Policing of the Extinction Rebellion Protests in Cambridge

Today I spoke in Parliament on the response of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary to the Extinction Rebellion protests in Cambridge from 16th - 23rd February 2020.  The full text of my speech can be seen here:

Adjournment Debate on the Policing of the Climate Protests in Cambridge

3rd March 2020

Opening speech by Anthony Browne, MP for South Cambridgeshire

"[WHY THIS IS A SUBJECT FOR DEBATE IN PARLIAMENT]

Thank you Mr/Madam Deputy Speaker

I would not have asked for this adjournment debate if I thought the issues arising from the policing in Cambridge during the recent climate protests were of merely local interest. 

Or only related to events in the past. 

But rather these issues are 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, Cambridge – where next? 

Far from being confined to the past, it seems to me we are at the start of protests that are likely to escalate in terms of 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 no longer believe they have a right to stop blatant criminality during political protests. 

The issues raised by the events in Cambridge need to be resolved. The powers of the police must be clarified, and the police must have confidence to use them. 

Or we risk undermining the rule of law and even public support for the police. 

[BACKGROUND TO THE EVENTS]

On 16th February, Extinction Rebellion activists started a week of protests in Cambridge. 

This 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 services to be re-routed. 

This blockade remained in place for a week.

Blocking a road is an offence under Section 137 of the 1980 Highways Act, but the police did not uphold that law and open up the roads. Instead, they used emergency powers to legally close the roads, thereby giving legal protection to the blockades. 

The police were usually present at the blockades, but to protect the activists from angry members of the public.

Then on 18th of February, protesters – armed with spades – dug up the lawn at Trinity College. 

They then proceeded to load soil into wheelbarrows and dumped this in a foyer of Barclays bank. 

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.

During the week, there were also various acts of vandalism by activists including at the iconic Schlumberger building and a Shell petrol station.

Police said they did not stop the criminal acts because they were concerned it would be an infringement of the activists’ human rights.

Subsequently, following public outrage, and complaints from Trinity College, myself and the government, the police have arrested a total of nine activists.

[PUBLIC REACTION]

The lack of police action against the law-breaking protestors caused public fury, across social media, the letters pages and my post box. 

Virtually no one argued the police were right not to act.

The anger is very understandable. 

We rely on the police to uphold the rule of law, 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 starts to feel vulnerable and threatened.

The public were also annoyed by the double standards. Many said “if I blockaded the road or committed criminal damage, I would be arrested on the spot. Why aren’t the protestors?”

I want to put on the record that I strongly support the ultimate objective of Extinction Rebellion in terms of combatting climate change. But I do not support their means. 

Some of the self-important Extinction Rebellion activists compare themselves to the suffragettes, who broke the law to change the law. But the suffragettes did not have the vote, and nor did the majority of the adult population at the time. They could not use normal democratic routes to get change. 

I also strongly support the police, who I recognise are caught between a rock and a hard place. 

I know they want to uphold the law. But the guidance and interpretation can be - confusing.

[QUESTIONS THAT NEED ANSWERING]

The two questions that need answering are these:

1.    Why did the police stand by as crimes were being committed?

2.    What can be done to ensure the police will uphold the law in future? 

I have met the acting Police and Crime Commissioner and the chief constable for Cambridgeshire, and they are now conducting a review of the lessons learnt. It is not clear the police would do anything differently if it happened again. 

They are sharing the learnings with other police forces around the country, who are developing their own plans in case of similar protests. The 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 after the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, the Metropolitan Police are also considering these issues with Home Office.

Having considered the arguments carefully and examined the relevant legislation and judgements, I believe that none of the reasons for police inaction stand up to scrutiny. 

I would contest that the police did have legal grounds to act even under existing legislation.

[PRAGMATIC ARGUMENTS]

First I want to address the pragmatic non-legal arguments. The police point out that after a week of protests, no one was physically harmed, the protest didn’t 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 mentioned that while the vandalism was taking place, Trinity College did not complain about it, but only later in the 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. 

Some others have said the police shouldn’t arrest people because that would make them martyrs. Well they have arrested some people. Will they be made martyrs? Who knows, and what difference does it make? This martyr argument could be used to justify anything.  

A far bigger 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. 

Appeasement will just encourage more law breaking.

The pragmatic arguments do not stand up.

[HUMAN RIGHTS ARGUMENT]

We then come to the Human Rights arguments.

During the week of action, the police put out a video explaining why they were not acting to stop crimes. It was based on their interpretation of the Human Rights Act, as set out in guidance by the College of Policing. 

Under article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights, enshrined in UK law as the 1998 Human Rights Act, people have the right to peaceful assembly. 

I am sure all members of this house support that right. 

Indeed if it was threatened, I myself would be out there protesting for the right to protest. 

As the College of Policing points out, these rights are qualified rights, and police can impose restrictions on demonstrations under certain circumstances, and those restrictions must be prescribed by law, necessary and proportionate. 

The law that allows police to impose restrictions on processions and assemblies are Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act, which gives police powers if they believe a procession or assembly may result in:

-       Either a) Serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community

-       Or b) the purpose of those organising it is the intimidation of others

Now, the police believe the Cambridge protests did not amount to “serious” disruption. I have been told there is no case law on this.  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.

What I can say with certainty is that many members of the public felt the Cambridge protests caused seriousdisruption, and serious damage. 

But 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 police arresting people for committing other crimes. 

They give police powers to impose a legal restriction on the location and size of an assembly or procession if they think that serious disorder is likely to result from it. 

It absolutely does not say the police cannot arrest people for committing crimes in front of their eyes, as happened at Trinity college. That is clearly not the intent of the legislation at all.

Even when police cannot legally ban or restrict a whole demonstration, they could still arrest any demonstrators committing criminal damage. 

Even if you accept the criminal damage was not serious, it would just mean the police could not use section 14 powers to ban the assembly. It does not mean they couldn’t arrest those causing criminal damage to Trinity College.

When it comes to the blockade of the road, I believe the police could have used the Section 14 powers. 

Section 14, Paragraph 1, sub paragraph b of the Act says that police can impose restrictions on an assembly if, and I quote the act, :

“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 need to be serious; it just needs to be on purpose.

And the very purpose of blockading Fen Causeway and Trumpington Street was to stop people travelling on them, which they had a right to do – at least until the police used their emergency powers to close the roads.

So this clearly fits the description of intimidation in the Public Order Act, and so the police had a right to impose a restriction on that Assembly and move it to a place that isn’t blocking the road. 

There are plenty of places in Cambridge they could hold their assembly without depriving people of their right to travel on roads. 

The police did not just misinterpret the Public Order Act, but also the European Convention on Human Rights. If you actually read the text, it is absolutely explicit that the right to assembly does not give people the right to break the law, or deprive other people of their rights or freedoms. 

Paragraph 2 of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights says, and I quote:

“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”

So there you have it – the Human Rights Act itself says it cannot be used to stop police imposing legal restrictions on assemblies. 

And it says that such restrictions can be legally imposed in order to prevent crime (as in the case of Trinity College lawn) or protect the rights of others (in case of the blockades).

In summary: there is absolutely nothing in law – in the Humans Rights Act or the Public Order Act – to stop the police upholding other laws.

[WHAT CAN BE DONE TO STOP IT HAPPENING AGAIN?]

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 do believe the police fundamentally want to uphold the law, but are beset by uncertainty.

It seems to me one problem is that police get weak legal advice. Can something be done to improve the legal advice that police forces get?

They are up against strong activist groups chasing them through the courts, always pushing to constrain police action. No one is chasing the police through the courts to force them to uphold the law. Can the government do something so there is less one-sided pressure on the police?

I would like to ask my Right Honourable Friend if 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."