18th April 2014
This is the complete transcript of an interview with Caroline Lucas MP about policing and prosecution policy at the anti-fracking protests outside Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site at Balcombe last year.
Ruth Hayhurst What is your view of the prosecution policy at Balcombe, given that 126 people were arrested but so far only 27 charges have resulted in convictions?
Caroline Lucas I think it suggests that the prosecution policy is arbitrary and one that isn’t necessarily properly based in sufficient evidence, to mean that charges can then be translated into convictions. And therefore it does raise in my mind the concern that this is just another tactic that is being used to try to persuade people against protesting.
If others in the group see someone being arrested very early on or arrested in quite a high profile fashion then clearly that acts as a deterrent and if then those charges are dropped it suggests that actually the police are using that as a way of simply trying to stop people from carrying out what is a human right to peacefully protest.
So that does raise to me big questions about that and seems to suggest that this another part of an overall strategy that we have seen from police over several years now, from student protests onwards, of trying simply to deter people from that right to protest.
RH Do you think this is a Sussex Police policy or is it a wider national policy?
CL I haven’t got any evidence to suggest that this is only Sussex Police. It is certainly something that has been raised, for example, in the policing in London. There were some anti-fascist demonstrations in the last week where a similar kind of tactic seems to be taking place. I don’t think this is unique to Sussex Police.
RH What about the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service bringing cases which have then resulted in a large number of acquittals and very few convictions?
CL There are huge questions is to be asked here about the public interest and also the costs to the public purse. Cases should only be brought court if there is a very reasonable expectation that the conviction is possible. The high number of acquittals suggests that that groundwork hasn’t been done by the police, that the policing policy has been arbitrary and disproportionate. And certainly from my own experience, looking at how the police dealt with the protest that I was part of, it seems to be entirely arbitrary. There was a group of maybe 15 or 20 of us doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Some were arrested and then one was subsequently de-arrested. Others were just moved away from the area and then just allowed to carry on. Others were arrested using extremely high profile and painful tactics including the pressure-pointing. There doesn’t seem to have been any real strategy here. And I think that does raise concerns.
RH Do you think there is a policy in the Crown Prosecution Service that is being pursued for some reason to keep these cases going through the courts?
CL It sounds very perverse to me. I am not sure if there is a policy of the Crown Prosecution Service to keep taking cases to court, even though so many are resulting in acquittals. It seems a pretty perverse one because it does not reflect well on them either. Whatever the strategy is, I think it needs to be rethought because I think that there is no evidence that this is in the public interest and it is costing a huge amount of money and resources at a time when both are in short supply.
RH What is your reaction to the suggestion that some of the policing on the ground at Balcombe was intimidating and designed to put people off taking part in the protest?
CL That has been raised with me a number of times. I can only really speak about what I saw myself. But I do know that many people have been concerned about that. On the days when I was involved in protests I can honestly only say that that part that was intimidating was at the very end when, for example, the pressure point technique was used when it didn’t particularly seem necessary. I didn’t see much that was intimidating, personally, although other people have raised that with me several times.
RH What is your reaction to the evidence, that has come up during some of the trials, that after people were arrested they spent long times in custody and, certainly at the beginning of the protests, some of the bail conditions that were imposed excluded people from large areas?
CL I think I am most concerned about the bail conditions, to be honest. I can’t say why people were spending very long times in custody. I do know that the whole process can take lots of time, so without knowing more about what was happening in that period and what other pressures that the police were under, I don’t feel in a position to criticise that, specifically. But the bail conditions, that excluded people from an area of 25 sq km that just seems to be absolutely disproportionate to any real need.
So again it suggests to me that it is all part of a strategy that is designed to deter people from the right to protest. And I think that is deeply concerning that in this country we have a long and honourable tradition of peaceful protest. It is something that has been absolutely fought for and we need to protect it, and it is being chipped away here. You know this is just one court process we are looking at but no doubt this is happening, I imagine, around the country as well.
RH What effect do you think some of this policing may have had on the respect or confidence that people have in the police in future?
CL I am really worried about that because a lot of young people were involved, not exclusively young people by any means, but for some young people this will be the first time that they have had direct contact with the police. And it is just such a shame that that contact has been one that has left so many of them feeling under attack and that the tactics used against them have been disproportionate and unnecessary and, by anecdote at least, intimidating as well.
So I don’t think the police have done themselves any favours if that is the impression that young people, in particular, are going away with. I think that the relationship between the police and those who they police for is hugely important and when it’s got right it can be so positive.
Just last week, I was at Hinckley Point protesting against the proposal for a new nuclear power station there and the relationship with the police there was absolutely wonderful and all the protesters were saying the same and it was a really peaceful demonstration. It was facilitated. It was in good humour. It is perfectly possible, I suppose what I am saying, to police in a way that is by consent but which is also mindful of public safety and mindful of other people wishing to use the road and so forth. There are ways of organising this, whereas I think what we have seen in Balcombe is a huge disproportionate response, both in terms of the numbers of police who were deployed and indeed some of the tactics they were using.
RH What effect do you think that policing policy may have had on people who may or may not want to take part in peaceful protests in the future?
CL I think the signal that it gives out to ordinary people is that you risk arrest simply by taking part in a peaceful protest. It used to be the case that one would have a better sense of what actions might lead to an arrest and certainly simply gathering, or indeed simply sitting down peacefully at a point when you are not actually causing any kind of obstruction, for many people they would not have dreamt that would have led to an arrest. So I think it will act as a major deterrent. It will mean that public protest is curtailed and I think that is a very dangerous thing.
RH You heard senior police officers give evidence that they had thought about the tactics and the strategies for policing at Balcombe. What’s your view about that strategy and how well it was communicated to people on the ground?
CL I think over and again, throughout the trials that have been taking place in Brighton, it has become ever clearer that the communication side of the strategy was woefully inadequate. Time and again, police gave evidence saying that people should have understood what a Section 14 was. Well, over the last few weeks I have understood what a Section 14 was but even I, as the local MP, didn’t understand exactly what a Section 14 was and under what conditions it could be implemented.
And it seems to be me, at least, from the evidence that we have heard, that the actual way in which it was implemented was flawed in terms of the delegated powers, and so forth, but also the fact that it wasn’t reviewed on a regular basis. But also crucially that it simply wasn’t communicated to the protesters.
I was there on the Sunday, before the Monday of the arrest, and on that Sunday, the police were saying they told lots of people about Section 14. I was there for hours and I heard nothing about a Section 14. On the day of the arrest itself, again police were talking about “If you don’t move you will be subject to a Section 14”. I don’t know anybody who really understood what that meant. So I think the communication was absolutely inadequate. The implementation looks like it was deeply flawed. It just seemed incredibly perverse, if one of the intentions was to open the road in order to facilitate traffic, that you would put your Section 14 area in the road that would stop you doing that. Whereas the area, where we were protesting, was off the road, it was not causing an obstruction.
RH Finally, do you think that the CPS should have changed its policy on prosecutions when it realised that it wasn’t getting convictions?
CL Yes I think so. There was a fairly clear message being given out by the number of cases that were not resulting in convictions. It seems that the political point was being made at very high public expense not to mention everybody else’s time and resources and anxiety caused by the whole process. That seems not a good way of trying to make policy or to send messages. I think that we should be using the courts in a mindful way when it is absolutely necessary to do so and I think the risk of what we have seen happening as a result of the cases in Balcombe is that the whole process has been undermined and people’s confidence in that process has been undermined.