We always said it all depends on the sheriff – and we were right. Today SUWN activist, Tony Cox was found ‘guilty’ of ‘threatening behaviour’ towards the lovely folk at the Maximus Work Capability Assessment Centre in Dundee, who were preventing him from accompanying a vulnerable woman to her assessment. As Sheriff Griffiths explained in his verdict, it was a question of whose evidence he preferred – and he preferred the evidence of the crown witnesses. Prefer was his term. Never mind that their evidence was riddled with (unchallenged) contradictions over what happened when and even if the police came into the building (they didn’t). Never mind that the woman Tony was accompanying insisted, despite persistent leading questions from the Procurator Fiscal, that Tony did not ‘swear’ or ‘shove’ the receptionist at the door.
We have always said that this should never have gone to court. That if the police had only stopped to ask the other side of the story before whisking out the handcuffs, this whole sad spectacle could have been avoided. And now we are facing the consequences of what passes as a justice system but seems as much concerned with searching for truth as the competitors in a debating contest.
The Fiscal’s portrayal of Tony as just there to cause trouble could not have been further from the truth. While we have emphasised the wider significance of this case, his reason for being at the Maximus Assessment Centre was simply to accompany a vulnerable woman who had specifically requested that he be there with her at her assessment, as he had done for other people before. On one previous occasion the assessor had asserted he could not take notes – and when he insisted on his right to do this and proved that it was permitted in the regulations, the assessor had called the police on him. On that occasion nothing went further, but that assessor had nursed her grudge against him, and it was her who insisted this time that he leave. This time she asserted – again without evidence – that he had been banned from the building. Tony had insisted on taking this up with a manager and on his client’s right to be accompanied by a person of her choice. What the Sheriff chose to see as the Maximus receptionist being solicitous for the understandably distressed client, was actually her trying to persuade this vulnerable woman to go into the assessment alone, without the person she was relying on to help her; and – not incidentally – trying to persuade her that Tony was not her friend. Three Maximus employees were trying to prevent Tony from a simple bit of advocacy, while attempting to demolish his character in front of his client. And Tony tried to argue his case. He has a strong voice (after decades of public speaking) and he used it. But speaking loudly, and even raising your voice, is not a crime – yet. There was absolutely nothing on the CCTV footage to suggest behaviour that could be conceived as ‘threatening’: indeed he was mostly seated and generally leaning back in his seat too. He was there to represent and help someone and he was being careful not to compromise her situation or his ability to help others in the future. When he realised that they were getting nowhere and his client was anyway too distressed for an assessment, he left the waiting room, but he then found himself having to put his foot in the door to prevent the Maximus employees from keeping his client inside and continuing their pressure on her to go to the assessment without him. Far from him ‘shoving’ the receptionist, she was trying to kick his foot out of the way. And that charge of ‘shoving’ only got added to the original charge of ‘threatening behaviour’ in the course of the first part of the trial, which meant that there was not time to for us to challenge the lack of CCTV footage for that critical moment.
That this can have developed into a criminal case with a guilty verdict is simply a travesty. Tony was giving his time to help someone through the thicket of a punitive government bureaucracy – and even when he was arrested the SUWN made sure that she got the help she needed to get her ESA – but now another part of that bureaucracy has determined to punish and criminalise him.
This is part of a pattern. Arbroath Jobcentre had earlier tried to accuse Tony on a similar charge, but their evidence fell apart in court and the charge had to be withdrawn. And we have heard from people going into Dundee Jobcentre how the staff there do their best to tar the reputation of Tony and of the SUWN more generally. In Edinburgh, High Riggs Jobcentre has several times called the police on advocates from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty.
Anyone who had any illusions in our ‘justice’ system would have had them knocked out by observing this case; but the verdict was just the beginning. As the Sheriff and the lawyer parleyed over issues that might affect the sentencing, Tony felt compelled to protest that the sheriff had misquoted him, and when asked if he was ‘fit for unpaid work’, he replied that he already did community work. For the sheriff this was tantamount to insurrection. Sentencing has been postponed for four weeks so that they can get a Criminal Justice Social Work Report. And Tony has been told that if he doesn’t grovel and accept his ‘guilt’ and if he doesn’t demonstrate his ‘empathy’ with the Maximus employees who shafted him, he can expect a harsh sentence. Because, in the sheriff’s words, his ‘antipathy to authority was clear’. We certainly didn’t see anything today to persuade us that the authority of our legal system deserves anything other than antipathy.
Just as people on the receiving end of the new punitive ‘welfare’ regime are expected to take responsibility for not being ‘positive’, so the criminal justice system is determined to punish people for not being sufficiently servile – and the sheriff made it clear that he was not happy with Tony’s body language or facial expression. In our Brave New World you mustn’t raise your voice and you must take your punishment with a smile.
Well that’s their world – and in the real world where the rest of us live there is more work to do than ever, and Tony and the SUWN have no intention of taking a step backwards in our advocacy and in our campaigning. As if to remind us, within five minutes of sitting down for a drink after we left the court we had two phone calls from people asking for our advice. The DWP and their friends don’t like what we do because we are getting results. We are helping individuals to navigate through their traps, and we are drawing attention to what is wrong with the system. (In fact we heard another example of the cruelty of the system as we were protesting outside before the trial began. A man going past told us that he worked in a Universal Credit call centre and that people would ask him how he can sleep at night doing such a job. He told us that he often can’t and that he is desperate to find other work.)
Yet again we can take heart from the solidarity shown by our comrades – by our friends in Dundee and our friends in Glasgow Anarchist Collective and Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty who traveled across Scotland to be with us, and by all those who have contacted us from across the UK to show their support for Tony and for the wider fight for real justice. Together we will win!