What Netpol’s new report says about the policing of anti-fracking protests in 2017

PHOTO: Netpol

‘Protecting the Planet is Not a Crime’ – Netpol’s new report on the policing of anti-fracking protests during 2017 – was launched on Monday outside the gates of Cuadrilla’s site on Preston New Road in Lancashire.

The launch highlighted one conclusion of our report – the overwhelming case for an external review of the way the policing operation in Lancashire has been conducted. It received considerable media coverage in the north west including BBC and ITV, That’s Lancashire TV, the Blackpool Gazette, Rock FM News and more widely on LBC, Heart FM and in the Morning Star, Drill or Drop, Left Foot Forward, Evolve Politics, DeSmogUK and the Salford Star.

Keith Taylor MEP

Keith Taylor MEP speaking at the launch of Netpol’s report.

Green MEP Keith Taylor, who wrote a foreword to the report and spoke at the launch, also praised it in a piece for Politics UK. Most importantly for Netpol, it was been well received by campaigners on the ground in Lancashire.

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron speaking on Monday. PHOTO: Netpol

Keith Taylor MEP with campaigners at Maple Farm

After the media had left the launch on Monday, Lancashire Police managed to reinforce one of the points in our report about disproportionate levels of policing at Preston New Road.

The full report is available to download here [,8 Mb].

However, the following is taken from the report and sets out in more detail the conclusions it reaches.


What we have witnessed over the last year

Events in particular at Preston New Road in Lancashire and, based on the first month at Kirby Misperton, in North Yorkshire too have pointed to a culmination of many of the concerns we raised in 2016 about policing that is unpredictable from one day to the next.

Increasingly confrontational and violent tactics against protesters

Over the course of 2017, Netpol has seen evidence, particularly from Lancashire, of police officers pushing people into hedges, knocking campaigners unconscious, violently dragging older people across the road and shoving others into speeding traffic. We had also heard about the targeting of disabled protesters (including repeatedly tipping a wheelchair user from his chair) and officers using painful pressure point restraint techniques. In Lancashire, campaigners have repeatedly accused the police of ignoring violent and unlawful actions by private security employed by the shale gas company Cuadrilla.

Similar allegations are now emerging in North Yorkshire. These confrontational and aggressive tactics are combined by often significant number of officers who seem, based on the testimony we have heard, ready to contain, assault or arrest any demonstrator for the slightest infringement. Police tactics appear deliberately intent on making it as difficult as possible for local people to effectively oppose the activities of the onshore oil and gas industry. There have also been claims that officers have tried to deliberately provoke the protesters in order to make more arrests (see page 14).

Deliberately stifling the effectiveness of protests

This represents a approach to environmental protests that we have seen before. In a 2009 report on the policing of the previous summer’s protests against E.ON’s Kingsnorth power station in Kent, Phil McLeish and Frances Wright from Camp for Climate Action’s legal support team (the predecessor of Green and Black Cross) said:

“… the police protected E.ON from adverse publicity and ensured that they stayed out of the story. Instead of a David and Goliath dispute between a company committed to boosting carbon emissions and ordinary people trying to stop them, the matter appeared in the media as a dispute between the forces of order and disorder.”

This is also the impression the policing operation has helped create at Preston New Road. It now looks as though North Yorkshire Police is intent on repeating this at Kirby Misperton, where campaigners are particularly frustrated by the police seeking to portray them to the media in the most negative way possible (see page 29).

Intensive lobbying of the police by the onshore oil and gas industry

This has been stoked, inevitably, by company representatives like the chief executive officer of Cuadrilla, Francis Egan, who has sought to to deflect concerns about the impact of his industry by smearing their opponents as “a small minority… choosing to make their protest unlawfully” and calling their opposition the “irresponsible, intimidating behaviour of a few activists.”

As this report highlights, The Times has also made unsubstantiated allegations of “activists filming vehicle registrations” and insinuated that demonstrations against the fracking industry’s supply chain companies are instead “hostile reconnaissance” – a term more often associated with collecting information to plan a terrorist attack.

A major difference, however, between the Climate Camps from 2006 to 2010 and current environmental opposition is that protests are taking place in local communities that have often opposed the drilling companies for many years. They are also fiercely opposed to shale gas and oil exploration and in Lancashire, local people won the arguments and persuaded the county council to reject fracking, only to see the industry imposed on them by central government.

This makes it all the more remarkable that police commanders seem so unconcerned about the widespread perception that the onshore oil and gas industry has succeeded in lobbying the police to ‘crack down’ on protests, or that councillors in these communities have gone as far as accusing officers of deliberately seeking to provoke a response to aggressive police tactics (see page 14).

Blaming ‘outsiders’ and ‘extremists’

Both senior officers and Police and Crime Commissioners have been quick to blame ‘outsiders’ for nationwide solidarity that local campaigners have explicitly called for, whilst ignoring evidence of violent police conduct (see page 16). There is still evidence, too, of both local council officers and the police falsely treating anti-fracking campaigners as potential ‘extremist’ threats, worthy of surveillance (see page 15).

We reiterate our call for an end to the targeting of legitimate campaigning by the government’s ‘Prevent’ counter-terrorism programme. Little if any thought appears to have been given to the long-term damage this will cause to relations between a significant section of the public and the local police.

Arrests and restrictions on civil disobedience

To largely first time campaigners, living in rural communities with little experience of demonstrations, it has seemed extraordinary that in 2017 disruptive but entirely non-violent protests would lead to hundreds and hundreds of arrests (see page 20).

There have been growing allegations this year of officers making unlawful or incomprehensible arrests that create exactly the kind of uncertainty we highlighted in 2016. One consequence of their rising number, the majority for obstructing the highway, has been to severely restrict the options for civil disobedience, particularly the tactic of ‘slow-walking’ delivery lorries.

There are a number of possible reasons for the inconsistent responses by police to this kind of protest: the inadequacies of national public order guidance (which makes no reference to tactics used by protesters), a provincial determination to ignore it, or simply a complete lack of local consideration of fundamental human rights. Either way, this is a long way from the promise of ‘no surprises’ policing.

Instead, what is hardly surprising is the assumption amongst campaigners, when individual forces are seen as deliberately obstructing freedom of assembly and remain unwilling to explain how they plan to protect human rights, that the police are making strategic decisions based solely on the demands of the fracking industry.

Where the police have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to any form of disruption, even to tactics as innocuous as ‘slow walking’, this has resulted in a change in the way protests are conducted. When faced with the increased possibility of sudden and what seems like arbitrary arrest, campaigners have often chosen more obstructive direct action methods such as ‘lock-ons’ or climbing onto lorries (see page 17).

In North Yorkshire, protests appear to have jumped forward to this position immediately, as a response to the police’s uncompromising equation of ‘peaceful’ protest as meaning absolutely no disruption of Third Energy’s activities (see page 28). Many seem to have made the judgement that, if they face arrest anyway, it might as well result from taking part in an action that is effective.

The problem with the police using arrests to try and neutralise the political impact of non-violent civil disobedience is that, as a tactic, it has invariably been vindicated by history. As the Kingsnorth report in 2009 pointed out, it has “often served as a safety valve in democracies by helping to catalyse necessary social change in fields blocked by vested interests”.

Everyone who faced the astonishingly repressive and disproportionate policing at Kingnorth in August 2008 can certainly feel vindicated: the power station was decommissioned in 2012, demolished in 2015 and coal-fired power generation is now in terminal decline. Almost a decade on, the anti-fracking movement sees companies like Cuadrilla, INEOS, Third Energy and UK Oil & Gas as simply the latest in a long line of vested interests blocking efforts to stop catastrophic climate change and the pollution of local communities.

Having tried lobbying and marches and found that local objections are ignored or overruled, some form of civil disobedience is often the only remaining option.

Failures of Police and Crime Commissioners to fully reflect local concerns

Based on our experiences in 2017, Netpol believes it is essential that Police and Crime Commissioners in areas where protests take place understand why public confidence and human rights concerns are important and that they do not hide behind ‘non-involvement in operational matters’ (see page 22).

Police and Crime Commissioners have a responsibility to hold their local forces to account and ensure the police are answerable to the communities they serve. This is even more important in communities where oil or gas exploration has been emphatically rejected, because it raises fundamental issues about how the police maintain public consent for strategic decisions that are seen as aiding an unwanted industry.

Policing operations that cause a long-term legacy of resentment and distrust create a ‘new normalcy’ that will last long after protests are over. Police and Crime Commissioners need to recognise that concerns about the public confidence costs of policing protests are just as important as the financial costs (see page 21).

This is why we continue to call for Police and Crime Commissioners to insist on greater transparency from individual forces about how they not only ‘facilitate’ the right to protest but actively protect the exercise of that freedom.

The need for an external review of policing protests in Lancashire

The extent of serious concerns set out in this report about how Lancashire Police has responded to protests at Preston New Road means there is now an overwhelming case for an external review of the way its policing operation has been conducted.

It has been difficult at times to comprehend why there has been so little concern about the impact the police’s refusal to tolerate any disruption is having on whether people feel able or too fearful to exercise their right to freedom of assembly. We welcome, therefore, the growing number of politicians, including Caroline Lucas, Jenny Jones and Keith Taylor from the Green Party and Labour’s John McDonnell and Rachel Maskell, who have visited protest sites this summer and who have condemned the use of intimidating and confrontational policing.

Netpol believes an external review of the way Lancashire Police has conducted its operation at Preston New Road is the logical next step. However, an evaluation conducted after anti-fracking protests at Barton Moss in 2014 by the then Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester Tony Lloyd, was horribly mishandled. Any review of strategic and operational tactics and decisions in Lancashire must demonstrate that it is genuinely independent and must also show it is willing to talk to the one important group that were ignored at Barton Moss – the campaigners themselves.

Civil injunctions risk restricting freedom to protest

As well as concerns about policing, we have also seen the shale gas company INEOS fire the first shot in a legal battle with the anti-fracking movement on behalf of the wider onshore oil and gas industry and we are likely to see more civil injunctions.

The broad injunction sought by INEOS (see page 27) covered a huge area across North and South Yorkshire, the East Midlands and Cheshire and sought to prevent “persons unknown” from conduct that might constitute “harassment” against INEOS or its suppliers, or from committing a range of offences including obstruction of the highway.

It also refers to a range of “unlawful activity” that is not necessarily a criminal offence. Specifically, it mentions “slow walking” of lorries, which is not inherently unlawful unless it involves unreasonable obstruction without lawful authority or excuse. In some parts of the country, as this report demonstrates, some degree of slow walking protest has been tolerated and in others areas it has been clamped down on immediately by the police, but this has always been contested. In many instances, campaigners arrested for obstructing the highway have either not faced prosecution or have been acquitted.

Our concern is that, if INEOS’ injunction is made permanent, it not only opens in further pre-emptive injunctions by other fracking companies based on widespread smearing of all anti-fracking campaigners as “militant extremists”. It may also significantly restrict even further the ability of campaigners to take part in civil disobedience or, indeed, any form of effective protest.

Urgent need to review national policy on policing anti-fracking protests

It is now vital that the National Police Chiefs Council undertakes its long promised review of guidance on the policing of anti-fracking protests.

Events at each of the different drilling sites around the country in 2017 have a wider implication on national strategies for policing anti-fracking protests. Eighteen months have now passed since the National Police Chiefs Council promised to review ‘Policing linked to Onshore Oil and Gas Operations’, a guidance document issued to forces in 2015.

So much has happened since then but it seems this guidance still forms the basis for police operational decision-making and planning. The NPCC promised again in January 2017 to finalise the way it will conduct its review, but since then there has still been no further progress on the timetable.

The review must begin immediately – and the NPCC must allow external stakeholders with knowledge and experience of the policing of anti-fracking protests, including Netpol, to contribute to it.