16th May 2014
Sussex Chief Constable Giles York has defended his force’s policing of last year’s anti-fracking protests at Balcombe. He also revealed Sussex officers have been advising police across Britain in how to deal with demonstrations at fracking sites.
Mr York was speaking at the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner’s monthly performance and accountability meeting this afternoon. In response to a question by Commissioner, Katy Bourne, he said “We have no interest in criminalising protesters”.
He also rejected criticism of the low conviction rate at court cases arising from the protests. 126 people were arrested last summer outside Cuadrilla’s oil exploration site. But prosecutors secured only 29 convictions, involving about 26 people. “We would not expect to get 100 per cent convictions”, Mr York said. He added that there had been what he called “43 positive outcomes” from the arrests at Balcombe*.
He described protest law as complex and added: “We do seek legal advice throughout. … It is incredibly challenging for the officers on the ground to strike that balance for facilitating lawful peaceful protest and also allow legitimate business to continue. It is a balance we are seeking to achieve.”
Many of the arrests at Balcombe came when the police used Section 14 of the Public Order Act to impose conditions on protesters. These included a requirement to use a designated protest area. During trials, two district judges ruled that the Section 14 orders were unlawful because of the way they were written and implemented.
Mrs Bourne questioned whether the police had learned lessons from previous uses of Section 14. “There are blogs going back two, three, five years, where Section 14 has been used and it sounds like similar stories are coming out and that is why convictions are not happening.”
Mr York said the lessons had already been applied during the recent March for England in Brighton. He also said Sussex Police had organised a seminar at the National Police College to disseminate the lessons learned from Balcombe. Assistant Chief Constable Robin Smith, who led the seminar, said most forces from across the UK had attended.
Mr Smith said: “That was a very good opportunity because a number of forces, indeed a number of forces currently are, having those policing challenges, I would imagine, as we speak”. When asked by Mrs Bourne, whether this was the first such seminar on a policing issue to be held nationally, he said “It is the only one I have been to in my time in service”.
It also emerged that Sussex Police is already preparing for more anti-fracking protests across the county with a new operation led by senior officers. Mr Smith said Operation Arena drew on recommendations from a review of the Balcombe policing by Hertfordshire and Essex Police. Operation Arena is led by another Assistant Chief Constable and a Chief Superintendent.
Mr Smith presented a document** which had 31 recommendations for policing future protests. The key issues, he said, were:
- The development of intelligence
- Resourcing the protests
- Communicating with partners and stakeholders
“It is fair to say we did not exhaust all the opportunities to contact people or ask for help from key stakeholders in communicating with them.”
*TCC York included people who had accepted a caution in the figure he gave the meeting. Six people are currently appealing against their convictions and some people who accepted cautions at the time the Section 14 orders were in force are now challenging that decision.
** Last week, we asked Sussex Police if it intended to produce a document reviewing the lessons learned from Balcombe. The response was: “We have lessons learned taken from a number of sources. They are not being collated into one single document, but are being taken forward in planning for any likely protests that may occur in the future.” We asked if it had been circulated to other police forces. The response was “Not applicable.” We asked if we could see a copy. The response was again “Not applicable”.
This afternoon we asked to see a copy of the document underpinning Operation Arena, presented by ACC Smith. We’ll let you know the response. We have also submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to see the results of the review by Hertfordshire and Essex Police.