How the mayor of London could defend civil liberties

Boris continually fails to hold the Met Police to account for their worst decisions

Civil liberties are usually seen as something for lawyers, the home secretary and the European Court of Human Rights. Defending our liberties is not seen as a significant part of the mayor’s job. However, the more I have looked into the practices of the Met Police, the more I have realised just how much the mayor can do – and how little the current mayor has chosen to do.

Neither Ken Livingstone nor Boris Johnson have appeared to bother much with civil liberties. Both have had big problems to deal with. Ken was determined to increase the amount of visible and local policing and successfully kept communities united through the horror of the 7/7 bombings. Boris has had to deal with massive government cuts to the police budget and a series of historic scandals. Put simply, they both had other pressing priorities.

This sounds plausible, except when you consider how the current mayor has failed to ask the Met Police even the most basic questions about what they are and aren’t doing. Even when the mayor agreed to set up an Ethics Panel to examine some of the historic scandals, he has done so without transparency or energy. This is surprising given the scale of the crisis within the Met Police.

Leaving aside the unresolved issues of past corruption, cover ups and the forthcoming child abuse inquiry, in the last few years we have realised that under-cover police have deliberately used sexual relationships as a way of doing their job; that a hand in glove closeness between some police and journalists tipped over into something very questionable and that the police have decided to create their own definition of an extremist, which included watching some of the people who were trying to hold them to account.

You would imagine that making the Ethics Panel work would be a mayoral priority; sadly, my report ‘The Surveillance State’ shows otherwise.

A mayor who cared about civil liberties would have ensured that the police immediately changed their definition of domestic extremist to only include those intending serious or violent crimes. There would be curiosity about how many people on the list had ever been convicted of anything, and surprise when told that the police really couldn’t say. There would be basic questions about the purpose of the information collected and whether the bulk of it had ever been of any value anyway in stopping a serious crime.

A mayor who cared about civil liberties would pause before they handed over another big chunk of council tax money to the Met and would find out if the money was being used to finance surveillance operations on elected politicians, or people like the Lawrence family who were involved in campaigns to hold the Met to account.

A mayor who cared about civil liberties would have made clear statements about under-cover officers not having sex as part of doing their job and would have required assurance that disciplinary action would swiftly follow, including any senior officers who signed off on these long term relationships. A robust mayor could stop the Met wasting money on damaging court cases defending a Neither Confirm Nor Deny policy which can act as a smokescreen for past misdemeanours and possible criminal acts.

A mayor who cared about civil liberties would demand that the Met immediately referred all requests for phone and email records involving journalists and lawyers to a judge. They would demand ‘dip audits’ of the 91,000 requests per year for such e-mails in London done via RIPA and would want reassurance that whistle-blowers and non-violent campaigners were not being targeted.

My basic point is that the mayor gives the Met Police half a billion pounds a year and is legally responsible for holding the commissioner to account. That gives Boris Johnson leverage. The fact that he has used that leverage to push through water cannon, rather than defend civil liberties is a deliberate choice. Boris Johnson is not the natural libertarian that he pretends to be. I hope the next mayor is the real thing.

Jenny Jones is a Green Party Assembly member and deputy chair of the Policing & Crime Committee. Follow her on Twitter

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