The statement made by Kit Malthouse, the Policing Minister, in the House of Commons on 22 September 2021.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about protests.
There is widespread anger throughout the country about the disruption, danger and misery that so-called climate protesters have caused with their selfish actions. On 13, 15, and 17 September, a group called Insulate Britain staged co-ordinated sit-down protests on the M25, leading to major traffic delays. They also targeted the wider road network—namely, the M1, M3 and M11. Dealing with that involved Surrey police, Essex police, Thames Valley police, Hertfordshire constabulary, Kent police, and the Metropolitan police as the lead force. A total of 241 arrests were made across those three days.
On Monday, those groups attempted to block the carriageway at junction 1A of the M25 in Kent, the M25 in Hertfordshire and junction 4 of the A1. Hertfordshire constabulary was present at both scenes and made 29 arrests. Yesterday, protesters blocked both M25 carriageways between junction 9 and junction 10. Surrey police arrived on the scene within three minutes and officers cleared the carriageway quickly. It is clear that police response times have improved significantly following the first two days of protests. The affected forces have dedicated significant resources to spotting protesters and removing them quickly.
Protest is a right, but it must be balanced against the rights of others to go about their daily lives. The right to protest is not unqualified and does not include a right to endanger others, to intimidate people or to break the law. The events of recent days have crossed this line. As anyone should know, sitting in the road is extremely dangerous, both to themselves and to others. Delays caused by protests between 13 and 17 September have cost drivers in excess of £500,000. This figure does not take into account the knock-on effect for the local road network, for manufacturing businesses or for those who missed their connections at ports. Previous actions of Extinction Rebellion, of which I understand Insulate Britain is an offshoot, have cost the taxpayer £50 million and diverted valuable police resources. We have all heard the heart-breaking stories about people not getting the medical treatment they needed, and seen people standing by their cars crying in frustration at this appallingly stupid and selfish behaviour. We have all had enough.
The Government have been working hard to address these concerns. The Home Secretary and I are in constant contact with the police, and we have been crystal clear in our support for their robust and swift enforcement of the law. There is absolutely no excuse for this selfish and disruptive behaviour. The irony is that it actually undermines the cause of climate change, as well as creating more traffic and pollution. These protesters live in a free country where they can lobby politicians, stand for election and boot us out of office if they do not like what we do. There is now widespread agreement in this House and across the political spectrum that climate change demands major action. In November, the UK will host a huge international conference where we will discuss and debate these very issues. But we do not change policies or make law in this country through mob rule or being held to ransom, and these people should not suppose for one moment that the public are with them.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is under consideration in the other place, contains proportionate measures better to enable the police to deal with disruptive protests. By putting public nuisance on to a statutory footing, as recommended by the independent Law Commission, we will increase the powers available to the police for dealing with this sort of protest. However, the disruption to our transport network is now so harmful and dangerous that we need to take swift action. The Home Office and the Department for Transport have been working closely with National Highways to keep the situation under review and explore options for enabling the police to take a more robust approach.
With our full support, National Highways has now won an interim injunction to prevent protesters from occupying the M25. As colleagues will know, an injunction is a judicial order, made in this case by the High Court, that can require someone either to do something or to refrain from doing something. This injunction prohibits people from blocking, endangering, slowing down, obstructing or otherwise preventing the free flow of traffic on the M25. If a person breaches the injunction, or if they encourage or help others to do so, they will be held in contempt of court and may be imprisoned or fined. The fine is unlimited. This should act as a major deterrent, and it recognises that this law breaking is serious, with consequences that match the offending.
The police should be fighting crime in our neighbourhoods, not chasing activists across busy motorways. That is why we have taken this action now, and we are working with National Highways on obtaining a full injunction later this week.
This is a free country but that freedom, particularly to assemble, to speak out and to protest, does not come without responsibilities to respect the rights of others and the democratic process. The British people expect us to make decisions in a civilised, democratic manner, and they expect that those who seek to bully or blackmail are sent packing, so it is with some pleasure that I commend this statement to the House.