Will Clegg let civil liberties go the same way as electoral reform?

Bradley Day, co-founder of the No Police Spies campaign group, urges the Liberal Democrats to re-connect with and stand up for their civil liberties principles.

By Bradley Day, co-founder of No Police Spies, a group campaigning for an end to police infiltration of protest groups

When the Conservatives began their coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats back in May 2010 they knew issues of civil liberties and electoral reform would have to addressed, or at least be seen to be addressed.

On electoral reform, in the words of transport minister Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats now feel completely “let down”. Other senior Liberal Democrats have chosen stronger words, with Vince Cable describing the Tories as “ruthless, calculating, and thoroughly tribal”, and Chris Huhne repeatedly venting his fury well before last Thursday’s referendum defeat.

But are the Liberal Democrats being let down just as badly on civil liberties?

The coalition agreement boldly declared that “the British state has become too authoritarian”, the Tories agreeing to instigate the Liberal Democrats’ Freedom Bill. But a government is not just assessed on those few measures they bring in at the beginning of a parliamentary term, but on how they react to the constant flow of events surrounding them.

Let’s take two case studies.


Case Study One

At the very start of this year many were shocked following the revelation that undercover police officer Mark Kennedy had spent over seven years infiltrating environmental campaigns. It quickly emerged that Kennedy was far from the only one, but that a secretive and publicly unaccountable police unit was operating an extensive network of police spies in protest groups up and down the country.

The tactics used by these officers posed a very grave threat not just to our fundamental right to protest, but to our basic right to privacy as set out under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Undercover officers systematically engaged in sexual misconduct, regularly took part in aiding and encouraging protest actions, and are shown to have had worrying links with the corporate sector.

Furthermore, critical evidence gathered by undercover police officers was not disclosed in court. This has prompted at least one miscarriage of justice, in which the Director of Public Prosecutions has since personally intervened – but who knows how many more?

The undercover operations were shielded from scrutiny, as the unit responsible was housed within the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). ACPO is a private company, turning over millions of pounds of profit every year, and conveniently free from the trappings of democratic scrutiny.

When all this came to light over a three-week international media frenzy in early January there was clear consensus across the political spectrum that something had gone very badly wrong. It was not a niche leftist issue; deep concerns were being raised everywhere from the Home Affairs Select Committee to the Mail on Sunday.

Yet, the prime minister said nothing, the home secretary said nothing, and the policing minister, when forced into saying something when brought before the Home Affairs Select Committee, chose to say precious little.

It may not surprise readers to learn that the only cabinet minister to go against this trend was Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, who accused the police of “inventing” the threat posed by environmental campaigners. One might imagine that if Huhne did raise the issue at cabinet, his Tory colleagues may have told him it “was not the right venue” for such a discussion.

The blanket silence from the rest of the government on the matter could be considered odd given that they were not implicated themselves. The network of police infiltrators had been build up on New Labour’s watch, with John Reid’s Home Office doubling the responsible unit’s budget in 2007.

The Tories, like the Liberal Democrats, made proclamations that they were going to right New Labour’s wrongs in regard to civil liberties. This high profile case would have surely been a politically savvy place to start. Another variation of the ‘clearing up the mess we were left with’ mantra they’ve become so fond of.

Yet, despite endless calls from Members of Parliament, we haven’t had so much as a statement to the House of Commons. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary is due to report back from its review into the undercover operations in the coming weeks. Will Theresa May make a statement then? She’s shown no indication that this is her intention.

Case Study Two

On Monday March 28 Theresa May rushed into the House of Commons to make a statement to the house. A few windows had been smashed at the TUC march two days earlier, and the home secretary’s message was clear: she would “not hesitate” to introduce new police powers to deal with protesters. The powers she was suggesting were extreme, and her supporting evidence was highly dubious.

The proposed measures included allowing the police to remove certain people’s right to protest, a hugely significant power to hand down to the police, especially given that the whole fiasco of undercover operations was largely caused by the fact the police are allowed to deploy undercover officers with no external scrutiny.

She backed up the need for such powers by suggesting that the fact the police had charged 200 people meant such powers were needed. This is forgetting the fact that 145 of those were arrested just for being inside Fortnum & Mason shop, having earlier been called “peaceful and sensible” by a chief inspector who also promised they would not be arrested.

It also forgets the fact that Lynn Owens, the Met’s Assistant Commissioner, admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that the large number of arrests gave the police “really important intelligence opportunities”. No Surprise…


Aside from the epic undercover cop scandal and the mass arrests on the anti-cuts march, this is the year that has seen the High Court rule the kettling of 5,000 people at the 2009 G20 protests was illegal and an inquest find the death of passer-by Ian Tomlinson was unlawful; has seen some very frightening developments in pre-emptive raids and arrests; and has seen plainclothes snatch squads cart people away for singing vaguely political songs.

When you combine all these examples it appears that we are fast drifting into an age where it is a scary prospect to even contemplate exercising the right to protest, especially when the democratic representatives responsible for oversight of our police refuse to heap anything but praise on them in their approach to protest.

But this should come as no surprise. Let us not forget it was the Tories who controversially invented the offence of “aggravated trespass” as part of their 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. The offence was brought in solely to deal with protest activity, and it continues to criminalise new generations of protesters. It was this offence that was brought against the 20 climate activists whom the Director of Public Prosecutions is now urging to appeal.

It is also this offence that has been brought against the 145 people who were arrested for being inside Fortnum & Mason on March 26.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have always positioned themselves as the champions of protest. It comes as no surprise that it was Chris Huhne who spoke against the police infiltration of protest groups. Huhne is clued up on policing protest matters. He would often raise the issue with ministers, and once chaired a parliamentary launch of a report into the police’s use of illegal stop and searches at the 2008 Camp for Climate Action.

Likewise, Liberal Democrats such as Norman Baker and Vince Cable witnessed intensive policing first hand at protests events. But we have not seen this commitment put into action since they entered government.

As senior Liberal Democrats promise less ministerial chumminess and more businesslike relationships, does this will mean they will now put up more of a fight when the Tories try to ride roughshod over the right the protest? A good way to start would be to join with the growing number of MPs (including backbench Liberal Democrats) who are demanding a full and independent inquiry into the undercover policing of activists.

A second would be to ensure that they keep a very close eye on the Tory-dominated Home Office, and are ready to intervene when Theresa May proceeds with Tory wishes to extend evermore the powers the police have over protesters.

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