Photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures
Artillery Row

Crime without punishment

It should not be difficult to distinguish between political protest and disrupting national life

Surely nothing better sums up the total inadequacy of the authorities’ response to the Insulate Britain protests than the news that a Labour councillor (amongst many others) has been arrested no fewer than four times in ten days — and is still blocking highways.

The whole thing is a circus. Under current legislation, “suspicion of obstructing a highway” is a crime that carries only a fine. The police also aren’t allowed to hold people on remand, meaning they can go straight back to causing public disruption.

It gets worse. The Government have finally secured an injunction against people blocking the M25 (which they hope to make permanent). But instead of solving the problem, ministers are apparently braced for a series of running battles as Insulate Britain engage in “cat and mouse” tactics, redeploying to other motorways and vital infrastructure, such as the Port of Dover.

Better surely to pre-empt this by securing an injunction against disrupting the entire network? But ministers apparently fear that this would be rejected as “disproportionate” by the High Court.

If there were any doubts before about the urgent necessity of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, which will give the police expanded powers to combat disruptive protest, these events must surely have put an end to them.

But this cycle of arrest and release shows that these powers will not, on their own, be enough to deliver an effective public order response and protect ordinary citizens from unwarranted disruption and economic harm.

Police should be empowered to hold an individual on remand

For starters, the police need to actually be prepared to go on the front foot and use their new powers. This is far from guaranteed, with too many senior officers seeming to take the view that it is better to allow disorder to proceed than risk injury to lawbreakers preventing it. If Priti Patel can’t secure the necessary change in attitudes, she should seriously consider bolder reforms that could pass responsibility for public order policing to a new force with a different internal culture.

Second, more needs to be done to make these protesters, so often older and well-heeled, actually liable for the damage they cause. It is not acceptable for people to blockade businesses, costing them millions, and then be let off with a “slap on the wrist” by prosecutors. If that requires legislation to reduce the scope for officials and judges to be indulgent, so be it.

Likewise, the costs of cleaning up paint, manure or whatever else the likes of Extinction Rebellion feel like throwing around, should fall either upon the individuals who do it or on the organisation, not the public purse.

As for getting arrested, it should not be something that takes a few hours and lends one a little revolutionary cachet. At the very least, police should be empowered to hold an individual on remand if they are re-arrested for the same offence.

Third, we clearly need to look again at the current system for securing injunctions. It is ridiculous that the Government and police have to resign themselves to a series of running battles with Insulate Britain — accompanied by a great deal of disruption and economic damage — because a judge isn’t prepared to sign off on the necessary action to protect the motorway network.

Doubtless, such action will spark fresh cries that ministers are violating the “right to protest”. But it should not be difficult to distinguish between protest and a coordinated attempt to disrupt national life.

Harassment and criminal damage should not be tolerated merely because they are perpetrated in the name of a political cause, and bored Boomers should not be allowed yet another outlet for immiserating working-age people. We can’t pay the social care levy if we can’t get to work.

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