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Injunction to Protect the M25

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 22 September 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about protests.

There is widespread anger throughout the country about the disruption, danger and misery that so-called climate protesters have caused with their selfish actions. On 13, 15, and 17 September, a group called Insulate Britain staged co-ordinated sit-down protests on the M25, leading to major traffic delays. They also targeted the wider road network—namely, the M1, M3 and M11. Dealing with that involved Surrey police, Essex police, Thames Valley police, Hertfordshire constabulary, Kent police, and the Metropolitan police as the lead force. A total of 241 arrests were made across those three days.

On Monday, those groups attempted to block the carriageway at junction 1A of the M25 in Kent, the M25 in Hertfordshire and junction 4 of the A1. Hertfordshire constabulary was present at both scenes and made 29 arrests. Yesterday, protesters blocked both M25 carriageways between junction 9 and junction 10. Surrey police arrived on the scene within three minutes and officers cleared the carriageway quickly. It is clear that police response times have improved significantly following the first two days of protests. The affected forces have dedicated significant resources to spotting protesters and removing them quickly.

Protest is a right, but it must be balanced against the rights of others to go about their daily lives. The right to protest is not unqualified and does not include a right to endanger others, to intimidate people or to break the law. The events of recent days have crossed this line. As anyone should know, sitting in the road is extremely dangerous, both to themselves and to others. Delays caused by protests between 13 and 17 September have cost drivers in excess of £500,000. This figure does not take into account the knock-on effect for the local road network, for manufacturing businesses or for those who missed their connections at ports. Previous actions of Extinction Rebellion, of which I understand Insulate Britain is an offshoot, have cost the taxpayer £50 million and diverted valuable police resources. We have all heard the heart-breaking stories about people not getting the medical treatment they needed, and seen people standing by their cars crying in frustration at this appallingly stupid and selfish behaviour. We have all had enough.

The Government have been working hard to address these concerns. The Home Secretary and I are in constant contact with the police, and we have been crystal clear in our support for their robust and swift enforcement of the law. There is absolutely no excuse for this selfish and disruptive behaviour. The irony is that it actually undermines the cause of climate change, as well as creating more traffic and pollution. These protesters live in a free country where they can lobby politicians, stand for election and boot us out of office if they do not like what we do. There is now widespread agreement in this House and across the political spectrum that climate change demands major action. In November, the UK will host a huge international conference where we will discuss and debate these very issues. But we do not change policies or make law in this country through mob rule or being held to ransom, and these people should not suppose for one moment that the public are with them.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is under consideration in the other place, contains proportionate measures better to enable the police to deal with disruptive protests. By putting public nuisance on to a statutory footing, as recommended by the independent Law Commission, we will increase the powers available to the police for dealing with this sort of protest. However, the disruption to our transport network is now so harmful and dangerous that we need to take swift action. The Home Office and the Department for Transport have been working closely with National Highways to keep the situation under review and explore options for enabling the police to take a more robust approach.

With our full support, National Highways has now won an interim injunction to prevent protesters from occupying the M25. As colleagues will know, an injunction is a judicial order, made in this case by the High Court, that can require someone either to do something or to refrain from doing something. This injunction prohibits people from blocking, endangering, slowing down, obstructing or otherwise preventing the free flow of traffic on the M25. If a person breaches the injunction, or if they encourage or help others to do so, they will be held in contempt of court and may be imprisoned or fined. The fine is unlimited. This should act as a major deterrent, and it recognises that this law breaking is serious, with consequences that match the offending.

The police should be fighting crime in our neighbourhoods, not chasing activists across busy motorways. That is why we have taken this action now, and we are working with National Highways on obtaining a full injunction later this week.

This is a free country but that freedom, particularly to assemble, to speak out and to protest, does not come without responsibilities to respect the rights of others and the democratic process. The British people expect us to make decisions in a civilised, democratic manner, and they expect that those who seek to bully or blackmail are sent packing, so it is with some pleasure that I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it.

Tackling climate change is the single greatest challenge of our generation, and I trust the Minister agrees with me that it must be at the heart of everything we do. We are at a critical moment. In less than 100 days, COP26 will be over and our chance to keep the planet’s warming below 1.5° will have been either grasped or abandoned.

Climate protests range from blocking roads to shutting down transport networks in London, with protesters gluing themselves to cars and roads. These are often very dangerous tactics that require a very particular police response. The police have been in an incredibly difficult position, and they have at times faced criticism on various fronts. Yesterday, as the Minister said, we saw Surrey police arrive on the scene just minutes after the first call, clearing both carriageways incredibly swiftly.

Labour is clear that the right to protest is a fundamental freedom and a hard-won democratic tradition of which we are deeply proud. The right to protest is precious, but we must always be clear that protests have to be lawful. Where they are unlawful, we back the police on the frontline to make the best operational judgment on how to deal with the issues as they arise on the ground. Our police are not helped by armchair critics of their tactics. We know that the police are having to take dynamic decisions in often dangerous circumstances, and I pay tribute to them in the House today.

Anyone who has seen the footage from over the weekend of officers having to follow protesters who were rushing on to the motorway in an attempt to keep both them and drivers safe will recognise the bravery required. There is clearly an issue when people, who can be held for only 24 hours, then return to our motorways, so action is required to assist our police in that respect.

This injunction has now been granted to National Highways by an independent judge, and people are committing a contempt of court and face possible imprisonment if they breach it. I urge people not to breach the injunction and instead to make their views known lawfully in all the ways outlined by the Minister. That said, I look to him to tell us what resources will be made available to support the police to make additional arrests, if required.

I hope we can agree that insulation must be a focus of this Government’s agenda as we move towards this existential crisis. Although we agree on the need to ensure protesters, motorists and police officers are safe, the Government must do all they can to drive climate change up the agenda, and on that we will hold them to account.

I thank the hon. Lady for her unequivocal support for the police, which we do not always hear in this House. I am grateful to her for that. It is undoubtedly the case that the police forces affected have had to move extremely quickly to deal with these guerrilla tactics, and we are grateful to all the police officers, as always, for often putting themselves in harm’s way.

I am also pleased to hear the hon. Lady recognise that the right to protest is not an unqualified right. We all treasure it, and we all know that great advances have been made in our society because of it, but it has to be done within a framework of respecting the rights of others, and I hope we are encapsulating a better balance in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that is currently in the other place. I hope she will review her party’s opposition to the Bill and possibly support it when it returns to this Chamber.

Finally, I hope the hon. Lady shares my extreme frustration at the damage such protests do to the cause of fighting climate change. For my own part, I have been an advocate of the hydrogen economy for well over 20 years. I chaired Hydrogen London for eight years and I fought tooth and nail to equip London with the means to transition from a combustion economy to one driven by electrochemistry. For those of us who have been at that coalface for many years, it is extremely disheartening to see people screaming in frustration and filled with negativity about the notion of climate change being a battle that we still have to win, but it also holds out an exciting future for our country.

I am pleased that we have consensus on both sides of the House and, as we deal with these protests, I hope that we can count on that consensus in the future.

The real tragedy of these morons on the motorway is that they set back the cause of advancing decarbonisation in the transport system and they put lives at risk. I welcome the Minister’s robust statement. In the event that these injunctions are not successful, will he consider legislation that perhaps links the fines to the economic damage that is caused? Will more action be taken by this House, if needed?

My hon. Friend is right to point to the damage that these protesters are doing, not least because we are learning that many of the leading characters in these protests operate on a “Do as I say, not as I do” basis. Strangely, we are all in the debt of Richard Madeley, who spoke for Britain when he interviewed some of these activists over the past few days.

On legislation, I know that my hon. Friend will be an enthusiastic supporter of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill when it returns to the House, not least because it puts public nuisance on a statutory footing. The maximum penalty that can be handed out by the courts for offences that meet the threshold will be 10 years, which will hopefully close this loophole. In the meantime, let us hope the injunction works.

There is an important right to peaceful protest in this country, but running on to motorways is just dangerous. It puts lives at risk, so the police and the courts are right to take action to keep people safe. Given the importance of COP26 and action against climate change, and given the strong feelings across the country, what action is being taken to make sure that there can be legitimate, safe and peaceful protests or demonstrations around COP26 so that lives are not put at risk and we do not see such dangerous behaviour?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee for her unequivocal support for the police and the action that has been taken. She is right that we need to do significant work to enable those who wish to make their voice heard during COP26. As she knows, there will be a significant public order operation around that event, part of which will be liaison with the protest organisers to ensure that their protest takes place safely. We have protests across the United Kingdom every single day, and the vast majority do take place safely. That requires a sense of responsibility from the protesters, recognising that the rest of us have a right to go about our lives unmolested by them while they raise the issues that they seek to highlight. I am glad that she mentioned COP26, at which we will bring the world to this nation and exhibit our ambition for the future, as well as urging others to do more.

I congratulate the Government and National Highways on taking this action. It is vital that we nip this in the bud. These people are dangerous, and the consequences are not necessarily for those who can see them. Drivers who are miles back when the traffic comes to an instant halt could well face death or injury. Keep up the good work, crack down on this and let people demonstrate safely, but not on our roads.

My hon. Friend speaks with his usual wisdom on this issue. The knock-on consequences of such traffic obstruction are economic but also emotional. We have seen heartrending stories of people who have been unable to attend to sick or elderly relatives in hospital or who have been prevented from, who knows, getting to job interviews that might have clinched a bright future. All sorts of impacts are brought to bear by this kind of selfish protest. At the same time, the great sadness is that it diminishes, not enhances, enthusiasm for the cause that these protesters seemingly want to promote but are, by their actions, damaging.

First, let me express my support for every police officer who helps to keep us safe and keep public order—their safety is essential. However, I also understand the side of the protesters, who really feel that climate change is a threat to their future. We must make sure that the fundamental right to protest and of assembly is protected. I worry that injunctions such as this will serve to pit the police against protesters. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that this injunction does not undermine the principle of policing by consent?

I had hoped that we would reach a consensus across the House. I know that the possibly relatively small number of Liberal Democrat supporters who were sitting in those traffic jams will have been disappointed by the hon. Lady’s question. This injunction was granted by an independent judiciary; it was a case put before them by National Highways that these protesters were causing significant danger, to not only themselves, but other motorists. On that basis, the interim injunction was granted. We will be seeking a final injunction later this week, when the wider case will be heard. That is the way we do things in this country—by the rule of law and democratic process. We do not do this by being bullied, held to ransom and blackmailed, and we certainly do not do it by putting innocent men and women who are just on their way to work, going about their business, to enormous inconvenience, misery and often, sadly, injury.

I commend the Minister for his statement and warmly applaud the action he is taking against these eco-maniacs. There is no greater supporter of the police than I, but I have been disturbed at how long it has taken them to remove some of these protesters, especially in the early protests. I thought it was already an offence to block the Queen’s highway, and I would not want it to be put about that these protesters can be moved only if an injunction is in place, not least because this injunction covers just the M25—just the National Highways network around London—and it does not cover local roads in Northamptonshire, for example. So may we have an assurance from the Policing Minister that if these eco-maniacs seek to block more local roads, which in many cases can be just as busy as the M25, the police will take urgent and robust action to remove them from the highway?

My hon. Friend is right to say that this type of protest has caused significant concern across the country for many people who rely on the roads for their livelihoods and to get around. As I say, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will strengthen police powers to deal with this issue. There is an offence of blocking the highway at the moment, which the police are using to remove those protesters faster and faster. I am very grateful to those forces that have upped their game over the past few days, to the extent that Surrey police arrived within three minutes of the most recent blockage. Unfortunately, however, the penalty that attaches to that offence is quite weak—it is a level 3 fine, which is up to £1,000. The one thing we know about these groups is that they are well-financed, and this penalty is not proving to be enough of a deterrent. We hope that the injunction, the breach of which carries an unlimited fine and possibly up to two years in prison, will give us the deterrent we need while we wait for that legislation to appear.

I concur with the view that this behaviour is grossly dangerous and irresponsible, and I hope that these people will come to their senses. I understand the claim is that the purpose is to demonstrate their support for home insulation programmes. May I suggest to the Minister that he considers ensuring that those who are successfully prosecuted receive a sentence whereby they are put to work helping to insulate the homes of those less fortunate than themselves?

What a splendid idea, not least as we learnt from the television this morning that one of the leading organisers of this group has yet to insulate his own home, despite urging the rest of us to do so. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government are investing significant amounts of money—more than £1 billion this year alone—on encouraging people to take green measures in their own homes, to help us with the fight against climate change. As for putting some of those individuals towards that effort, I am more than happy for them to come to have a look at the insulation in my roof, which could always do with some improvement—I think that is a jolly good idea.

My constituents have had their lives hugely disrupted over the past week by the actions of these now so-called “morons on the motorway”. They are doing more harm than good by creating congestion, impacting air quality and driving up pollution in an area that already has poor air quality. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to meet our net zero commitments, we need to win the hearts and minds of the whole country to make the changes that are needed? Actions such as this are counterproductive and have seen the potential to divide us on this issue of climate change, rather than unite us, which is what we need.

I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend is absolutely right on that. I know from his own history that one of the key things we have to do is engender in the British people the same enthusiasm for science and technology as he has shown in his parliamentary career, because that is the key way in which we will solve this challenge of climate change. This kind of blunt instrument—selfish behaviour—sets that cause back by years.

I congratulate the Government on finally taking action against these hypocritical highway hoodlums, who have caused misery to many people across London and the greater area. Does the Minister share my concern that the police seemed in some cases to collaborate with them? I am the last person to talk about protest, because I come from a party of protest and many a time have been engaged in protest. I have never had a police officer come to ask me whether I am comfortable or what he could do to help me to stay in the place where I am. Usually, it is a case of, “You are breaking the law, get out of the road.” As it is likely that these protesters will move to somewhere else where there is not an injunction, what discussions is the Minister having with the police to make sure that the boys in blue do not act on the side of the protesters in green?

Happily, it is boys and, increasingly, girls in blue that we are seeing on the frontline. The alliteration is flying, is it not, Madam Deputy Speaker? I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support in what we are doing. I would caution him in drawing any lessons from specific instances that have been filmed of police officers trying to do their best to handle these protests. The role of the police in this situation, as in all protest situations, is fundamentally to enable protest within the law. Although in any one day the police will do thousands of things that go well and something that then appears on social media may indicate otherwise, we need to be careful about drawing wider lessons of police treatment of people from that. We are in constant contact with the chief constables concerned and not least with the Metropolitan police, who are co-ordinating this action. If we need to expand our ability to deal with it, we will do so.

Along with millions of people up and down the country, I welcome the move taken by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Transport Secretary; it is good to see common sense prevail. Stoke-on-Trent has welcomed nearly £1 million of Government funding earlier this year as part of the green homes grant scheme, which is being distributed to the city’s most vulnerable. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the great work that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is doing to insulate homes? Does he agree that rather than hindering people who are going about their lives, the Insulate Britain protesters should be welcoming the important work being done by this Government and councils to insulate homes and cut carbon emissions?

Stoke-on-Trent is soon to renamed part of the green country for the work it is doing. This shows the great tragedy of these protests; we are actually making enormous strides in our ambition to reach net zero, investing masses of public money in encouraging people to take up electric vehicles, insulate their homes and look at green technologies in the way they run their lives, and that is often being led by local government. So I am very pleased to offer my support to my hon. Friend and point the British public towards this great work that is being done, recognising that this is a positive step forward for us, rather than a stick to beat people with, which is what these protesters seem to be doing.

It was recently a pleasure to meet constituents as part of the Great Big Green Week, when we had a fruitful discussion about the challenges of climate change. I welcome the injunction against irresponsible protest. Will my right hon. Friend consider, if necessary, extending or applying to extend the injunction to other parts of the highways network, such as the M23, which serves my constituency and many important businesses, not least Gatwick airport?

Of course we will, if required. Let us hope that the deterrent effect is enough, but if the protest extends to other parts of the motorway network, we will have to consider our judicial options while we wait for the legislation, currently in the other place, to emerge hopefully unamended so that we can put the public nuisance offence on the statute book.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend is engaging with constituents. He might be interested to know that on Friday, I had a meeting with representatives of CAFOD in my constituency, who urged me to follow the words of His Holiness and pursue our climate change ambitions. Out of that meeting came a pledge from me to hold a green summit in my constituency in the next few months, where we will bring people together to discuss what more we can do in beautiful North West Hampshire to make our contribution.

This injunction is welcome news. Does the Minister agree that the police should now adopt a zero-tolerance approach and that, as soon as one of these morons sets foot on the motorway, they should be carted off in an electric police van and locked up in a fully insulated cell?

In his usual forthright and direct manner, my hon. Friend puts his finger on the button. We are now seeing extremely swift action—police are arriving on the scene within minutes. He will understand that it is tough for them to patrol the entire motorway network and be there as fast as they can, but Surrey police were there in three minutes and in Kent, protesters were intercepted before they even got on the carriageway. But where do we want our police officers? We want them in our neighbourhoods, on our streets, fighting crime. We do not want them patrolling the motorway network, looking for those people. Hopefully, the injunction will mean that they can go back to doing the job we expect of them.

I commend the Minister for his action. It is about time those people learnt that they cannot make unpeaceful protests, which have an impact on the lives of so many people going about their daily work. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) who asked what would happen if they set foot on his part of the M23. May I ask the Minister to look at the M1 and the A1, which take people north and are crucial to the lifeblood of the country? If we do not keep the traffic moving, we will affect the economy. I commend my right hon. Friend for what he has done, but ask him please not to hesitate to do more if necessary.

We are very alive to the possibility of other motorways being affected. If they are, of course we will take the action that is required. My hon. Friend highlights an important point: we as democratic representatives should be the repository of those kind of views and I am not aware personally—I will check in my office—that I have been approached by this group seeking any change or acceleration in Government policy and I do not know whether anyone else in the House has. That is the way we do things in this country and hopefully that is the way we will go back to.

We have heard countless examples of people being stopped going to GPs or hospitals because of those protesters. We all know that the NHS is under great strain, with long waiting lists post covid. What steps can the Government take to try to get financial recompense for the NHS from the protesters so that the taxpayer is not subsidising those eco-extremists?

My hon. Friend expresses pithily the frustration and the cost of the protests to wider society. If only we had some way to recover that cost from those individuals. Sadly, that is unlikely under current legislation, although it is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone who was caught up in the protests and missed some commercial opportunity might wish to consult their lawyers and see whether there was some method of seeking compensation.

I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend and the Government have taken to address this very serious issue. It is not protest, but deliberate acts by people going on to the public highway and endangering people’s lives. That is completely different from peaceful protest, which we all welcome. We are all committed to supporting the green agenda—that is separate from people putting others’ lives at risk. In line with other questions to my right hon. Friend, I ask whether he will take every step necessary if those people turn up on the M6, M5 or wherever else and urge the police to take every action necessary to remove them immediately from the public highway, otherwise somebody will get killed.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. As an esteemed officer of the court, he will know that, to get an injunction, we have made a case exactly as he says. It is not about protest, but about safety on the highway—something that the Government have to put first. If it works, fine, but if things get worse, we will obviously have to consider what more action we must take.

Like my right hon. Friend, I watched “Good Morning Britain” this morning with disbelief, seeing an activist who claimed to speak for Insulate Britain and then admitted he had not insulated his own home, despite pushing others to do that. That is a level of foolishness I have not seen on the show since its former presenter left. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the highly disruptive and repeat protests are exactly the kind of measures that our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to address and that it means that we will not have to seek such injunctions in future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Following requests from the police and a report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue about the balance we need to strike between the rights of protesters and those of the rest of us to go about our lives, the relatively mild measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will give the police much better powers to manage those sorts of protest. At the same time, it means that the vast majority of protests, which are lawful and often important, can take place in an environment in which everybody is safe and the protesters’ voice can be heard. I hope that, when the Bill returns from the other place, it will receive unequivocal support from across the House. Beyond the measures on protest, it contains important provisions to deal with violent crime and to support the most vulnerable in our society.