There are growing concerns and calls for an urgent investigation into admissions by two police forces that they have shared information about protesters with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Both Lancashire and Greater Manchester police forces have now admitted passing on information to DWP about people taking part in protests.
The admissions originally came following claims reported by Disability News Service (DNS) that police forces had been targeting disabled people taking part in peaceful anti-fracking protests across England.
Lancashire police then admitted in December that it had shared both information and video footage of disabled anti-fracking protesters with DWP, in an apparent attempt to have their disability benefits removed.
Greater Manchester Police (GMP) then told DNS that it had passed DWP information – but not video footage – relating to protesters taking part in the anti-fracking protests at Barton Moss, Salford.
Those protests took place in 2013 and 2014, but the force also confirmed that it has shared information with DWP from protests not connected with fracking.
There is now growing confusion over how many forces are involved, what information they are handing DWP, in what circumstances they hand it over and on what legal grounds, and whether this exchange of information is based on any written agreements.
Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha de Cordova (pictured), called last night (Wednesday) for an investigation into the extent of information sharing between police forces and DWP.
Last week, GMP admitted having a “sharing agreement” with DWP, even though the department explicitly stated two months ago – and repeated this week – that it had no such “formal arrangement” with GMP or any other force.
But GMP has now backtracked from this admission, claiming there is no “specific formal agreement or policy in place” after all, and stating that the sharing of information that takes place between the two organisations is carried out under the Data Protection Act.
It has denied trying to cover up its relationship with DWP.
Labour’s deputy mayor for policing for Greater Manchester, Baroness [Bev] Hughes, backed her force’s decision to share information with DWP.
She said the force had “a duty to act if they judge that individuals may be breaking, or have broken, the law”.
She said: “I have consulted with senior officers within GMP who have assured me that there is 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.
“Protestors in Greater Manchester should never be deterred from exercising their right to protest.
“Should they do so in accordance with the law, GMP will continue to do as it always does and facilitate such protests.”
But de Cordova said the sharing of information with DWP by police forces was “a violation of trust”.
She said: “This is yet further proof of the hostile environment that this Conservative government has created for disabled people.
“This violation of trust is not only shocking but also could threaten disabled people’s access to vital social security.
“There must be an urgent further investigation into the extent of information sharing and action must be taken to end this harmful practice.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “As we have reiterated previously, there is no formal arrangement with the police for this scenario.
“The department does not request referrals from the police and there is no obligation on either the police or members of the public to provide referrals.
“In the event we receive information from the police, we consider it on its merits.
“As is the case with any responsible government department, we stand ready to assist the police in the event they request information from us for the purposes of crime prevention or detection.
“This service is provided under the Data Protection Act for the purposes of preventing and detecting crime.”
Meanwhile, GMP said this week that it had not shared any information with DWP about disabled activists who took part in the anti-austerity protests that took place outside the Conservative party conferences in Manchester in 2015 and 2017.
The Conservative party is returning to Manchester for its annual conference in October.
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