Courts will get new powers aimed at deterring disruptive protests, the home secretary announced this morning.
In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Priti Patel, announced increased maximum penalties for disrupting a motorway and a new criminal offence of interfering with key infrastructure, including roads, and railways.
If enacted, the plans could mean a conviction for obstructing a highway would change from a maximum of a £1,000 fine to an unlimited fine, six months imprisonment, or both.
New measures are also expected to target people with a history of disruption.
Kit Malthouse, the policing minister told Sky News this morning the government needed faster, asbo-style, criminal disruption prevention orders to stop protestors who “cross the line” between exercising their legal rights and disrupting critical infrastructure. In extreme cases, they could be banned from travelling to protests by a judge.
The police are also expected to get wider powers to stop and search activists for lock-on equipment often used in direct action protests.
11 protests by Insulate Britain, which is calling for the insulation of Britain’s homes by 2030, has led to traffic disruption in and around London in the past three weeks. There have been more than 300 arrests.
This morning, the prime minister described the campaigners as “irresponsible crusties”. Ms Patel said the actions were “the most self-defeating environmental protests that this country has ever seen”.
She said in her speech:
“I will not tolerate so-called eco-warriors, trampling over our way of life and draining police resources.”
Insulate Britain responded this morning:
“We remain more fearful of the loss of our country than we do of the home secretary. The law can be changed, punishments increased, our savings raided, we face being imprisoned. But shooting the messenger can never destroy the message: our country is facing the greatest risk ever and our government is failing us.
“The government, of which Priti Patel is a part, will go down in history as cowards who did not have the guts to look reality in the face. They will go down in history as traitors who helped destroy this country because you did not face up to their responsibility to protect and lead.
“We have to come together otherwise we will die together. That is what Insulate Britain supporters are saying to the country as they sit in the roads day after day, calling on Boris to get on with job and insulate Britain. We are not going anywhere because there is nowhere else to go. The country is waiting to hear what the government has to say in response.”
The police monitoring group, Netpol, said the proposed increase in maximum sentencing for obstructing a highway was unlikely to deter campaigners.
“the poorly-conceived intention here is apparently to make it easier to hold particular detainees on remand until they are brought for trial, which the police cannot do right now because blocking a road is not considered a serious enough offence.”
The current law on obstructing the highway says an offence is committed only if someone blocks a road “without lawful authority or excuse”. Police and the courts are supposed to consider rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
“Our worry is that by suddenly treating any inconvenience to traffic as a serious crime, the government is encouraging the police to make more arrests, more quickly, in circumstances that are unfair and arbitrary – the same outcome the new provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on shutting down “noisy protests” seem intended to achieve.”
On increasing stop and search powers, Netpol said this meant:
“anyone linked to a protest group that has used civil disobedience tactics will be liable to be stopped and searched on their way to or during a demonstration, facing targeting and harassment by the police simply for wearing a badge or carrying a protest banner that identifies them as a campaigner – regardless of whether they are engaged in direct action or not.”
The human rights lawyer, Adam Wagner, said of the criminal disruption prevention orders:
“This is a highly illiberal measure. Preventing people exercising their free-speech rights in advance because they are ‘disruptive’ is fraught with risk for a democratic society.”
The measures are expected to be added to the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. This has already been opposed in and outside parliament.
Insulate Britain was at the Royal Courts of Justice in London this morning to oppose an injunction against protests by its activists on the M25 and at the port of Dover. Another two injunctions have been granted to the Highways Agency.
The court heard that 111 activists had been served with injunctions. The case was adjourned to next week after government lawyers said arguments on all three injunctions should be heard together.
Before the hearing, Insulate Britain spokesperson Liam Norton apologised for disruption caused by the group’s protests. He said the actions would continue “until the government made “a meaningful statement indicating that they will insulate all of Britain’s 29 million homes by 2030”.
Mr Norton said:
“As soon as we have a meaningful statement we can trust, we will call off the campaign. That is all we ask.
“But, if our government believes that our acts are outrageous and illegal, that there is no right of necessity to cause disruption, to prevent the far greater destruction of our economy and way of life, then it has a duty to act decisively.”