Guest weekend long read: Lancashire Police tipped off benefit officials about disabled anti-fracking protesters
VIA DRILL OR DROP ON DECEMBER 22, 2018
In this guest post, John Pring, of the Disability News Service, reports on how Lancashire police sent information to a government department about disabled anti-fracking protesters. He also investigates accusations that the force repeatedly targeted vulnerable people at protests.
Lancashire Police confirmed this week that it passed video footage and other material to the Department of Work and Pensions about disabled people protesting outside Cuadrilla’s shale gas site near Blackpool.
The force said it had a duty to pass on information which might suggest that a fraud was being committed.
Senior Labour and Green Party politicians have described the Lancashire Police actions as “shocking” and “unacceptable”.
The police confirmation follows accusations officers have repeatedly targeted vulnerable people at protests outside Cuadrilla’s fracking operations at Preston New Road near Blackpool.
Nick Sheldrick, a wheelchair-user with a spinal cord injury, was astonished to be called in for a reassessment of his industrial injuries disablement benefit just two months after he began attending protests at Preston New Road early last year.
Sheldrick, who used to work in the merchant navy and was injured while working on a ship, had received a lifetime award and said his doctor could not understand why he had been sent in for a reassessment.
“The doctor wrote on his notes that I shouldn’t need to be assessed again because spinal cord injuries do not repair themselves.”
He said he had heard of “quite a few” fellow protesters who had been called in for benefit assessments.
Another Preston New Road protester, a disabled woman with a fluctuating condition, had her Motability vehicle removed after her claim was suspended by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
She is being told to repay months of disability living allowance and now faces possible court action.
She was told that police had sent footage of her at a protest to DWP. She said a police officer who stopped her while she was driving to a protest in her Motability vehicle that they were “duty bound to tell Motability that you’re using your car for illegal purposes”.
She later received a letter from DWP saying that her claim had been suspended, which led to her losing her car. She was then interviewed under caution and ordered to pay back £6,000 to DWP, while a file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.
She was asked in the interview about footage that showed her walking a few steps forward and then a few steps back, and about being seen leaning on a bicycle as she walked up a hill.
“What they were saying was absolute rubbish. Where are the photos of me falling over, me sleeping for 12 to 16 hours?
“To get people on benefits, they take your benefits away. It’s to stop us from protesting, it’s to deny us our rights from protesting, that’s what it’s about.”
Another disabled eyewitness, who has spent time at the Preston New Road site and knows this protester, said:
“I weigh up how I am going to spend the energy that is available to me that week and my capacity for [coping with] pain.
“It is a conversation that she and I have had about how we both – for any activity we do – will either spend time resting up in preparation to be able to do it or resting up to recover from it and to cope with the pain that has been caused.
“Police and DWP are trying to curtail people’s human rights by trying to stop them protesting.
“They are making me worry every time I go out to somewhere like that that it is going to cost me my ability to pay my rent, because they are going to say, ‘If you are able to stand at the gates, you should be able to do a full year’s work.’”
But she said that she and others make this decision to stand at the gates in pain “knowing it is going to cost [us]a lot of exhaustion later”.
“Just because I can do something for a few hours a week does not mean I have the same ability as somebody else who is not disabled.”
“Duty to pass on information”
A spokesperson for Lancashire Police said:
“The DWP are a partner agency and where we have information to suggest that fraud may be being committed we have a duty to pass that on, including video footage if we have it.”
Disability News Serviced asked the DWP what arrangements it had with forces policing protests such as the one in Preston New Road to pass on information about the activities of disabled protesters.
A DWP spokeswoman said:
“There is no formal arrangement in place between DWP and any police force for this or other similar scenarios.”
Asked whether that meant that DWP had not received any information or footage from Lancashire police, she refused to comment further.
She also refused to say whether DWP accepted that disabled protesters claiming disability benefits had a right to protest.
But a Lancashire police spokesman said:
“Do we accept that people with disabilities have a right to protest? Yes, of course we do.
“Are we concerned that by passing on information we are setting a dangerous precedent? No we are not.
“We will, of course, facilitate the right of anyone to protest lawfully.”
Another force spokesman said he didn’t police passing information to the DWP was likely to deter other disabled people from exercising their right to protest:
“I don’t think there’s any concerns from our end.
“Ultimately, if there are people that are found to be claiming benefits down at the site there’s obviously an issue there.”
When asked if this meant the force believed people claiming disability benefits should not be allowed to take part in protests, he said:
“It’s obviously a case by case basis really, what the benefits are being claimed for in terms of their position down at the site.
“That’s a decision for the DWP anyway. We have passed that information on, they will make a decision, an informed decision on the back of that.”
“Unacceptable” and “absolutely shocking”
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who has visited protesters at Preston New Road, described the police action as “unacceptable”:
“Does this mean disabled people can’t protest? That’s ridiculous.
“What we need to do is expose this. We can’t have the targeting of an individual just because they are a peaceful protester.
“This idea that just because you’re on disability benefits you can’t actually engage in the rest of society, that’s unacceptable.”
Despite McDonnell’s concerns, the police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, Labour’s Clive Grunshaw, defended the force’s tactics and said:
“If police have any information to suggest that fraud or any other crime is being committed, they understandably have a duty to do something about it.”
The Green Party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, who has also visited Preston New Road, spoke to Disability News Service before the police admitted passing the data to DWP. He said if information had been given to DWP about protesters who claim disability benefits it was “absolutely shocking”.
“Disabled people have as much right to be protesting in their own way as anybody else and in fact more right because we know when things go wrong [with fracking], the impact on local communities and the impact on air quality and of course the wider impact of climate change, it is always those who are most vulnerable who suffer the most and they have more right than anyone else to be there making their voices heard.”
“Police targeting vulnerable protesters”
Maria Allen, who is deaf and has arthritis, has been involved in the Preston New Road protest since it began in January 2017, and in the wider anti-fracking movement for four years.
She lives about 20 miles from the fracking site, in an area that is also licensed for fracking, and has family in Blackpool, while a cousin lives less than a mile from the site.
She told Disability News Service:
“I have been targeted by the police on so many occasions I have lost count.
“I have been shoved over, kicked, punched, pressure pointed [putting pressure on sensitive points in the body to cause pain].”
On one occasion she was picked up and thrown into a fence, she said. Another time she was knocked unconscious.
“The favourite trick of some of the officers there is to sneak up behind me and grab or shove me without warning.
“Or they will issue instructions when they are stood behind me and they know I don’t know what they are saying [because she lip-reads], and then grab or shove me, using the excuse that I did not comply with their request to move.
“I have also been told by several officers that I am lying when I tell them that I am deaf.”
She described the police behaviour she had witnessed as “intimidating, aggressive, confrontational, violent, abusive, disproportionate, frightening”.
“On numerous occasions I have also seen the police goading and harassing autistic protesters, following them, grabbing them and holding them, calling them names.
“Most of us have also been subjected to targeted arrests where we have been arrested on spurious grounds and been held for several hours in police cells. We have then been released without charge.
“The police do not only target disabled protesters at PNR [Preston New Road]; they target anyone they perceive as vulnerable.
“They also target our young people and women, particularly elderly women. They have even assaulted and deliberately frightened teenage children.”
She believes this targeting of disabled people and other protesters the police see as vulnerable is a deliberate policy, intended to “intimidate people and make them scared to protest”.
Allen, a single mother of four disabled sons, said:
“After they have assaulted me it takes me a few days to get the courage up to go back.
“I believe they also do it to try to provoke a violent response from some of the non-disabled protesters.
“Until I went to PNR I had always respected the police. The policing at PNR has destroyed any trust I had in our police force, and sadly it has made my children feel the same way, because they have seen the horrific bruising the police have left me with.”
Nick Sheldrick said he has been tipped out of his wheelchair six times.
He believes only one of these incidents was accidental. The other five times he says he was deliberately pushed in his chest.
“I have told them that if they do that then I am going to go over in my chair.
“I have told the senior officers if they need me to go anywhere just ask me and I’ll move. They don’t need to pull me and touch me and drag me. But they do.
“They don’t give you time to move at all. As they are saying ‘move’ they are [already] pushing you.”
On one recent occasion he was shoved in the chest by one officer – after being dragged across the road by his shoulders by another officer – and fell backwards and hit his head on the pavement. Because of the treatment he has received, he will no longer attend the protest site alone.
On another occasion last year, one officer left him with a bruise covering his thigh after trying to pin him down by putting a knee across his leg. He said this was “the first indication that the police weren’t there for my protection.
“I’ve always had a really big respect for the police, I was a merchant navy officer, I’ve never been in trouble in my life.
“I’ve always thought the police were there to help and protect us, but that’s not what I’ve witnessed down there.”
He has also had one officer tell him he should go for a run and then laugh in his face. He lodged a complaint but it was unsuccessful after the officer claimed he had been directing his comment to a nearby group of protesters and not to Sheldrick. Other complaints he has made to the force have all been rejected.
In one piece of film shot by a protester, reported in the Mirror and other publications last year, Sheldrick is seen apparently being pulled to the floor in his wheelchair by police officers as he attempts to block a delivery lorry.
One of the officers told him to stop being stupid and stand up, he said.
“I was trying to explain to them I’ve got a spinal cord injury and my legs don’t work. They just wouldn’t listen.”
The publicity around that incident has not stopped officers targeting him.
One of the disabled people mentioned most often by protesters when asked about police targeting is Liz Beck, from Manchester.
She said she had been thrown or fallen to the ground at least 30 times at Preston New Road. On every one of these occasions, Beck was carrying her walking-stick.
In one piece of footage shot by a protester at Preston New Road, Beck can be seen being pushed by a police officer and falling to the ground. The officer then picks her up and drags her across the floor.
“I have been pushed to the ground, I have been rugby tackled, I have been thrown to the ground, I have been slung round, thrown to the ground and [had an officer’s] knee in my back.”
Sometimes she falls because she has been pushed or shoved by police officers; on other occasions she has lost her balance while in a crowd being manoeuvred by officers.
She has also been pushed into hedges at the side of the road, and on one occasion was pushed from the road and then pushed again so she rolled down to the bottom of a steep bank.
“They will either grab you or pinch you or pull you round. I’m unstable, so I go over.
“They seem to go for the weaker ones so other people will start getting angry, because everybody is peacefully protesting.
“They want people to be violent because then they know what to do, so when it’s peaceful they will make it violent.
“They want us to go away quietly, but we have done nothing wrong apart from protest.
“A lot of people were scared to come up because of the police… because of the way police are, but it just makes you more angry. It’s denying people’s right to peacefully protest.”
Miranda Cox, a member of the town council for Kirkham, a couple of miles from the Preston New Road fracking site, needed an operation after tearing cartilage in her knee at the beginning of last year after police contained a group of protesters and then pushed against them. This year, she received a substantial cut to her arm after she was “lifted up and thrown” onto the road by a police officer.
“We have had people knocked unconscious, broken shoulders, broken wrists. I have witnessed a number of incidents with people who are very obviously disabled people.”
These include repeated incidents involving Sheldrick, Allen and Beck.
“I have seen Liz [Beck] knocked to the floor several times and I have seen another friend who uses a wheelchair [Sheldrick] tipped to the floor. I have spoken to another lady wheelchair-user who narrowly avoided being tipped.”
“I can’t say for certain that those people are targeted but it does seem a bit bizarre to me that someone could be tipped six times from their chair if they are not targeted.
“Every occasion [Sheldrick] has been right next to me and I have seen what’s happened and there’s a clear manoeuvre that tips him forwards or backwards or sideways.
“I have asked if [targeting disabled people]was a tactic and they deny it.”
She is another who believes the targeting of those seen as more vulnerable is a deliberate ploy to undermine the morale and determination of protesters.
“It is completely unsafe. The police will say the only reasons they are present at PNR is for our safety, but at the same minute you’re being rugby tackled to the floor or tipped out of your wheelchair.
“I think their tactics are to get the industry wagons through the gates at any cost and they justify it by saying it’s for our safety, but it’s not. It’s a very dangerous game they are playing.”
Another piece of footage shot by protesters, and reported by the Independent last year, shows a disabled member of the Green party, 85-year-old Anne Power, being dragged across a road by police officers while protesting peacefully outside another fracking site, at Little Plumpton, also in Lancashire.
Kevin Blowe, coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (NETPOL), believes the police are targeting protesters perceived as vulnerable, including disabled people. He believes this is designed to “scare people away” but also to try to provoke a reaction from other protesters, so the police then have an excuse to arrest them.
“It’s surprising how many people who have disabilities and who have been prepared to step up seem to be the ones who end up being targeted.
“There does seem to be a pattern of people with disabilities being amongst those who are targeted. People on the ground… are saying it’s deliberate.”
A spokesperson for Lancashire Police said:
“Our intention is to ensure a consistent and coordinated policing response and ensure a balance between the rights of people to lawfully protest, together with the rights of the wider public, including local businesses, to go about their lawful activities.
“We aim to prevent, where possible, crime and disorder, but if it does occur we will provide an effective, lawful and proportionate response.”