An MP has accused Sussex Police of deliberately intimidating patrons of a social club.

In a surprise intervention David Lepper, Labour MP for Brighton Pavilion, said the police’s decision to photograph people entering and exiting the Cowley Club in London Road for a meeting about the environment last week appeared designed to scare activists rather than prevent crime.

Mr Lepper has written to Chief Supt Graham Bartlett, the force’s divisional commander for Brighton and Hove, demanding why officers were posted opposite the venue on Friday.

Members of the Cowley Club, which was hosting a meeting of environmental protest group Earth First, were confronted with four uniformed officers outside the Somerfield store, opposite the venue, snapping visitors using a paparazzi-style lens.

Sussex Police has said the photography was part of ongoing police work to gather information to support future operations. But Mr Lepper yesterday dismissed the police’s response and said he wanted an explanation.

He said: “It looks more like an attempt to intimidate people going in and out of the Cowley Club rather than genuine surveillance. To have such a large number of uniformed officers with a camera with a telephoto lens seems like it’s meant to deter people from going in there.

“I accept that police need to gather information but this is a ham-fisted way of doing it.”

Cowley Club member David Biset, who described the club as a cafe and a meeting place for radicals, said the officers outside the building were acting in a “deliberately intimidating manner”.

Their actions were a worrying sign of a wider problem of authoritarian policing, he said. “Avenues of dissent are being closed down and police feel able to treat politics as a police matter.

“There was no suggestion of anything going on outside the building.

“The police have no reason to be there beyond intimidating people. You shouldn’t be put on a database simply for attending a meeting.”

A spokeswoman for Sussex Police said the force had nothing to add to its earlier comment.