James Daly is Member of Parliament for Bury North.
In December, Just Stop Oil activists evaded arrest for the sixth time in nine days as their human blockades caused mass traffic tailbacks in Whitechapel and Stoke Newington, London. They vowed to continue causing chaos until the Government cancels all new fossil fuel licences.
This is very clearly not just a problem in our capital; protestors such as these are causing chaos throughout the country, and their behaviour poses a very real risk to public safety and puts lives at risk.
Ken Marsh, chairman of the Met Police Federation, set out the position facing police officers:
“It’s very much so [an accident waiting to happen]. We need to get a grip of it – I hope none of my colleagues get seriously hurt, but it could possibly happen.”
Marsh, who represents 30,000 officers, was clear:
“Officers have had enough of it. They’ve had enough of being the fall guys – getting propped up to just get abused. Things have very much [got worse for officers] because, as the tactics change, it makes it more and more difficult because we’ve allowed this to go on and on, this melee.”
However, exasperation at the behaviour of protestors is not just confined to those we ask to keep law and order. The public have had enough.
From missing hospital appointments and exams to being unable to work and carry out their lawful business, the general public is paying the price for our indulgence of the left-wing, generally middle-class egomaniacs – those who believe their political theories trump the right of someone to attend their cancer treatment or those who are self-employed from actually being able to earn the money they need to pay their bills.
Indeed, the radical left, whether they be embodied in movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, or many others that we now see, are fundamentally distorting the right to peaceful protest to suit their extreme political views.
Whether it be causing criminal damage to statues of individuals whose past actions or family links they disagree with, to sitting in the middle of the M25 – in the minds of these new protestors, the criminal law simply does not apply to them.
They believe their own self-defined morality, a common misguided trait of the left, is the only thing that matters.
Action must be taken to address this dangerous development. If the law does not apply to everyone equally, we are heading towards a dystopian age.
If you can justify your conduct before a criminal court, even if you are clearly guilty of an offence, on the basis that your political views allow your behaviour to be justifiable, we are heading into an era that is not recognisable to many of us, with a very different understanding of the rule of law.
Rank and file police officers, however, face another obstacle in how they approach such disruptive protests. Many say they get no backing at all from senior commanders due to the fear of civil claims and allegations of assault and police brutality. Marsh further commented on this problem in the Met:
“If commanders from above instruct us to go and remove them [protestors], we’ll remove them. We want full backing from senior officers out there with us.”
It is a sad state of affairs when senior police commanders are not supporting officers to take the most robust action against protestors causing such problems. If protestors are sat on a motorway or any road, blocking the highway, why are they not forcibly removed? They are a clear danger to themselves and everyone else.
This is why I am glad we have a Prime Minister and Home Secretary willing to take the decisive steps to give the police the powers they need to arrest illegal protestors swiftly. The Government is changing the law to define serious disruption so the police can act quickly and with legal certainty to protect members of the public and businesses from disruption.
Rishi Sunak is giving the police legal clarity to tackle new and extreme forms of illegal protest. An amendment will be moved to the Public Order Act so that police can consider the cumulative impact of protests and the impact of multiple protests.
Police will be able to consider the absolute disruption caused, rather than relative disruption of each incident, and be better equipped to tackle long-running campaigns. Officers will be able to deal with new and extreme illegal protest tactics like slow walking and prioritising the lives and rights of the law-abiding general public rather than the militant left.
I am pleased these steps from the Government have led the College of Policing to update and publish their guidance on policing protests in line with these amendments as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent.
The right to protest is an important part of our democracy. But this right is not absolute. We need to strike a balance between individual rights and the rights of the public to go about their lives. With these changes, that is precisely what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have done, and it is to be greatly welcomed.
The Labour Party’s answer to this problem? Do nothing, let people suffer, and accept a £350,000 donation from a financial backer of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. Pathetic.