I have a speech. The amendments are concerned with the scope of the new offence of interfering with the use of key national infrastructure. Amendments 49 and 50 replace the words “interferes with” with “prevents”. We assume that the intention is to raise the threshold of this offence to actions that completely stop a piece of key national infrastructure from being used for its intended purposes, although in fact subsection (4) already defines “interferes with” as preventing use or operation. Amendment 51 supports the change by removing that definition.
I understand what I presume are the hon. Lady’s concerns about the scope of the offence, but I do not see a need for the amendments. Subsection (4) already defines interference with key infrastructure as an act that
“prevents the infrastructure from being used or operated to any extent for any of its intended purposes.”
Removing that subsection and replacing “interferes with” with “prevents” would leave the threshold of the offence undefined, leading to ambiguity over what sort of acts it would apply to.
Furthermore, I reiterate that it is vital that this offence applies to a range of disruptive actions against infra-structure, rather than ones that halt operations completely. As we have seen during protests by groups such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, even acts that delay the use of infrastructure—for example, acts that stop roads being used by the public—can cause severe disruption. Ambulances cannot get through, key deliveries are delayed, contracts cannot be fulfilled—the list goes on.
Fundamentally, the Government consider acts by a small number of determined, disruptive protesters who significantly delay the use of key infrastructure to be just as damaging as those that prevent its use entirely. I therefore encourage the hon. Member for Croydon Central to withdraw the amendment.
I think I might have handed my speaking notes to Hansard in my previous handover of information. We have tabled three simple amendments to clause 4, which is on interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure. It is similar in some ways to the previous clause, which looked at major transport works.
A person commits an offence if
“they do an act which interferes with the use or operation of any key national infrastructure in England and Wales” and
“they intend that act to interfere with the use or operation of such infrastructure or are reckless as to whether it will do so.”
In amendments 49 and 50, we seek to replace “interferes with” with “prevents”. We believe that it is a stronger word and has the clarity that the law requires. The term “interferes with” is broad and difficult to interpret; “prevents” is much stronger.
In amendment 51, we seek to remove a passage that says:
“For the purposes of subsection (1)”,
which is the offence itself,
“a person’s act interferes with the use or operation of key national infrastructure if it prevents the infrastructure from being used or operated to any extent for any of its intended purposes.”
Will the hon. Lady concede that if the wording is changed from “interferes with” to “prevents”, it will leave a loophole for the protesters? They will say that they did not prevent; they merely delayed.
I think that the psyche of the protesters we are talking about, as we have said many times, means that they will not be deterred by legislation generally. The argument we keep making is that we do not want to over-criminalise people who are going about their business, making a protest that nobody would have a problem with. Our amendments are designed to tighten the clause and improve its scope.
We are talking about key national infrastructure and whether the use or operation of any key national infrastructure is interfered with or prevented. If an oil refinery is being blocked—we would argue that there is already plenty of legislation in place to deal with those protesters—that would clearly prevent the operation of key national infrastructure. That is the point of our three amendments. On this occasion, I will not test the will of the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
“(j) emergency services.”
The amendment adds emergency services to the list of key national infrastructure in clause 4(6), on page 5. This is really a probing amendment. As we have already discussed, we have issues with the entire clause. However, there is something interesting in how one defines national infrastructure.
Labour is the traditional party of work and workers, and over the last several years, we have spent much time clapping, thanking and cheering key workers in the emergency services, particularly through the covid pandemic. As shadow Minister for police and the fire service, I spend much time in and around the blue-light services, as I am sure the Minister does in his role. We see at first hand the incredibly important work that they do, night or day, come rain or shine. I therefore find it strange that the Government have not added emergency services to the list of key infrastructure. I actually think that the fire service, the ambulance service and police forces are just as important, in terms of infrastructure, to the continued smooth running of our country as all the other things on the list. They keep people safe and secure and save lives in a multitude of ways.
Let me explain our amendment a little further. We do not think that protests should be able to stop the emergency services from doing their jobs. An ambulance should not be stopped when rushing a patient to hospital. A fire engine should not be halted when people are trapped in burning buildings, and the police must be able to reach the scene of a crime as quickly as possible. We know that time is often of the essence in those things. However, I should also make it clear that we do believe that there is scope for protest, in some instances, around such sites, for instance with protests against the closure of a GP surgery, a police station—the Minister may well remember several of those from his time at City Hall—or an accident and emergency facility.
In April of this year, for instance, protesters staged a protest in Shropshire, in a little town called St Martin’s, at the closure of a GP surgery. The surgery in St Martin’s, Shropshire, has been closed since March 2020 and made an application to the health board to close permanently. Hundreds of people have signed a petition calling for the practice to remain in the village. In recent years, there have also been protests in Lincolnshire at the closure of A&E services in Grantham.
Those are very legitimate protests; they are examples of local people taking a stand at closures that will really affect their local area and the health of their families and neighbours. The key point is that they were done in proportionate ways. It is important that we make that distinction; they did not and do not stop the emergency services. Our amendment to this clause provides protection for emergency services but does allow for legitimate protests around sites that may come under the aegis of the emergency services, such as a police station or an A&E site.
I think that we can all agree that the emergency services do an exceptionally important job, and the Minister might therefore like to comment on their inclusion on this list of key national infrastructure. Would he not agree that blocking a police car as it races towards a crime, such as domestic violence, ought to be considered interfering with key national infrastructure?
I hope that I have given Members on both sides some food for thought about what should come under the definition in the clause. Emergency services are an essential service, and if an oil refinery is going to have such offences applied to it, the logic stands that emergency services infrastructure should too.
I must say that I have some sympathy with what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve. However, her Government, she will be please to know, got there before us by creating the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006, which has already created an offence of intentionally obstructing an emergency worker from exercising their functions, punishable on summary conviction by an unlimited fine.
There are lots of other bits of legislation that can stop protests and stop people from interfering in all kinds of different ways. The key point that we were trying to make is that if we define national infrastructure, it is peculiar not to include emergency services in that definition.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, although it was only a breath ago that she was telling me that the clause was broad, and, now, she is attempting to broaden it. As I said, we already have significant legislation that will assist us. We should not forget that some of the offences that we have already considered will assist. The police use the roads and therefore our ability to deal with people glued on to the roads will be critical. The police need fuel and ambulances need fuel, so locking on to fuel depots will similarly be covered.
We do not feel that there is a need to legislate for this particular offence. We think there are significant protections already and very stringent punishments for impeding emergency workers in their work. While I have sympathy with the hon. Lady’s intentions, and she is quite right that emergency workers should seek and deserve all the protection we can give them, I urge her to withdraw the amendment.
Clause 4, as we have been talking about in the debate on the amendments, introduces a new offence of interference with the use or operation of key national infrastructure. Subsection (1) makes it an offence for a person to
“do an act which interferes with the use or operation of any key national infrastructure” where the person intends the act to have that effect or is
“reckless as to whether it will do so.”
Subsection (2) provides a defence of “reasonable excuse” and a defence applying to industrial action, which the Minister referred to. The clause sets out the maximum penalty for the offence—namely,
“on summary conviction, to imprisonment for term not exceeding the general limit in a magistrates’ court”,
rising to 12 months, or an unlimited fine, or both—imprisonment, a fine or both.
Subsections (4) and (5) define interference as an act that “prevents” or “significantly delays” the infrastructure from being used or operated to any extent of its intended purpose. The clause then lists the key national infrastructure, which we have been debating, and that includes, apart from emergency workers, transport sectors including air transport and harbours; oil, gas and electricity infrastructure; and newspaper printing infrastructure, which we will talk about later.
We think clause 4 defines interference incredibly broadly, as any act that
“prevents the infrastructure from being used or operated to any extent for any of its intended purposes.”
Liberty has pointed out that the low threshold appears to contradict the Supreme Court’s finding that deliberately obstructive protest can come under the protection of articles 10 and 11, and risks criminalising an extremely wide range of activities, including where the use or operation of infrastructure is “significantly delayed”. That term is not defined in the offence.
We have tried to remove clause 4. We hear the concerns that some protests can tip the balance of rights in the wrong direction. I repeat that protest is not an unqualified right—campaigners who block people from reaching relatives in hospital and oil protests that prevent people from crucial travel are breaking the law—but there are a raft of measures already in place. This is a fundamental point that the Minister has not acknowledged: a panoply of existing powers on public order is available to the police.
In the debates we have had over the past year on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the way some Members have talked about the policing of protest has sometimes implied that the police are not doing anything and that there are currently no powers they can use. We are not starting from a position of nothing; we are starting from multiple pieces of legislation. There is wilfully obstructing the highway, the offence of criminal damage or conspiracy to cause criminal damage, the offence of aggravated trespass, the offence of public nuisance and the offence of breach of the peace, which we have not yet talked about much.
More than 20 people were arrested for criminal damage and aggravated trespass at Just Stop Oil protests in Surrey. Injunctions were granted at Kingsbury oil terminal following more than 100 arrests, and there were further arrests for breaching those injunctions, which are punishable by up to two years in prison: nine people were charged. When Extinction Rebellion dumped tons of fertiliser outside newspaper offices, five people were arrested. Earlier this year, six Extinction Rebellion activists were charged with criminal damage in Cambridge. In February this year, five Insulate Britain campaigners were jailed for breaching their injunctions, and in November, nine Insulate Britain activists were jailed for breaching injunctions to prevent road blockades. It is important to point out that for the kinds of protesters we are talking about, breaking the law and being arrested is often the aim.
During our evidence sessions, we heard from police officers about how well the police can use the existing laws. Chief Superintendent Phil Dolby from West Midlands police spoke to us about a large, disruptive protest in Birmingham, where he negotiated conditions using the Public Order Act 1986:
“I just gave a warning about the police’s power to who I was evidentially satisfied was the organiser. I negotiated and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this power. It’s ready, and here it is. Do you want to carry on, or can I encourage you to stop? You have had your opportunity, and you need to move on.’ There was a negotiated approach that I thought tried to keep the balance for everyone.
Similarly, Extinction Rebellion recently blocked a fairly minor road…They had a tactic whereby instead of staying in the middle of the road all the time, they would use the pelican crossing but let the traffic stop by the traffic furniture. They would then occupy the road for about five minutes and when the traffic built up, they would move away…
We have our protest liaison teams, and there is a five-step appeal that officers go through, which we document and fill, giving every opportunity for the protesters to reach the decision themselves. Eventually, I said, ‘Okay. There is a power here to stop you. This is an unlawful assembly because it is now causing serious disruption. There’s a children’s hospital that is starting to be affected, so now that’s enough.’
I brought forward the van that is a mobile prison cell—kind of a show of strength, really—and said, ‘That is what I am prepared to use’. They said, ‘Okay’, and that was enough. Again, both the powers were available to us. They were being prepared to be used. We were not just tolerating it; there was a negotiated approach, and both of those are examples of where that has been successful. On the serious disruption element in the Bill, I would encourage as much precision for that definition as possible.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
As Peter Fahy aptly said,
“In all the protests it is escalation, which looks in the early stages like the police are being weak, but in the background they are talking to people and they are escalating…You work up to it”.––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
The concern about the definition of serious disruption is shared by many people across policing. In the written evidence submitted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Chief Constable BJ Harrington—the national lead for public order—wrote that,
“the term ‘serious disruption’ has been subject to much discussion and debate. Within any new legislation we would welcome clarity or guidance about the threshold and interpretation of this to allow operational commanders to best apply their operational responses.”
I urge the Minister to bear in mind the consequences of these provisions for the police officers trying to put them into practice.
For me, that is the issue: one of the impacts of this legislation will be that we give the police nowhere to go, other than straight to arrest. In my policing experience and that of Lord Paddick, once the police start arresting people, they very quickly run out of cops before they run out of protesters. Does the hon. Lady agree?
I absolutely agree; the struggle within policing to have enough people to do the day job is already bad enough. I have been to Berwick, and very often in the summer months, when there are vast numbers of holidaymakers at the caravan parks, the police will only have one or two officers on. If there is a fight and they choose to arrest somebody, they then have to take that person into custody, which means there is no one left, so they have to make very difficult decisions. In the case of a protest, the police can have a negotiation and allow people to make their point, which is what protesters want to do and what we all want to facilitate. Then, the police can get to the stage where they say, “You are now causing serious disruption, so now we need to begin to use some of our powers.” That is a much preferable way of policing.
The police did not ask for most of these powers, and there has not been a proper consultation process with them on this piece of legislation. The big piece of work that was done by Matt Parr took place before the then Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and, as we heard in evidence, some aspects of this Bill were considered by him, but some were not, including the infrastructure and transport sections. There has been no proper consultation with the police on these clauses.
The police should not have to make decisions about definitions of vague terms in legislation. They will look like political decisions and put even more pressure on the police. During progress of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, many Members from different sides of the Chamber made that point in the House.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council wrote:
“It is essential that any powers or legislation are straightforward and capable of use by officers and staff at all levels. Experience has shown that unless legislation is clear and simple for use in complex and fast-moving public order situations that it can fail to have the positive impact intended and sometimes create an expectation that cannot be met or lead to unintended issues.”
I also note the points in the NPCC’s excellent evidence about police responsibilities on private land. It wrote:
“We want to ensure that any new legislation does not inadvertently transfer or encourage reliance on policing for security or reduce the ability or necessity of organisations to obtain injunctions. This would not only be a fundamental change in the role of policing but would create a significant capacity issue that would detract from force’s wider duties to prevent and detect crime.”
The NPCC argues that,
“police powers that are practical for use on the front line…Police responsibilities on private land—The funding and resourcing of Home Office police forces is applied primarily to ensure effective policing of public spaces.”
There is an interesting section on this issue that I will not read out, but I am sure the Minister has seen it and will be thinking it through.
The NPCC goes on to say,
“we believe that the question of the responsibility for policing of private land is key. There is a question about the definition of ‘key national infrastructure’, and we would have concern about an explicit duty being placed on policing to deal with activity on private land.
We would be concerned about the impact to our operational response were the responsibility, risks, and costs for securing these sites to be moved from private sector organisations to the police. The impact on police resources, especially for the forces where much of this key infrastructure resides, could be substantial. We believe there is potential for other agencies and organisations to have the powers which would go some way to prevent this.
We believe that there needs to be a strong rationale behind what is considered key national infrastructure, taking into consideration the potential impact of any disruption taking place, so that there is no risk to confidence in policing in being seen to protect private business interests or placing an unreasonable burden on policing that will detract from our core mission.”
We argue that it is not fair to keep piling on new offences. In his evidence, Sir Peter Fahy talked very well about expecting the police to make sense of the new offences, then interpret them and then do all the work.
The Government could do more to work with the police, those who run public and private infrastructure and local authorities to support the right to peaceful protest, to work together to safeguard essential infrastructure, to review the measures that they have just introduced before coming back for more, to work on training, guidance and the resources that public order teams need, and to work on streamlined plans for injunctions that could protect the smooth running of essential infrastructure, if needed.
I again make it clear that we do not support those hardline protesters who keep returning to make people’s lives a misery. We do not believe that clause 4 will fix the problems that our evidence sessions highlighted. It will not speed up the removal of protesters who are causing serious disruption or be a deterrent for those who want to break the law. It risks creating more flashpoints for the police.
Our national infrastructure needs protecting. We hear the anger, irritation and upset when critical appointments are missed, when children cannot get to school and when laws are broken. Of course, the police must act but, unamended, the legislation is too broad to be workable.
As the hon. Lady said, clause 4 introduces a new criminal offence of interfering with the operation of “key national infrastructure”. As we heard in our evidence, recent actions by protestors, including activity blocking or obstructing our printing presses, roads and fuel supply, have inflicted misery on the hard-working public.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said on Second Reading, the Government cannot stand idly by and let small groups of disruptive individuals prevent people from getting to their places of work by blocking trains and roads, or stop vital supplies of fuel reaching the public by preventing oil tankers from leaving terminals across the country. Such actions cause enormous damage and have a serious economic cost. For example, policing Insulate Britain’s sit-down protests on our major highways cost £4 million, while the policing cost alone of responding to Just Stop Oil’s campaign against terminals and fuel stations is over £6 million in total so far. It is clear that we have to act.
Individuals commit this offence if they intentionally or recklessly engage in an act that prevents the use or operation of key national infrastructure to any extent, including through acts that significantly delay the operation or use of such infrastructure. The range of infrastructure covered by this offence will ensure that our major transport networks, and our energy and fuel supplies, are protected. I will say more on this issue when the Committee scrutinises clause 5.
The hon. Member for Croydon Central pointed out that I have failed to accept certain principles that the police have put forward, but in turn I ask her to accept that we heard quite clearly from the operational police chief, our first witness, that the measures in the Bill would help. He said that he required more assistance in dealing with these protesters. I hope that she will also accept that over the last couple of years we have seen a change in the tactics employed by these protesters. It is something that we have not seen since the last major revision of public order legislation back in the 1980s.
We have seen some new tactics, but the tactics are mainly old. I understand that Swampy, who we will remember from decades ago, is in a tunnel somewhere under HS2¸ so these things do come around again.
As for the Minister’s point about the police, it is important to note that there has not been a proper consultation on the clauses on infrastructure and transport. I have spoken to lots of police officers about the Bill, and there is not as much knowledge about it as there might be, because there has not been a proper consultation process, whereas there was with the previous piece of legislation. The police quite rightly do not take a political position, but there are plenty of people who have concerns about the breadth of this legislation, not necessarily because they do not want new powers—some of them are saying, “We need new powers”—but because they worry that interpretation of the Bill, which is so broad, will put them in a very difficult position.
I am glad that the hon. Lady accepts that the police are asking for more powers; indeed they are.
And they have specifically requested a number of the powers in the Bill. The person who, as I hope she will agree, was the most credible witness was the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for public order and protest, who said positive things about the legislation.
The hon. Lady is perhaps struggling with the notion that while we can define offences and human behaviour in this place, there is an entire industry of lawyers out there who then go on to interpret what we say. There are common terms that might appear that have particular meaning in colloquial English that have developed meaning over time in the courts. “Serious disruption” is the one that the hon. Lady is speaking to, and I will give some thought as to whether we need to think more about that, but “serious disruption” to the life of the community has been an established part of public order policing and indeed general policing for some time—at least, I think, since 1986 and the Public Order Act of that year. That Act has been interpreted through the courts in a number of ways, which means that it is well understood by police, lawyers and indeed protesters.
As the Minister will be aware, in my constituency, we have significant amounts of fuel infrastructure. Indeed, in the recent Just Stop Oil protests, more than half of the arrests made nationally were made in my constituency. The proposals in this legislation absolutely reflect the conversations that I have had with the local police and with local authorities. I pay tribute, through the Minister, to the great efforts of the local police and local authorities to ensure that the disruption caused did not spill out into the wider community, because the role of Thurrock in the dispersal of fuel across the country is significant, so things could have been much worse. These proposals will make it much easier for the police to act and will make them more fleet of foot.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she makes a very strong point and she is quite right; that is my experience of talking to the police officers dealing with those protests. She points to the importance of particular locations in our fuel supply network. A number of key, large, strategic fuel depots take the bulk of the load, and even a small interference with their ability to get fuel out could have a significant ripple effect that would be felt by the public.
The hon. Member for Croydon Central seems to be under the impression, or possibly trying to create the impression, that the police will change their practice and thousands of protesters will be locked up. I am confused; she seems to imply that those who are disrupting High Speed 2, for example, deserve to be arrested. She said that the cost was “horrifying”—I think that is the word she used. She accepts that HS2 has been approved by a democratically elected Parliament, and was voted for unanimously across the House. It was supported by all parties, and those protesters are seeking to frustrate that democratic decision.
All we are talking about is what offence those individuals should be charged with. We are seeking to give the police more of the options that they have asked for, and more tools to use. That reflects the fact that a number of individuals have avoided charges on technicalities, because of the complexity of the operations and the landownerships involved.
At the risk of more repetition, the point is if there is a new offence of locking on, the police might see people linking arms at a protest and think, understandably, “That is an offence! I need to arrest them.” I did not make the point earlier, but there is also an issue around resources. I wanted to ensure that I mentioned to the Minister the issue around resources for protests. For example, the number of police horses has been cut significantly in recent years. They are a very useful tool in managing protests. I am sure that the Minister understands that, and has seen how successfully police horses can manage a crowd. In this cost of living crisis, the cost of horses has gone up by £2,000 or £3,000, so the police are finding it difficult to replace horses. That is slightly niche, but it is a very important part of our ability to protest. I ask the Minister to support our police horses as much as he can.
I am always keen to support all forms of non-human participants in crime fighting, from dogs to horses. I am not sure what relevance that has to the legislation. The hon. Member is right that in certain crowd-control situations, police horses can prove enormously calming to a crowd, which is important. However, that is a crowd situation. Horses are often used in the control of football crowds, as she will know. In a protest situation, particularly a violent protest situation, they are often used more as a dispersal tool. That is where I have seen them used. We have to be careful about straying into police tactics, rather than the legislation, which is our responsibility.
The hon. Lady seems conflicted: she is happy for protesters to be arrested and charged under current offences, or for them to go to prison under an injunction that may have been obtained by HS2, News International or any other site owner, but she seems strangely reluctant to achieve the same effect through the criminal charge that we are putting in place through this legislation. I find that asymmetry difficult to explain.
I explained earlier how seriously the Government take the offence in clause 4, and the maximum penalties available reflect that. Individuals can face a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. It is completely unacceptable that small numbers of protestors can attack the vital infrastructure that keeps this country running. This Government stand on the side of the public, who want to go about their lives free from the disruption and misery that these protesters can cause.