First Published: April 25, 2012 by Nottingham Defence Campaign | Share
In September 2011 two Nottingham residents, a retired paediatric nurse and a wheelchair user, were arrested at the local Atos ‘Healthcare’ assessment centre.
This pamphlet looks into the wider context of their case. It also offers practical suggestions for persons who need to claim disability benefits & support and/or want to engage in direct action.
PRINTED COPIES available (suggested donation £1), please email nottsdefence[at]riseup.net
- Open letter to the BMJ and RCN
- Devastating Welfare?
- Professor Harrington, independently review my crippled arse!
- On claiming disability benefits/support
- From ESA claim to Atos assessment
- No Comment!
- How to support those in trouble
- Further reading
In September 2011, two Nottingham residents, a retired paediatric nurse and a wheelchair user, were arrested following a peaceful protest at the local offices of Atos ‘Healthcare’. Dubbed the ‘Atos Two’, they were subsequently charged with aggravated trespass.
Faced with an impressive solidarity campaign and having a pathetically weak case, Atos and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) backed down in January 2012. According to the CPS the case was ‘discontinued’ because the ‘complainant no longer support[ed] the prosecution’. It remains unknown whether this change of mind was due to Atos’ own concerns of further bad publicity and/or whether the CPS advised the ‘complainant’ to back off before both company and prosecutors risked humiliation in court.
In any case it is without question that the remarkable acts of solidarity with the ‘Atos Two’ by hundreds of supporters did make a significant impact. The public pressure mounting up even before the trial had started will have made an impression, demonstrating the importance of such practical acts of solidarity and the potential of mutual aid and support.
Atos ‘Healthcare’, a division of the international IT giant Atos S.A., has in recent years been the target of numerous protests. The company plays a crucial role in the government’s attack on people with disabilities as it administers a phoney ‘medical’ assessment, which is the core element of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
The WCA was originally brought forward by a Labour government and has since been endorsed by the ConDems. It was specifically designed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to force people claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB) or trying to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) onto Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), regardless of claimants’ physical and/or psychological issues. Apart from the WCA being structurally biased against claimants, Atos’ implementation of the ‘face-to-face’ assessments quickly resulted in the company becoming infamous and feared amongst people in need of disability benefits.
As Atos is such a particularly disgusting part of the modern British welfare system, there have been a number of protests against the company’s offices all over the country. The protest in Nottingham was not unusual in having been not only entirely peaceful, but also extremely (one might even say far too) polite.
The rather ham-fisted reaction by the local police, better known for their frequent blunders and blatant incompetence rather than a particular urge to repress peaceful protests, and the CPS’s decision to go ahead with the ridiculous charges, were widely received with astonishment. The politically motivated prosecution of the ‘Atos Two’ may even indicate a change in the attitude of the local force and the CPS towards demonstrations. This perspective was only underlined by one copper’s comment, stating on the day of the arrests that ‘there’s been too much of this sort of thing going on and we’ve been told to crack down on it.’
This case of political policing, aimed to intimidate protesters and deter further acts of direct action, is also not an isolated one. At the close of a relatively lively year 2011, in which Nottingham saw many protests and acts of direct action, there were a number of arrests of Uncut activists, whilst critical journalists faced harassment by the police (with officers unlawfully confiscating tapes after an arrest had been filmed).
Whether or not these cases really mark the beginning of a wider crackdown on local protests, they exemplify that any attempts of reaching out to the police will always be futile. Even an apparently sympathetic copper fulfils a distinct role in society; she/he is being paid to enforce the state’s monopoly of violence and to defend the property and production relations. In order to do so they are trained and willing to follow orders (otherwise they would not be coppers). No matter how much some people try and get them on board because ‘they are facing cuts too’, that will never ever stop a cop from going after you and/or your friends if they are ordered to do so.
The relatively high number of protests in Nottingham and the described acts of repression need to be seen in connection with the wider upsurge in direct action throughout Britain since mid-2010 and the attempts to quell it. Although actions deemed violent by the laws of the propertied have been relatively rare exceptions, any form of protesting is only tolerated until a certain line of annoyance is crossed. Therefore even those taking part in rather fluffy actions are increasingly running the risk of being harassed, assaulted and arrested in an attempt by police and the justice system to deter any further direct action.
The offence of aggravated trespass is frequently used to criminalise protesters. One high profile example is the on-going case of those prosecuted for the occupation of Fortnum & Mason (F&M), Her Royal Highness’ sandwich and fizzy pop provider, in March 2011. The offence of aggravated trespass was invented in the 1990s in response to the successes of hunt saboteurs and road protesters and has since frequently been modified to allow it to be used ever more widely.
Offences like aggravated trespass or for example obstruction are handy tools for law enforcers as their relative vagueness allows them in many cases to find a judge willing to convict people who have (allegedly) been involved in very peaceful protests (as in the case of the F&M occupiers). And even if a conviction is unattainable, arresting and repeatedly bailing people is a simple but effective tool for gathering intelligence and keeping tabs on people, often hindering them from engaging in further direct action for months at a time.
Everyone engaging in any form of direct action, however peaceful and polite, must be aware of, and vigilant against, the possibility of repression. Those engaging in more edgy actions must be even more prepared that the police and justice system will do what they can to go after them. Even quite harmless acts can get you imprisoned, as despite rising prison populations, people are being sent down for using joke shop smoke bombs on demonstrations.
With this pamphlet we want to offer practical advice to people who want to engage in direct action and/or need to claim disability benefits/support from the welfare system. We also look into the wider political context of the case of the ‘Atos Two’ by providing articles regarding the demise of the welfare system in general and the WCA in particular.
There are numerous groups and individuals working hard to resist the attacks on the welfare system as well as acts of repression. Instead of trying yet again to reinvent the wheel, we have drawn heavily on some of their excellent materials written over the years. We would like to thank everyone for their vital work, which provides such essential support for so many people.
The first text in this pamphlet is a slightly abbreviated and edited reprint of an Open Letter initiated by WinVisible with a number of other campaigning groups, originally published in 2011. It poignantly summarises the case against Atos, for example by highlighting some of the many cases in which being dragged through a WCA has directly or indirectly caused the claimant’s death.
The article Devastating Welfare? discusses the wider context of the current attacks on the welfare system, providing some historical perspectives as well as outlining some of the dilemmas facing those resisting these attacks.
Subsequently the article …review my crippled arse! is looking into the legitimisation of the WCA. It outlines and criticises some of the underlying assumptions and the interpretation of evidence in the so-called independent reviews of the WCA, which (although initially perceived with some hope) turn out to be nothing but deferential whitewash for the policy.
A number of appendices offer some practical suggestions for people who need to claim disability benefits/support and/or want to engage in direct action. These passages draw on excellent materials originally published by various groups, for example the Black Triangle Campaign or the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group (LDMG). General advice on disabled persons’ dealings with the welfare system is followed by suggestions for those facing an ESA claim and an Atos ‘face-to-face’ assessment. Finally two appendices provide the reader with information on how to protect themselves and others from the fallout of resistance, offering advice on what (not) to do if you end up getting arrested and some ideas how to support others if they become subject to repression.
Contact email: nottsdefence [at] riseup.net