Europe

Under Priti Patel's rule even the suffragettes would be silenced

The right to peaceful protest is a long-cherished democratic tradition in this country.

It’s a tradition that is being upheld by the supporters of Extinction Rebellion, who have been demonstrating for the past 10 days around Westminster and in the City, to draw attention to the climate emergency.

The police action to clear them from Trafalgar Square on Monday evening is a huge over-reach of police powers, and a very disturbing development.

The protesters had already been cleared away from key transport locations like Lambeth and Westminster bridges, which are now flooded with police officers at key times of the day. So was Trafalgar Square on Tuesday morning – a completely disproportionate response to a legitimate and peaceful protest.

More than 1,400 demonstrators have been arrested, including Green MEP Ellie Chowns. The imposition of a Section 14 order by the police is an attempt to close down any Extinction Rebellion protest anywhere in London. So a group of XR protesters, including children standing in a park with an Extinction Rebellion banner, would be risking arrest.

This is over-kill on a vast scale and a sign of the over-zealous approach being pushed by Priti Patel’s Home Office.

That is why I am adding my name to a judicial review being taken against the Metropolitan Police, challenging the police action as unlawful. Section 14 powers are there to help the police manage protests, not shut them down altogether.

Priti Patel has in the past laid claim to the mantel of the suffragettes, in the ‘fight for democratic freedom’. She seems to have forgotten that the brave suffragettes resorted to radical tactics in the name of what was right. So have the Extinction Rebellion protesters.

If the police action is intended to silence Extinction Rebellion, it won’t work because what they are doing is not only exercising a long-held democratic right, their message is one we all need to hear.

It’s as if we’ve seen the fire, seen the damage it’s causing, agreed that it will spread and get much worse, yet decided to carry on with whatever we were doing rather than find a fire hose to put it out.

If London has been disrupted by the protests over the past few days, the disruption is nothing compared to what we face if we fail to tackle the climate emergency. And I see nothing in Parliament that is addressing the crisis beyond acknowledging that there is an emergency.

It’s as if we’ve seen the fire, seen the damage it’s causing, agreed that it will spread and get much worse, yet decided to carry on with whatever we were doing rather than find a fire hose to put it out.

The Queen’s Speech on Monday had just six words devoted to climate change. And while there is a debate on Thursday about the climate emergency, the Government’s Environment Bill is an embarrassingly weak response.

It sets up a new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, to hold the Government to account, and will be able to stop projects if environmental standards are breached.

There is no guarantee that we will keep even the environmental standards we have under EU law and every sign that they might be weakened or even done away with. We can have no confidence in the new regulator forcing the kind of action that is needed when that regulator is not fully independent and has weak enforcement powers.

The Government’s own climate adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, issues regular reports on what’s needed to address the climate emergency, but ministers fail to take action.

It is this political failure to respond to the science, to its own advisers, and to the growing concern among the public (two thirds of whom believe time is running out to save the planet) that is driving the protests on the streets.

The Government is ignoring public opinion on climate action, ignoring its advisers, ignoring the science, and hell-bent on locking up those who are trying to point this out.

We have been facing the threat of a climate breakdown for many years. We now face another threat: a challenge to our basic democratic rights and freedoms.

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