A police force has admitted passing on details and video footage of disabled anti-fracking protesters to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Lancashire Police said it had “a duty” to pass on the details of protesters if officers had information that “clearly suggests fraud may be being committed”.
The force said none of those whose details had been passed on had been charged with any crimes, but at least two activists have been summoned by DWP officials for interviews in which they were questioned about their disability benefits claims.
It is understood that officers attending protests at Preston New Road, a fracking site near Blackpool, claimed they “became suspicious” of some disabled protesters who temporarily got out of wheelchairs.
But campaigners said the decision to pass on details was a fundamental breach of civil liberties and would have the effect – whether deliberate or not – of deterring people from taking part in demonstrations.
“The fact that police are sending this information to the DWP sounds pretty dubious to me,” Barbara Richardson, the chair of the anti-fracking Roseacre Awareness Group, told The Independent.
“I know at least three people who are severely disabled but still show up at Preston New Road because they disagree with fracking. One of them’s been called in about her [disability] claim.”
“There aren’t any shirkers that I know of. These are people with genuine disabilities.
“Do the police do this with anything else? Do they pass on information from football matches, or is it just for fracking protests?
“I just feel like this is a deliberate attempt at crushing our protest. At putting off vulnerable members of the community from showing up at Preston New Road.”
Preston New Road attracts anti-fracking protesters on a regular basis.
Nick Sheldrick, one of the disabled protesters who has a spinal disability, was summoned for an interview with the DWP.
“This has all got on top of me,” he said.
“It is making me feel very low. I’m being targeted for something I believe in.”
The site has become a draw for environmentalists ever since Cuadrilla, an oil and gas exploration company, was given planning permission in October 2016 to develop the UK’s first shale gas wells since 2011.
“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,” a spokesperson for Lancashire Police said in a statement.
“They are the appropriate agency and it is their decision what, if any, action should be taken.
“We will, of course, facilitate the right of anyone to protest lawfully.”
Responding to criticism of its officers’ actions, Lancashire Police offered a further defence on Twitter.
“Clearly our officers aren’t qualified to make any medical assessments and they would never do so,” the force said on the social media site.
“However, they do have a duty to pass on info.”
A spokesperson for the DWP told The Independent there was “no formal arrangement” between the department and “any police force” that encouraged officers to pass on information.
The spokesperson said the department could not discuss the details of any ongoing cases or provide further information.
“We have been appalled at the state of how Lancashire Police behaved towards protestors, particularly the vulnerable members from our community,” campaigning group Frack Free Lancashire said in a statement.
“As we’ve repeatedly informed the police, we will still live here once this intrusive industry has gone. And we will never forget how we’ve been treated.
“The targeted violence and harassment that we have witnessed and in so many cases experienced ourselves is wholly disproportionate and violates our absolute right to protest.”
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