The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to say which police forces have passed it video footage and other information about claimants of disability benefits who have taken part in anti-fracking and anti-austerity protests.
DWP’s attempt to hide its links with police forces has caused fresh anger among activists, who have this week called on disabled people to complain to their MPs, as well as police forces and DWP itself.
They have also called for disabled people to support those activists affected by such police actions.
There was widespread anger last month when Disability News Service (DNS) revealed that Lancashire police had admitted passing information to DWP about disabled people taking part in peaceful anti-fracking protests near Blackpool, in an apparent bid to have their disability benefits removed.
That came after DNS reported evidence that police forces, including Lancashire, were repeatedly targeting and assaulting disabled people involved in anti-fracking protests.
Lancashire police confirmed last month that it had passed on information and footage of disabled protesters at the Preston New Road site to DWP, although DWP itself would only say that it had no “formal arrangement” with any police force to pass on such information.
After Lancashire police’s admission, DNS submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request asking DWP which other police forces had provided similar information, and how many disability benefit claimants had been reported to DWP because of their participation in protests.
But DWP has now refused to answer those questions, or even to say whether it holds any such information in its records, claiming an exemption under section 30 of the Freedom of Information Act.
It is replying on an exemption which gives public bodies certain rights to refuse to release information that might be used in future criminal or civil proceedings.
But the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has made it clear that in such cases public bodies must release the information if it is in the public interest, stating: “Where there would be no harm in releasing the information, or the public interest arguments in favour of disclosure outweigh those in favour of maintaining the exemption, it will need to be disclosed.”
DWP is also arguing that releasing the source of such information “may, in some cases, allow the identification of that source and could place individuals at risk”.
It appears to be arguing that telling DNS which police forces have passed it information about disabled protesters could risk the safety of individual police officers.
But Andy Greene, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “These are public bodies whose duty it is to look after our interests.
“Instead, disabled people are being assaulted, denied their rights, having their incomes revoked and their independence taken away.
“All because we dare to turn rhetoric – about parity of esteem, active citizenship and the right to choice and control over our own lives – into action.
“Disabled people have every right to take action to defend our communities and the environment, we have every right to be heard, to demand equality and to stand beside our non disabled counterparts.”
He said they had the right to do this “without the threat of violence, without benefits being weaponised as a means of control and without vital support and equipment being taken away”, and “without our characters being called into question and insinuations being made about us”.
He urged disabled people to take action by supporting those disabled activists affected, by publicising what was happening, and by bringing the issue to the attention of their MPs and other elected representatives.
He also called on disabled people to complain to and about the DWP and the police, and “to organise themselves in their communities around these and other issues that are important to them”.
He added: “Things can be changed. But not by other people. It’s down to us.”
A DWP spokesperson refused to say whether Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, accepted that such exchange of information by public bodies risked adding to a hostile environment for disabled people who receive benefits, and made it harder for them to feel able to engage in their local communities because they feared being spied on.
But the spokesperson said in a statement: “The press office is unable to comment on the handling of FOIs.
“There is no formal arrangement in place between DWP and any police force for this or other similar scenarios.”
DNS has now asked DWP’s freedom of information team to reconsider its decision. If it confirms its original decision, DNS is likely to complain to the ICO.
Meanwhile, Lancashire police has breached its duties under the act by failing to respond to a similar DNS request within 20 working days.
Asked why it had failed to respond within the legal timescale, a Lancashire police spokesperson said: “We apologise for the delay with our response.
“We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in Lancashire Constabulary and we will respond as soon as we are able.”
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