Climate campaigner faces court after protesting fossil fuel funding with tax strike
UPDATED: Additional reporting was added on March 23 to reflect the outcome of the court hearing.
A climate justice campaigner from Buckinghamshire, England, is due in court after stopping payments of council taxes to protest the local council’s role in financing fossil fuel firms.
For the last four years activists from the county in the south east of England have been withholding their council taxes in support of the Council Tax Strike, a campaign to urge the council to move its pension fund investments out of Barclays Bank, known for lending money to fossil fuel companies.
Now one of the council tax strikers, Dr Jane McCarthy, has been summoned to a court hearing for the second time, on Wednesday 22nd March.
At the first hearing in July last year, the council had to withdraw its case against her as its paperwork was not in order.
Dr McCarthy has incurable cancer and is immunocompromised, and will attend the hearing by remote video link, however members of the campaign will be gathering outside the courts to show their support.
“I am a resident of Buckinghamshire and have been refusing to pay for the financial year 2022-23 and will only resume payments when the request is taken seriously by the council,” she said.
“As a result, I have now been summoned to court for the second time, to appear on March 22nd. I will be attending the court hearing remotely, as I have incurable cancer, am clinically extremely vulnerable, and still shielding. But there will be members of the campaign outside the Law Courts in High Wycombe to demonstrate their support for my action.”
Barclays Bank: one of the biggest fossil fuel lenders
Buckinghamshire residents have repeatedly raised questions with the council’s Pension Fund Committee, but say the council is failing to accept responsibility and instead sends responses that fail to address the questions asked. The campaigners have archived their correspondence online, which includes Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and letters to local councillors.
These letters reveal that Buckinghamshire council is under contract with Barclays Bank until 2026. Responsible investment group ShareAction has named Barclays as one of the biggest lenders to fossil fuel companies, stating that “Barclays is the second biggest European provider of financing to 50 of the top oil and gas expanders, having provided over $48bn (£39.5bn) between 2016 and 2021.”
In one letter dated April 2022, a local resident informs the council that more than 800 people will delay paying council tax until the contract is switched to a more ethical bank. “I, and more than 800 other campaigners for the environment in Bucks, are fed up with excuses from Bucks Council on climate change matters which really imply that the council does not recognise that we are in an emergency,” it said.
I cannot hand over money that is being invested in the destruction of our beautiful planet, creating incredible harm and climate injustice and appalling consequences for future generations
“To this end a number of us are cancelling our direct debits and awaiting your reply eagerly… Of course, if we receive confirmation that the Barclay’s contract is terminating by January 2023, with a documented plan to switch to a more ethical bank, we will pause our campaign and recommence our direct debits once again.
“For clarification, this is not a path any of us have chosen to take lightly,” it adds. “We understand the urgent need for council tax funds which provide adult social care and other vital services in our area. However, we cannot, within our consciences, allow our money to be spent on these services if, in the process, that same money is being invested in new oil fields and, in addition, weapons, that are and will be causing the deaths of millions of others both now and in the future. It is on these grounds of conscience that funds may be withheld.”
Pension funds have invested £128 billion in fossil fuels
Having withheld her council tax over the last financial year, Dr McCarthy said: “This is a matter of moral and religious conscience. I have the money ready to pay my council tax, and I want to be able to hand it over to help fund much needed local services. But as a Quaker and a grandmother I cannot hand over money that is being invested in the destruction of our beautiful planet, creating incredible harm and climate injustice right now, and appalling consequences for all future generations.
“I am prepared to deal with the consequences of my actions, and the campaign is exploring its options, including the possibility of legal action.”
Campaigners in Buckinghamshire have said that councillors are failing to engage transparently with their concerns. An online petition urging the pension fund to stop investing in fossil fuels has gained almost 1200 signatures, along with endorsement from more than 10 local organisations.
Pension funds have invested £128 billion in fossil fuels, the equivalent of almost £2,000 for every person in the UK, according to research.
Earlier this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the final part of its sixth assessment report. The study emphasised the damage fossil fuels have had on the environment and once again, urges policymakers to take action. “There is sufficient global capital to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions if existing barriers are reduced. Increasing finance to climate investments is important to achieve global climate goals. Governments, through public funding and clear signals to investors, are key in reducing these barriers. Investors, central banks and financial regulators can also play their part.”
In response to the climate and energy crises a day of actions is planned across the UK on March 24, co-ordinated by UKDivest.
UPDATE: High Wycombe Magistrates Court has issued a liability order for Buckinghamshire Council to claim council tax payments from Dr McCarthy. After the hearing Jane said, “I have been prepared for this outcome, and I’m considering my next steps. I intend to continue with my council tax strike until Buckinghamshire Council show they are seriously engaged with the urgent need to change direction and stop risking public money by investing in the past. Let’s build a better world by investing in a positive future.”