Government crackdown on extremist group after “unacceptable” attack on free press
Extinction Rebellion could be treated as an organised crime group as part of a major crackdown on its activities that may also include new protections for MPs, judges and the press, the Telegraph can disclose.
Whitehall sources said Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have asked officials to take a “fresh look” at how the group is classified under the law, after the Prime Minister described its blockading of major printing presses as “completely unacceptable”.
On Saturday, police were criticised for failing to act more quickly after the blockade began on Friday evening.
Hertfordshire police faced anger for stating that officers were “working to facilitate the rights of both the protesters and those affected by their presence” but protesters were not cooperating.
“It’s clear they’re not your normal protest group, so you have to look at them in a different way,” said one Whitehall source.
Ministers are also considering new powers making it easier for police to stop demonstrators from entering particular areas, bolstering protections for parts of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, and explicitly outlawing disruption to “tenets of democracy”, such as MPs voting in Parliament, judges attending court, and the printing and distribution of the free press.
The move comes after nearly 200 activists used vehicles and bamboo structures to block roads outside major printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool.
The presses print The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, along with Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp titles including the Sun and the Times.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) accused the newspapers of failing to report on climate change and chained themselves to the bamboo structures to obstruct the roads outside the works.
But there are fears the group has been infiltrated by far left groups, who want it to pursue a more overtly militant socialist agenda.
By Saturday night, 80 people had been arrested after the blockades resulted in delays to the distribution of several national publications to shops across the country.
Many readers of The Daily Telegraph were among those prevented from accessing a newspaper.
The Met Police issued fines totalling £200,000 to activists after they exceeded the limit of 30 people in any one gathering. […]
On Saturday, senior ministers were also discussing whether and how the group could be reclassified to help police to crack down on its activities.
A Whitehall source 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 – Britain’s FBI.
Under 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.”
Those found to have participated in the activities of an organised crime group can be imprisoned for up to five years.
More than a thousand XR members have been arrested amid demonstrations since 2018. Activists have been convicted for public order offences, criminal damage and obstructing an engine or a carriage using a railway.
A second Whitehall source said: “They do this in a way that makes it as hard as possible for the police to remove them. The Home Office is looking at various ways we could deal with this kind of incident.”
Some discussions have taken place about whether the group could even be proscribed as a terror organisation, but the source said it was thought to be highly unlikely that it would meet the legal threshold for such a move.
Last year, in a report published by Policy Exchange, Mr Walton said XR should be treated as an extremist anarchist group, after finding that it had a “subversive” agenda rooted in the “political extremism of anarchism” rather than just campaigning on climate change.