How best to discourage public scrutiny into a controversial method of drilling for oil and gas?
Is it Method A – tolerate peaceful protest and meet campaigners with reasoned argument in the best traditions of our democratic society?
Or Method B – throw peaceful protesters in jail for more than 12 months using an antiquated law?
No brainer? Apparently not for the Crown Prosecution Service who decided it was in the public interest to charge three men with the offence of “public nuisance” – a common law offence that carries a maximum tariff of life in prison – for protesting against fracking.
Three anti-fracking protesters were sentenced when a jury at Preston crown court convicted them of causing a public nuisance. They took part in a four-day protest that prevented a convoy of trucks from delivering drilling equipment to a site near Blackpool, Lancashire, last summer.
Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, and Richard Roberts, 36, were sentenced to 16 months in prison, and Richard Loizou, 31, was given 15 months. As Simon said on this website: “I’m in prison - for sitting on top of a truck.”
So what did they do to deserve this draconian punishment?
They climbed on to the cabs of lorries driving towards the site and stayed there for up to four days. They relied on support from fellow activists who threw blankets, food and water up to them. The court heard that local residents experienced disruption to their lives and businesses lost trade but other locals supported their action.
It sounds more like a rather uncomfortable camping holiday than a riotous act of dissent.
Judge Robert Altham said the men had viewed the public as “necessary and justified collateral damage”. He said they posed a high risk of reoffending and could not be rehabilitated as “each of them remains motivated by an unswerving confidence that they are right”.
Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, involves directing high-pressure water mixed with sand and chemical additives into shale beds to fracture the rock and release oil and gas.
It’s worth remembering that fracking – hailed as the panacea to the UK’s energy problems by then Prime Minister David Cameron – is banned in Scotland, Ireland Germany and France. It has been linked with all manner of environmental problems – from poisoning the water supply to causing earthquakes.
The protesters could have faced a lesser charge of obstructing the highway. A Law Commission report from 2015 states:
The offence of public nuisance was traditionally used to deal with obstructing the public highway (including rivers) and activities causing a loss of amenity in the neighbourhood (for example by noises and smells). Today, however, these activities are largely covered by other offences and procedures. Obstructing the highway is an offence under section 137 of the Highways Act 1980. Other local nuisances are largely covered by a very comprehensive and detailed regime of “statutory nuisance” procedures operated by local authorities; local authorities also have the power to make bye-laws to suppress nuisances.
And Article 11 of the Human Rights Act ensures that everyone has the right to associate with others and gather together for a common purpose. Article 11 is fundamental to keeping us free. It lets us protest peacefully, join trade unions and hold the powerful to account.
In truth this is about much more than whether fracking is or is not a good thing. This is about how we function as a society and how we deal with dissenting voices within it. In a country presently riven by splits over Brexit the way this peaceful protest has been punished sends a clear and ominous warning to others considering going up against the state.
Planton Loizou, the father of Richard Loizou, said: “It’s pointless putting them in prison, because what this has done is turn me and his mother and the rest of the family into activists. I was a Conservative through and through for the first 32 years of my voting life. My wife wasn’t and I didn’t listen to her and that was a mistake.”
This government should tread carefully when radicalising the middle class – history has myriad lessons for Theresa May’s administration but this is one they should heed.