The UK government’s legislative crackdown on protest in England and Wales was dreamed up by a secretive right-wing think tank that had been funded by US oil giant ExxonMobil, openDemocracy can reveal.
Policy Exchange explicitly said the government should pass legislation to target Extinction Rebellion (XR) in a 2019 report that got the attention of Tory MPs and peers.
The report called for protest laws to be “urgently reformed in order to strengthen the ability of police to place restrictions on planned protest and deal more effectively with mass law-breaking tactics”.
Sections of Priti Patel’s controversial policing bill, which became the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, appear directly inspired by the Policy Exchange report.
Patel said openly that the legislation was intended to stop tactics used by Extinction Rebellion. The home secretary first pledged to introduce the bill just over a year after the Policy Exchange report was published.
Policy Exchange does not disclose its donors, but openDemocracy has uncovered that ExxonMobil Corporation donated $30,000 to its American fundraising arm in 2017.
“It appears that the Policing Bill is stained with the grubby, oil-soaked hands of the fossil fuel lobby,” Green Party MP Caroline Lucas told openDemocracy.
“And no wonder – this cracks down on the fundamental rights of protestors to challenge the very climate-wrecking policies espoused by this downright dangerous industry.”
The bill gave police new powers to place restrictions on the noise and duration of static protests, or shut them down if they were deemed a “serious disruption”, and introduced a new public nuisance offence that carries a maximum ten-year jail sentence for obstructing the public. Patel also tried to expand stop and search powers so police could search protesters without grounds for suspecting lawbreaking – a provision that was eventually defeated in the House of Lords.
The bill spurred months of protests around the country and was fiercely criticised by civil rights groups.
Policy Exchange: funded by oil money
Policy Exchange has been one of the most influential conservative think tanks in Britain.
ExxonMobil said in its annual giving report that it supported the American Friends of Policy Exchange, along with several other organisations, because they “assess public policy alternatives on issues of importance to the petroleum and petrochemical industries”. The donation was given for “energy and environment”, the name of a policy area listed on the think tank’s website.
The American Friends of Policy Exchange, a US non-profit set up in 2010 to “to support and advance the program of Policy Exchange UK”, has received almost $5m in anonymous donations since 2012, according to publicly available financial filings. Of this, $3.5m has been forwarded to Policy Exchange’s UK charity.
Exxon is the largest oil company in the US and has been accused of purposely misleading the public about the threat of climate change. It spent more $37m funding groups promoting climate denial in the US between 1997 and 2008.
Policy Exchange has also received donations from several leading UK oil and energy companies, including the industry lobby group Energy UK, to organise events at the Conservative Party’s annual conferences.
XR branded ‘extremist group’
Policy Exchange’s 2019 report claimed XR wanted to overturn democracy, and speculated that its members could “break with organisational discipline and become violent”.
The report, titled Extremism Rebellion, was authored by Tim Wilson, the former head of Policy Exchange’s security and extremism unit, and Richard Walton, a former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terror branch.
Walton retired in 2016, six days after the police watchdog found he had a misconduct case to answer over his alleged involvement in police spying on the family of the murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence in the late 1990s.
Months after the report was published, counter-terror cops placed XR on a list of extremist ideologies.
Priti Patel defended the decision to designate XR as an extremist group even after Counter Terrorism Policing South East said XR’s presence on the list was an error and the document in question would be recalled.
The Policy Exchange report that appears to have contained the seeds of the policing bill was later cited in the House of Commons by Tory MP Steve Baker, who urged ministers to read it, and in the Lords by Tory peer Matt Ridley. Baker is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic group that has received money from groups with oil interests in the US. Ridley is a member of the group’s academic advisory council.
Tory MPs and ministers have continued to repeat several of the claims made by Policy Exchange, despite the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism subsequently insisting that XR should not be considered an extremist group.
In September 2020, Patel referred to climate protesters as “criminals” in a speech to the Police Superintendents’ Association conference, and claimed that XR was an “attack on capitalism” in the Daily Mail.
Paul Stott, the head of security and extremism at Policy Exchange, wrote in a blog that the policing bill was evidence that the recommendations set out in its previous report on XR were being followed by the government.
Alanna Byrne of Extinction Rebellion UK told openDemocracy:
“These revelations show us clear as day that not only is the government being directed by think tanks working for fossil fuel clients, meaning our laws are being written for the benefit of foreign oil and gas corporations, but that protests of the last three years are having an impact.”
Civil rights groups have condemned the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with Amnesty International UK saying it is comparable to “repressive policies” used in Russia, Hong Kong and Belarus.
Close ties to current government
Policy Exchange was founded in 2002 by a group that included Francis Maude, who served a minister in both Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron’s government, and Michael Gove, who was then a journalist.
The think tank has close ties to the government: six of its former staff members are now serving MPs, including the chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, and a further five are special advisers.
Since 2012, ministers have disclosed 43 meetings with Policy Exchange on issues including the environment, defence and Northern Ireland.
Several of the think tanks’ policies have been adopted by the government. Most recently, Gove announced plans to allow residents to vote on whether to accept planning proposals on their street, an idea first proposed in a 2021 Policy Exchange paper.
The government has explicitly cited a Policy Exchange paper, which academics said was “McCarthyite” and “littered with statistical errors”, as justification for its Higher Education Free Speech bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech last month.
Ministers claim that the legislation, which would make the universities regulator responsible for policing academic freedom, is needed because free speech is under threat on campuses. But the University and College Union dismissed the claims as a “think-tank-inspired bogeyman” and accused the government of trying to “police what can and cannot be taught at university”.
In 2020, Dean Godson, the director of Policy Exchange, was made a Conservative life peer by the government.
The Home Office did not deny that the Policy Exchange report had been considered while drafting the policing bill and subsequent Public Order Bill.
A spokesperson said: “The government regularly consults a wide variety of opinions to develop legislation – this is no different.”
Policy Exchange declined to comment.
Teaser photo credit: “Declaration of Rebellion” at Parliament Square, 2018. By Steve Eason – https://www.flickr.com/photos/127991958@N06/44928553174/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80593899