Grave concerns have been raised about what appear to be “discriminatory” and “pernicious” actions by a police force that has admitted passing information about disabled protesters to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Campaigners, including the human rights organisation Liberty, are concerned that Greater Manchester Police (GMP) does not appear to have any guidance in place to explain to its officers when they can lawfully hand such information to DWP.
As a result, they fear that GMP – and probably other police forces – may have indiscriminately passed information to DWP about disabled activists, after assuming they must be committing benefit fraud if they can take part in protests.
Liberty fears this could have a “chilling effect on disabled people’s protest rights”.
GMP has now told Disability News Service (DNS) – through a response to a freedom of information (Foi) request – that a review of its records “indicates” that the force passed information about the activities of disabled anti-fracking protesters to DWP.
The force has also said that the amount of information it passed to DWP “is unknown at this stage” because of the number of anti-fracking protests that took place within Greater Manchester.
This is likely to refer to protests that took place in Barton Moss, Salford, in 2013 and 2014.
GMP said in the FoI response that this information was passed to DWP so the department could “assess and then investigate and determine if criminal offences had occurred in relation to benefit claims”.
The force said this morning that information had been shared under successive Data Protection Acts, but it has so far refused to say if it has any guidance that explains to officers under what circumstances such information can lawfully be passed to DWP.
If it has no such guidance, its actions are likely to have been unlawful, say human rights experts from Liberty.
Members of Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (MDPAC) are among those who have taken part in anti-austerity protests in Manchester over the last six years.
Rick Burgess, from MDPAC, said: “We need clarity on the law and procedures so we know where we stand.”
Otherwise, he warned, protesters would have to rely on interpretation of the law by frontline officers which was – when combined with police and wider societal attitudes towards disability and so-called “scroungers and fakers” – “a not good mix”.
He said: “This is a toxic atmosphere, a hostile environment, so there needs to be transparency.”
He said it was also crucial to know what level of disability equality training had been given to officers making these decisions.
Burgess pointed out that there was less protection from the law when a disabled person was dealing with DWP than with the police, and that “the police cannot sentence you to no income and losing your home, but the DWP can, with very little due process”.
He said: “The authorities have to realise that unless they are explicit and transparent, it is not unreasonable to think that very ‘surveilling’ practices are going on.
“Experience has told us that that tends to be their default position.”
Sam Grant, Liberty’s policy and campaigns manager, added: “Anything that limits an individual’s right to protest is a dangerous step that has implications for all our rights.
“If the police and Department for Work and Pensions are freely sharing information between themselves about disabled people who are doing nothing more than lawfully exercising their right to protest, this would be discriminatory, pernicious and breach their fundamental rights.
“Clarity and reassurance is desperately needed to avoid a chilling effect on disabled people’s protest rights.
“Everyone should feel free to uphold their rights without fear of retribution*.”
The FoI information from GMP is just the latest in a series of conflicting statements to come from the force since it first admitted in February that it had passed information about anti-fracking protesters to DWP.
GMP has now finally released a multi-agency “information sharing agreement”, signed by the force and DWP, as well as other organisations in Salford, including the probation service, NHS bodies and Salford council.
DNS had asked for a copy of the agreement the force relied on to share information about protesters with DWP.
But the agreement released to DNS focuses instead on safeguarding children and vulnerable people, and the force said that any information passed to DWP was not “likely” to have been shared under this document but in accordance with the Data Protection Act (DPA).
If there was no associated guidance or policy on such sharing of information under DPA, this is likely to have been unlawful, Liberty has warned.
The FoI release contrasts with a previous statement from the GMP press office, which said that information about protesters was passed to DWP “as part of a sharing agreement”, although it later denied the existence of such an agreement.
Greater Manchester Police has previously admitted sharing information with DWP from protests not connected with fracking, although it is still not clear how much information has been shared and which protests and how many disabled protesters were involved.
It has also previously insisted 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 later this month.
GMP had refused by 1pm today (Thursday) to say if it had any written guidance to explain to its officers when information about disabled protesters can and should be shared with DWP, and refused to explain how it justified this lack of guidance if there was no such document.
But the force said in a statement: “The police service shares data with other agencies in accordance with relevant statutory frameworks where there is public interest.
“This was previously done under section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998, which provided a legal platform for disclosure of data on the basis of law enforcement.
“This act was rescinded on 25 May 2018 and replaced by the [European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation] and the Law Enforcement Directive, both incorporated into the Data Protection Act 2018, from which the police now derive a lawful basis for disclosure which is considered on a case by case basis.
“The sharing of data is not done with the intention of preventing an individual’s right to peaceful protest.
“In fact the police service would give due regard to an individual’s human rights as well as the Equality Act 2010 when considering action it takes.”
*Anyone concerned or affected by these issues can contact Liberty’s advice and information service
Picture: Disabled activist Dennis Queen protesting at the Conservative party conference in Manchester in 2015
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