Sympathetic cops were too slow to clear off M25 eco-mob, minister suggests

16 September 2021, 08:35 | Updated: 17 September 2021, 17:56

By Sophie Barnett

The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has suggested police should have acted more "swiftly" to remove an eco-mob who blockaded the M25 as he backed the hardworking travelling public.

Mr Wallace told Nick Ferrari on LBC he would urge protesters to recognise the rights of the country's working people, many of whom will not have "sympathetic bosses" and will be paid by the hour and risk losing their jobs if they turn up late.

"Fundamentally people have a right to work, people have a right to family life, and that right to me is as important as the right to protest," said Mr Wallace, who stays in his role as Defence Secretary following a ruthless Cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday.

He explained he understands it is a difficult job for the police to uphold those two rights but said going about your lawful business is a "very important right that should not be fettered or interrupted".

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He added: "I think that getting a swift resolution to those people sitting in the way of the M25 and not getting in the way of people, many people who are paid by the hour and don’t have sympathetic bosses.

"Why should they lose their livelihood because somebody wants to sit in the middle of the road?"

A former police officer told LBC this morning she was “shocked” at the police’s handling of the situation but acknowledged they were in a difficult position. “They [the protesters] should be locked up until they go before the judge,” she said. “They’ll have to make enough cells.”

Police from various forces confirmed on Wednesday evening that 71 climate protesters had been arrested after they blocked parts of the M25.

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Dozens of activists stopped traffic on three sections of Britain's busiest motorway shortly after 8am - the second time in three days - demanding government action on home insulation.

They targeted Junctions 1a and 1b for Dartford, Kent, the main carriageway between Junction 8 at Reigate and Junction 9 at Leatherhead, Surrey, and Junction 23 for South Mimms, Hertfordshire.

Hertfordshire Police Superintendent Adam Willmot said: "Our officers were on the scene within minutes of us being alerted to the protest, and attempted to engage with the group, working to balance the rights of people to protest with the rights of those affected by their presence.

"However, protesters ignored repeated requests from officers to move to a safer and less disruptive location, and alleged that they had glued themselves to the Tarmac, making it clear that their aim was to cause as much disruption as possible."

Emergency services later reported a multiple vehicle crash near the site of the protest.

It was "too early in the investigation" to know if the crash was linked to the protests, Surrey Police said.

A 50-year-old woman was airlifted to hospital with serious injuries.

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Demonstrators sat on the road while stranded motorists beeped their horns.

Some protesters had glued themselves to the road, and videos on social media showed drivers clashing with those refusing to move.

Insulate Britain said 89 of its members took part in the demonstration on Wednesday.

It said in a statement: "We demand credible action now.

"Proper jobs for hundreds of thousands of people to start the first real step - to insulate all the homes of this country - which, pound for pound, gives us the biggest reduction in carbon emissions.

"It is a total no-brainer and yet this government refuses to get on with the job. This is criminal negligence."

A protest by the same group on Monday blocked five junctions of the M25, leading to tens of thousands of drivers being stuck in huge queues of traffic and dozens of arrests.

Mr Wallace said his "sympathy and support is wholeheartedly with the travelling public going to work" who have been disrupted.

He added that what they are doing currently will have the "totally opposite effect" in trying to bring the public with them.

In June this year the Supreme Court ruled that protests can be a "lawful excuse" to block roads even where they have used “deliberately physically obstructive conduct”.

Judges ruled there must be a “degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life” but that cases must be judged on an individual basis.

Judges said that when interfering with the right to protest, police must consider the extent to which demonstrators have broken the law, their location, the duration of the protest, and its interference with the rights of others.

A former police officer told LBC this morning she was “shocked” at the police’s handling of the situation but acknowledged they were in a difficult position.

“They [the protesters] should be locked up until they go before the judge,” she said. “They’ll have to make enough cells.”

However, police have asked members of the public not to interfere in disruptive protests.

It comes after drivers were involved in angry clashes with climate change demonstrators blocking sections of the M25 this week.

The National Police Chiefs' Council says it makes the situation harder for officers to deal with.