Police at Wednesday's student protest in central London will be authorised to fire plastic bullets on protesters "in extreme circumstances" should there be any outbreaks of serious violence.
A statement from Scotland Yard last night said: "MPS officers are deployed to facilitate peaceful protests and that is the aim. There are a range of tactics available if there is criminality and violence associated with the event. One of these is the authority to deploy baton rounds in extreme circumstances."
Commander Simon Pountain, the man in charge of policing Wednesday's march, clarified what was meant by "extreme circumstances" to the BBC: "Should there be a situation where my officers are coming under significant and sustained attack, and there are no other options that I have available, I will make sure they are available".
However, the Scotland Yard statement went on the emphasise that not all officers policing the march will be armed with baton rounds, saying: "These are carried by a small number of trained officers and are not held and used by those officers policing the route on Wednesday".
Police were authorised to use plastic bullets during the August riots in England, but in the end, none were actually fired. Should any be fired tomorrow, this would be the first time they have been used on the British mainland. They were used by security forces in Northern Ireland from 1973 during the height of the Troubles, but proved controversial – 14 people, including seven children, died after being struck with the theoretically non-lethal bullets.
The Metropolitan Police fears that Wednesday's peaceful student march, organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and endorsed by the National Union of Students (NUS), could be hijacked by anarchists intent on repeating the violent disorder committed by a minority of hard-liners at previous student demonstrations in the capital last winter.
A statement on the NCAFC website condemned the Met's decision: "The statements, released at a press conference today, were not co-ordinated with us as the organisers of the demonstration – and are part of a deeply cynical attempt to pre-criminalise protest. It is irresponsible for the police to use press conferences to ramp up the fear of violence – which in any case has in the past come overwhelmingly from themselves – thereby increasing the likelihood of it taking place.
"Tactics such as kettling and horse charges have been used by the police before during November and December last year. They were brutal and inhumane, barely legal and counterproductive." The statement went on to stress that "there will almost certainly be school children on the November 9th protest, as well as numerous disabled activists."
Jenny Jones, the Green Party mayoral candidate in London and member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which oversees the work of the Met, described the prospect of the police shooting at "unarmed demonstrators" as "frankly appalling, and reminiscent of scenes currently being used by murderous dictatorships in the Middle East".
About 4,000 police officers, including 550 officers drafted in from other police forces, will be deployed on the route of the march. All police leave has been cancelled. The march on Wednesday is expected to attract up to 10,000 students. It will begin at noon at University College London in West London, and will finish up in the City. The route will not pass the Houses of Parliament, and has been specifically kept away from the St Paul's anti-capitalism protest, though protesters at the camp are expected to join in.