Records of Priti Patel’s contact with police over XR protest deleted in ‘IT glitch’, court hears

Defence lawyers argue protesters cannot have fair trial until ‘extent of political interference’ is known

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
@lizziedearden
Friday 11 June 2021 19:28
Extinction Rebellion blocks News Corp Printworks in Broxbourne

Police records of Priti Patel’s contact with senior officers over an Extinction Rebellion protest were lost because of an “IT glitch”, a court has heard.

Defence lawyers representing protesters charged over the blockade of a Rupert Murdoch-owned printing works in September argue they cannot have a fair trial because the extent of alleged political interference is unknown.

St Albans Magistrates’ Court heard that the home secretary was alerted to the protest in Broxbourne “by contacts in the media”.

It was told that she called Hertfordshire Police chief constable Charlie Hall several times during the protest, and sent a text message to the operation’s gold commander, Matt Nicholls, the following afternoon.

In a statement read to a hearing on Friday, Mr Hall said he was woken up by the first call from the home secretary at 11.40pm on 4 September.

He said he did not make any note of the conversation or record it, and then had further contact with Ms Patel in the “hours of darkness” updating her on the protest.

Mr Hall said: “My phone has updated itself since that time and removed any messages or all records from this period.”

Mr Nicholls said in a statement read to the court that he had received a text from Ms Patel during the afternoon of 5 September.

He said it was a supportive message thanking police for their work, adding: “These texts to my work phone have been deleted … a number of work phones were erroneously reset to factory settings after an IT glitch.”

Barrister Raj Chada said the defence would be asking how phone records belonging to two senior officers and relating to “the very issue at the heart of this case” came to be deleted.

“We say in light of that the defendants cannot receive a fair trial,” he added. “It is only when the extent of the political interference is determined that this court can scrutinise the effect.”

Later in the hearing, District Judge Sally Fudge said she had seen screenshots of text messages between some police officers and the home secretary but did not make clear where the records were from.

She ruled that the messages did not have to be disclosed to the defence and were not “reasonably capable of undermining the prosecution case”.

The judge said the messages included exchanges between Ms Patel and Mr Hall at around 4.30am, 8.20am and 11.20am on 5 September, and on the morning of 6 September.

September’s blockade was at the Newsprinters site owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK

She told the court she had also seen WhatsApp messages exchanged between the home secretary and Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, on 5 September that would also not be disclosed.

District Judge Fudge said she was awaiting further records and would make another ruling on Monday.

Prosecutor Nigel Ogborne said the prosecution’s view was that none of the material received “satisfied the disclosure test”.

Mr Chada read parts of a policing review of the operation to remove protesters from the Broxbourne blockade, which also noted contact with the home secretary.

He argued the document indicated “significant contact and significant pressure” on police.

The court heard that the section of the report on recommendations concluded that the operational commander took the correct approach to the Extinction Rebellion demonstration “despite significant political pressure”.

It said there had been contact from the Home Office “via the chief constable”, who had attended policing headquarters as the protest continued through the night.

“Political contact from government ministers needs to be carefully considered in future to avoid decision-making falling outside our recognised command structures,” the report added.

The defence argues that the alleged interference would contradict the fundamental principle of operational independence for police in the UK, which the government has previously committed to protecting.

Police officers who have given evidence to the court deny that their decisions were influenced.

The evidence emerged during the trial of the second group of defendants who have been charged with obstructing a highway at the Broxbourne protest.

Caspar Hughes, 49, of Exeter, Elise Yarde, 32, of Walthamstow, Amir Jones, 39, of London, Laura Frandsen, 30, of London, Charlotte Kirin, 51, of Bury St Edmunds, and Hazel Steson, 56, of Bury St Edmonds, deny all charges.

The first group of six demonstrators were convicted in May and two others pleaded guilty before trial.

The blockade was at the Newsprinters site in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News UK.

About 50 protestors used vans and bamboo structures outside the gates to the plant where The Sun and The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard were printed.

They stopped three and a half million national newspapers from being distributed across the country.

A second blockade of the company’s printing works in Knowsley, near Liverpool, took place on the same day.

Protesters previously told St Albans Magistrates’ Court the action aimed to highlight the media’s failure to report the seriousness of climate change.

Ms Patel publicly condemned the demonstration at the time, calling it an “attack on our free press” and “completely unacceptable”, and dozens of activists have since been prosecuted.

The government is now backing a controversial suite of strengthened protest laws that are a direct response to Extinction Rebellion’s tactics.