Nickie Aiken is the MP for the Cities of London & Westminster.
Extinction Rebellion is over halfway through its fortnight of “beautiful chaos” in the capital, bringing disruption and costs to local people, businesses, councils and the emergency services.
I cannot emphasise enough how many constituents have written to me detailing what could be mistaken for a dystopian novel.
I fear that these ongoing protests are having the exact opposite effect to XR’s objective and is turning the public off tackling climate change.
Very few people today dismiss the fact that we are facing a climate emergency and drastic action is needed. This Government is arguably the most progressive green administration in our history with the Prime Minister placing climate change at the top of his political agenda. Sadly XR doesn’t seem to accept this fact and prefers to undertake increasingly more shocking stunts to maintain interest in their cause.
The last time XR graced us with their presence for 14 days straight they left 120 tonnes of rubbish behind which Westminster City Council had to spend £50,000 of council taxpayer’s money cleaning up. When I pointed this out last week I received an email from XR’s press office, not denying the fact, but seemingly attempting to justify it by pointing out that the council also cleans up 85 tonnes of rubbish after New Year’s Eve festivities. They seem to miss the point that:
- They are an environmental cause so leaving rubbish is hypocritical at best
- Leaving rubbish for others to clean up while protesting or enjoying a night out is wrong full stop.
It is also truly staggering to see the number of police resources needed to keep those demonstrating and the general public safe during the protests and to prevent central London from coming to a standstill. Having to tackle boats, caravans, large tables and protestors locked to suitcases full of cement takes police time and resources which I believe could be better spent. Neighbourhood police officers are diverted away from their duties to support protest police teams. At a time where the Capital is experiencing a worrying increase of serious youth violence I would suggest officers are better used to trying to keep our neighbourhoods safe.
The single biggest issue that has filled my mailbag over the past 12 months, covid aside, is idling police helicopters hovering above us for hours on end, day after day. The Met tells me that they have to rely on the helicopters to provide officers on the ground with intelligence on protester activity as XR and others fail to liaise with them on their plans. The irony is not lost on me in that XR claims it wants to tackle climate change but fails to communicate with the police which in turn leads to air pollution from idling engines in the sky.
During some protests over the last year, I have received letters and emails providing first-hand experience of what it is like to live with protesters literally on your doorstep. Children are unable to sleep owing to relentless noise that goes on until late. Older people are too scared to leave their homes for days on end because of the number of people who are staging sit down protests in and around their neighbourhood. Another constituent came to me concerned they cannot walk their dog due to broken glass littering the street. In other cases, people have experienced serious threatening behaviour outside their own doors.
This is unacceptable.
I saw for myself the aftermath of one protest last summer which left parts of Victoria Street and surrounding areas looking like something out of a war zone: windows smashed, telephone boxes and bus stops vandalised and graffiti everywhere.
Not what you would expect from those who claim to be peaceful protesters…
The changes in the tactics employed by certain protesters, including XR, have highlighted huge gaps in current legislation, passed in the 1980s, and hence why I am supporting the Government’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill.
Figuring out how to police a new style of protest effectively, without suppressing legitimate and responsible protestors, remains one of the greatest challenges for this legislation.
There has been much debate about these measures – some of it has been informed by fact, other parts of the debate have been informed by misunderstanding.
The Bill was not drawn up to unfairly penalise either protesters or Police. These measures were developed in consultation with the National Police Chief Council, the Metropolitan Police and bolstered by recommendations made by the independent Law Commission to improve the police’s ability to better manage highly disruptive protests.
This Bill does not stop the freedom to demonstrate, it balances that freedom against the rights and liberties of others.
I welcome that with some qualifications, this Bill would actually improve the effectiveness of protest policing and can be applied more proportionately and in line with human rights law. Indeed, I agree that placing a premium on our human rights within legislation is right, and I commend the amendments put forth at Committee Stage to strengthen this issue.
Much attention has been brought to the so-called “serious annoyance clause.”
Now, I agree that on the face of it including distress, annoyance or inconvenience might seem like an overreach. However, as the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, with Westminster hosting approximately 500 protests every year, my mailbox is full each time a protest takes place.
People often fall into the trap of thinking Westminster is an ivory tower of rich people with country homes. I admit there are people in my constituency where this is the case, but only a short walk from Parliament Square you will find thousands of people living in social rented homes who do not have the privilege to escape elsewhere.
It is these people who have to deal with the real-life implications of disruptive protests.
What I am hearing from business leaders in the area is that this, in turn, builds a perception that people cannot go out and enjoy Central London. We’re coming out of Covid-19 I want this place to be thriving once more. I do not want these protests to impact people’s lives and livelihoods.
As XR Protestors begin to pack up and return home (hopefully taking their rubbish with them this time) and I prepare to return to Parliament after summer recess I will continue to champion the right to protest and ensure those taking part are safe, that our police officers on duty are safe and that the amenity and safety of local people and businesses are safe. I will support this Bill and all it sets out to achieve.