An MP has called for an inquiry into the “violence” of police officers against disabled activists who took part in a protest at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The Labour MP John McDonnell made the call during a Commons debate on Atos Healthcare, the much-criticised company that carries out “fitness for work” assessments on disabled people.
He said he supported the groups that had organised five days of protests against Atos’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympics, and said he was “calling for an inquiry into violence against people with disabilities who protested last week at the Department for Work and Pensions”.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the grassroots campaign group that led the protest at the DWP’s Caxton House building in Whitehall on Friday, has welcomed McDonnell’s call.
DPAC’s steering group will be discussing McDonnell’s comments and a likely complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission at a meeting tonight (Friday).
One of the wheelchair-users who took part in the protest is already considering legal action against the Metropolitan police, after he was left with a fractured shoulder when officers tried to break up the peaceful protest.
Another protester, Adam Lotun, had to be held in his wheelchair by fellow activists as officers tried to drag his chair away.
DPAC said the police’s use of force was “excessive, unnecessary, reckless and contravened our right to peaceful protest”, and that it was “difficult to see the police response as anything other than an attempt to provoke a violent reaction from the protesters”.
It is the latest incident in which Metropolitan police officers have been accused of using excessive force against disabled activists, particularly those using wheelchairs.
The Caxton House action was part of a week of protests held to highlight Atos’s role in carrying out “fitness for work” assessments for the government, and widespread anger that the company has been a major sponsor of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Six DPAC activists – and two supporters – occupied the lobby of Caxton House, while four others chained themselves to each other to block the entrance.
They asked to see Maria Miller, at that point still the Conservative minister for disabled people – but were told she was not in the building – and delivered a series of demands, including that Atos should be removed from the contract to assess disabled people for their fitness for work, and that Miller should reverse her decision to close the Independent Living Fund.
Earlier, there had been a “fabulous and joyous” action organised by DPAC and the mainstream protest group UK Uncut outside the London headquarters of Atos, as the final element in a week of protests they called the “Atos Games”.
Hundreds of campaigners fired water pistols, party poppers, blew bubbles, threw water balloons, and performed Atos-style “miracles” to satirise the company’s apparent ability to cure people’s health conditions.
A small group of protesters then left to target the DWP’s Caxton House offices in Westminster, and were later joined by many more of those who had taken part in the earlier protest, including many prominent DPAC members.
But DPAC activists were astonished at how the police responded to the DWP protest.
DPAC has been involved in a series of high-profile direct actions over the last year, and had developed a friendly working relationship with senior officers from the Metropolitan police.
But that appeared to change on Friday afternoon.
Lotun, one of the wheelchair-users who was caught in the crush, said: “I was the first one the police collided into. They knew there were five wheelchair-users in front of them. To get past them they were really going to have to rough-house them.”
He said police tried to pull him out of his wheelchair, which was damaged. He said the Met needed to produce a policy urgently on how to deal with wheelchair-users and other disabled people during protests.
He said: “They do really need to know how they are going to deal with disabled people. People in wheelchairs are going to get hurt. They are not going to get out of the way.”
Andy Greene, one of the DPAC activists who had blocked the doors of Caxton House, said a row of police officers “pushed and pushed and pushed” the protesters towards another line of officers who were already positioned in front of the doors.
He said: “We were staggered by the response, by the physicality, it was so out of left field.”
Despite shouted warnings that there were disabled people with hidden impairments in the crowd, he said, the police continued to squeeze the protesters.
But DPAC say some officers were even more aggressive, with one grabbing a man with learning difficulties around the neck and pushing him against a wall, before being pulled away by a colleague.
Greene said there had not been any trouble in a string of previous DPAC protests over the last year.
“We have not had one incident or trouble at any time. The police have [until this protest] been fantastic.
“Every other time the police have been engaging, conversational and instructive but yesterday they actually ignored us for the first hour.”
A police spokeswoman said that one man was arrested for breach of the peace and obstructing police. He was taken to a police station and later bailed to return to another station in October.
She said that officers deployed to “unplanned protests” would “always make a dynamic assessment of the situation being policed, and will take into account the environment, type of protest, intentions of the crowd and circumstances of those protesting”.
But she said that “all police officers are accountable for their actions”, and added: “Anyone who is unhappy with any aspect of the policing of an event should contact the Metropolitan Police Service so any complaints can be thoroughly investigated”.
Police have so far failed to comment on McDonnell’s calls for an inquiry.
Meanwhile, Lotun has announced that he will stand as an independent candidate at the by-election in Corby on 15 November, caused by the decision of the Conservative MP Louise Mensch to stand down.
Lotun’s wide-ranging manifesto calls for welfare reforms that are “fair to all and fit for purpose”, criticises cuts to disability benefits, and calls for legalisation of cannabis use for medicinal purposes.
He said he was standing on a platform of “anti-discrimination, anti-cuts, anti-warfare and a return to common sense leadership”.
Among his policies he wants to scrap the “fitness for work” assessment and remove the contract to carry it out from Atos.
He said he had already secured support from some Liberal Democrats.
He added: “I am fighting for common sense, not just for disabled people.”
6 September 2012