Amendment 319A

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 11:45 pm on 24th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 11:45 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, the amendments tabled in my name are in response to the significant and repeated disruption we have seen over the last months by a small number of protesters. Their behaviour has clearly demonstrated that the balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of others tips far too far in favour of the protesters.

It is completely unacceptable for a minority of protesters to repeatedly and deliberately cause serious disruption to members of the public trying to go about their daily lives: trying to get to work or trying to get to hospital. Additionally, some of the tactics we have seen have been extremely dangerous, placing the police and the public, and the protesters themselves, at serious risk of harm.

We cannot have sections of our transport infrastructure or other critical infrastructure brought to a halt by a small group of protesters, whatever their cause. As I said in an earlier debate, we accept that some level of disruption is to be expected and tolerated from protest actions, but there is a line to be drawn. Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion and others have overstepped that line. The sentences recently handed down for breaches of the injunction obtained by National Highways demonstrate that clearly.

These amendments will strengthen the police’s ability to respond to the types of protests we have seen and reflect the seriousness of that type of behaviour. We need to update the criminal law and police powers to deter and prevent such wholly unacceptable disruption taking place. Civil injunctions have their place, but they are not enough on their own.

Amendments 319A and 319B introduce new offences of locking on and going equipped to lock on. These offences are designed to deter individuals from engaging in lock-on tactics, which cause serious disruption to the public and organisations. Lock-ons waste a considerable amount of police time and some, such as those on the side of buildings or on tripods or similar temporary structures erected by protesters, place the police and the protesters themselves at serious risk of injury or even death.

The locking-on offence will be committed where individuals attach themselves to other individuals, objects or land, or attach objects together or to land. It would be an offence only if their act causes or is capable of causing serious disruption. Furthermore, there must be an intention to lock on, and the offender must intend to cause, or be reckless as to causing, serious disruption. If found guilty of this offence, an individual will be liable to a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine, six months in prison or both. The offence will apply to lock-ons that cause, or are capable of causing, serious disruption on public and private land. However, private dwellings, including people’s houses, will be excluded.

Supporting this measure is the new offence of “going equipped to lock on”. This offence will apply where a person has with them an object with the intention that it will be used, either by themselves or someone else, in the course of or in connection with a lock-on. In this case, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine.

Amendment 319C increases the maximum penalties for the offence of obstruction of the highway and clarifies the scope of the offence. Currently, individuals found guilty of this offence face a maximum fine of only £1,000. Recent actions by Insulate Britain have shown that this is disproportionality low compared with the widespread misery and disruption that an obstruction of a major road can cause. Anyone found guilty of this offence will now face an unlimited fine, up to six months in prison or both.

Additionally, this amendment clarifies that the offence is still committed even if free passage along the highway in question has already been suspended. This is to address the defence that some have used, claiming that they were not guilty of obstructing the highway because they joined a protest after the police had already closed the road to ensure protesters’ safety while they were being removed.

Amendment 319D creates a new offence of obstructing major transport works, such as airports, roads, railways and ports. As noble Lords will know, protesters have caused huge disruption in the construction of HS2. Additional costs to the project resulting from protester actions alone are estimated at £80 million. That is unacceptable.

Protesters have been able to evade conviction for highly disruptive and dangerous acts, such as tunnelling under Euston Square Gardens, on effectively a technicality, namely that HS2 was not carrying out construction work on the site at the time of the occupation. This new offence will make it clear that obstructing the construction, and preliminary work to construction, of important transport infrastructure constitutes criminal activity and that the Government see this as a serious offence.

Acts in scope of this offence would include interfering with construction apparatus or obstructing the surveying of land prior to the commencement of construction. Such behaviour will carry a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine and/or six months’ imprisonment.

The amendment defines “major transport works” as any works that are

“authorised directly by an Act of Parliament” or by development consent orders under the Planning Act 2008. This would capture transport works of strategic importance that support the levelling up of our transport infrastructure across the country.