A Labour police and crime commissioner is facing criticism from within his own party for endorsing his force’s “disgraceful” decision to pass video footage and other information about disabled anti-fracking protesters to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Wayne Blackburn, co-chair of Disability Labour but also a borough councillor in Lancashire, has written to police and crime commissioner Clive Grunshaw to express his alarm and shock at the tactics of Lancashire police.
Cllr Blackburn is among scores of disabled campaigners who have raised similar concerns since Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last month that the force had passed information and footage of disabled protesters to DWP – in an apparent attempt to have their disability benefits removed – and then claimed that it had “a duty” to do so.
Two senior political figures – Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell and the Green party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley – have also called for an inquiry into claims that Lancashire police officers have targeted and assaulted disabled people taking part in the protests.
The DNS reports mostly focused on police tactics during peaceful protests about the drilling activities of the energy company Cuadrilla at Preston New Road, on the edge of Blackpool.
Cllr Blackburn told Grunshaw in the letter that he was “deeply concerned” to hear that Lancashire police was passing information and footage to DWP, which he said was “in clear contravention of any person’s right to peaceful protest”.
He said he agreed with McDonnell (pictured at Preston New Road) that these tactics were “shocking” and “unacceptable”, and he said that he was “personally disappointed” that Grunshaw supported the force’s actions.
Cllr Blackburn has asked Grunshaw a series of questions about the force’s relationship with DWP, including asking him: “Are you concerned that you and Lancashire Police are adding to the Conservatives’ hostile environment towards disabled people?”
A spokesperson for Grunshaw told DNS that he was “aware of the concerns raised and will be responding to the questions posed by Cllr Blackburn”.
Following the DNS reports on Lancashire police sharing information with DWP, many disabled campaigners took to social media to express their alarm.
Mark Brown, who writes and speaks about mental health issues, said on Twitter that the force’s actions needed to be seen in the context of “15 years of anti benefits rhetoric” which had led to social security turning into “social surveillance”.
He said: “In the UK we’ve tried to drive down public spending by activating people’s worst instincts and then telling them they’re good boys for telling tales.
“Disabled people, especially people with #mentalhealth difficulties, live in fear of malicious fraud allegations.”
After Lancashire police defended its actions on Twitter – telling DNS that it had a “duty” to contact DWP if it had information “to suggest fraud may be being committed” – there was widespread anger among disabled people, including those claiming benefits.
The Mental Health Resistance Network tweeted in response: “This is truly shocking. So even the police have joined in the war against disabled people.”
Another mental health activist, Rick Burgess, tweeted: “The uniting of the shadow DWP penal system and the established criminal justice system, where if one cannot get you the other will, is a highly significant intersection.
“We are now under full Stasi like conditions.”
Activist and researcher Caroline Richardson, a member of the Spartacus Network of disabled campaigners, said the force’s actions were “discriminatory and frightening”.
She said on Twitter: “Being reported maliciously for fraud is more worrying than being assessed.
“This sends a clear message that if you protest then the Police will report you on suspicion of fraud, without reason/evidence/proof.”
Film-maker and author Richard Butchins told the force on Twitter: “Your officers can have no idea if fraud is being committed but they are clearly spiteful petty minded servants of those in power – disgraceful behaviour.”
Dr Jay Watts, an activist and consultant clinical psychologist, said such actions were “an affront to civil liberties of disabled people” and that a few minutes of video from a protest gave “a false perception of ability”, with disabled protesters often facing “weeks of physical and psychological backlash afterwards but do so to make the world fairer”.
Paula Peters, a member of the Disabled People Against Cuts national steering group, said the police actions were “horrendous and disgusting”, and that “attacking disabled protestors then reporting them” was “the lowest of the low”.
Felicity McKee told Lancashire police: “You can have a disability and leave the house. We don’t just sit inside all day.
“Disabilities can vary from day to day, as some days I’m better than others. That isn’t fraud [it is] just fact. What you’ve done is so immoral it’s shocking.”
Another Twitter user with a fluctuating condition, @mookpixie, said: “This is disgraceful. My illness is mostly invisible and varies hugely from hour to hour, let alone day to day.
“Most times I leave the house for an hour or two, I then spend days in bed recovering. Could you tell all that from video footage of me leaving the house? No.”
And @neonwheelchair tweeted: “I very, very rarely leave the house now as if they took my PIP away, I’d end up homeless. We can barely eat as it is and can’t heat our home.”
Another, @vashti, added: “You guys suck. You are the reason I’m too frightened to go outside even when, well within my PIP criteria, I’m well enough to do so.”
Meanwhile, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it was not aware of any targeting of disabled protesters at anti-fracking protests.
An NPCC spokesperson added: “If an incident has occurred contrary to that, it is for the force’s professional standards department to address it in the strongest possible terms.”
Terry Woods, assistant chief constable for Lancashire police and the NPCC lead on shale, gas and oil exploration, said in a statement: “Police forces will always facilitate the right to peaceful protest, while ensuring that disruption to their local communities is kept to a minimum.
“Police officers are trained in maintaining public order and using the minimal force to do that.
“When an officer does need to use force they are accountable for ensuring it is lawful, proportionate and necessary.
“Existing guidance on dealing with fracking protests is currently under review by the College of Policing.
“No police guidance has ever, or would ever, recommend targeting disabled people.”
A College of Policing spokesperson said it hoped to launch a public consultation on its updated guidance on the policing of long-term protests in the first quarter of 2019.
The guidance will contain a section about protests focused on onshore oil and gas exploration.
Picture by Gathering Place Films
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