Author: Kirsty Mackenzie
The right to peacefully protest is a cornerstone of a liberal democratic society, protected under articles 10 and 11 of the European Conventions of Human Rights. Whilst there are structures under which this right can be challenged and restricted by law, such as The Public Order Act 1986, the freedom of expression and assembly remains. Legally, limits to peaceful protest must only be used in a case of serious disruption to public order. When policing a protest, the principal role of the police must be a positive duty to protect those exercising their right to protest peacefully, not to limit their right to protest.
So, given their civil duty to uphold the law and protect citizens, why are the police behaving as if they are the hired arm of the highly controversial HS2 railway line?
The simple answer is, the police are acting like a privately hired force to protect HS2’s interests because that is exactly what they are.
Back in 2018 a ‘special agreement’ was reached between HS2 Ltd and the National Police Force to avoid the cost implications of delays caused by protesting. They entered into an enhanced police service agreement, in which an organisation (HS2 Ltd) can pay for law-enforcement services.
In other words, for a juicy slice out of their unprecedented £172bn budget (paid for by us, the taxpayer) HS2 have bought “our” police force from us. Sixteen separate police forces, in fact.
This cosy relationship between the police and the private sector is nothing new – see the London 2012 Olympics and Crossrail – however the role we have seen police take over the last year, particularly during camp evictions, is great cause for concern. HS2 Ltd and their contractors seem to have unspoken permission to commit crimes against both protestors and wildlife.
HS2 Ltd and their contractors have been able to behave as though they are above the law, committing acts of theft, violence and ecocide, which would cause any normal person to be arrested. They have acted with impunity, confident in the knowledge they have the backing of our very own police force.
Activists at camps report feeling unsafe, vulnerable and at risk of violence from HS2’s security, despite the strong presence of the police force. This feeling is understandable, given what we have seen over the past year. Since evictions started taking place we have repeatedly seen disproportionate levels of force being used against peaceful protesters by private security, propped up by the presence of the police. Evictions which have been so brutal that a telephone support helpline has been set up to provide a counselling service to those affected.
Just this week in Jones’ Hill Wood, HS2 security led by National Eviction Team – one of HS2 Ltd’s private security firms of choice – seized a piece of woodland from activists, without providing any of the paperwork to the landowner to prove they can lawfully take it under the Compulsory Purchase Act. Throughout the night activists faced repeated assault, as visible in this BBC footage, by HS2 forces as they attempted to evict them from site. Was this despite the police presence, or because of it?
The police are not only facilitating this behaviour, they are also actively engaged in the brutality. At Wendover this week, three officers from Thames Valley Police pinned a female protester to the ground and pepper sprayed her on the floor.
Incidents such as this are not uncommon. Earlier this year three officers were accused of punching a protester in Alyesbury, Buckinghamshire. We also have evidence of officers at Wendover kneeling on a protester. Significantly, the person being kneeled on was the only person of colour in that group of peaceful protestors.
The police are ignoring crimes against protesters, while also breaking the laws they have pledged to upkeep. The purpose of the ‘special agreement’ to keep costs down by preventing delays. This does not include brutality, abuse, or failure to report or stop violent crimes by private contractors – be they against protesters or wildlife.
The relationship between HS2 Ltd and the police goes beyond allowing HS2’s ‘legal’ actions, but also supporting HS2 to do the illegal. At Wendover this week, in footage filmed by a protestor, we saw the landowner of Spinny Woodland reaching out for support from the police. After four days of illegal tree felling took place on his land (with the police present) this exchange was symbolic of the police’s role in this project, as the officer just shrugs his shoulders at this report of law breaking.
Contrast this with the relish with which they facilitate illegal evictions or keenly hand out fines by covid breaches by anyone seeking to show solidarity with the tunnellers at Euston Square Gardens.
Wildlife crimes like that at the Spinny are a daily occurrence on HS2 construction sites. Frequent illegal destruction to the habitats of rare species of bats go under the radar and are ignored by the ‘law enforcers’ onsite.
This insidious support is not restricted to hidden woodlands. In central London at Euston Square Gardens, police have been using Coronavirus legislation to arrest witnesses at the ongoing eviction, including journalists who were on duty and classed as essential workers. Police even gave a fine to the protesters’ solicitor when he visited the scene!
Meanwhile, the police continue to turn a blind eye to the numerous offences being committed by HS2’s bailiff team, NET. They have been given a free reign to employ dangerous tactics in an attempt to remove activists from a 100ft tunnel, despite court evidence warning them that their actions risk the safety of those underground.
These are not isolated incidents, they are a pattern of behaviour. Behaviour, which is being funded by the taxpayer.
Over the past year we have seen HS2 be accused of and filmed committing sexual assault, kneeling on the necks of protestors, cutting safety lines causing people to fall 20 feet into a river, physical assault and countless wildlife crimes.
How exactly does this action fit into Thames Valley’s own statement as to their role in the evictions? To “ensure public safety, and facilitate a peaceful protest while at the same time ensuring HS2 Ltd’s legal rights to carry out their work”.
More significantly, how is HS2 Ltd to be held to account on site and in the courts when the police force are abetting the criminals themselves.
There is a serious threat to our right to protest and also to the neutrality of our police force. Clearly, when a private company can purchase 16 police forces, how can those police forces be expected to execute the law in a fair, just and impartial manner?
These concerns are magnified when combined with the more than 300 non-disclosure agreements that HS2 has signed with organisations as diverse as Universities, Councils, Water Companies, and even the Health and Safety Executive.
Clearly, this relationship is a reflection of the focus of the government and state, which puts the safety and priorities of its own citizens and the protection of the environment below the profits of a private corporation headed by Mark Thurston and his £625,000 salary.
Allowing our police forces to be sold to the highest bidder to work against the common people of our country sets a dangerous precedent. Particularly when we consider the increasingly well-documented broader problems of the police force in a country where people of colour are underprotected and over prosecuted.