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Some of you may be aware that police invaded the home of a campaigner for Disabled People Against Cuts, living in Cardiff, just before midnight yesterday (October 26).
Apparently she had been accused of “Criminal acts against the Department for Work and Pensions” – being that she has been highlighting the deaths of sick and disabled people following reassessment by Atos and the DWP for Employment and Support Allowance.
No charges were brought against the lady concerned and it is generally considered that this was an act of intimidation.
Since then, I have been informed of three other incidents in which police either visited campaigners at home or stopped them in the street to, in colloquial terms, “put the frighteners on them”. Two were vulnerable women with mental illness, one of whom lives alone.
The forces allegedly involved were South Wales, Dyfed Powys and North Yorkshire Police.
I don’t know what legislation these constables were quoting as the legal grounds for these intrusions. It seems likely it may have been the Public Order Act, section five, which states, “(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he: (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”
But this applies only if a person has been the victim – not an organisation like the DWP.
If it is the Public Order Act, then this provides an opportunity to quote Rowan Atkinson’s speech at the ‘Reform Section 5’ Parliamentary reception earlier this month.
Mention of Mr Atkinson may have already invoked, in your mind, the ‘Constable Savage’ sketch from Not The 9 O’Clock News, in which a police officer is berated for arresting the same man on charges of “Walking on the cracks in the pavement”, “Walking around with an offensive wife”, and “Looking at me in a funny way”, amongst others.
If it didn’t, go and watch the speech because he makes free reference to that sketch in it.
“I suspect [I am] highly unlikely to be arrested for whatever laws exist to contain free expression because of the undoubtedly privileged position that is afforded to those of a high public profile,” said Mr Atkinson.
“My concerns are… more for those who are more vulnerable because of their lower profile – like the man arrested in Oxford for calling a police horse ‘gay’.”
He said: “Even for actions that were withdrawn, people were arrested, questioned, taken to court… and then released. That isn’t a law working properly. That is censoriousness of the most intimidating kind, guaranteed to have… a ‘chilling effect’ on free expression and free protest.”
He said: “The reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature. It is what you might call ‘the new intolerance’ – a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent.
“Underlying prejudices, injustices or resentments are not addressed by arresting people; they are addressed by the issues being aired, argued and dealt with, preferably outside the legal process.”
Of course, this all makes the police look even worse than they’ve been made to seem in recent weeks. First the Hillsborough cover-up came out into the open, then the (many) Jimmy Savile cover-ups, and now – yet again – it seems the government is using police services across the country as a tool for political repression.
The ability to rely on an impartial system of law and order underpins the whole of British society. Use of the police in this way erodes confidence in law and order and, therefore, in society itself.
Police intimidation of those who speak out against the injustices of the DWP and its Atos employees is not only an attack on free speech; it is an attack on the entire philosophy on which our society is based.