Socialist Worker

Sefton steps up attempt to silence housing campaign

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 1980

Sefton council’s desperate smear tactics against Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaigners have reached new lows, with the Merseyside council sending out letters to four leading DCH activists threatening legal action against them.

Michael O’Brien, chair of Sefton DCH, told Socialist Worker that the allegations the council is making are entirely baseless and represent nothing more than a “disgraceful attempt” to silence activists who have been out every weekend campaigning against Sefton’s attempts to privatise its housing stock.

Sefton council has already lost one ballot over the issue, when tenants rejected its plans for stock transfer in August.

Its response was to issue a series of lurid and unsubstantiated allegations against Sefton DCH—then use these as a pretext for calling the ballot again.

Caroline Elwood, Sefton council’s legal director, sent a hand delivered letter on Wednesday 23 November to Michael O’Brien.

It claimed the council had “evidence” that he had “intimidated various tenants” and made “false allegations in respect of their voting rights.”

It added, “We put you on notice that should any further evidence become available to the council of intimidation, of threats or false accusations by yourself or associates, the council will not hestitate to use the power of the courts to protect its tenants or staff from such actions.”

Elwood ended by requesting that Michael “confirm in writing by return that you will not threaten or intimidate or attempt to threaten or intimidate any council tenant with regard to his/her vote on the question of housing stock transfer”.

And last week three more Sefton DCH activists received legal letters from the council, making similar allegations and banning them from leafleting on high rise estates in Sefton.

Two of them have now contacted lawyers seeking advice over possible defamation.

Michael’s solicitors replied robustly to the council, demanding details of the alleged “intimidation”.

The council responded on Thursday of last week, claiming that Michael had “initimidated” one tenant and “made false allegations” against another—but refusing to divulge any details of the incidents or evidence in question.

The letter ends on a defensive note, stating that Michael “has not created any further problems to the council’s tenants” and that consequently “the council at this stage does not intend to take any further action on the letter”.

Alan Walter, chair of DCH nationally, notes that Sefton’s actions are part of a pattern of victimisation and legal threats against activists campaigning against plans to transfer council housing out of the public sector.

“The unsubstantiated allegations against tenants involved in Sefton DCH are an unacceptable tactic from the council in what has become an increasingly bitter campaign,” he said.

“Either the council should give concrete details of intimidation and fraud or they should withdraw their allegations.

“DCH has made it a matter of principle—and pride—that we have always conducted an open campaign and been accountable for the arguments that we put to tenants.

“Despite countless allegations that the campaign lies to tenants, no one has ever managed to underline an instance where the campaign’s arguments have not been backed up with evidence.

“Last week I was told that Sefton council officers prevented a tenant distributing DCH campaign material door to door in a tower block.

“This is a disgraceful infringement of an individual’s democratic rights — particularly when the council is spending millions of pounds promoting the stock transfer in a second ballot—and should be widely condemned.”

Sefton’s offensive against DCH campaigners also extends to the Unison union, which backed the campaign against stock transfer. The council accused six trade unionists of intimidation after a DCH protest and started disciplinary proceedings against them.

This led to a long running industrial dispute which ended last month with the council successfully managing to remove Nigel Flanagan, Sefton Unison’s branch convenor and a well known Unison activist, from council employment.

Alan Walter says the increasingly desperate tactics by Sefton and other councils are a reaction to the way that DCH has built up a head of steam in recent months, winning more ballots against privatisation in the face of expensive propaganda campaigns from councils.

Many MPs and councillors have joined the campaign for a “fourth option” that would allow direct public investment in housing stock. DCH has called a parliamentary lobby called for Wednesday 8 December that promises to push that campaign further.

For details of how to sign up for the Defend Council Housing lobby on 8 February go to www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk


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News
Sat 10 Dec 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1980
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