Minister vows to close ‘loophole’ after court clears Colston statue topplers

Grant Shapps leads calls to change law limiting prosecution of people who damage memorials

Britain is not a country where “destroying public property can ever be acceptable”, a cabinet minister has said, as Conservative MPs vented their frustration at four people being cleared of tearing down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said the law would be changed to close a “potential loophole” limiting the prosecution of people who damage memorials as part of the police, crime, sentencing and courts (PCSC) bill.

Four people – Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22 and Jake Skuse, 33 – were prosecuted for pulling down the statue during a Black Lives Matter protest on in June 2020. A further six were given “restorative justice” outcomes and ordered to pay a £100 fine, undertake unpaid work and fill in a questionnaire about their actions.

Shapps said the PCSC bill would ensure that people “can’t just go round and cause vandalism, destroy the public realm, and then essentially not be prosecuted”.

Grant Shapps in Downing Street.
Grant Shapps. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

Under current legislation, criminal damage can attract a sentence of up to 10 years in jail. But where the damage is less than £5,000, the maximum sentence is three months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £2,500.

However the new bill, which is being scrutinised by parliament, would let courts 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.

The move would extend to flowers or wreaths placed at memorials, such as at a gravestone or the Cenotaph.

Shapps avoided contradicting the jury’s decision, acknowledging that they had “seen all the facts”, but he added: “As a broader point, I would say we’re not in a country where destroying public property can ever be acceptable.

“We live in a democratic country. If you want to see things changed you can get them changed, you do that through the ballot box, or petitioning your local council, etc. You don’t do it by going out and causing criminal damage.

“We’ll always be on the side of the law and when necessary we will fix any loopholes in the law to make sure that’s always the case.”

Robert Jenrick, another Tory MP and former cabinet minister, tweeted: “We undermine the rule of law, which underpins our democracy, if we accept vandalism and criminal damage are acceptable forms of political protest. They aren’t. Regardless of the intentions.”

The view was echoed by other Conservative backbenchers. Lee Anderson said people should not use “mindless thuggish behaviour” if they were “offended by a statues” and instead “use the local democratic process to have them removed”.

Tom Hunt, a vice-chair of the parliamentary Common Sense Group, said he was “deeply concerned by the precedent set here”, warning it “could give the green light for all sorts of political extremists to take matters into their own hands, shun the democratic processes for removing certain statues and to ransack our past”.

One of the defendants, Graham, denied that toppling the Colston monument set a precedent for people to start pulling down statues.

Speaking to Good Morning Britain, she said: “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.”

Elsewhere the TV historian and author David Olusoga, who gave expert evidence for the defence during the trial, said the verdict showed that the jury were trying the case of the evidence and not the “culture war” around it.

Speaking to Good Morning Britain, he said the jury had considered the information “directly rather than through tabloids or journalists or politicians”, enabling them to “actually react to the evidence rather than to the culture war drum beat that is built around it”.

He continued: “Most people don’t understand the details of this history, of this statue, and the long campaign to have it removed peacefully. That statue standing there for 125 years was validating the career of a mass murderer.

“And to people whose ancestors were enslaved by Colston and men like him, it is offensive, and you can talk to thousands of people in Bristol who found it offensive.”


Aubrey Allegretti Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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