On 23rd June, Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network activist, Tony Cox, was found guilty of ‘threatening behaviour’ when attempting to insist on accompanying a vulnerable woman to her Work Capability Assessment. Today the court decided his sentence.
I suppose, from our previous acquaintance with Sheriff Griffiths, that we should have expected the worst, but I was still naïve enough to believe that a sympathetic social work report and a dozen supportive personal references (from food bank managers, academics, a retired social work manager, an MP, a priest, an award winning screen writer… ) would make a difference. But I don’t think that anything could have pierced that wall of superiority. As it was, the sheriff just scanned a couple of the references, and then pulled out the comment that one ‘found it almost inconceivable that [Tony] has in fact threatened anyone’ in order to suggest that this was disrespectful of the court. He ignored the social worker’s recommendation of a suspended sentence and the defence lawyer’s point that it would not be in the public interest to take Tony away from the work that he does with the SUWN, and imposed a community payback order of 150 hours unpaid work.
So – 150 hours ‘community work’ as punishment for working for the community: because that was what Tony was doing.
Work Capability Assessments are based on a simplistic tick-box system and on casual observations by the assessor, and are often conducted so as to try and present someone as fit when they are not. Thousands have died not long after being found ‘fit for work’. The horrors of this system have resulted in widespread hardship, often making the original conditions worse, and have even pushed people to suicide. Those going for an assessment are naturally terrified that the assessors will recommend that they don’t qualify for the benefit. It is important that they can have someone with them who understands the system and can check that the assessor is aware of all relevant points and records events accurately.
BUT the Maximus assessors – just like jobcentre advisors – don’t like being checked up on and don’t react well to being corrected. Back in December 2014 Tony pointed out to one of the assessors that he was fully entitled to take notes and use them in any subsequent appeal, and she took against him and called the police. However, the person he was accompanying was able to reassure them that no crime had taken place. When, almost a year later, he attempted to accompany someone else to an assessment, that same assessor insisted he left the building. When he refused to abandon the person he was helping and demanded to speak to a manager, the assessor called the police. By the time they came Tony had gone outside; but without stopping to ask his side of the story or speak to the other witnesses present, they arrested him for ‘threatening behaviour’. Last month the sheriff told us that he ‘preferred’ to believe the Maximus employees than the woman Tony was accompanying.
This follows an earlier instance when Tony was arrested for trying to assist someone navigate the jobcentre – but on that occasion the DWP case fell apart in court and had to be abandoned. Every day jobcentres and assessment centres deprive thousands of people of their basic subsistence – often twisting and ignoring their own rules in the process. These life-destroying acts of cruelty are real crimes, and they are ignored by our ‘justice’ system. But any time that anyone questions what is happening, the DWP and their subcontractors cry foul and call for the police – and the police hurry to their ‘protection’. As we have seen with the Labour party plotters, the easiest way to try and discredit someone who disagrees with you is to accuse them of threatening you.
Of course we do intend to be a threat – but not in that way. We hope that by helping people navigate the system and by exposing its excesses we can prove a threat to its existence. We have no intention of threatening the people who work for the DWP and Maximus – but the punitive edifice constructed by so called welfare reform is firmly within our sights.
Yet again we were supported by other welfare activists who realise the significance of this case and how it is being used to try and prevent us from doing our work. The solidarity shown by comrades from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, Glasgow Anarchist Collective and Castlemilk Against Austerity as well as local folk is what gives us the strength and determination to go on.
We also met up with an old friend who had helped out on the stall in Paisley and had himself just been given 90 hours for threatening behaviour. His ‘crime’? Driving a car with masked hunt saboteurs. And the reason they were masked? Because they were being personally targeted by the huntsmen. A topsy turvey world indeed.
Because the instigator of this long and destructive saga was the Maximus Assessment centre, we thought we would complete our protest across the city centre in front of their office. We didn’t disrupt access because we wouldn’t want to interrupt people getting to their assessments, but that didn’t stop a manager coming out and telling us – and especially Tony – that he was calling the police. By the time the police came we had moved to outside the car-park barrier and there was nothing they could reprimand us about. That didn’t stop them spending a long time in the office and watching us through the window. In the end they came out without a word and drove off, as we waved them goodbye.
The battle in the court is important – not least for Tony – but we can’t let it distract us from the wider battle against this pernicious and punitive ‘welfare’ system. We will go on doing what we do and urge anyone who has been angered by this account to come and join us and demonstrate that we won’t be intimidated.
We are looking to appeal both the verdict and the sentence, but without much hope of justice.