Protester tunnelling to become a criminal offence
Criminal penalties for tunnelling
The Government has made an amendment to the Public Order Bill, currently going through Parliament, to make it a criminal offence to cause serious disruption by creating and occupying tunnels. Going equipped to create these tunnels will also be criminalised.
The amendment proposes a maximum prison sentence of three years and an unlimited fine.
This move is likely to have been influenced by the recent protests by groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, and particularly those protests against the construction of HS2. The National Eviction Team has removed tunnellers from a number of sites, including Euston Square Gardens in early 2021.
What happened after the HS2 tunnel protester eviction?
The tunnel protesters at Euston Square Gardens were prosecuted after we safely removed them. However, the charges of aggravated trespass against them were dismissed in October 2021 by district judge Susan Williams on a technicality.
Why the amendment has been made
In explaining why this amendment has been made, Home Secretary Priti Patel comments on how dangerous, disruptive and costly to the taxpayer such protester tunnels are. The air quality can be poor (although we always ensure that we provide a high-quality air supply as soon as we arrive onsite) and the tunnels can become death traps, endangering those inside, members of the public and enforcement agents undertaking the protester eviction.
Impact of criminalisation
What might the impact be? Whilst the new Act, assuming it is passed, will give Police greater power to stop protesters before they get into the tunnels, they do not have the skills, expertise, equipment or specialist insurance to safely remove protesters. They will still need to use eviction specialists like the National Eviction Team to do this.
The other challenge is that protesters will dig their tunnels in secret, and the first that the landowner usually knows about it is once they are in situ, and often locked-on within the tunnels.
Will the threat of arrest and imprisonment deter protesters from using tunnels? It might discourage some, but the highly committed eco-protesters we encounter are unlikely to be dissuaded, seeing it as a risk they are willing to take.
However, it is still a move worth making and we support this amendment to the Public Order Bill, which complements the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, recently passed into law, which has increased the penalty for wilfully obstructing a highway and will make public nuisance a statutory offence.