In Depth

Debate: should Extinction Rebellion be classed as ‘criminal gang’ to allow for tougher sentences?

Home secretary proposes reclassification that could see XR activists facing jail terms of up to five years

A row has erupted over government proposals to classify Extinction Rebellion (XR) as an organised crime group in a crackdown on the climate crisis protest movement. 

Priti Patel has vowed to take action after XR members delayed the distribution of a string of national newspapers on Friday by “blocking access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch”, the BBC reports.

 In article for The Mail on Sunday, the Home Secretary said the government was “committed to ensuring that the police have powers required to tackle the disruption caused by groups such as Extinction Rebellion”.

Issuing a stark warning to the protesters, Patel added: “You will be punished for your actions.”

The prosecution: law and order

A total of 77 people were charged over last week’s newspaper blockade, which obstructed deliveries of titles including The Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and the London Evening Standard.

In her article for The Mail on Sunday, Patel argues that such activists should “face the full force of the law” for pursuing “guerrilla tactics” to “attack democracy” and “undermine and cause damage to our society”.

According to The Telegraph, Whitehall sources have confirmed that the home secretary and Boris Johnson have asked officials to take a “fresh look” at how XR is classified under the law. 

An insider “said one option under discussion was for XR to be viewed as an organised crime group, which could result in its members being policed primarily by the National Crime Agency”, the paper reports.

According to the 2015 Serious Crime Act, an organised crime group “has at its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities, and consists of three or more people who agree to act together to further that purpose”.

Anyone convicted of participating in the activities of this type of group can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. 

The plan to enable harsher punishments for XR activists has been welcomed by Richard Walton, a senior fellow at the Policy Exchange think tank and former head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command.

“The actions of Extinction Rebellion cross the line from protest into planned criminality and should be treated as such,” he said. “The police need to get better at gathering intelligence pre-emptively and intervening to prevent such acts of criminality and upholding the rule of law.” 

The defence: right to protest

XR has criticised the reclassification proposals as “ridiculous”.

“The group said associating it with the state’s definition of a crime gang as ‘characterised by violence or the threat of violence and by the use of bribery and corruption’ was an insult to the thousands of ordinary citizens who supported its cause,” The Guardian reports.

A number of MPs have also spoken out against the move.

Former shadow cabinet minister Diane Abbott said that direct action such as that taken by XR was a “legal tactic” of protest. “They’re not criminals, they’re protesters and activists in the tradition of the suffragettes and the hunger marchers of the 1930s,” she told Sky News.

In a further twist in the growing row, fellow Labour MP Dawn Butler has faced criticism after praising the newspaper blockade as “excellent work” in a now deleted tweet.

The controversy is proving something of a headache for Labour leader Keir Starmer, amid “signs of division within Labour on how to respond to the group’s protests”, says The Times.

“The free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it,” Starmer said in a statement yesterday. “Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change.”

In an apparent rift on the other side of the political divide, meanwhile, Foreign Secretary and ex-human rights lawyer Dominic Raab argued that “we have the enforcement powers necessary” to deal with such protests.

“We always keep all of our laws under review but I think actually the laws are in place to take relevant enforcement action against criminal behaviour,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News.

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