Police chief gives evidence to Balcombe anti-fracking trial

The trial of the first environmental campaigners arrested at anti-fracking protests in Balcombe heard this afternoon from the officer in charge of the policing operation.

Chief Inspector Matthew Webb, based at Crawley Police Station, was the bronze commander on July 26th, the second day of protests outside Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site, off London Road.

The trial in Brighton heard how a large log had been moved across the road, to block the entrance to the drilling site. Three women and eight men* are accused of obstructing the highway. They all deny the charges. One campaigner, Michael Atkins, is also charged with assaulting PC Charlotte Pittman. He denies this additional charge.

CI Webb told the court he had ordered the arrests of people sitting on or near the log because the drilling site had been designated as a hazardous working environment and 24 hour immediate access was needed for emergency vehicles.

He described the mood of the protest as passive and not aggressive. He said protest liaison officers had been deployed to explain police operations to the campaigners and police officers had removed their jackets and gloves to give a “less aggressive appearance”. He also said Sussex Police had a policy of issuing five warnings to people taking part in protests before they were arrested.

The Chief Inspector said he arrived at Balcombe at about 9am but during cross-examination by Shahida Begum he accepted that he didn’t issue any requirement to the campaigners to leave the site entrance until midday.

Miss Begum, who represents Mr Atkins, suggested he didn’t take any action until then because the issue was not about access for the emergency services but about whether delivery lorries were expected at the site. CI Webb said he waited to move the protestors until further police officers arrived and they had been fully briefed.

The court had earlier watched police video evidence where CI Webb was seen telling the campaigners that their behaviour breached Section 241 of the Trades Union and Labour Relations Act. Miss Begum asked CI Webb why he had not mentioned the offence of obstructing the highway. He said his tactical advisor had said the trades union law was the most appropriate legislation to use.

CI Webb was also cross-examined by Stephen Knight, representing Mark Mansbridge, Marcin Swiercz, Richard Miller, Justin Preece and Nancy Walker. Mr Knight asked CI Webb about whether the London Road was closed on the day of the protest. CI Webb accepted that the road north of the site was open for access only and that the road to south was closed to all vehicles.

Maryan Mere, representing the remaining campaigners, put it to the Chief Inspector that no five-step warning been used during the arrest of Samantha Duncan. CI Webb, who earlier admitted that he didn’t know the five stages of the process, said “I cannot answer that”.

The trial also heard from PC Huw Llewellyn, of Hailsham Police Station. He and his colleague PC Pittman had been ordered to arrest Miss Duncan. During the attempt, PC Llewellyn said Mr Atkins deliberately splashed PC Pittman with tea from a mug.

During cross-examination, Miss Begum suggested that there was information that PC Llewellyn had not mentioned in his statement or to the court. She played police video footage where Mr Atkins was heard to say “hot tea here, hot hot tea”. It also showed Mr Atkins being jostled and a movement of PC Pittman’s hand towards Mr Atkins after the tea was spilt on her arm. PC Llewellyn maintained that Mr Atkins had deliberately spilt the tea but he accepted that the incident had happened more quickly than he remembered.

Under cross-examination by Miss Mere, PC Llewellyn, accepted that Miss Duncan was removed from the log quickly after she was asked by police to relax her arms. Miss Mere said Miss Duncan was told that she had been arrested only after she had been removed. PC Llewellyn said he believed PC Pittman had explained the reason for the arrest while Miss Duncan was sitting on the log. PC Pittman was unable to give evidence because she is on sick leave.

The trial, at Brighton Magistrates Court, is being heard by District Judge William Ashworth. It resumes tomorrow morning (8/1/14) and has been scheduled to last four days.

* The campaigners on trial are Ian Freeston and Mark Mansbridge, both 52 and from Lewes; Samantha Duncan and Richard Millar, both 30 and from Brighton; Nancy Walker, 25, of London; Paul Deacon, 50, of St Jean du Gare, France; Frances Crack, 31, of Cardiff; Justin Preece, 44, of Pontypridd; Michael Atkins, 37, of Bristol; Ezra Lynch, 31, of no fixed address; and Marcin Swiercz, 36.

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