No political pressure from Home Secretary Priti Patel over Extinction Rebellion Protest, court told

Home Secretary Priti Patel did not apply political pressure on the police to influence how they dealt with Extinction Rebellion protesters who blockaded the print works of some of the UK's biggest newspapers, a court has been told.

Five XR activists who were part of a 14-hour blockade which targeted Newsprinters in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, from late on September 4 2020 - have begun an appeal against their convictions.

Police and fire services outside the Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. Credit: PA

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

Hertfordshire Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill, who was in charge of the police operation that day, told the appeal at St Albans Crown Court: "Yes she (Ms Patel) was certainly involved in the conversations (with police) but it did not affect my decisions."

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

They argue 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 accessto or from the Broxbourne site, the court heard.

Charlotte Kirian, Hazel Stenson, Caspar Hughes, Laura Frandsen, Elise Yard and Amur Jones outside St Albans Magistrates’ Court

A large number had locked their hands in plastic tubes that were filled with cement.

The Newsprinters presses publish Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp's titles including The Sun, The Times, the Sun on Sunday and the Sunday Times, as well as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the Evening Standard.

Newsprinters lost an estimated £1.2 million due to the disruption which also impacted on nearby businesses and a hotel.

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

Mr Weatherill said he had been told by other officers that the demonstration had drawn interest from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Home Secretary within hours of the late-night protest beginning.

He told the court: "They told me there was an interest from the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. I'm aware there was ongoing dialogue between her (Ms Patel) and the Chief(Constable). I was not involved directly."

He said he believed "most" of the overnight contact from the Witham MP was by textmessage and "the tone of it was, as I understand, looking for updates and whatwas happening".

Help was drawn from other forces to deal with the protest.

Home Secretary Priti Patel Credit: PA

Mr Weatherill said the blockade was "affecting the hotel as well, it did have some impact on the A10 and, whilst it was 1.35am, the longer it's blocked, the longer it's causing a problem".

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, according to Mr Weatherill.

He said his other aims for the police operation included reopening the A10, which was very close to the protest, and to secure access to the nearby hotel and businesses.

Ms Patel was on an "informal" 20-minute conference call with senior police officers which started at 10am, as the removal of protesters had begun but not been completed.

Mr Weatherill said it was "not an unusual scenario" and "it was not unusual for her to seek updates on specific events".

He denied he was subjected to political pressure from the Home Secretary to make tactical decisions which affected the way officers dealt with the "significant" protest.

Laura O'Brien, defending, said: "It is political pressure. We have the Home Secretary on the telephone asking about what she wants done - how is that not political pressure?"

Mr Weatherill said: "I did not speak to the Home Secretary.

"The Chief (Constable) was (speaking to her), I accept that. He was not putting any political pressure (on me). I was not put under political pressure. I would say it was political interest. It is not unusual."

Asked if the number of calls made by Ms Patel was unusual, Mr Weatherill added:

"I have been a chief officer for a number of years. I would say that this is normal. We are used to engaging with it and we are used to managing it."

Prosecutor Sarah McIntyre said: "There is no dispute that the defendants were protesting. There is no dispute that they were obstructing the road and that the road was the highway. They did so wilfully and without lawful authority or excuse."

Laura Frandsend, 32, of Horsens in Jutland, Denmark; and Casper Hughes, 50, ofExeter, 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.

The hearing continues