On 26 September four protesters were found guilty of public nuisance after several days’ occupying trucks delivering equipment to the Preston New Road shale gas fracking site in Lancashire. Three of these protesters, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Rich Loizou and Putney resident, Richard Roberts received prison sentences of over a year. They broke the law. Is jail time what they should expect?
In 1999 I had cause to consider what consequences I would be prepared to face for taking a stand against an environmental threat. As more GM crops were developed, marketed and released into the food chain, the government decided to conduct farm scale trials of GM crops in the UK. These crops had the potential to cross-pollinate with non-GM crops and threaten both a GM-free food supply and organic agriculture. Like many at the time, I chose to oppose this threat through direct action.
Arrest was a foregone conclusion and I also knew that there was a good chance of being charged with a crime – the most likely charge being criminal damage. Jail time though was highly unlikely – such a small probability that it was a chance I was willing to take. It was with shock that, after spending a night in a police cell, our team discovered that one of the group – Peter Melchett, then executive director of Greenpeace – was remanded in custody. Thankfully Peter was released, but my group as a whole (the ‘Lyng 28’) were charged, not only with criminal damage, but also with theft. Had we been found guilty of theft, a dishonesty crime, which would have had a massive impact on our lives, potentially preventing us getting things like a mortgage or house insurance. Long story short, we were found not guilty. But had people before me had dishonesty charges upheld against them, or received prison sentences, I may have had second thoughts about pulling up that GM crop.
Some will argue that that is exactly the point of custodial sentences – to deter others from committing a crime. But the introduction of GM to the UK countryside, just like the start of fracking across England (but at Preston New Road in particular) is being imposed on local communities and the country as a whole against the will of the people and against scientific advice.
The people who live around Preston New Road don’t want their environment fracked. And they were backed in their opposition by their elected councillors who refused overwhelmingly to approve the fracking licence. But this decision was overturned by the government. Against the decision of the council. Against the desire of the locals.
The government argued that shale gas (the natural gas that is extracted from the shale rock formations underground) has the potential to provide a new domestic energy source to make us less reliant on imports. But, as this week’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrated, we need energy sources that aren’t going to result in droughts, food shortages, rising sea levels and floods, extreme heat, poverty and mass population displacement. So the government should join Scotland, Ireland, Germany and France in opposing fracking and start supporting renewable energy – not just to meet the UK’s own climate change targets, but also to lead the way to demonstrate how we combat climate change (and there are also economic benefits in being world leaders in renewable technology).
This is a clampdown on peaceful protest. A clampdown on environmental activism. A clampdown on local decision making. And if you doubt that these sentences are extreme, then compare them to that received by a London coach driver who killed a cyclist last year. He received 15 months too.