Thursday, 23 July 2009

Barnet residents defy SOCPA and deliver letter to PM

The sheltered housing demo yesterday was not huge (100?) but it was good - a chance to meet other figures involved in campaigning on the issue nationally. So, I met Vernon Yarker, the able, amiable and dedicated chair of Sheltered Housing UK; Joe Oldman of Age UK (working title of the merged Age Concern and Help the Aged); crusading lawyer Yvonne Hossacks; Geoffrey Cox MP (yes, a Tory, who is opposing sheltered housing cuts and who will try to get a debate on this in Parliament next session); plus residents from around the UK, including a colourful delegation from the Oysters sheltered housing scheme in Whitstable, Kent.

Alan Schneiderman, Barnet Labour councillor, attended and there was a good delegation from Barnet's own Kingsley Court, despite one of their two minibuses breaking down in Swiss Cottage forcing them all to pack into one van to reach the protest.

Protests in the vicinity of Parliament are strictly policed, under the terms of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, abbreviated to SOCPA. I think the police tend to enforce the terms more strictly when the crowd is small. The enormous Tamil protests against the attacks on Tamil areas of Sri Lanka were clearly too big to deal with by invoking SOCPA. However, a modest gathering of elderly people and their friends fits the bill perfectly for a bit of petty bullying and rule-mongering. So we were told off for:
- gathering on the paved area, which belongs to the GLA, and not on the grass, which belongs to Westminster council (at a guess);

- having more than one film crew in attendance;

- shouting slogans whilst having our picture taken;

- using a loudhailer close to Parliament.
If they could have gotten away with it, they would probably have told us off for 'walking slowly in a built-up area'. The elderly people for whom it was a great effort to attend refused to be bullied, just as they had refused to be bullied off the grass in front of Hendon town hall when we held our protest in June.

I cannot fault the police too much - for our walk up Whitehall to Downing Street, they let us march on the road, which was quite a thrill. Most of us waited in a fenced area opposite Downing Street while a delegation went to deliver a letter to the PM. Leading the delegation was Joan Bakewell, who looked great and did a piece to camera for some programme or other. Maybe for the "Panorama" programme about sheltered housing, due for broadcast in August.

On a personal note, I did not end up on television on the day despite two near misses, the second when BBC London News chose to interview Dame Joan rather than me - I suppose there couldn't be a better person to be upstaged by. Joan Bakewell is to sheltered housing what Joanna Lumley was to the Gurkhas - we hope.

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