UK plans protest crackdown after eco group blocks highways

International

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a radio interview at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The British government said Tuesday it will bring in tough new laws against disruptive protesters, after environmental campaigners blocked roads, highways and bridges to highlight climate change.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government would “close down the legal loopholes” used by protesters, whom she labeled “criminals.”

“Freedom to protest is a fundamental right … but it must be within the law,” Patel told delegates at the Conservative Party’s annual conference.

Patel said she would increase maximum penalties for disrupting a motorway, create powers to stop some protesters traveling around the country and create a new offense of “interference with key infrastructures” such as roads, railways and the press.

Insulate Britain, an offshoot of the Extinction Rebellion group, has gridlocked traffic multiple times over the past month, with protesters sitting down in highways and gluing themselves to the pavement. The demonstrations have raised the profile of the group, which is calling for Britain’s aging homes to become more energy efficient. But they have also infuriated motorists and disrupted businesses.

On Monday, broadcaster LBC captured footage of a woman imploring protesters to let her pass so she could visit her mother in hospital. Another broadcaster showed angry motorists dragging protesters out of a road.

Patel, who is responsible for policing and immigration, is a stern law-and-order conservative and favorite of the party’s traditionalist base.

In her speech, she promised more efforts to stop people trying to reach Britain across the English Channel in small boats.

Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by stowing away in trucks or on ferries, or — increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted international travel — in dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers.

The British and French governments have worked for years to stop the crossings, without much success. More than 17,000 people have made the journey since the start of the year, double the number for all of 2020.

Patel has raised the prospect of sending asylum-seekers to another country, remote from the U.K., while their claims are processed. But so far the plan has stalled amid legal hurdles and criticism from human rights groups.

Patel also promised to do more to keep women and girls safe, amid nationwide shock at the death of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman abducted, raped and murdered as she walked home from a friend’s house in London. Her killer was a serving police officer who handcuffed and falsely arrested her.

She said the government would hold a public inquiry into the killer, Wayne Couzens, and the police forces that recruited and employed him.

Patel said the case had “exposed unimaginable failures in policing.”

“The public have a right to know what failures enabled his continued employment as a police officer and an inquiry will give the independent oversight needed to ensure something like this can never happen again,” she said.

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