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Police under fire after demanding list of fracking debate attendees

University refuses request described as abuse of power by the Green Party

Kent Police is under fire this week after it emerged the force asked for list of peopler who attended a fracking debate at Canterbury Christ Church University last month. The force claims it made the demand for reason of “public safety” and to assess “the threat and risk for significant public events”. But critics have branded the police’s actions reprehensible. And police and crime commissioner Ann Barnes held crisis talks with chief constable Alan Pughesly yesterday (Wednesday). Sociology academics at Christ Church organised a debate on November 19 for members of the public to discuss the pros and cons of fracking, which companies are puthing to test in east Kent. Among those attending was Thanet district Green Party councillor Ian Driver. He said:

“It’s deplorable. This was a public debate. It was not a meeting planning any actions, protests or demonstrations. It was simply a public discussion about a controversial issue.”

Anti-fracking activist Julie Wassmer, from Whitstable, tweeted: “I was a panel speaker at this urn debate. Outrageous!” Richard Stainton, who is also from Whitstable, said: “Police need more cuts if they have time to snoop on students.”

Christ Church refused to provide police with the list of attendees. Stuart Jeffery, the Green Party general election candidate for Canterbury and Whitstable, accused police of overstepping their powers. He said:

“As one of the people who attended the debate, I believe that your request is an abuse of your powers, and I seek your formal apology and assurance that steps will be taken to ensure that this does not recur. I am, however, extremely pleased that Canterbury Christ Church University refused to provide the information. While I, as a public figure, am personally happy for others to know of my attendance at the debate, there will be many in the audience who do not wish you to have their details – details that you [the police] have no right to know.”

Mr Jeffery also submitted a Freedom of Information Actrequest to the force. He asked under what legislation the force had made the demand for a list of attendees, what rank the officers were who had made it, and whether any other groups or meetings had been sent similar demands. Police spokesman Steve Knight defended officers’ actions. He said:

“Kent Police assesses the threat and risk for significant public events in the county, to allow it to maintain public safety and appropriately allocate resources. This assessment includes engaging and working with event organisers. However, Kent Police did not obtain a list of people who had expressed an interest in attending. Police attendance was not required during the meeting, but the Dover district chief inspector did attend the event as an interested stakeholder.”

Kent Police refused to say why the inspector would be an “interested stakeholder”. Christ Church spokesman

Police and crime commissioner Ann Barnes, Richard Stainton, and Green Party councillor Ian Driver and anti-tracking campaigner Julie Wassmer during last month’s debate
Police and crime commissioner Ann Barnes, Richard Stainton, and Green Party councillor Ian Driver and anti-fracking campaigner Julie Wassmer during last month’s debate

said:

“The university was contacted for a list of attendees at the event, and did not disclose the requested information. The university did not feel it was appropriate to provide the information.”

A spokesman for the University and College Union, which represents academics, added:

“Academic freedom is a key tenet of our democracy and rightly cherished by our universities. We are extremely uncomfortable with the police asking for details of people intending to attend a public meeting. Universities must remain a safe space for students, staff and guests to rigorously debate any issue and not fear that the police, or any other Big Brother figure, is looking over them knowing who they are and where they live.”

Herne Bay Gazette, December 18th 2014

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