A Conservative MP and his entourage have been attacked at Sussex University by protesters angry about the illegalisation of squatting.
Mike Weatherley, who represents Hove in East Sussex, was about to give a talk in Falmer, just outside Brighton, about the new laws he helped to introduce when he was targeted by what he called “a group of pro-squatter thugs”.
“As soon as I walked in to the lecture theatre someone attempted to punch me. The event was immediately abandoned, but as we tried to leave, rocks were hurled, and two female members of my staff were injured. My staff and I were barricaded into a room, until the police arrived.” He was then taken to safety by officers in a van.
The protesters, believed to have numbered around 50, were not thought to be students from the university according to a statement it issued last night. “We are appalled to hear that Mike Weatherley was prevented from speaking on campus by a group of protestors – not our students,” a spokesperson said.
Squatters can now be arrested by police immediately following complaints from local councils, following the introduction of new laws on 1 September. Previously they were able to resist eviction or detention through an often long and drawn out process of civil action.
The MP said that one of his staff had her arm crushed in a door while another was hit on her neck by a stone.
“It’s absolutely outrageous that a peaceful event such as this should be hijacked by a group of violent thugs,” said Mr Weatherley. “The squatters have regularly attempted to stop free speech from taking place for the precise reason that they cannot justify their criminal behaviour. I have made a statement to Sussex Police, and to Sussex University Security, about the most violent members of the mob. Once the trouble started, both police and security did their jobs incredibly well. I am grateful to them.”
Protesters disputed that rocks were thrown at Mr Weatherby. A statement issued by the Squatters Network of Brighton, which called the demonstration “an amazing day out”, said: “His security and aides struggled to protect him as he fled, chased by a mob throwing eggs, tomatoes and other things. With no cops in sight, people were really showing their anger.”
It admitted, however, that some of the violent chants against Mr Weatherby included: “Mike Weatherley’s getting lynched” and “One Solution, execution”.
Mr Weatherley told The Independent: “If there are any students involved I expect the institution to take the utmost action and expel them, and I expect the police to track down those responsible and hold them to account, if they possibly can.
“A lot of my staff saw the rocks being thrown, one hit my back and I can tell you it was not a vegetable. Maybe it was a very hard turnip but it wasn’t a tomato. I had tomatoes thrown at me as well but the one that hit me on the back was far harder. I think people were picking up whatever they could find and throwing it.”
He added that he was barricaded inside room for 45 minutes, while some of his nine staff had to remain inside for up to two hours, and that some of the group were “climbing on the roof to get access, it was extremely intimidating”.
“Some of my staff are quite young and they were extremely shaken up. It’s disgraceful. There is no chance of me returning to Sussex University until they have in place some very stringent measures to make sure this never happens again. Why weren’t they checking IDs when they were coming on to campus? Why didn’t they call security to move on the people who weren’t students? The university have a lot to answer for here. I can’t see many MPs wanting to go there after this, it’s ridiculous.”
Later, the University of Sussex said it was "appalled" by the incident and said it had “deep regret” for the distress caused to Mr Weatherley.
"We believe that the violent disruption was led by activist protesters from outside of the university, not by our students,” it said in a statement. “We had appropriate security measures in place to protect our students and visitors as a matter of contingency, and we were able to put those into effect in this case.
"We are giving help and support to the police over the incident, and if there is any evidence of violent actions by our students we would of course provide that to them.”