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Insulate Britain: Legal System Not Legitimate

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Jenny Donath reports on why Insulate Britain has organised protests disrupting national infrastructure and how the UK government has extended policing powers in response.

Photo by Mathaia Reding

In 2021, Insulate Britain activists made a statement by taping themselves to the M25 highway. Their appeal to the government, urging them to launch a national home insulation programme to reduce the use of fossil fuels, was to prevent any further greenhouse gas emissions and the complete exhaustion of fossil fuels.

Extreme forms of protest have become more and more common in the last few years. With Insulate Britain blocking the highway, a disruption for over 18,000 drivers was caused, including an ambulance carrying a patient who needed urgent care. Consequently, the obstructive protest had resulted in over 520 recorded offences and the arrest of 174 Insulate Britain members and 129 supporters. Imposed fines ranged from £120 to £400 pounds, making these specific protest tactics extremely controversial amongst the British public.

How Insulate Britain Responded

Burning gas and oil to heat homes causes 16% of all UK gas emissions, and insulation is key to cutting this figure down. David Cameron’s Conservative government notoriously had a lack of funding for the 2013-15 green deal policy, further scrapping rigorous standards for insulation in new homes in 2016. At least 1.5m homes are inadequate for the UK’s 2035 carbon emission goal.

Insulate Britain responded to the UK government’s mistreatment of insulation schemes with an open letter to thank their supporters, appeal to public conscience, and express their frustration at UK citizens going cold during the winter:

“It is shameful that there are currently people in prison for doing what is right at this point in history. We want to be clear that at this time ‘reducing your own impact on the planet’ is a completely inadequate response to a crisis that will destroy the law and order you are there to uphold. Those who hold positions of responsibility have an even greater responsibility to step up at this time” (Insulate Britain, Insulate Britain).

Criticism from the UK Government

Criticism has risen regarding the possible danger of the obstructions caused by Insulate Britain activists. For instance, police officers are forced to oversee protestors’ campaigns instead of pursuing their regular duties, like focusing on crimes or ensuring safety by policing neighbourhoods. In response, the government has imposed heavier measures as part of the Public Order Act 1986, to deal with protests that affect everyday life.

The Public Order Act 1986 currently ensures a balance between the rights of protestors to engage in peaceful protests and the rights of people affected by protest campaigns that have a “significant impact on persons or serious disruption to the activities of an organisation by noise; serious disorder; serious damage to property; serious disruption to the life of the community”.

Along with implementing this law, the government has heavily criticised the actions of protests organised by groups such as Insulate Britain, using labels like “selfish”, “anti-social”, and referring to their protests as practicing “criminal, disruptive and self-defeating guerrilla tactics”.

Extending Policing Powers

The UK government has consequently extended the scope of the police’s power to prevent a further increase in extreme protests. New measures allow the police to stop and search protestors, allowing them to confiscate objects which could be used to cause disruption. Furthermore, they can prohibit people from being in a particular place, being with particular people, and forbid them to use the internet to possibly encourage others to commit a protesting offence.

To ensure these preventions are possible, powers to take these measures have been extended to police officers from the British Transport Police and the Ministry of Defence Police. Furthermore, the seniority level of police officers who can apply such prohibitions has been changed in the London area.

Protestors who now make use of the locking-on method, like taping yourself to the ground, or obstruct major transport works, will now face a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment or an unlimited fine upon arrest. Interfering with key national infrastructure is now punished with a maximum imprisonment of twelve months or an unlimited fine. Tunnelling could even result in a penalty as high as three years imprisonment.

However, the government ensures that protests are generally still legal, and those new measures only affect a small minority of protestors who otherwise would cause serious disruption to the everyday life of the public.

Challenging the Jury

This makes it even harder for activists to raise awareness about important matters, like the climate crisis. Insulate Britain claimed that all other attempts of peaceful campaigning had not led to the wished results and therefore drastic methods had been used to raise awareness, further stating in court that the “criminalisation by the judiciary of ordinary people attempting to preserve lives and the very fabric of our society is abhorrent.”

According to Insulate Britain, unjust laws need to be challenged and an extreme situation, like the climate crisis, demands extreme action as the consequences will be felt closer to home. In October 2022, the UK’s gas and electricity bills soared, with middle income families struggling to pay the hefty £285 bill per month, let alone less affluent families unable to afford the most necessity like boiling potatoes. Although the UK government has pledged to phase out gas boilers by the late 2030s, heat pumps would be ineffective without well insulated homes.

“There’s no silver bullet,” says Juliet Phillips of climate thinktank E3G, as every house is different. Yet, we cannot let Insulate Britain’s protests go to waste. The UK government needs to prioritise refitting social housing and poorer-occupied houses first with, what Phillip called, “an Olympic-style employment and skills taskforce”. Solid wall insulation, maintained heat pumps, and solar panels are what we all need in a united front against climate change.


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