Now that all the trials arising from the Balcombe anti-fracking protests are over, Ruth Hayhurst of the excellent ‘Investigating Balcombe and Cuadrilla’ website – who attended almost all the cases – reflects on what the policing strategy sought to achieve in a two part guest post for Netpol. Part two (below) looks at whether Balcombe was used as a testing ground for new policing tactics. Part one examines whether the police operation set out to deliberately deter protesters.
Documentary evidence disclosed during the trials hinted that Sussex Police planned to produce briefings from the Balcombe protests. These would be distributed to other forces which might face similar policing issues in future. So was the force testing the use of particular charges?
Section 241 of the Trades Union and Labour Relations Act
This legislation has most commonly been used against secondary picketing, rather than environmental protesters, though it was used against Newbury bypass protesters in the late 1990s. At least one police officer at the Balcombe trials gave evidence that he had not come across it before the anti-fracking protests.
Barristers specialising in protest law rarely experience it either. Srikantharajah Nereshraaj, one of the barristers in a Balcombe Section 241 case, said: “I’ve been representing protesters (mainly anti-war, anti-fascist, student and environmental) for about five to six years and this is the first time that I or even people like Tom [a colleague] (who’s been doing it for about 10 years) has come across its use.”
Despite this, Sussex Police charged 30 people with Section 241. When asked why this legislation was used, the force said: “The activities of those taking direct action are considered against a wide number of offences relating to disruptive activity.”
Section 14 of the Public Order Act
Section 14 allows the police to issue an order which sets conditions on protesters. At Balcombe, Sussex Police issued two orders, which required protesters to use designated protest areas. The orders covered the periods August 16-22 – the Reclaim the Power camp – and September 10-27th – the final days before Cuadrilla’s planning permission expired.
There were at least 22 arrests of people under both Section 14 orders. Eight cases were dropped before coming to court. Of those that did go to court, none resulted in a conviction.
Solicitor Lydia Dagostino said she had never had a conviction on a Section 14 charge. “Section 14 is a complicated offence and in my experience the police often get it wrong”, she said “The cases are often dropped before they get to trial as there is close scrutiny by the defence of police powers and the decision making process.
“It was surprising that those arrested on 19th August were prosecuted with such vigour as the defence pointed out from day one that the police had got it wrong but for some reason they dug their heals in.”
The two District Judges who ruled on the legality of the Balcombe Section 14 orders said both orders were unlawful because of the way they had been written and enforced. DJ Tim Pattinson, ruling in the case of Caroline Lucas, said the conditions were “so vague and unclear as to be meaningless”.
When asked why Sussex Police had used hard-to-prosecute charges, the force responded: “Section 14 was granted as there was very credible information that more serious disorder was likely. We need to be absolutely clear our role is to facilitate protest but we cannot allow serious disorder and/or violence to break out.”
When asked if the force had produced a briefing document, Sussex Police said “We have lessons learned taken from a number of sources. They are not being collated into one single document, but are being taken forward in planning for any likely protests that may occur in the future.”
We asked if there was a document whether we could see it. The response to our question was “Not applicable”.
If there was a strategy, there was also evidence from the trials that policing at Balcombe didn’t always go according to plan.
On the first day of the protests, campaigners said there were no police at the scene until they were called by the driver of a vehicle which had been disabled by having its brake cables cut.
Both Section 14 orders were ruled to be unlawful. There were also problems implementing the order issued in August. Superintendent Jane Derrick gave evidence of the instructions she issued to officers on the ground:
- Notices should be displayed about the order. They weren’t.
- Protesters should have been given written copies of notices. That didn’t always happen.
- Protesters who were not locked-on should have been taken to a designated area and de-arrested. That didn’t happen. One PC said: “When I arrest people generally they go to custody”.
Some police officers gave evidence that they did not know the location of the designated protest area, imposed under Section 14.
Other officers described how they were working shifts of 12-14 hours, in hot weather, with not enough to eat or drink.
Despite the Section 14 orders, police continued to allow protesters to escort lorries up to the gateway of the site. When the Section 14 orders were enforced, there were complaints that this was not sufficiently explained.
MP Caroline Lucas said: “The communication side of the strategy was woefully inadequate. Time and again, police gave evidence saying that people should have understood what a Section 14 was. Well, over the last few weeks I have understood what a Section 14 was but even I, as the local MP, didn’t understand exactly what a Section 14 was and under what conditions it could be implemented.”
Calling to account
This week (May 16th) the temporary chief constable, Giles York, will be questioned on how Sussex Police deals with public order events, including protests. The issue will be raised at the monthly performance and accountability meeting with Katy Bourne, the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (SPPC).
The Commissioner’s press officer said some of the issues raised in this article will be “tackled thematically during this meeting.”
The meeting will be webcast live and recordings can be accessed through the SPCC website.
Part one of Ruth Hayhurst’s reflections of the policing operation at Balcombe – looking at whether it set out to deliberately deter protesters – can be found here.