Jury acquits Extinction Rebellion for Treasury Fire Engine action and Crown drops remaining trials after Judge suggests ‘not in public interest’ - Extinction Rebellion UK

Jury acquits Extinction Rebellion for Treasury Fire Engine action and Crown drops remaining trials after Judge suggests ‘not in public interest’

  • Court heard Treasury funded fossil fuel projects abroad for five years after we signed Paris Agreement
  • Treasury continues to fund climate breakdown through its support for new North Sea projects including Rosebank

Email: press@extinctionrebellion.uk

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The Crown has today dropped the last remaining case in the Treasury Fire Engine Trial after the jury acquitted five of the six defendants of conspiracy to commit criminal damage to His Majesty’s Treasury building by a majority verdict at Southwark Crown Court earlier this month. 

The verdict – which will come as a huge embarrassment to the government and the Treasury in particular – was given on 12 October but was unreportable until this afternoon when press restrictions were lifted.

At the end of the trial, Judge Justin Mark Cole told the Crown Prosecution Service he did not consider further prosecutions for the action to be in the public interest. The CPS said the decision on future trials would be taken ‘at the highest levels’ and today the CPS has dropped the trial of the final defendant, Dr Diana Warner, on the condition of a bind over as well as a retrial of the sixth defendant and prosecutions against two further defendants for the lesser charge of criminal damage.

On 3 October 2019, Extinction Rebellion activists sprayed 1,800 litres of fake blood made of washable dye over the Treasury building from a decommissioned fire engine. [1] The dramatic spectacle – which made the front pages around the world – drew attention to the Treasury’s funding of new fossil fuel projects abroad in direct contravention of the globally agreed mission to keep global temperature rises below 1.5C. The Treasury claimed the cost of the damage was nearly £20,000 and the defendants faced up to ten years in jail each if they had been found guilty.

Defendant Liam Norton, a 38-year old electrician from South London, said: “The jury’s verdict was a victory for common sense and a victory against the Treasury who, as our action highlighted, funded new fossil fuel projects abroad for five years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement. The Treasury continues to be complicit in mass death and suffering from climate breakdown by financing the development of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea including Rosebank. This ensures we can never keep within safe climate limits. This trial was never in the public interest. When will the Treasury be put on trial for criminal negligence?”

Following their acquittal, the defendants read out a joint statement before declaring the court a crime scene and unfurling crime scene tape:

“Let this verdict mark a turning point in British history. A time to stop prosecuting the protesters and to start prosecuting the true criminals in government. Until these courts are filled with the oil executives trashing our children’s future; with the government officials subsidising and funding them; with the marketing firms distorting the facts and hiding the truth; with the lawyers from the London law firms enabling £1.48 trillion in fossil fuel funding in just the last 4 years; with the newspaper editors applauding the collapse of our ecosystems whilst inciting violence against the activists who defend life – until these courts are filled with them, we declare the legal system a crime scene. Silence is complicity. Failure to prosecute is complicity. The next generation will not forgive or forget until justice is done and neither shall we.”

Most legal defences shut down

Following the lead of other courts, the Judge banned those of the defendants who admitted causing damage from arguing their actions were necessary and proportionate. The only defence they were able to put to the jury was that they believed the Treasury would have consented to the action if it had fully understood the circumstances – specifically the devastating consequences of the climate and ecological emergency.

In her closing speech, defendant Cathy Eastburn, a musician from South London aged 56, explained her position:

“Some of you, when you first heard me say I believed the Treasury would have consented if they’d known the full facts, might think that sounds a bit ridiculous. But consider the alternative.

“The alternative is that they knew that more fossil fuel projects would kill hundreds of thousands of people over the next few years, from Pakistan to Libya, Hawaii to Europe, and carried on investing public money, our money, that could have gone to schools and hospitals, in new fossil fuel projects around the world.

“That would be far worse than ridiculous. And I find that much harder to believe. Because ultimately my guess is that the people who work in the Treasury aren’t so different from me and from you. And I don’t think any of us would do something if we knew it would cause so much death and human suffering.”

Norton said: “Because the legal system has shut down the more straightforward defences that have historically been available to us, we have been forced to make our case through the somewhat convoluted defence of “belief in consent”. Other defendants have been less fortunate and, having been allowed no legal defence, have been sent to jail for mentioning the phrases “climate change” and “fuel poverty”. We are living in a legal lottery.”

Tim Crosland of climate charity Plan B said: “Judges have not been allowing jurors to know that they have the  long-established right to reach a verdict according to their conscience. Protester Trudi Warner has been threatened with jail by the Solicitor General for reminding jurors of this right. Our case shows that when members of the public are allowed to hear why we undertake these actions and hear the facts, they understand it would be wrong to treat us as criminals. That’s the Achilles Heel in the Government’s escalating programme of repression. Which is why the state is taking such extreme measures to undermine trial by jury.”

The judge’s suggestion that further prosecutions in this case might not be in the public interest, came as the UN, Amnesty International and the Council of Europe launched a broadside against the increasing repression against climate protesters around Europe, with the UK identified as the worst offender. Earlier this month UN special rapporteur Michael Forst described the situation in the UK as “terrifying” [2]. Meanwhile, two peaceful climate protesters, imprisoned for 3 years and 2 years 7 months respectively, were last week [2 weeks ago?] refused permission to appeal [3], as the Daily Telegraph reported that judges have been directed, “Don’t jail rapists and burglars – our prisons are too full” [4].

Why ordinary citizens took this action

The protest was designed to spotlight the role of the Treasury in financing climate breakdown in the wake of the Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee’s revelation that the Treasury was allowing [5] the UK Export Finance department (UKEF) to underwrite new fossil fuel projects abroad with billions of pounds of public money. [6]

At the action, banners reading “STOP FUNDING CLIMATE DEATH” were displayed and the slogan was stencilled onto the walls of the building at 1 Horse Guards Road, Westminster, London.

From 2013/14 to 2017/18 UKEF spent £2.6 billion on fossil fuel projects abroad [7]. In 2018-2019 UKEF support for such projects increased eleven-fold in one year to £2 billion. [8] This support has enabled projects worth many more times this amount get off the ground, locking low-income countries into high-carbon pathways and debt. [9]

Funding projects that are killing the global community’s aspiration of keeping temperature rises below a global average of 1.5C [10] means the Treasury is implicated in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people [11] and the wrecking of our children’s future.

Four years on the Treasury is still funding climate death

Coverage of the action appeared to spark a process of internal discussion within the government and the UK announced it would end all financial support for overseas fossil fuel projects in December 2020. [12]  

In spite of this, UKEF continues to underwrite aviation projects with £18 billion of public money since the Paris Agreement. [13] This will lock countries into high-carbon pathways for decades to come.

Domestically, the Treasury walks hand in hand with the Prime Minister in supporting new oil and gas developments in the North Sea by providing the funding that makes them possible. 

In May 2021 the Treasury introduced tax relief of 91p in the pound for new oil and gas developments. [14] This tax relief is estimated to amount to £11.4bn in subsidies over five years. [15]

New oil and gas projects are incompatible with keeping global average temperature rise to below 1.5C [10].

The development of just one of those fields, Rosebank, would breach the UK’s domestic carbon budget from its production emissions alone [16]; produce more carbon emissions than the 28 lowest-income countries combined when the oil is burned; and lose the taxpayer over three quarters of a billion pounds. [17]

Besides pumping public money into new North Sea oil and gas projects, the Treasury has been encouraging banks to do the same. [18] [19] 

The government also provides tax relief for the cost of decommissioning North Sea Oil platforms. The UK’s tax relief commitment for the period 2021 to 2066 in this regard is estimated to total £19.9 billion. [20]

As a combined result of various tax breaks and subsidies, BP and Shell received more money back from the UK government than they paid in tax during the years 2015 to 2020 (except Shell in 2017). [21]

UK leading the world to catastrophe

New research shows the UK is one of the five top countries responsible for the majority of planned expansion of new oil and gas fields through 2050. These countries also have “the greatest economic means and moral responsibility to rapidly phase out production”. [22]

A recent peer-reviewed analysis concludes we need to keep 60% of existing fossil fuel reserves in actively producing fields in the ground to keep within 1.5C. [23]

At the same time UK offshore wind capacity ground to a standstill last month with not a single bid being made to develop new projects in the latest government auction. [24]

It has been estimated that the City of London supports a whopping 15% of global carbon emissions around the world [25]

As the UN’s Global Stocktake report made clear, to avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown we need to get off fossil fuels and onto a fast track to a clean, renewable energy economy. Aligning government financial flows is central to this challenge. [26] 

Notes to editors:

[1] Press release for the action, Extinction Rebellion, 3 October 2019:: https://extinctionrebellion.uk/2019/10/03/extinction-rebellion-spray-fake-blood-on-treasury-using-fire-engine/

[2] Human rights experts warn against European crackdown on climate protesters: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/oct/12/human-rights-experts-warn-against-european-crackdown-on-climate-protesters

[3] Just Stop Oil protesters bid to challenge jail terms refused: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-67079796

[3a] Insulate Britain activist jailed for eight weeks for contempt of court https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/feb/07/insulate-britain-activist-david-nixon-jailed-for-eight-weeks-for-contempt-of-court

[3b] Activists jailed for seven weeks for defying ban on mentioning climate crisis https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/activists-jailed-for-seven-weeks-for-defying-ban-on-mentioning-climate-crisis/

[4] Don’t jail rapists and burglars – our prisons are too full, judges told: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/10/11/rapists-burglars-prisons-too-full-judges-told-moj/

[5] According to its own annual report and accounts: “UKEF’s statutory powers … may only be exercised with the consent of HM Treasury. HM Treasury sets a financial framework comprising financial objectives and reporting requirements, within which UKEF operates.”https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1086998/UK_Export_Finance_Annual_Report_and_Accounts_2021_to_2022_Accountability.pdf

[6] Environment Audit Committee report on UKEF: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/62/environmental-audit-committee/news/100313/uk-export-finance-report-published-17-19/

[7] UK Government Agency’s Annual Support for Overseas Fossil Fuel Projects Rises to £2bn: https://www.desmog.com/2019/06/27/ukef-fossil-fuel-support-2bn-2018-2019

[8] UK committed nearly £2bn to fossil fuel projects abroad last year: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/27/uk-spent-nearly-2bn-on-fossil-fuel-projects-overseas-last-year

[9] What are Export Credit Agencies? https://www.eca-watch.org/node/1#

[10] New fossil fuels ‘incompatible’ with 1.5C goal, comprehensive analysis finds: https://www.carbonbrief.org/new-fossil-fuels-incompatible-with-1-5c-goal-comprehensive-analysis-finds/

[11] The impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C and beyond https://interactive.carbonbrief.org/impacts-climate-change-one-point-five-degrees-two-degrees/

[12] PM announces the UK will end support for fossil fuel sector overseas, 12 December 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-announces-the-uk-will-end-support-for-fossil-fuel-sector-overseas

UKEF press release says “The UK ended all financial support for overseas fossil fuel projects in March 2021.” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-trade-partners-agree-to-end-export-credit-support-for-coal

[13] Aviation Industry Awarded £18 Billion of Public Finance Since Paris Agreement: https://www.desmog.com/2023/04/06/aviation-industry-awarded-18-billion-of-public-finance-since-paris-agreement/

[14] Fossil fuel subsidies are not the answer to the energy crisis: https://odi.org/en/insights/fossil-fuel-subsidies-are-not-the-answer-to-the-energy-crisis/

[15] UK Windfall tax loophole explained: https://www.stopcambo.org.uk/updates/uk-windfall-tax-explained

[16] New oilfield in the North Sea would blow the UK’s carbon budget: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/apr/01/new-oilfield-in-the-north-sea-would-blow-the-uks-carbon-budget

Rosebank oil field would bust climate targets, according to new analysis: https://www.stopcambo.org.uk/updates/rosebank-oil-field-would-bust-the-uks-climate-targets-according-to-new-analysis

[17] UK set to make huge tax loss from Rosebank, as Equinor announces billions in profits https://www.stopcambo.org.uk/updates/uk-set-to-make-a-huge-loss-if-rosebank-is-approved

[18] Treasury to encourage banks to fund North Sea oil and gas, despite Net Zero commitment: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/03/21/treasury-encourage-banks-fund-north-sea-oil-gas-despite-net/

[19] Banks to snub Treasury meeting as UK oil and gas sector struggles for financing: https://www.cityam.com/banks-to-snub-treasury-meeting-as-uk-oil-and-gas-sector-struggles-for-financing/

[20] Estimates of the remaining Exchequer cost of decommissioning UK upstream oil and gas infrastructure, North Sea Transition Authority, (March 2022): https://www.nstauthority.co.uk/media/8038/estimates-of-the-remaining-exchequer-cost-of-decommissioning-uk-upstream-oil-and-gas-infrastructure-march-2022-accessible.pdf

[21] What is the windfall tax on oil and gas companies and how much do they pay? https://www.bbc.com/news/business-60295177

[22] New Research Exposes 5 Global North Countries Responsible for 51% of Planned Oil and Gas Expansion Through 2050 https://priceofoil.org/2023/09/12/new-research-exposes-5-global-north-countries-responsible-for-51-of-planned-oil-and-gas-expansion-through-2050/

[23] Sky’s Limit Data Update: Shut Down 60% of Existing Fossil Fuel Extraction to Keep 1.5°C in Reach: https://priceofoil.org/2023/08/16/skys-limit-data-update-shut-down-60-of-existing-fossil-fuel-extraction-to-keep-1-5c-in-reach/

[24] No bids for offshore wind in government auction: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-66749344

[25] UN Global Stocktake, September 2023: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/sb2023_09_adv.pdf

[26] UK Net Zero 2050 – good intentions, but aren’t we missing something?: https://carbontracker.org/uk-net-zero-2050-good-intentions-but-arent-we-missing-something/

[22] Global climate protests demand world leaders phase out fossil fuels https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/global-climate-protests-demand-world-leaders-phase-out-fossil-fuels-2023-09-15/

About Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a decentralised, international and politically non-partisan movement using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

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Time has almost entirely run out to address the climate and ecological crisis which is upon us, including the sixth mass species extinction, global pollution, and increasingly rapid climate change. If urgent and radical action isn’t taken, we’re heading towards 4˚C warming, leading to societal collapse and mass loss of life. The younger generation, racially marginalised communities and the Global South are on the front-line. No-one will escape the devastating impacts.

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