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Climate Protests in Cambridge: Police Response

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Rutley.)

I would not have asked for this Adjournment debate if I thought the issues arising from policing in Cambridge during the recent climate protests were of merely local interest, or related only to events in the past, but they are issues of national importance. Police forces across the country will have to grapple with them as the protests spread to other towns and cities, as they inevitably will. We have had London and Cambridge—where next? Far from being confined to the past, it seems to me that we are at the start of protests that are likely to escalate in frequency, duration and severity. There is widespread public anger about the events in Cambridge and deep concern among many of my fellow MPs. We have reached a situation in the UK where the police sometimes no longer believe that they have a right to stop blatant criminality during political protests. The issues raised by events in Cambridge need to be resolved. The powers of the police must be clarified, and the police must have the confidence to use them. Otherwise, we risk undermining the rule of law and even public support for the police.

On 16 February, Extinction Rebellion activists started a week of protests in Cambridge that initially involved a blockade of two major roads into Cambridge, preventing vehicles from getting in and out of the city and forcing ambulances carrying patients and other emergency vehicles to be re-routed. The blockade remained in place for a week. Blockading a road is an offence under section 137 of the Highways Act 1980, but the police did not uphold the law and open the roads. Instead, they used emergency powers to close the roads legally, thereby giving protection to the blockades. The police were usually present during the blockades, but to protect the activists from angry members of the public.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a key issue here is the role of the College of Policing, which actually stated that blocking the public highway was not unlawful? It instructed the police in that way. Does not this also link in with a recent case in which advice from the College of Policing led to a situation where Harry Miller was visited by police on his doorstep to question his thinking on societal issues? Is it not time for the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to look at the role of the College of Policing and the way in which it is unfortunately leading to skewed police priorities?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I shall come later to the issue of the advice from the College of Policing.

On 18 February, the protesters, armed with spades, dug up the lawn at Trinity College. They then proceeded to load soil into wheelbarrows and dump it in the foyer of Barclays bank—my branch of Barclays. Throughout this episode, Cambridgeshire police stood by and watched. They did not intervene to stop the criminal acts and no arrests were made at the time. The police said that they did not stop the criminal acts because they were concerned that to do so would be an infringement of the activists’ human rights. During the week, there were various acts of vandalism by activists, including at the iconic Schlumberger building and at a Shell petrol station. Subsequently, following public outrage and complaints from Trinity College, myself and Ministers, the police have arrested a total of nine activists.

The lack of police action against law-breaking protesters caused public fury across social media, the airwaves, the letters pages and my inbox. Virtually no one has argued that the police were right not to act. That public anger is very understandable. We rely on the police to uphold the rule of law, and not to let mob rule unfold. When those tasked with law enforcement appear to be unwilling or unable to intervene in flagrant criminal conduct, the public start to feel threatened. The public are also annoyed by the perceived double standard. Many said to me, “If I had blockaded the road or committed criminal damage, I’d be arrested on the spot. Why aren’t the protesters?” I want to put on record that I strongly support the ultimate objective of Extinction Rebellion in combating climate change, but I do not support its means.

Taking into consideration the fact that a number of my constituents attend Cambridge and study there at this time, I am sure that the hon. Member will share my concern that, at what should have been a peaceful expression of opinion, tensions were heightened deliberately by a few. Does he agree that now is the time for calm heads and cool words and that that must be the first line of defence when dealing with passionate young people?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said, my aim is not to inflame things, but to ensure that the police have clarity on their powers to act. I also strongly support the police, who I recognise are caught between a rock and a hard place. I know that fundamentally they want to uphold the law, but the guidance and interpretation can be confusing.

There are two questions that need answering: first, why did the police stand by as crimes were committed; and secondly, what can be done to ensure that they will uphold the law in future? I have met the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable of Cambridgeshire, who are now conducting a review of the lessons learned. It is not clear that the police would do anything differently if it happened again. They are sharing the learnings with other police forces across the country that are developing their own plans in case of similar protests. Cambridgeshire police have welcomed this Adjournment debate, as they hope it will help generate agreement on how they should respond in future. I know that, following the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, the Metropolitan police are also considering these issues with Home Office officials.

Having considered the arguments carefully and examined the relevant legislation and court judgments, I believe that none of the reasons for police inaction stands up to scrutiny. I contend that the police did have legal grounds to act even under existing legislation.

The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech. He and I were briefed at the end of last week, along with other Cambridgeshire MPs. I, too, was outraged by the digging up of the lawn, but does he agree that there was a danger of a much bigger reaction being stimulated in the city? The city is proud of its protests, but was that not a real dilemma that the police faced?

The hon. Gentleman is right; it was a dilemma. In fact, I was just coming to the pragmatic arguments before moving on to the legal arguments.

The police point out that after a week of protests, no one was physically harmed, the protests did not escalate and there was no irreparable damage. That is all true, but if that is the police criterion for action to stop a crime, they would rarely enforce the law. Thousands of people’s lives were disrupted and criminal damage was done.

The police have also said that Trinity College did not complain about the vandalism while it was taking place; it did so only later that evening. It was only after Trinity College lodged a complaint that the police made arrests. But the police would not stand by and watch a burglar rob a jewellery shop just because the owner was not there formally complaining about it.

Others have said—this relates to what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said—that the police should not arrest people because that would make them martyrs. Well, they have arrested some people, so will they become martyrs? Who knows, and actually what difference does it make? The martyr argument could be used to justify just about anything.

A far bigger and more realistic concern is that if activists know they can get away with breaking the law, the law breaking will escalate. They will do it again, and others will be tempted to join them. Many will be quite attracted to the idea of breaking the law in front of the police, making a mockery of them. Some will push the limits, committing ever greater crimes, until ultimately the police do stop them. In this situation, appeasement will just encourage more law breaking. The pragmatic arguments do not stand up.

We then come to the legal arguments. During the week of action, the police put out a video explaining why they were not acting to stop these crimes. It was based on their interpretation of the Human Rights Act 1998, as set out in guidance from the College of Policing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) referred earlier. Under article 11 of the European convention on human rights, enshrined in UK law through the Human Rights Act, people have the right to peaceful assembly. I am sure that all Members of this House support that right—indeed, if it was threatened, I would be out there protesting for the right to protest.

As the College of Policing guidance points out, those rights are qualified rights, and the police can impose restrictions on demonstrations under certain circumstances. Those restrictions must be prescribed by law, necessary and proportionate. The law that allows the police to impose restrictions on processions and assemblies is set out in sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. It gives the police powers if they believe that a procession or assembly may result in

“serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”,

or if they believe that

“the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others”.

The police believe that the Cambridge protests did not amount to “serious” disruption. I have been told that there is no case law on that, and that point was made by the police earlier. The Metropolitan police lost a judicial review following their imposition of restrictions on the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, but that was on an entirely different issue and is not relevant to this case. What I can say with certainty is that many members of the public feel the Cambridge protests caused them serious disruption and serious damage.

This also misses the point. On close scrutiny, the College of Policing guidance is poor, and the Cambridgeshire police interpretation of it is flawed. Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act are clearly not meant to deter the police from arresting people for committing other crimes. They give the police powers to impose a legal restriction on the location or size of an assembly or procession if they think serious disorder is likely to result from it. Sections 12 and 14 absolutely do not say the police cannot arrest people for committing a crime in front of their eyes, as happened at Trinity College—that is clearly not the intent of the legislation. Even when the police cannot legally ban or restrict a whole demonstration, they can still arrest demonstrators who commit criminal damage. Even if we accept that the criminal damage was not serious, it just means the police could not use section 14 of the Public Order Act to ban the assembly overall. It does not mean the police could not have arrested those digging up the Trinity College lawn.

When it comes to the blockade of the road, I believe the police could have used section 14 powers relating to assemblies, rather than processions. Section 14(1)(b) says the police can impose restrictions on an assembly if

“the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do”.

The intimidation does not have to be serious; it just needs to be the purpose of those organising the assembly. The very purpose of those blockading the Fen Causeway and Trumpington Street was to stop people travelling on them, which they had a right to do—at least, they had a legal right to do it until the police used their emergency powers to close the roads.

That clearly fits the description of intimidation under the Public Order Act. The purpose of the assembly was to intimidate the public in and around Cambridge to stop them using the roads, so the police had a right to impose a restriction on that assembly and to require that it be moved to a place that was not blocking the road. As the hon. Member for Cambridge knows, there are plenty of places in Cambridge where the protestors could have held their assembly without depriving people of their right to travel on the roads.

The police misinterpreted not only the Public Order Act but the European convention on human rights, which is explicit that the right to assembly does not give people the right to break the law or to deprive others of their rights or freedoms. Paragraph 2 of article 11 says:

“No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights”—

of assembly—

“other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”

There it is, in black and white.

The Human Rights Act itself says that that Act cannot be used to stop the police imposing legal restrictions on assemblies.

The hon. Member is making a powerful legalistic argument, but I put it to him that this is actually a political argument. There are many people in my constituency who think we face a climate emergency so serious that it justifies what would in normal times be considered extreme action. Does he understand how strongly people feel about this? The police have used these powers on the A14 diversions, and there has been less disruption for my constituents over the past few years than was suffered the other week.

I understand the passion, the urgency and the importance that people feel about climate change, but that does not justify breaking the law.

This is also clearly counterproductive. I have had lots of correspondence from my constituents, as perhaps the hon. Gentleman has had from his, saying that people cannot be won over to a cause by alienating them. If we want to make a political argument, I would say that Extinction Rebellion portrays itself as a fringe group with a fringe cause and actually undermines support for action on climate change. It must obey the law, which is the way to win people over.

I am close to finishing my legal arguments. The Human Rights Act also says that restrictions can be legally imposed on assemblies to prevent crime, as with the Trinity College lawn, or to protect the rights of others, as with the blockades.

In summary, there is nothing in law—in the Human Rights Act or in the Public Order Act—to stop the police upholding other laws.

The public are rightly angry that we have got ourselves into a position where the police believe that they cannot uphold criminal law. Why has this come about and what can be done about it? I believe the police fundamentally want to uphold the law but are beset by uncertainty, with one problem being that they get weak legal advice—that is the point my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) was making. Can something be done to improve the legal advice that police forces get and the advice from the College of Policing? The police are up against strong activist groups, which are often chasing them through the courts, always pushing to constrain the powers of the police, but no one is chasing the police through the courts to force them to uphold the law. Can the Government do something so that there is less one- sided pressure on the police?

I would like to ask the Minister whether the Home Office can undertake a public review to see what can be done to stop a repeat of the unfortunate events in Cambridge in other locations in the coming months and years. That might mean a change in the law, but, as I have said, I do not believe that is necessary. It would be good to have practical, deliverable proposals to help the police do their job. Never again should police feel they have to stand by and watch powerlessly as criminal acts take place. In future, the police must be able to do what they are employed to do: uphold the law.

I rise to support the sentiments expressed so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne). In doing so, I acknowledge that we face a conundrum. I believe that all Members in this House support the right to peaceful protest, and I do not think that anything said here today should diminish that right, but a balance needs to be struck, because certain pressure groups have extended that right to the point where they are abusing it. There is a danger that some of them are becoming a law unto themselves.

Speaking as a Member who represents a constituency within the boundaries of Greater London, I can say that London has had more than its fair share of this. Last year, in the first Extinction Rebellion protest, we saw a wholesale attempt to shut down the city of London, including major transport hubs. That had several impacts, which were all deliberately intended. The first was impact on the police themselves. I have spoken to my local borough commander, and he tells me that they had to extract an entire shift, one of the three they have, to send it to central London to provide cover and bolster the support provided simply to contain the level of protest. That has a knock-on effect back in the boroughs: they are unable to respond as speedily as they would otherwise; the watches they have on duty are massively overstretched; and local residents get a much worse service. The implication of that is a danger of crime spikes, and people’s safety goes down significantly.

There is also an impact on the emergency services. In the areas where the protests were taking place ambulances were unable to get through, despite being on blue-light calls—that is scandalous. There was a huge economic impact in London. The cost of the protest just in terms of policing was in excess of £40 million. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire has said, there are dangers of this escalating. Just yesterday, people from Greenpeace took it upon themselves to superglue shut the doors of 85 Barclays bank branches and hammer nails into those doors to prevent them from being opened. That was on the first day of the month, so it had a big impact, not only on private customers but on business. Greenpeace is not known for that kind of direct action, so it is clearly an escalation based on what it saw Extinction Rebellion getting away with at the end of last year.

On a more sinister level is the escalation in reaction against these protests. When the police are standing by and being seen not to enforce the law, there is a great danger that local citizens will take it upon themselves to do so. We saw a clear example—it can still be seen on social media now—of what happened when Extinction Rebellion decided to stop people commuting in Canning Town. A protestor marching along the roof of a train was dragged off quite violently and received a kicking on the platform, apparently to the cheering applause of the people standing around. That is sinister. If that starts to happen and to get public approval, the danger is that this will become very significant. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) expressed the danger of what happens when hotheads take control; I have set out an example of what can happen, and it can only get worse.

Order. Just before the hon. Member intervenes, I remind everybody that the topic of the debate is the police response to climate protests in Cambridge. May we please ensure that we home in on that?

The hon. Gentleman has been careful in what he is saying, because it is about balance and respecting other people. Those who protest have to respect those they inconvenience.

I entirely agree; that sentiment should be shared completely. I come back to my opening remark about the right to peaceful protest: that needs to be respected on all sides, including by the protesters themselves. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire elucidated very eloquently, they have to respect the rights of other people. When they seek to trample on those rights, they increase the danger of escalation.

There is a problem for the police that is partly down to the state of the law. They are able to prohibit public processions such as marches—we have seen the cancellation by the police of proposed far-right marches because they felt that public safety could not be guaranteed—but that aspect of the Public Order Act 1986 does not extend to people who stay put somewhere, which relates to the right to assembly. Such people do not have to give six days’ notice and do not have to declare where they are going to be. That is a weakness. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner—the most senior police officer in the country—has asked for the 1986 Act to be amended to take that into account, and that suggestion has been supported by Nick Ferrari on his LBC show, with his Enough Is Enough campaign. There is some merit in that position and I call on the Government to pay attention to it.

Another thing is required: over many years now, the police have tried to do a very difficult job without feeling that they have the political top cover to do it. There are myriad things—I could go off into all sorts of different examples of the failings of the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the risks that police officers have to run on a daily basis, but that would take us well off topic, so I shall not. In conjunction with the Government’s looking at the 1986 Act, there needs to be a quid pro quo: the police need to be provided with political top cover, but in exchange we need the police to stand up and do their job, which is to enforce the law without fear or favour.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) to his place. I am delighted to see him in the House, as a much improved representative for South Cambridgeshire. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on the campaigning that he has already done, on this issue and others, in the few weeks since he was elected.

I entirely understand and appreciate that many Members are deeply concerned about the activities of Extinction Rebellion. Indeed, I seem to recall that in the previous Session, Extinction Rebellion protestors glued themselves to the glass screen in the Public Gallery while not wearing any clothes, which was an extremely disconcerting sight. I am glad that the House’s business proceeded uninterrupted and unimpeded during that episode.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire said in his excellent speech, many of us—all of us, I am sure—understand and sympathise with the environmental issues being raised. No Government are doing more than this one to make sure that environmental concerns are being met. The United Kingdom has significantly reduced its CO2 emissions, and I am proud that under this Government coal-fired power generation is now almost at zero, unlike in many other countries around the world, including Germany.

Strong points have been made about the law needing to be enforced, but the Government are continually dragged through the courts for failing to meet their air quality responsibilities, so when are we going to see Ministers pursued by the police to tackle the climate emergency? There cannot be one law for one set of people; surely it has to be the same law for everybody.

The Government have an extremely proud record on climate change. As I have just said, we have been reducing our CO2 emissions and have virtually eliminated coal-fired power stations. There is scope to do more, though, and the Environment Bill will again be before the House shortly, and it contains further measures, including on clean air, which I am extremely interested in as a London MP.

The country can be proud of its record on climate change and the Government will continue to do more. Moreover, the Government fully recognise, respect and embrace the right to peaceful protest. A free society is built on the foundations of free speech and free protest, and the Government will never do anything to impede the public’s right to express their views. Indeed, we have seen that outside, in Parliament Square, on quite a frequent basis over the past year—sometimes quite noisily.

The Government are also clear that although we fully respect the right to peaceful protest, that does not extend, under any circumstances, to criminal behaviour. Some of the remarks that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) made during his intervention a little earlier this afternoon seemed to come dangerously close to excusing criminal behaviour just because an issue is important. Let me reiterate: there is no excuse for criminal behaviour. It does not persuade the public of anything. In fact, it has the reverse effect, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire said in his speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr Bacon) said that, in fact, it risks vigilante behaviour by the public, which simply inflames the situation further. There is no excuse, under any circumstances, for this kind of criminal behaviour. The Government have an expectation that the police will always take action where criminal activity is under way. There would need to be an extremely good reason for them not to do so.

I am flabbergasted. Frankly, the Minister should know that crime has been taking place across the country, with criminals walking into shops and stealing goods, and it has been reported to the police on a daily basis and nothing has been done under this Government. Why is it not the same law for everybody?

Clearly, a crime happening in front of the police is different from a crime being reported to the police. Obviously, every crime is investigated. Speaking from memory, some tens of thousands of people are prosecuted for theft and burglary every year. Of course, one reason why we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers is to make sure that crimes can be even more thoroughly investigated than they are already. None the less, there is an expectation that the police will take action in relation to all crimes that they are aware of, particularly when the police have direct evidence in front of them that a crime is taking place.

In relation to the Trinity College incident, although arrests were not made immediately, subsequently, as one Member said, three protesters were arrested and charged with criminal damage. They have been released on bail and will appear at Cambridge magistrates court on 30 March. In relation to the incident at the Schlumberger oil service facility, a total of five people were arrested and charged with offences, including criminal damage, and again they will appear at Cambridge magistrates court on 30 March. In relation to the episode at the Shell petrol station, five arrests were made and four people were subsequently charged. The fact that people were arrested and charged is something that we can be pleased about.

Does the Minister agree that there appears to be an issue with the College of Policing? On many occasions, including on this one and also in the case of Harry Miller, the advice that it gives to the police is leading to skewed priorities for police forces.

That is something that is always kept under careful review. My colleague, the Minister for Crime, Police and the Fire Service, is, unfortunately, at a conference this afternoon so cannot attend this debate, but I will ask him to write to my hon. Friend on that question. Perhaps the best thing is for him to write to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire on this College of Policing question, just to explore it a little further.

In relation to police powers, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, we have listened to police concerns regarding the challenges that they face managing protests. They have indicated that existing protest legislation can, in some places, be cumbersome, so Home Office officials have been working closely with senior Met officers and national policing leads to understand how we can make the existing public order legislation more effective if needed. That is ongoing at the moment.

In conclusion, we fully respect the right to peaceful protest. It is the foundation of our democracy, but that right does not include committing criminal acts, and we do expect the police to uphold the law. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire for bringing this matter to the House’s attention.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.