Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
My role as Surrey’s Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner is both interesting and varied. On the to-do list last week were tasks including beginning the search for a new Chief Constable, a visit to a local prison, and three wreath-laying events to mark Remembrance Day.
The first is one of my statutory duties, the second helps me do my job as chair of Surrey’s Criminal Justice Board, and the third is an important part of remembering those who gave their lives for our freedoms. In any given month, there are numerous topics I could write about for this column, so it is with some frustration that I find myself treading old ground: criminal protests.
It is likely that you watched or read the coverage of the latest Just Stop Oil activity. If you were using the M25 last week during the morning rush hour then it is also likely that you found your journey was significantly longer than it should have been, or that you didn’t make it to your destination in time. Once again, whole sections of the 117-mile-long motorway, the busiest road in Europe, were closed, brought to a standstill or diverted.
On Tuesday morning I joined officers from my own force – as well as the Metropolitan Police, Sussex Police, Humberside and other forces – as they removed four protestors from gantries above the road and arrested them, before taking them into police custody. Seeing first-hand the number of officers and the equipment required to remove the criminals was sobering.
At a dinner with local Conservatives on Wednesday, I was asked what new laws are needed for police to deal with protests such as these. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act which came into force earlier this year is welcome. A new Public Order Bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords and has the potential to help police take preventative measures in certain circumstances.
But the truth is that this week’s activities are already covered by numerous laws and those arrested will face prison time so long as the Crown Prosecution Service and courts play their part. I believe that the problem we face with current protests is a bigger one: the law is no longer a deterrent for many of them.
At each new wave over the last two years, we have seen an escalation. No longer content to cause mere disruption, so-called environmental protestors are employing increasingly dangerous tactics. When I have said this publicly, pointing out that their criminal actions have no justification, I am told by their supporters that they are brave, courageous, and ‘like the Suffragettes’. They assume that I and millions of others not breaking the law don’t care about the environment, that we are the criminals and content to see the planet burn.
These are not people who can be reasoned with. Their beliefs are akin to a religious cult. One officer I spoke to on Tuesday shook his head when I asked what more we could do and told me that he has seen evidence of ‘grooming’ at colleges and universities. This is far beyond the campaigners we are used to.
The Greenham Common protests, Greenpeace in the 80s and 90s, even the early days of Extinction Rebellion. The targeting of young, impressionable and potentially vulnerable teenagers with scare stories of the end of the world, of burning towns and cities, and even mob violence on our streets is chilling. It puts those who are in charge in a dangerous new category.
Being arrested isn’t a deterrent. Prison time is a badge of honour. They aren’t campaigners, they’re martyrs. Following the 2020 Extinction Rebellion blockades, then Policing Minister Kit Malthouse told Parliament “…our message to these individuals is clear – if you plan to curtail our freedom through criminal acts, be in no doubt that you will face the full force of the law”. Quite aside from the fact that beyond the police, the criminal justice system is not carrying out that promise, there isn’t much evidence that the protestors care.
So what can Parliament do? Hit them where it hurts – in the wallet. Go after those who are funding and organising this action, make it clear that they can’t get away with sitting on their comfortable and expensive moral high ground while young people face travel bans and exclusions from future careers thanks to a criminal record.
We must also teach our youth the truth about positive action, show them the great strides the UK has taken in addressing climate change and how genuinely peaceful, lawful action is what really effects change in a democracy. The biggest threat to them right now is not from a ‘burning planet’ but from believing their actions won’t have consequences.