Environmental campaigners have dismissed Surrey County Council’s use of the term “extremism” for anti-fracking protests.
Nearly three years ago, the Home Office confirmed that opposition to fracking was no longer seen as “an indicator of vulnerability to extremism”.
But last month, Surrey County Council was continuing to class anti-fracking protests as extremism.
The practice was revealed by the police monitoring organisation, Netpol, after a student complained about a video shown to a council training course. The British values film included references to “protesting against fracking” as an alleged “extremist” activity.
Vicki Elcoate, of Frack Free Surrey, said today:
“It’s deeply disturbing that Surrey County Council is saying that residents who protest against the massive expansion of oil and gas exploration in the county are ‘extremists’.
“These are local people who care about the climate, their local environment and democracy and who haven’t had their voices heard.
“There is nothing ‘extreme’ about that view – protests have involved well-known actors and local and national politicians, as well as regular people who all care passionately about protecting our countryside and water.”
Ms Elcoate said:
“There have been very few arrests at oil sites in Surrey. Some people were left for months worried and stressed before charges were dropped after arrests at Brockham.
“It was Surrey County Council that failed to stop drilling without planning permission at Brockham.
“They’ve also just permitted a huge expansion of oil drilling at Horse Hill despite declaring a Climate Emergency.
“That’s the real threat: not listening to what local residents are telling them about the harm to our environment this expansion will cause”.
“Main extremist areas of concern”
According to Netpol, Surrey County Council’s safeguarding officer said the reference to anti-fracking protests had been included deliberately in the video to “contextualise extremist action to Surrey”.
The officer reportedly said:
“when making the video earlier this year the police advice was that the main extremist areas of concern in Surrey were Far Right and Anti-Fracking activities rather than religion. I have not received any update on this position”.
The council was asked to remove this part of the video. But according to Netpol, the council responded by saying that any protest, no matter how peaceful, was “extremist”.
Netpol reported that the safeguarding officer said “at the time of making the video, illegal activity by anti-fracking extremists in Surrey was a particular cause for concern to the police”.
In December 2016, the Home Office was issued a statement saying “support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability” to extremism. This followed reports about City of York Council and a school in North Yorkshire including anti-fracking campaigns in their counter-terrorism advice.
Nearly a year later, in September 2017, the counter-terrorism local profile for Surrey showed that “community tensions related to onshore oil and gas operations” were a priority for counter-terrorism officers in East Surrey.
Netpol said today:
“We now know that following years of pressure, central government has abandoned the use of the “domestic extremism” categorisation, even if the police appear to continue to use a label that has been described as ‘manifestly deficient’.
“There is no evidence whatsoever of any link between anti-fracking campaigns and extremism, never mind a risk of ‘terrorism-related activity’.
“There is simply no reason for counter-terrorism officers to view anti-fracking protests as a priority for the government’s Prevent programme and no reason for the police to target protesters for ‘domestic extremist’ surveillance.”
DrillOrDrop asked Surrey County Council and Surrey Police to respond to the findings.
A spokesperson for the county council said:
“As a council we recognise the right to peaceful protest, and indeed actively encourage residents to have their say on societal issues including fracking and the green agenda.
“As a public body we have a duty to recognise and intervene in ‘extremism’ that can lead to illegal activity.
“When highlighting this duty, it is important to recognise that not all extremism is religious-based, but can involve illegal activity undertaken by a wide range of groups.
“However, in doing this, we have never generalised any group of people as extremists, and certainly would not label residents protesting lawfully as extremists.
“Adult Learning continually reviews all its learning resources. We are already in the process of reviewing the current content of our video in response to learner feedback, which will be completed before it is used again.”
The spokesperson added that the video (which was made in 2018) stated: ‘Extremism may lead to harmful and illegal activities involving violence, discrimination or terrorism. Examples include illegal actions taken by extremists in religious groups, Far Right factions and animal rights or anti-fracking groups.’
“Disruptive protests are not ‘extremist'”
Kevin Blowe, coordinator of Netpol, responded:
“Surrey County Council has accepted without question the erroneous claim used so often by the police that protests are only “peaceful” if they are also “lawful”. This is simply wrong in law.
“There is no basis to assert any protest that is deliberately disruptive and that may lead to arrests is somehow “extremist”.
“Many of the most positive and significant changes in society have resulted from a willingness of citizens to take part in civil disobedience on conscientious grounds. In any event, protests are always likely to cause some inconvenience and disruption for others but it is well-established that protests that are non-violent – even ones the police call “illegal” – are protected by human rights legislation.
“The council says it has ‘never generalised any group of people as extremists’ but the exact opposite is true: it is planted the idea with everyone who has watched its video that Surrey residents opposed to fracking are intrinsically linked to violence, discrimination or terrorism.
“This shows, yet again, the fundamental danger of using subjective, highly political labels like “extremist” that have no basis in law. It is why we are calling for the police to stop categorising campaigners in this way – and for the abolition of the Prevent Duty that enables councils to smear people for their legitimate beliefs.”
“Police job is o be impartial”
A spokesperson for Surrey Police said:
“Surrey Police respects people’s right to peacefully protest and we seek to facilitate this, whilst we stress of course the need for us to balance the sometimes conflicting rights of different people, and the need for us to take proportionate action in relation to criminal offences.
“Policing protests is a complex area that is often highly emotionally charged and sensitive, with different people having potentially mixed and conflicting views. Our overall priority is public safety, and police must be able to respond quickly to changing situations in a way that is intelligence-led, proportionate, transparent and ensures the rights of all parties are protected.
“It is crucial that police engage with protest organisers so that we can protect the wider public as well as the rights of the protestors themselves. We do not engage on either side of the debate itself – our job is to keep the peace and remain impartial whilst respecting the human rights of all parties.“
Updated 10/10/19 with a statement from Surrey Police, Surrey County Council and a response from Netpol