Disabled activists will meet this week to discuss how to respond to a police force that has admitted it has an agreement to share information with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about benefit claimants who take part in protests.
Concerns about links between DWP and police forces such as Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – and the impact on disabled people’s right to protest – first emerged last December after Disability News Service (DNS) reported that forces had been targeting disabled people taking part in peaceful anti-fracking protests across England.
But the concerns have now spread beyond anti-fracking protests to other pieces of direct action and protests in which disabled people have taken part.
DNS has been trying for months to confirm that there is a written agreement in place that allows GMP to share information with DWP about protesters who may be claiming disability-related benefits.
Once the existence of that agreement is confirmed, campaigners are likely to ask whether DWP has similar “sharing agreements” with other police forces, and what information they allow officers to share with the department.
Manchester’s deputy mayor has this week asked Greater Manchester Police for information about the document, months after she was promised by senior police officers that no such agreement existed.
The force’s press office has also finally admitted that the document exists, blaming a “misunderstanding” for its previous denial that it had such an agreement with DWP.
Today (Thursday), the force’s information management department appeared to be in the final stages of preparing the document for its release to DNS.
Last week’s DNS story that the information management team had confirmed that the “sharing agreement” existed has sparked anger among disabled people and their allies.
Some described the force’s actions as “shameful”, “disgusting”, a “disgrace”, and “deeply disturbing” and “anti democratic”, while others suggested on Twitter that GMP was breaching disabled people’s human rights.
Rick Burgess, of Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (MDPAC), told DNS that he and his colleagues were “shocked and dismayed” at the “attempt to intimidate us into not protesting”.
He said: “I know there are people who will not come to protests because of this, because of fear of being reported to DWP and then becoming penniless and homeless just for exercising our democratic right to protest. It’s despicable.”
MDPAC is meeting this week to discuss what action it will take.
GMP’s press office finally commented on the agreement last night – after refusing to do so last week – and appeared to accept that there was a sharing agreement.
A GMP spokesperson told DNS: “Can I clarify that we’ve solved the misunderstanding around the choice of words we’ve used about a ‘sharing agreement’?
“I hope you understand that by this we mean the agreement to share information between agencies, which is what we did under [section 29] of the Data Protection Act, which allows agencies to share information for a policing purpose.”
But it has failed to explain why GMP previously denied the existence of any such sharing agreement.
The force press office itself said in February that there was no formal sharing agreement in place with DWP.
But an information compliance and records management officer with the force has told DNS that he has now obtained a copy of the information sharing agreement and is preparing it for release.
A previous GMP freedom of information response stated that any information shared with DWP was “done under data protection legislation, not as part of a formal agreement policy (ISA Information Sharing Agreement)”.
And senior police officers told Greater Manchester’s deputy mayor for policing, Baroness [Bev] Hughes, in February that there was “no formal ‘sharing agreement’ in place and that the police act on a case by case basis, sharing information in accordance with the Data Protection Act”.
The GMP press office had failed by noon today (Thursday) to explain how this could be described as “a misunderstanding around the choice of words” rather than a deliberate intention to mislead, but insisted that “we have not intentionally misled you”.
DNS contacted Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) this week to ask whether Baroness Hughes was concerned about the force’s admission when she was assured by senior officers in February that there was no sharing agreement with DWP.
A GMCA spokesperson said: “We are awaiting information on this from Greater Manchester Police.”
Picture: Disabled activist Dennis Queen protesting at the Conservative party conference in Manchester in 2015
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