PM defends 'severe' Just Stop Oil sentences

Shot of two protesters hanging from Dartford Crossing Bridge
Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker were jailed for three and two years respectively for causing a public nuisance

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended sentences handed to two Just Stop Oil climate campaigners following criticism from the United Nations.

Morgan Trowland, 40, was jailed for three years and Marcus Decker, 34, for two years for causing a public nuisance after scaling the Dartford Crossing Bridge.

The UN had warned the government in a letter that the "severe" sentences could stifle protest.

Mr Sunak said in response in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that those who break the law should feel the full force of it.

"It's entirely right that selfish protestors intent on causing misery to the hard-working majority face tough sentences," he said.

"It's what the public expects and it's what we've delivered."

At an appeal hearing last month Lady Chief Justice, Lady Carr defended the sentences, saying they met a "legitimate" aim of deterring others from such offending. The activists were refused permission to challenge them in the Supreme Court.

The warning came in a letter shown to BBC News, sent to the government by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, Ian Fry, on 15 August this year.

The sentences are "significantly more severe than previous sentences imposed for this type of offending in the past," Mr Fry notes.

He says he is worried about “the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

The letter goes on to say the new Public Order Act which came into force in July "appears to be a direct attack on the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly".

The new legislation includes measures aimed at curbing disruptive protests.

The letter sent in mid-August requested a reply within 60 days but has not received one, which the UN special rapporteur described as "troubling".

"Most countries take these letters seriously and respond," Mr Fry told BBC News. He suggested that the lack of a formal reply reflected "a general disregard for human rights concerns by the current government".

The Home Office said it had "responded" to the special rapporteur’s letter.

It said peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society and a long-standing tradition in the UK, provided it is done within the law.

The new legislation is designed to "clarify the definition of serious disruption and allow police to clear roads quickly", it told the BBC, and said the new legislation on protests was put in place following proper parliamentary procedure and is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Protesters standing outside court carrying placards with faces of two jailed protesters
Just Stop Oil protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice, where Mr Trowland and Mr Decker appealed their sentences

“It is a total political failure," Morgan Trowland said in a statement to the BBC from prison. "It is people vs oil, and our government has signalled that it is on the side of oil."

"By not even responding to the concerns in this letter, the government is showing an extraordinary disregard for our civil liberties," said Jodie Beck, Policy and Campaigns Officer at the human rights charity, Liberty.

"Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a fundamental right," she added. "The government should be ensuring demonstrations are safely facilitated and that protest rights are safeguarded."

During last month's appeal hearing, Lady Carr told the court: "The sentences should not be seen as having a 'chilling effect' on the right to peaceful protest or to assembly more generally - deterrence and 'chilling effect' are not the same."

Lady Carr added that the jail terms reflected "Parliament’s will" under new laws carried out under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.

At a court hearing in July judges had acknowledged the "long and honourable tradition of civil disobedience on conscientious grounds" and that the sentences handed to Trowland and Decker went "well beyond previous sentences imposed for this type of offending".