Recent revelations about undercover policing have shown that a number of legal and political campaigns and organisations, including the Newham Monitoring Group, a partner organisation in Netpol, have been subject to covert surveillance operations.
While the police are keen to dismiss criticism as being merely an historic issue, applying to a bygone era, Netpol sees no reason to believe that things have improved in recent years. The covert policing of dissent still lacks any effective internal accountability mechanism or means of independent/public scrutiny.
We have seen no will at senior police or government level to properly examine what has been going on, or to rein in the behaviour of police spies. Undercover policing of protest is blithely presented by police and government as being a ‘necessary’ measure, without any serious consideration of whether it is either appropriate or proportionate. The impact on people caught up incidentally in police surveillance is dismissed as mere ‘collateral intrusion’.
The classification of protest as ‘domestic extremism’ serves to justify this form of policing, but the working definition is remarkably broad. It covers any campaign or protest group that seeks to “change legislation or domestic policy outside the normal democratic process”, for example by the use of direct action campaigns. Recommendations made by Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to tighten that definition have not been implemented, meaning that thousands of activists are still designated ‘domestic extremist’ and liable to be subject to covert surveillance.
Instead of shutting down an operation which should have been buried decades ago, the surveillance of dissent has simply been restructured. The Special Demonstration Squad which employed whistleblower Peter Francis became the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. It was then subsumed into Counter-Terrorism Command as the National Domestic Extremism Unit. It has now extended its remit as the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit, still part of Counter-Terrorism.
Netpol believes that undercover policing and covert surveillance of political campaigning and protest cannot be justified. Intrusive monitoring of political dissent is an unacceptable and authoritarian practice that has no place in an open and fair society.
Netpol supports all efforts to bring information on the extent of police activity into the public realm, and to that end we support calls for a public inquiry. However, any such inquiry must itself be open and transparent in nature, with an emphasis on bringing policing procedures to public scrutiny at the first opportunity.
We do not believe there is any merit in yet another ‘behind closed doors’ investigation. Neither do we believe that a lengthy public inquiry is necessary in order to create greater transparency in the work of National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU).
Netpol calls on the Metropolitan Police to make information immediately available on the extent and scope of its surveillance of political activity in the UK.
The NDEU and its predecessors have been able to operate behind a wall of secrecy for many years. They appear to target an extraordinarily wide range of political activity, with access to massive resources, and few restraints on how they behave. We consider that it is firmly in the public interest for information relating to the functioning of this unit to be made accessible without further delay.
Initially, and as a minimum, this should include:
- The operational remit, scope and structure of the National Domestic Extremism Unit, and that of its predecessors; The senior officers responsible for the operation of these units
- The number and type of political organisations / individuals that have been targeted for covert surveillance, and the criteria used to select them;
- The ways in which information obtained was used, processed, and the bodies with which this information was shared;
- The total annual cost of maintaining these units and supporting their activities, and the number of undercover officers deployed to infiltrate political groups.
Netpol calls for the immediate disbandment of the NDEU.
While we believe that the public has a right to know more about the workings of NDEU, this is not in itself a sufficient response. Protest groups and political campaigns should not be forced to operate in a climate of fear and suspicion, not knowing when or how they may be subjected to covert surveillance.
We do not believe that the level of criminality arising from protest in any way justifies a dedicated (and potentially expensive) policing unit, especially in current times of financial hardship. We do not accept that the case has been made for the necessity of continuing the activity of a unit that has been associated with unethical and possibly unlawful behaviour, nor any other that specialises in the surveillance of dissent.
For this reason the NDEU should be wound up with immediate effect and all functions associated with the covert surveillance of political protest should cease.