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Abbey demo dispersed by police

04 July 2014


Railing against the Government: members of the group Disabled People Against Cuts, during the protest outside Westminster Abbey last Saturday

Railing against the Government: members of the group Disabled People Against Cuts, during the protest outside Westminster Abbey last Saturday

WESTMINSTER ABBEY this week was at the centre of controversy after police moved in to breakup a protest against government disability-benefit reforms.

About 100 campaigners tried to repeat the 2011 Occupy London sit-in at St Paul's by setting up tents on the grass in front of the Abbey last Saturday afternoon. A strong police presence prevented any camp being established, however, and the protesters were moved off by mid-evening. Several of them took to social media to complain.

Scenes of the Abbey cordoned off by police officers were tweeted by Canon Giles Fraser, who resigned as Canon Chancellor at St Paul's in 2011 over plans to use force to remove the Occupy London demonstrators. He captioned the picture: "CofE - looking good again," and, in a second tweet, said: "Unfortunately, the Church looks like it cares more about its buildings than the poor."

The campaigners - including about 40 people in wheelchairs - from the Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) group were protesting against the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), which provides support for some 18,000 severely disabled people.

The group's spokeswoman, Ellen Clifford, said that they had asked the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, for permission to camp on the land "for the next few weeks", but this had been refused.

Police had advised them to leave or face arrest for trespass, and officers moved in when they attempted to pitch their tents. Some protesters in wheelchairs locked themselves to fences.

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman later said that two people had been arrested for assault on the police. A decision on charges is pending. She declined to say who had made the decision to break up the demo.

Later, DPAC tweeted: "Many thanks to the Church for choosing to protect their interests and their income from tourists over arguing in solidarity for justice for disabled people."

The ILF is to close in June next year, and the funding of about £260 million will be handed to local authorities.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "Changes to social care have called into question having a separate funding stream through the ILF, especially since the vast majority of disabled people with care needs are already looked after through the adult social-care system."

One of the protesters, Mark Harrison, the chief executive officer of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, wrote: "What would Jesus have done? I think we know the answer. What did the Dean of Westminster Abbey do? He refused to support the protest, and told us to leave or the police can arrest us. Shame on you, Dr Hall. At least we now know where the hierarchy of the Church of England stands."

The Dean turned down a request to be interviewed, and the Abbey press office declined to answer a list of emailed questions.

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