Saturday, June 22, 2024

UK government adviser on disruptive protest accused of conflict of interest

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Activists have accused the government’s independent adviser on political violence of a conflict of interest, after it emerged that he had lobbying links to companies that would benefit from curbs to protesting.

John Woodcock, formerly a Labour MP and now a crossbench peer, has prepared a review of “far-left” involvement in disruptive protest, which includes activism against climate change and war. At the same time, he has been chairing and advising lobby groups representing arms manufacturers and fossil fuel firms.

Woodcock’s review is due to be released next week, more than three years after it was commissioned. Over the weekend he said that, among about 40 recommendations, it would propose bans on at least two protest groups, naming Just Stop Oil, the climate activist campaign, and Palestine Action, which acts against arms companies that supply Israel’s military.

The organisations could be proscribed, which would restrict their ability to raise funds and their right to assembly in the UK. The Guardian has yet to see a copy of the report.

Woodcock’s entries in the Lords’ register of interests show he is paid to act as the chair of the Purpose Business Coalition, an organisation run by the PR and lobbying firm Crowne Associates, which counts the oil company BP and the arms company Leonardo among its clients.

The register also shows he is a paid adviser to Rud Pedersen Public Affairs, another lobbying firm, which acts for Glencore, a Swiss mining company with interests in coal, and Enwell Energy, which describes itself as a “a highly focused oil and gas business”.

All could theoretically welcome restrictions on protest against their operations. Leonardo, in particular, has been subject to a persistent campaign of protest by Palestine Action, including occupations of its factories during which equipment was smashed, and graffitiing of the entrance to its London HQ.

Huda Ammori, an activist with Palestine Action who helped uncover the links, said: “Whilst our government remains complicit in the ongoing Gaza genocide, it is our duty to take direct action to halt the production of weapons in Britain which is being used against the Palestinian people.

“It is a sham for the government to try and claim Lord Walney is an ‘independent’ adviser.”

The Ministry of Defence in London was sprayed with red paint in a joint protest by Palestine Action with Youth Demand, calling for the UK government to stop selling weapons to Israel and to halt drilling for oil and gas. Photograph: Martin Pope/Getty Images

Tim Crosland, the director of Plan B, a climate litigation group, said that Walney’s recommendations were “not surprising, since they serve the vested corporate interests he represents”.

A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil said: “Last week the government’s climate strategy was declared unlawful for the second time. The same week they licensed 31 new oil projects. Our government has been bought by the fossil fuel lobby and arms dealers. It is increasingly clear that it is they who are the real criminals.”

Responding to the accusations, Woodcock said: “Over the three years that I have conducted this review I have consistently applied an objective standard and sought a wide range of perspectives, including through a formal call for evidence and analysis of public opinion through polling exercises.

“I now look forward to the publication of the independent analysis and recommendations in my extensive report. My non-parliamentary interests are declared as required and past positions held are a matter of record.”

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John Woodcock was a Labour MP until 2018. Photograph: Chris McAndrew

Woodcock was a Labour MP until 2018, when he resigned from the party during an investigation into claims he had sent inappropriate text messages to a female aide, which he denied. He called for voters to back the Conservatives in 2019 and the following year, Boris Johnson made him a life peer.

Shortly after, he was appointed the government’s “independent adviser on political violence and disruption” and commissioned to write a review on protest in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and anti-lockdown protests that had roiled the UK before and during the Covid pandemic.

Although it was nominally an investigation into “an increase in activity and prominence amongst far-right, far-left and other political groups”, he told the Telegraph at the time his focus would be on what he described as “progressive extremism”.

There was a blind spot on such activities, he said, because they were “carried out in the name of progressive causes to which the political establishment and large majority of the population have great sympathy, like climate change and racial injustice”.

Woodcock said he submitted his 100,000-word report, entitled Protecting our Democracy from Coercion, to officials in December, after a delay so he could take into account mass protests in London calling for Israel to end its campaign in Gaza.

In recent months he has trailed several of its recommendations to the press, including bans on face masks on protests, new police powers to end protests near parliament and MPs’ offices, and protest exclusion zones around arms factories and fossil fuel infrastructure.

But most controversial among its proposals are suggestions that the government enact a form of proscription on groups that regularly break the law as part of their protest strategies.

“The government should introduce a mechanism to restrict the activity of organisations which have a policy of using criminal offences … to influence government or public debate,” Woodcock’s report says, according to the Daily Mail.

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