NHS campaigners have slammed town centre bosses after they were told to pack up and leave because they hadn't paid for the right to hand out leaflets.

Six members of Keep Our NHS Public's recently launched Swindon branch were talking to shoppers and distributing leaflets at the junction of Canal Walk and Regent Street on Saturday morning when they were approached by the inSwindon street team.

They were told that because they had not sought prior approval to be in the town centre they must leave - they were given ten minutes to do so and were told that if they refused the police would be called.

The group challenged the direction on the grounds that they had a democratic right to protest and exercise free speech.

They were told that in Swindon town centre, groups wishing to do just that must obtain permission and pay a fee in advance.

Sarah Newman, co-founder of Keep Our NHS Public's Swindon branch, said: "I'm shocked, really shocked - what does free speech mean if this is how it works?

"The NHS has helped me a lot in the past two years. We are worried about it, we're very concerned about longer waiting lists, delays in A&E and increased privatisation.

"What we want to do is raise awareness about what's happening in the NHS. So being able to hand out leaflets to get people thinking and provide information is important.

"It's something I naturally assumed we had a democratic right to do.

"But we've been told we have to pay £25 per person and limit it to four of us - that's £100. We think that is an attack on our democratic rights.

"We had accepted the fact that we couldn't have a stand inside the Brunel Centre because that is private property, but these people now tell us the area they control is from the Tented Market to the railway station. Where are we supposed to go?"

Sarah's fellow co-founder, Samantha Wathen, explained that putting a price tag on the right to campaign in the town centre would make it impossible for small groups like hers.

"We're entirely self funded with no financial backing other than the generosity of our membership," she said. "We are only just starting out.

"We certainly haven't got £100 so four people can stand here for an hour to give out leaflets trying to save the National Health Service.

"It seems ridiculous that someone wants to make money off of our campaign - where is that £100 even going to go."

At the same time as the NHS campaigners were being told to leave, there were church groups, a gym company and coffee shop staff giving out leaflets unchallenged just yards away.

Only a short distance along Regent Street there was a busker, a street trader selling 'spinners' from a large stall on wheels and a Rotary Club stand advertising the annual duck race.

A spokesman for inSwindon said: "All businesses, organisations, charities and BID members wanting to promote themselves within the Swindon town centre public realm need to contact us first to check availability and to book a space.

"This ensures fair access and allows us to check the authenticity of the stand.

"Our Street Team Ambassadors approached the NHS campaigners and advised them about the town centre procedure for booking space.

"This includes relevant health and safety checks and risk assessment documents.

"Unfortunately, this was not completed and the Street Team Ambassadors acted in accordance with inSwindon BID and Swindon Borough Council policies.

"We would be delighted to work with the NHS campaigners on future events."

  • More information about the Keep Our NHS Public campaign will be available at a public roadshow at the Redhouse Community Centre on May 31. The event will get underway at 7.30pm and will feature guest speaker Dr Rishi Dhir, an orthopaedic surgeon who has been very active in both the junior doctor campaign and now the wider campaign against private sector involvement in the health service. Entry is free and open to everyone.