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Extinction Rebellion: Prevent Programme

Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decision by Counter Terrorism Policing South East to include Extinction Rebellion on a list of extremist ideologies to be referred to the Prevent programme.

My Lords, CT Policing South East is quoted categorically as saying that it does not classify Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation, and its inclusion in the document was an error of judgment. Extinction Rebellion is not considered an extremist group under the 2015 definition of extremism; the Home Secretary has been clear on this point.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that clarification, but of course the damage has been done. How can anyone, even if they make a mistake, consider a peaceful demonstration by thousands of people, mostly children—including some of my family—worried about the future of the planet as extremist ideology? I suggest that the Minister instead adds to a final list the climate change deniers and the oil companies funding them.

My Lords, they too have their right to free speech in this country—a point that goes to the heart of the noble Lord’s original Question. CT Police South East was quick to say that it had made an error of judgment. People do make mistakes.

Does the Minister accept that lawful demonstrations are an essential part of our democracy? Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent campaign and to equate it with proscribed organisations is unacceptable. Prevent has already received critical reviews from our Muslim community and this incident has not helped. Will the Minister publish the full criteria taken into account when considering proscription of this nature so that these could receive the full scrutiny of Parliament?

The noble Lord will appreciate that we do not discuss how the Home Secretary comes to decisions on proscription, but she does so on the vigorous legal advice provided to her at the time. Extinction Rebellion was on a list of those with an extremist ideology, as opposed to a terrorist ideology. However, CT Police South East has accepted that this was wrong.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, while it is right that the police have acknowledged their error of judgment, demonstrators made an error of judgment when they glued themselves to trains, stopped people going about their normal business and interfered with people going to visit the sick in hospital? There are errors of judgment on both sides and we should emphasise that.

My noble friend makes a good point. Many errors of judgment were made in some of the protests. He is right that not only were people prevented from seeing sick relatives in hospital, some of their relatives died before they could visit them. CT Police South East has done the right thing and my noble friend is right to point out some of the issues that the public faced during those protests.

My Lords, at what level in the police was this counterterrorism document, for which an apology has now been given, cleared as being appropriate? Was the Home Office in possession of a copy of that document, or aware of its content, prior to it being exposed in the Guardian? If the answer is that it was cleared at a police regional or area level and the Home Office knew nothing about it, surely it is wrong that a document of that kind—containing the guidance it did about a campaign, not about a terrorist organisation—does not require clearance at a senior level, at least in the police, to ensure both appropriateness and consistency of approach across the country?

My Lords, the assessment was made under the local area CT plan, which is independent of the Home Office. Obviously it came to the attention of the police and, as I said, they have accepted their error of judgment.

My Lords, notwithstanding what has been said today, is my noble friend aware of a Policy Exchange report prepared by two people—one the former head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command—called Extremism Rebellion? It argued:

“The police response to law-breaking by demonstrators must be far more proactive in enforcing the laws that relate to public protest, preventing Extinction Rebellion and other political activists from embarking on illegal tactics that cause mass disruption and significant economic damage.”

My noble friend is right. The public order issues around these protests were significant, particularly to the people of London, Bristol and elsewhere. As he said, they caused great disruption to people’s lives.

The right to protest is inherent in our British constitution, such as it is, and this sort of error by the police—it is great that they have acknowledged it—should not happen. Does the Minister think that younger people who have put themselves out on the streets to protest may have less trust in the police than ever now?

I do not think so, but the noble Baroness is right that the right to protest is enshrined in our values in this country. Nobody, I think, is disputing people’s right to protest, but a line is crossed in terms of protests and public order offences when that right to protest infringes on people’s everyday lives.

My Lords, on the occasions when mistakes were made when I was in the Home Office, it was often at a very junior level. I will never forget a youngster in tears when a report was published that had not been cleared. I had to assure her that it was the person who had failed to supervise her, not her, who should be on the line. I commend the Minister for her openness and her willingness to put this matter straight. There is a very big difference between labelling people as extreme because they happen to be on the streets promoting a just cause and measures taken by a very few that lead to anarcho-syndicalism. If we can distinguish between the two and use the legitimate law to deal with the latter, it would be a fine thing.

As always, the noble Lord makes a very sensible point, and I thank him for it. We have to make those distinctions.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that it is a fundamental part of our democracy that Members of both Houses are able to come here to vote and enjoy free passage? Does she recall that last year these people were responsible for preventing disabled people getting to and from this House? That is unacceptable and why we used to pass sessional orders instructing the Metropolitan Police to ensure that that happened.

My noble friend is right. People were prevented from coming here to vote and had to use trains where they usually would have made their journey to work using buses. It made life more expensive for them. My noble friend is right to point out that demonstrations cannot disrupt people’s everyday lives in the way that they did.