Britain is not a country where “destroying public property can ever be acceptable”, a Government minister has said, after four people were cleared of tearing down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps claimed that new powers drafted in to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will close a “potential loophole” limiting the prosecution of people who damage memorials.
Only four people – Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33 – were prosecuted for pulling the statue down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 2020, despite a huge crowd being present.
A further six were given “restorative justice” outcomes, which saw them pay a £100 fine, undertake unpaid work and fill in a questionnaire about their actions.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Thursday, Mr Shapps said: “We do have a clause in the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill which will perhaps close a potential loophole and mean you can’t just go round and cause vandalism, destroy the public realm, and then essentially not be prosecuted.”
Under current legislation, criminal damage can attract a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but maximum sentencing is limited by the value of the damage caused.
Where the damage is less than £5,000, the maximum sentence is three months in jail and a fine of up to £2,500.
But the new Bill, which is being scrutinised by Parliament at the moment, would allow the courts to consider the “emotional or wider distress” caused by damage to public property, and raise the maximum sentence to 10 years regardless of the costs incurred.
This would extend to flowers or wreaths placed at memorials, such as on a gravestone or at the Cenotaph.
Discussing the jury verdict on Wednesday at Bristol Crown Court, Mr Shapps said: “I don’t want to be seen to be commenting on an individual case. It had a jury, they made the decision, they would have seen all the facts.
“But, as a broader point, I would say we’re not in a country where destroying public property can ever be acceptable.”
Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher and director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, told the Telegraph that the verdict “sets an extremely dangerous precedent”, claiming it gives a “green light for mobs” to tear down statues across the country.
But Ms Graham disputed this, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I completely understand people’s concerns and I really don’t think this is a green light for everyone to just start pulling down statues.
“This moment is about this statue in this city in this time.
“I will leave the fate of monuments in other cities to the citizens of those cities.”
TV historian and author David Olusoga, who gave expert evidence for the defence during the trial, told the programme the verdict showed the jury was trying the case on the evidence and not the “culture war” around it.
Describing the statue as “validating the career of a mass murderer”, he said: “Most people don’t understand the details of this history, of this statue, and the long campaign to have it removed peacefully.”
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner said on Twitter that, while the verdict was an “unusual result”, “this doesn’t set a legal precedent as it is jury decision … anyone damaging property in future would have no way of knowing if a jury would convict or acquit them. The law is as it was.”
But he said aspects of the acquittal are a warning to the Government, adding: “Criminalising protest you don’t approve of (as is happening through the #PolicingBill) will have the opposite effect you want: politicisation of the courts and juries and more unlikely acquittals.”
The defendants opted to stand trial and have their case considered by a jury, instead of appearing before magistrates.
None of them denied involvement in the incident but claimed the presence of the statue was a hate crime and it was therefore not an offence to remove it.
But, during the trial, the prosecution said it was “irrelevant” who Colston was and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage.
Judge Peter Blair QC told the jurors to disregard such rhetoric about the weight and consequences of their decision, and try the case purely on the evidence in front of them.
After the verdict, Chief Superintendent Liz Hughes, head of neighbourhood policing at Avon and Somerset Police, said the force had a “duty to investigate” after which the Crown Prosecution Service decided to bring charges, adding: “Having been presented with the evidence, a jury has now determined their actions were not criminal and we respect its decision.”