Officer ‘surprised’ by Patel’s late night call to superior during XR protest

Five activists convicted over a protest at a newspaper publishers are questioning whether there was political interference in police actions.

Rebecca Speare-Cole
Tuesday 15 March 2022 17:02 GMT
Protesters (bottom, left to right) Charlotte Kirian, Hazel Stenaon, Caspar Hughes, Laura Frandsen, Elise Yard and Amur Jones outside St Albans Magistrates’ Court (Extinction Rebellion/PA)
Protesters (bottom, left to right) Charlotte Kirian, Hazel Stenaon, Caspar Hughes, Laura Frandsen, Elise Yard and Amur Jones outside St Albans Magistrates’ Court (Extinction Rebellion/PA) (PA Media)

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A police officer said he was “surprised” by Priti Patel’s out-of-hours call to his superior as they responded to an Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest in Hertfordshire.

Five XR activists – who were part of a 14-hour blockade that targeted Newsprinters in Broxbourne, from late on September 4 2020 – are appealing against their convictions.

They were found guilty of obstructing the highway during two trials at St Albans Magistrates’ Court in 2021.

The protesters are now questioning whether there was political interference in police actions to shut down the climate change demonstration.

Emergency services dismantle the bamboo lock-ons used to block the road outside the Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire (Yui Mok/PA)
Emergency services dismantle the bamboo lock-ons used to block the road outside the Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

They are arguing their actions were justified by freedom of expression and by their rights to freedom of assembly and association.

Around 50 to 60 XR members used vehicles and bamboo structures to deny access to or from the Broxbourne site with some locking their hands in plastic tubes that were filled with cement.

Newsprinters, which publish papers like the Daily Telegraph, The Sun, the Times and the Daily Mail, lost an estimated £1.2 million due to the disruption which also affected nearby businesses and a hotel.

One motoring business said it had lost £125,000 due to the disruption, the court heard.

Superintendent Edward Wells, who was “silver commander” – the tactical lead for the response – told St Albans Crown Court that he was “aware” of political interest in the events as they unfolded.

He explained to the court that his role was to come up with a plan to achieve the strategic objectives set out by his “gold commander” – Hertfordshire Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill.

It was said in court that Home Secretary Priti Patel made ‘multiple calls’ to Chief Constable Charlie Hall (PA)
It was said in court that Home Secretary Priti Patel made ‘multiple calls’ to Chief Constable Charlie Hall (PA) (PA Wire)

The court previously heard how Mr Weatherill’s superior, Chief Constable Charlie Hall, had received multiple calls from Home Secretary Priti Patel throughout the night as officers responded to the protests.

Mr Wells told the court he was aware that Mr Hall had received at least one call from the Home Secretary during the night followed by a conference call in the morning.

Raj Chada, defending, asked Mr Wells if he had ever worked on an incident involving protest removal teams where the Home Secretary had rung the gold commander.

Mr Wells said: “No.”

Asked if he was surprised that the Home Secretary had made calls to Mr Hall, he said: “I was a bit surprised.

“Not surprised that an Extinction Rebellion protest was high profile and there was interest from high ranking politicians, but surprised that an out-of-ours phone call had gone on to the chief constable but I was only aware of one phone call and a conference call later in the morning.”

Mr Chada said: “No-one is saying that the Home Secretary called up and said ‘let’s sort this out'”, but he went on to ask if her interest was nevertheless “in the mix” when it came to responding to the protests.

Mr Wells said: “Yes. It is certainly in the mix for the gold commander.”

Mr Weatherill on Monday denied that he was subjected to political pressure from above when it came to tactical decisions which affected the way officers dealt with the protests.

He said the decision to remove the protesters was made using information from officers at the scene and the aim was to facilitate a lawful protest if that could be done.

On the conference call with Ms Patel at 10am, Mr Weatherill said: “It was not unusual for her to seek updates on specific events.”

Laura Frandsend, 32, of Horsens in Jutland, Denmark; and Casper Hughes, 50, of Exeter, are among those who were convicted.

Charlotte Kirin, 53, of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk; Liam Norton, 37, of Scarborough, North Yorkshire; Sally Davidson, 34, of Streatham, south west London; are also appealing against their convictions.

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