What is not part of our democracy is that sort of violence and lawbreaking. It's not right. It's not acceptable, and I hope that the full force of the law will be used."

Fourteen people were injured, including seven police officers, when dozens of activists stormed the Millbank tower block in Westminster housing the headquarters of the Conservative Party, which Mr Cameron leads.

Protesters in the building smashed windows and furniture, daubed walls with graffiti and hurled projectiles from windows at police below.

It was late into Wednesday evening, more than four hours after the trouble broke out, that police reinforcements in riot gear were able to restore order, arresting more than 50 people.

Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, described the riot as "an embarrassment to London and to us" as he apologised to workers in the tower block for the inadequate policing of the march.

He said that the police had been caught off guard because there was "no real history" of such a level of violence during student protests in London.

"I think we've also got to ask ourselves some questions. This level of violence was largely unexpected and what lessons can we learn for the future. We are already doing that and asking those questions," Sir Paul said. "Certainly I am determined to have a thorough investigation into this matter."

Mr Cameron agreed that police had lessons to learn on how they handled the protest. "They were very brave, those police officers but, as the police themselves have said, there weren't enough of them and the police response needs to reflect that," said the prime minister.

"So I'm very glad that the Metropolitan Police commissioner has said what he said, and I think we need to learn the lessons very rapidly."

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, which organised the march, described the violence as "despicable" and counterproductive.

He told the BBC that the march had been "hijacked" by a small number of troublemakers, adding: "What we had done was assemble 50,000 students, which I'm sure would have got a hell of a lot of attention and would have sent a clear message to government.

"But if we're now having to spend time talking about the rights and wrongs of violence and criminal damage, in many respects I think it undermines our argument, rather than allows us to concentrate on the devastation to our universities and colleges, and the huge cuts to what students will be receiving.

"I think we have to accept that we have lost a lot of public sympathy and, actually, that does undermine our case."