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.
The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps claimed that new powers drafted into 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, and 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, 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 imprisonment 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 at a gravestone or The Cenotaph.
Discussing the jury’s verdict at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday, 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.”
He added: “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.”
Defendant Rhian Graham denied that toppling Colston 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 TV historian and author David Olusoga, who gave expert evidence for the defence during the trial, said the verdict showed that when the jury were trying the case of the evidence and not the “culture war” around it.
Speaking to Good Morning Britain, he said: “When (the jury) get that information directly rather than through tabloids or journalists or politicians, then they actually react to the evidence rather than to the culture war drum beat that is built around it.
“Most people don’t understand the details of this history, of this statue, and the long campaign to have it removed peacefully.”
He added: “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.”
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