Hello. My name is Nicola Bell and I am the regional director for National Highways in the south-east. On a day-to-day basis I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the motorway and A road network in the south-east of England.
Q Thank you both for coming to the Committee. Let me start with Mr Groves, partly because I have your written evidence in front of me and it is very interesting. I wish to explore with you the issue of injunctions, because in your evidence you set out that there is a problem with people who seem like frequent flyers—a small number of people who come back again and again—and that you are frustrated with the criminal powers. You say that the civil injunctions are useful but expensive. You have set it out in your evidence, but it would be useful if you could talk us through how you have used the injunctions and the process you are currently going through with the large, route-wide injunction you are pursuing.
As you say, we are under constant attack from illegal protest. We work closely with the police and seek their support in dealing with that, but in the past we have had to use three High Court injunctions on different parts of the route because we felt we were not getting where we needed to through using the police.
We have applied for a route-wide injunction, there has been a hearing and we are waiting for the outcome. Rather than going back every time to each parcel of land, we have asked the court to give us a full route-wide injunction, which we hope will have some effect on the behaviour of the illegal protestors. The decision by HS2 to seek that High Court injunction was taken in between the failure of the previous legislation and the introduction of this legislation. We hope the High Court injunction will have a positive effect, but it is still limited and we still look to the police to support us.
It can vary. We can secure a High Court injunction pretty quickly, depending on the circumstance, but it can take a long time—two to three months. Our application for the current injunction went in in March and there was a hearing at the end of May. We are still waiting for the outcome of that decision, and as soon as we hear, we will want to get moving on it.
As you said at the beginning, they are very expensive, and they do not always have the effect that we are seeking. Fundamentally, what we are seeking to do is deter illegal protester behaviour and stop it happening. What we have seen, as the chief constable alluded to, is that HS2 is running an operation right now in Staffordshire with people who have been subject to court action in the past, and just continue to come back and repeat the same behaviour against us. It is useful, but it is not having the full effect that we need.
Q Could I ask Ms Bell to talk us through the current policing powers that have been used on the highways, and in particular around people blocking the motorways, some of whom have ended up in prison? There has been a process, and there are powers in place. Can you talk us through what they are and how they have worked?
Absolutely. Just to put it in context, we look after something like 4,500 miles of motorway and A roads, and the difference we saw this time around was that they are not just related to a site, like HS2 for example. We had protesters literally popping up everywhere; you did not know where they were going next. The police were arresting them using their existing powers—obstruction of the highway, maybe—but they were telling us that that was not a deterrent to them coming back out literally the next day, which was why we then sought to get injunctions ourselves.
We ended up applying for four injunctions in total. We were granted all of them, and if those people then went back out again, ultimately we had to follow that through with committal proceedings, which take a lot of time and effort. That alone—those people breaching that injunction order—was the thing that meant they would be sent to prison or ordered to pay costs. In total, we ended up with 34 defendants. Some were sent immediately to prison, which I think ranged from 24 days to six months, and then you had 18 people who ended up with two-year suspended sentences, but it was for National Highways to pursue that, not the police, because the injunctions that we were granted did not come with a power of arrest. If you are a local authority, for example, you can get a power of arrest with an injunction. We are a private limited company, so we cannot, and therefore it is up to us to keep on going with the injunction process.
It is important to point out that you then have two processes running in parallel. The civil proceedings have now happened, and the police are only now starting the criminal proceedings, which will probably run until December this year. Remember, that is for protests that happened on our network at the tail end of last year. The first protest by Insulate Britain was on
Q You obviously have these hardcore people who are persistent: who are being arrested, being charged, and then coming back again. To what extent do you think a new offence of locking on, or whatever it might be, will change their mindset in that sense? Obviously, there are criminal charges that can lead to legal action, and injunctions that can lead to a more stable situation but are costly. What, in terms of more and different charges in the Bill or generally—calling them different things, but they are still criminal charges—would stop those repeat offenders who are intent on popping up on a motorway or blocking your building?
We have recorded 1,600 incidents against HS2 since the end of 2017. All of that is unlawful activity—trespass, violence against staff, criminal damage. Not all of those offences will lead to an arrest or any legal action. So, for us, this legislation is about the deterrent effect—absolutely. The extent to which it will cause a behavioural change in those who are participating is, I guess, the open question, but I would certainly see that tougher sentences and more police action would help—absolutely.
Q Mr Groves, may I start with you? Could you just give us a picture of what you have had to put up with over the last few years? Obviously, in your written evidence you outline the cost—the very significant cost—there has been to HS2. However, I was very struck that in your evidence you alluded to some of the conduct that your staff and contractors have had to put up with. Could you give us some examples of the kind of treatment that they have had at the hands of these so-called protesters?
Absolutely. It is probably everything and anything. We have seen violence against both staff and against those who are building the railway—so it is not just security staff who engage with them. These are protests that are taking place not just on the ground, but in tunnels. I am sure that you will all remember what happened at Euston; there was a 25-tunnel network under Euston. When we went in there to remove the protesters, the protesters were using lock-on devices sub-surface. There was violence against staff in there.
We have seen large-scale trespass. In Buckinghamshire, we did an operation to remove protesters from a site. We secured the venue, but they came back with about 100 people. They shone lasers in the eyes of staff members, they threw human waste around—I mean, it is the full panoply. What is different between what you see against HS2 as compared with other locations is that it is probably quite invisible to most of the public. Again, we have got an operation live at the moment. I have four protesters in a tunnel at the moment and they have been there since
Q Just to be clear—obviously, we all understand this, but just to be clear—the birth of HS2 followed a democratic decision in this House, following significant public debate and indeed protest and all the rest of it, and a decision was made, I think on a cross-party basis. Is that right?
Q Right. You do not quite say it in your written evidence, I do not think, but your view would be that these protesters are effectively trying to frustrate a democratic decision of this House.
Yes. I mean, if you consider the definition of “protest”, you have people protesting in Swynnerton, Staffordshire—they are not particularly visible to the public. Other than probably at Euston, that is what we have seen consistently right across the piece. I would say that nearly every day there is something—there is an incident, an unlawful act against HS2.
Q On persistent offenders, obviously, you have got what sounds like a hardcore group who come back again and again and again. Do you believe that the powers in this Bill to place controls on them would have a significant impact on your ability to complete the project?
I hope so. I mean, it is about the deterrent. The overwhelming issue for us is tunnelling, because it is the thing that causes us the most significant cost and delay. We can, with the support of specialist contractors, move people off our land, but when there are tunnels involved, or high structures, which we also see quite regularly—they will build structures on the surface, at height, and underground. However, the tunnels are the most significant, for us, in terms of removal and, again, the safety risk is significant.
Q Thanks very much. Ms Bell, I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about the injunction process, because it strikes me that there is a bit of confusion about the civil route versus the criminal route and what is possible between the two, which is being alluded to. I am sure that you will recall that the Labour party called for a nationwide injunction to deal with those protesters at the time. However, it is the case, as you say, that those injunctions are very difficult to get and although they require a lower standard of proof, they are a much more elongated process than necessarily a criminal charge.
Yes, absolutely. The thing is that I think a lot of people at the time thought that an injunction was the thing to go and do, but you must see it through; you must follow up with the committal proceedings, and it is that that then takes the time. We had to apply for a very urgent injunction, sometimes overnight, with things being prepared at pretty breakneck speed in order to try and protect what we were seeing. I am sure you are all aware of what we saw on the M25, with people either gluing themselves or sitting on the road. It is about the resource intensity that is needed to follow that up and follow that through. If I take the example of a day that they were protesting, on
Would it be fair to say that there is an asymmetry between what is available as a sentence under the injunction? I think it is up to two years.Q
Two years with a judge and quite a significant fine, but at the discretion of the judge. However, it does not have a power of arrest. On the flip side, while there was a power of arrest on some of the offences that were committed, such as obstructing the highway, actually, the sentence that is available is low and nobody, I do not think, will be in prison under any of the charges that have been laid.Q
No. I think you heard from the chief constable earlier that the arrests being made on the day were being made for low-level criminal offence—I think they were the words the chief constable used—for obstruction of the highway. It was literally going to the police station, getting processed and, the very next day, often the same person going out to another part of the M25 to do the very same thing again.
Q I think I am right in saying that obstruction of the highways carries a maximum level 3 fine, which is up to £1,000. Is that right?
Q I thought you may have had to research it.
So in your view, would it be a sensible move to combine the best of both? Effectively having a power of arrest for an offence that attracts a not dissimilar level of sentencing, which might act as a deterrent, that you would get under an injunction.
I think the level of offence is a matter for the police. For me, it is the same as John has mentioned. It is about the deterrent and, for me, it is really about safety. Walking on to a 70-mph road is not wise. If you look on Insulate Britain’s website, you will see evidence of the day they blocked the M25 at junction 25, where four protestors came out and sat on the road. They did exactly the same on the opposite side of the carriageway and that footage clearly shows the police in danger, my traffic officers in danger and the protestors in danger as people are trying to swerve, brake and avoid them. What is included in the Bill, I hope, offers that deterrent. That is what I would like to see given that my job is about trying to keep the motorway network flowing as freely and as safely as possible. If something deters them in terms of the locking on or interfering with infrastructure—of course, we have talked a little bit about the serious disruption prevention orders that might be available—maybe that might mean that you do not have to apply for an injunction because, actually, those repeat offenders could be tackled through that means.
Q Finally, from my point of view those protests cause a significant impact on the road network, which would have had an immediate impact on those individuals, but presumably, somewhere in your department or the Department for Transport, there is an economic impact that these things have. Have you been able to cost the economic impact of those kinds of delays?
I do not have the exact figure, but I will just give you a couple of examples. There is a day when they protested at Littlebrook interchange, just off junction 1A of the M25—maybe some of you will know it. Four protestors sat across our traffic signal control junction. You might have thought that was not going to cause too much impact because it is just a little bit off the M25. The impact was 4 km of slow-moving and queuing traffic over the Dartford crossing, and it took until lunchtime for the effects of that to disappear. The day they protested down at the port of Dover, they sat on the road, but two protestors climbed up the side of an oil tanker and glued themselves to the top of the oil tanker while we got rid of the people on the road. By mid-morning, the effects of that around the roads in Dover were felt until about half-past 5 in the evening. The economic impact of that alone, given the importance of road freight to the UK and goods coming in and out of Dover, probably speaks for itself.
Good afternoon to both of you. My question is for John. In your written evidence, you stress several times that the protests that you face are often unlawful. If Nicola agrees, I am happy for her to answer as well. If they are unlawful, that means that the legislation already exists to prevent or stop these protests, otherwise they would not be considered unlawful. In your view, what is it that stops those existing laws being implemented, and what is it about this proposed legislation that will make it more likely to be implementedQ ?
I come back to the tunnel point I made earlier. I assume that those that participate in going on to land and trespassing on land and digging tunnels know that they are breaking the law. but they do not see the current law as a significant deterrent to stop them from doing that. The police will always seek the balance between lawful protest and the rights of the landowner or whoever. Invariably, that often means issues with access to sites.
Access to some of our sites has been delayed for about eight hours. We cannot do any work. We cannot move vehicles in or out of our sites, because protesters are sat down outside at the access point, sometimes locked on, sometimes not. The police are there but they will not take action because they are allowing the right to protest. Because the protestors are not on HS2 land, we cannot do anything about that. We cannot move them on—on the public highway, only the police can move them on.
My sense is that this Bill, if enacted, will provide a deterrent effect for the protestors. I come back to the safety point—I am sorry to keep going on about tunnelling. Four people in a tunnel is such a serious thing; I am concerned that we will have a fatality at some point in the future. We have been really lucky. We have had four or five tunnel incidents and we have yet to have any serious injury, but I suspect it will come one day, if it continues in the way it is going. If we look at our data, we are seeing protestors turning to tunnelling more readily. In the operation we have just run, there were four shafts on one piece of land; they moved on to another piece of land very quickly and they started to dig a tunnel. We were able to get in quickly and move them on. That is my principal concern.
No, it is the same as what I was talking about before. It is about the fact that the police recognised that there was nothing that would stop somebody just keeping on doing this. They could arrest them, but it was a low-level criminal offence and ultimately that was not going to deter what we were seeing, which was pretty unprecedented, really—that level of protest in the south-east of England over the tail end of last year.
My question is to Nicola Bell. The Bill intends to make deliberate interference with key national infrastructure a criminal offence. As we have just touched on, Dover has several pieces of key infrastructure, such as the national strategic road network, the M2/A2 and the M20/A20, and the port of Dover itself, which transits about a fifth of all our goods. In recent years, the port and the strategic road network have been targeted by extremists on several occasions. We have mentioned the 2021 incident, which saw people gluing themselves to tankers and closed down the port and the M2 and M20. Going right back to September 2019, we had a similar incident with extreme protestors that saw the port completely shut down and disruption to and closure of the A20 and M20.Q
I was hoping you could expand on your earlier answer to give the Committee more of a feel for the impact of this kind of traffic disruption on the Kent and Dover economy and its importance to the strategic network for the nation, and for some of the safety and other challenges in dealing with these incidents that are different from the ordinary traffic disruption that your team deal with on a more regular basis.
The bounds of my responsibility would be, for example, the traffic officers that you see as they patrol the network. On the day of a protest, our role would be to try and create a safe space for the police to then get in and do their job. For example, on the day that they protested down in Dover, that was about protecting the area to allow the police to get specialist people in to get protestors off the top of the tanker and to therefore get the port open again and get things running.
On your point about the economy, as I mentioned earlier, 80% of domestic freight still uses road, so that is a pretty big impact on the economy. We know that most of our goods come in and out of the port of Dover, so therefore the roads they take—the M20, the A20 and the A2—are very significant indeed. Ultimately, the cost also relates to people not getting to where they need to be on time—whether that is missed appointments or freight not getting to where it needs to get to on time. I do not have an exact figure for the impact on the economy. I know that some of that has been worked on, and we can perhaps provide that to the Committee in writing afterwards.
What we saw was that, first, they got themselves on to the road and sat down, then they waited until the police arrived, and then they started to lock on so that they were causing maximum delay. I would say that, on average, if you had 10 of them sat down, at least three quarters of them were glued.
Q So they got there initially, sat down and did not immediately lock on, and then they would wait for the police to arrive and start doing it. Did the police do anything to stop them when they saw them doing it?
You can see in some of the footage, which is freely available on Insulate Britain’s website, that the police are trying to stop them putting their hands down on the road surface. As soon as they put their hand on the road surface, specialist teams need to come in to de-bond them, as it were. That adds to the safety risk but it also adds to the delay.
Q Broadening it out to Nicola and John, this Bill will hopefully do some good things in providing a deterrent, which both of you have mentioned. On the police’s threshold to intervene and the balance they strike between the right to protest and the right of others to go about their business, do you think they strike the balance about right at the moment? Have there been occasions where you have been frustrated that the police have not intervened as robustly as they could have done within the existing laws?
In the most recent experience I can talk about, the police were frustrated that they were not able to step in and deal with it. They were not on the ground immediately. Certainly, there is frustration from my team on the ground that the police are not more direct with some of the protesters; that is certainly true. Invariably, what happens on HS2 sites is that protests get there some weeks ahead of when we plan to take possession of land, so they are always looking forward and looking at what we are about to do. We publish all this information online about where the route is and when we will be taking possession, and they are always ahead of that.
It has a significant impact on morale. Invariably, my security team and my security contractors, who are somewhat used to dealing with difficult people—if I can put it like that—are subjected to verbal abuse pretty much all the time they are confronted with legal protestors.
Obviously, there is a broader range of people who are supporting and delivering for HS2 who did not sign up to being verbally abused or being chased around a field when they are trying to undertake an ecology assessment, for instance. We have also seen throughout our joint ventures that the tier 1 contractors that are doing the work of building the railway are having to invest in a lot more physical security and a lot more support for staff across a broad range, so it does have a significant impact.
Q Going to work and being threatened and intimidated is pretty awful. What more can we do, working together with you, to make sure you retain those staff? It is quite important that you retain the staff and get on with the job.
Absolutely, that is an issue for the economy—job retention and retaining the skills we need to build the new railway. As you can see from my evidence, we are putting a lot of money into physical security, and we are working through the joint ventures, which have some responsibility for their own staff. Fundamentally, as I said earlier, if this legislation is enacted and it provides that prevention, those risks will reduce, our costs will reduce and, you would hope, the staff who have been impacted will feel far more comfortable and at ease in coming to work every day.
Q It is really clear that the cases you are talking about are people doing criminal activity that need to be stopped in the best way we can—I do not think anyone on this Committee would think otherwise. It is important to say that. There is no question there—the question is how and what the tools are.
I have a couple of follow-up questions. In the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which has not yet come into force, there are lots of changes to protesting. They are not yet law, but they will become law as soon as the Government get around to doing that. One change is that obstruction of a highway will carry a prison sentence of up to six months. The Minister was talking about it being a fine—it will now be a prison sentence of up to six months. There is also a raft of stuff about imposing conditions on static protests, so, if you are organisers of static protests, there are conditions on those, and, again, you can be imprisoned for that.
What is your assessment of the impact that that legislation will have when it comes into force? There is a question as to whether we should implement that legislation to see whether it has an impact before we move on to other things. What is your assessment? Will it have an impact?
It may have some positive effect, but—I am sorry to repeat myself—tunnelling is the biggest issue for us, and I do not believe the Bill deals with that. Lock-on, as well, has a serious impact on us.
From my perspective, it is about seeing what impact that has and what the outcome will be. Obviously, it will be for the police to decide whether or not they are going to then use that new power to do exactly as you said. It is really about the impact that it has and whether it will be enough to act as a deterrent against people coming back. If it does, that is positive as far as running the strategic road network on a daily basis is concerned.
Q I just want to draw on that a bit more, Mr Groves. I think most people recognise that there is a difference between making a political protest and just causing trouble—deliberately blocking national infrastructure and affecting other people and how they go about their lives. Tunnelling is obviously far less visible than the sort of thing that we have seen on the highway. What do you feel is the intent behind some of the activity you see? Is it just to stop what you are trying to do?
Absolutely. The protestors state that in their social media posts and in the things they say directly to us when we are talking to them. They are intent on stopping the project. They want to stop the railway. They believe it is the wrong thing to do.
We have had to shift how we approach the removal operation by taking land earlier, to build in sufficient time for removal, so that it does not have a direct impact on the programme. We have learned as we have gone along and, as the protestor strategy has changed, our reaction to that has changed. Again, it is expensive work, having to have a High Court enforcement team, paramedics and mine rescue there 24/7, since
Q I thank you both for your time. What has come through strongly in your evidence is about very committed groups of individuals who have no regard for the law as it currently stands and are continuing to break it. What you have both said is that you hope this additional legislation will be a deterrence. Why do you think this legislation will be a deterrence, given what we have just described and what you have illustrated about very committed groups who pay no attention to the law?
I would expect that, if the legislation is enacted and the police pursue charges against individuals who are breaking these laws, it will have a direct effect. At the moment, when you compare the number of incidents we are seeing against the number of prosecutions and convictions, there is a disparity. I would hope this legislation would initially have a significant effect, and hopefully the deterrent effect will tail off after that and we would see a reduction in it. That is how I see it.
Similar to what I said earlier, for me it is about that repeat offence, where people keep going back out. That is one of the biggest impacts for us—what could be used under the serious disruption prevention order. I guess it is about them having more powers. All I can say is that, with the system as it is working at the moment, the police are telling us they do not have anything to deter and so they continue this repeated behaviour—hence why the injunctions were sought.
Q Mr Groves, you said that these groups are very good at looking forward and looking at where you are. Once this legislation is in place, where do you think these people will go next?
I do not know. In terms of the numbers of people we see protesting against HS2, we think there is roughly about 150 that are the core. Within that, there is a focused 20 people. It is not a big number, but we also see that they move between different causes and different protests. I suspect that we will see some of the people Nicola has been talking and vice versa. They will move. If there were a new Heathrow runway being built or a new nuclear build, they would probably move in those directions as well.
It is a relatively, I think, small community, albeit they draw in quite a large number every now and then. They will move on to other things, which is probably why the order would be helpful in that respect. At the moment, we are focused on HS2 actions in terms of our security and injunction work, but if the order has a broader effect across protester activity in general, that would be positive.
Q My questions are for Mr Groves. I will declare that I am no fan of HS2. Indeed, I voted against it at every opportunity I had in the House. However, as we all know, the majority of the House approved the project. Many of my concerns are about the spiralling cost of HS2. Could you tell the Committee again the costs of security measures for HS2 and removing protesters? Do you have any estimate of what the savings would be to the taxpayer if the Bill is enacted?
It is not just standard security for a site, which you would expect to see anywhere. The direct costs of protester activity to the taxpayer up to the end of March were £126 million. We estimate that by the end of next year, that could in a worst-case scenario reach £200 million.
Q My question is for Mr Groves. If tunnelling is the biggest issue for HS2, are you surprised that it has just been added on as an amendment, given that it is so important? What that does is cut out the consultation—there has been no consultation on it —so are you surprised that it has just been added on?
I suppose that is a question for the Minister, but I am not allowed to ask the Minister.
Can I go back to the question of deterrent? With some of the groups we are talking about, particularly the environmental campaigners, the aim is to get arrested—that is very clearly stated. I have seen calls to action where it says, “Our objective is to have x number of protestors, resulting in x number of arrests.” What makes you think that deterrence will make any difference, because the more offences there are, the easier it is going to be to get arrested for something, and that is their objective?Q
All I can say is that it is about the penalty that could follow an arrest. As I said earlier, if you contrast the number of incidents we have seen on HS2 sites against the number of arrests, there is a disparity. If there are more arrests as a result of what they are doing today, and there are more penalties, that should have a deterrent effect. In terms of fines, it is interesting that we have seen some offences being prosecuted and resulting in a fine. What sometimes happens, and we have seen this in other places, is that they will crowdfund and those penalties will be paid by others.
Q In that case, again, if they are willing and wanting to be arrested and are not worried about the level of fines because payment will be crowdfunded, that suggests that it is not a deterrent. I am a Bristol MP, and we saw with the Colston statue and the Black Lives Matter protests that the jury acquitted four of the defendants of criminal damage. My concern is that the more unreasonable the legislation is seen to be, the more bases it covers and the more it cracks down on what many people view as legitimate public protest, the more likely we are to see jury acquittals. Do you share that concern?
Q I want to pursue that point a little further. Mr Groves, as you see it, the current level of fines is not proving to be a deterrent because they can be crowdfunded. As I understand it, your view is that if we were specific about the offences of locking on and tunnelling, and we added a term of imprisonment and a criminal charge against those, that would be a ramping up that might prove to be a significant deterrent—is that right?
Q Ms Bell, obviously the impact of your injunctions on activity were delayed, but do you have a sense that, once protestors were going to prison under the injunctions, there was an element of deterrent there? Secondly, one of the things I know from my own experience is that when people realise that having a criminal record has implications, not least the fact that you cannot travel to the United States, that is in itself a deterrent as well. Did you get the sense that was having an impact?
To your first point, once people saw that injunctions were being followed through, committal proceedings were happening and people were going to prison, that did have a deterrent effect, because we have not seen a protest on the strategic road network since