An MEP who visited campaigners trying to prevent energy firm Cuadrilla from accessing a site in Balcombe has expressed concern about the police’s use of ‘excessive force’.
23 people have been now been arrested at the site during a week long protest which has seen up to 100 demonstrators gather to try and prevent drilling from commencing.
Keith Taylor, the Green Party’s MEP for the South East who was in Balcombe on Sunday, has written to Sussex Police.
He is particularly concerned over the suspected use of the ‘mandibular angle’ technique to force protesters to comply with their demands.
Mr Taylor claims this technique, which involves pressing against a pressure point behind the ear, was used on Friday to clear protesters from an access road which they were peacefully blockading.
In the letter to the Chief Constable of Sussex Police, Mr Taylor said: “Given the peaceful nature of the protest I was concerned to hear reports from both my own staff and others that your officers seemed to be using excessive force against protesters last week.”
He added: “The use of this kind of force seems to me to be excessive given the peaceful nature of the protest and could run the risk of exacerbating tension between protesters and police.”
In response to the allegations Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne, said: “It is a difficult balance for the police to strike. They need to support the legitimate right for people to protest peacefully but also to uphold the legal right of the company to operate.
“My preference is that no physical force is used to police the protests at all, however, under certain circumstances it is necessary for the police to use these nationally recognised techniques to ensure people can protest peacefully and that the business can continue to operate lawfully.”
After sending the letter, Mr Taylor added: “The campaigners in Balcombe are modern day defenders of the land.
“They are fighting against a company desperate to drill into the countryside and a Government hell-bent on supporting extreme energy.”
One of those arrested in Balcombe last Friday was Paul Deacon, of Selden Lane, Worthing. The 50 year old environmental campaigner believes the exploratory drill site in Balcombe is the thin end of a very large and potentially devastating wedge.
He said: “People need to wake up to the whole nightmare that fracking could represent.
“It is the large-scale industrialisation of the countryside.
“It would completely devastate large swathes of Sussex.
“It is not just a question of one or two wells here and there, we are talking about thousands of wells across Sussex and all the infrastructure that would go with it.
“It is clear this is the beginning of something horrendous which is why people have mobilised to express their opinions.
“There has not been any democratic process where they have had the chance to stop it.
“People in Balcombe have said they don’t want it, but it is still going ahead, and when democracy fails all that people can do is physically stand in the way and say we don’t want you to do this.”
Mr Deacon, who intends to plead not guilty at Crawley Magistrates on August 7, said he had been arrested using ‘obscure’ legislation so bail conditions forbidding him from returning to the site could be imposed.
“I think it is outrageous and a sign of desperation that the police have had to dig out this obscure piece of anti-union legislation in order to find an excuse to arrest people.”
The protester was charged with ‘Trade dispute intimidation / annoyance / hindrance Friday 26th July in the county of West Sussex with a view to compelling the person to abstain from doing or do any act that person has a legal right to do or abstain from doing wrongfully and without legal authority, watches or percepts the house or place where that person resides, works, carries on business, or happens to be, or approach to nay house or place, contrary to section 241 of the Trade Union Labour Relations Consolidation Act 1992.’
Mr Deacon added: “I think it is a deliberate ploy on their part to arrest and charge as many people and impose bail conditions on them so that numbers on the site are reduced.”
Speaking on Monday, Superintendent Steve Whitton of Sussex Police said: “We understand how strongly some people feel about the issue of fracking but it is important that they work with us to protest safely and peacefully.
“It is a difficult balance for police - to support an absolute legitimate right for people to protest peacefully and also uphold the legal right of the company to operate. We will do all we can to keep that balance right.
“Our primary tactic is to talk to people and officers are going to great lengths to explain to people why we are there and what is acceptable in terms of their safety and others working at the location.
“When we police these kinds of demonstrations we will always look for a negotiated response. We would much rather talk to people and persuade them to move than use coercion.
“Some pictures in the media look dramatic. What they often don’t show is the length officers have gone to persuade protestors to move.
“If protestors block the way and it is lawful for the company to operate then they need to move. If they are repeatedly asked to move, and at times are putting their own safety at risk, some level of coercion has to be used.
“There are a range of tactics that officers are trained to use and the use of pressure points is one that is proportionate and uses the minimum of force necessary.”