Home Office insists secretive Prevent programme “cannot in any circumstances be considered frightening”
Imagine feeling you have to tell your children to avoid talking about fracking at school, in case it is seen as a safeguarding concern. Or experiencing a knock at your door from counter-terrorism police because your child has been involved in protests against fracking. Or officers visiting your home because you have simply been reporting on these protests.
Imagine staying silent in a Prevent training event when, surrounded by your work colleagues, a police officer mentions opposition to fracking as a potential risk factor for”domestic extremism” and asks if anyone has been involved in anti-fracking campaigns.
Imagine your local council has secretly labelled your campaign as having the “potential for community tension”. Or discovering your college has referred you to a programme designed to “identify and provide support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism”.
Most people would find any of these situations terrifying and all have been experienced by campaigners against fracking in the UK.
However, as five separate police forces in the north west of England continue to refuse to say whether or not they are referring anti-fracking campaigners to a controversial Prevent counter-terrorism programme, the Home Office has brushed aside concerns about how individuals might feel about sudden accusations of association with extremism.
It insists this “cannot in any circumstances be considered frightening”.
The way the police persistently label opposition to fracking as “extremism” infuriates campaigners up and down the country.
The National Police Chiefs Council NPCC), which represents senior police officers in the UK, will shortly consult on how local forces should in future plan policing operations in response to protests against fracking – one of the most contentious public order issues of the last five years.
When the consultation, which Netpol has pushed hard for, is finally launched in the coming weeks, one issue it cannot ignore is the persistent labelling of the anti-fracking movement as “domestic extremists”.
In December 2016, the Home Office was finally forced to issue a statement saying “support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability” to extremism, after press coverage about City of York Council and a school in North Yorkshire including anti-fracking campaigns in their counter-terrorism advice. Smearing campaigners in this way had not, however, simply appeared out of thin air: it has been part of the constant messaging promoted by counter-terrorism policing units from around the country for many years.
As far back as February 2013, before the site licensed by shale gas company Cuadrilla at Balcombe in West Sussex became the focus of national attention, the county council’s planning committee had been told by Sussex Police about an alleged threat to Celtique Energie’s exploratory drilling site at Broadford Bridge. [, 3 Mb]
At this stage, counter-terrorism officers in Sussex were still obsessively searching for “extremists” within anti-austerity campaigns in order to add their details to secret police databases, but as the movement against fracking began to grow rapidly, it too was increasingly targeted for surveillance. In November 2013, a Cambridgeshire Police officer was caught on camera trying to recruit a student to inform about a number of groups, including anti-fracking demonstrators.
In 2014, a poorly redacted external review of the extremely violent policing operation over almost 70 days of protests against the drill site at Balcombe the previous summer highlighted the development of a UK-wide policing strategy and recommended that “lessons learnt” should be “fed into the emerging national coordination on fracking”. Its emphasis on expanding the intelligence-gathering role of Police Liaison Officers features prominently in new guidelines for local forces issued in August 2015, which the NPCC is now about to consult upon.
Since then, our work has highlighted the targeting by counter-terrorism officers of a journalist covering anti-fracking protests in Lancashire and of the mother of a young campaigner who took part in protests against shale gas exploration at Crawberry Hill in East Yorkshire.
In 2015, two anti-fracking activists from the north west of England told us they had been referred to the government’s “counter radicalisation” programme, Channel, because of their political opposition to onshore oil and gas extraction. This is now the subject of a three-year legal battle by Netpol against the Information Commissioner to try and obtain statistics about how often such referrals involve anti-fracking campaigners.
At around the same time, we were given an audio recording of a training session that provided concrete evidence that counter-terrorism officers from Merseyside Police were linking anti-fracking protests to “domestic extremism” and making unsubstantiated claims about campaigners who took part in protests in 2014 at Barton Moss in Salford.
This corroborated earlier testimony that police in West Yorkshire told hundreds of teachers to consider environmental activists and anti-fracking protesters, including the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, as potential extremists.
The newsletter issued by Driffield School in North Yorkshire that told parents that “East Riding’s main priorities are far-right extremism, animal rights and anti-fracking” was issued in June 2016 (it has been removed from their website but is available here [, 398 kB]).
Even after the Home Office backed away in late 2016 from claiming a link between anti-fracking protests and extremism, however, police continued to repeat it.
In September 2017, ‘Counter Terrorism Local Profiles’ developed under the government’s Prevent strategy were released that identified protests at Broadford Bridge in Sussex as a “priority theme… where increased tensions or vulnerabilities may exist”. A similar profile for Surrey highlighted “community tensions related to onshore oil and gas operations” in the east of the county.
The Broadford Bridge protests did not start until April 2017, four months after the Home Office’s statement saying opposition to fracking was not a “vulnerability”.
We know this issue really infuriates campaigners up and down the country. In the course of preparing for our forthcoming legal challenge against the Information Commissioner at the First-tier Information Rights Tribunal, we asked people to tell us how they felt about the police describing their campaigning as “extremism”.
We were inundated with responses describing the cross-section of support the anti-fracking movement has attracted and how divisive and insulting it was for the police to even suggest individuals might become ‘at risk of being drawn into terrorism’.
This is why the National Police Chiefs Council consultation cannot avoid this issue. Characterising participation in legitimate campaigning as “extremism” has been used to justify increasingly intrusive surveillance and these subjective judgments may have directly influenced the way the police have treated protesters, often extremely aggressively, at drilling sites.
It may also have led to the wholly unreasonable deployment of undercover officers for infiltration and disruption of local campaigns, a prospect that the NPCC refused to rule out in 2016 when it said that “any tactic, including covert tactics, is for the policing commander for the operation”.
This issue is fundamental to the breakdown in relations between local campaign groups and the police and no amount of reassurances about improved communication will fix this.
It remains a simple but fundamental fact that there is no evidence whatsoever of any link between anti-fracking campaigns and extremism, never mind a risk of “terrorism-related activity”. There is simply no reason for counter-terrorism officers to view anti-fracking protests as a priority for the government’s Prevent programme and no reason for the police to target protesters for “domestic extremist” surveillance.
New national police guidance, when it is eventually published, must recognise this if it has any hope of changing the conduct of future policing operations so they genuinely respect people’s rights to freedom of assembly.
Netpol plans to advise and support campaigners on how to ensure their views are heard in the National Police Chiefs Council consultation, once it is launched. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay in touch.
After a two-year battle against five police forces and the regulator dealing with freedom of information, Netpol has secured an important victory for greater transparency of the government’s ‘counter-radicalisation’ strategy, Prevent.
After intervening in a legal action brought by Netpol at the Information Rights Tribunal over the refusal by police forces to publish this material, the Home Office has now been forced to concede that continued secrecy is untenable after tens of thousands of people have taken part in the training.
As a result, the Home Office WRAP training materials, along with local versions provided to Netpol by Greater Manchester Police and Merseyside Police, are now public documents and available to download:
Greater Manchester Police – WRAP training slides [ 5 Mb]
The label “domestic extremist” exists to justify intrusive police surveillance on political campaigners
The glacially paced Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015 and still wading through demands by former police officers for anonymity, recently released a limited number of new cover names of members of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) who spied on campaigners during the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Many ex-SDS officers are now deceased, whilst few of the groups they targeted in this period and who are linked to the latest batch of cover names have existed for decades.
Although Mark Kennedy, the undercover officer whose exposure triggered the public inquiry, was active as recently as 2010, the continuous obstruction by the Metropolitan Police and a desire by the inquiry to obtain evidence before more elderly former officers die too has undoubtedly had an impact on public perceptions of this long-running scandal.
It has helped create the impression that political policing, surveillance operations and the disruption of campaigns were unfortunate methods from some distant past, the world of TV series like ‘Life on Mars’ when the police were notorious for corruption, fitting up suspects and endemic racism
We know, however, that police intelligence-gathering on the activities of protest movements in the UK continues to this day. We know too that he label of “domestic extremist” remains a critical justification for this surveillance, even though a credible definition robust enough to withstand legal scrutiny has proven elusive.
This is why, on Monday 5 February, we are marking the fifth annual “Domestic Extremist Awareness Day” with a call for a complete end to the application of this meaningless but sinister label against all legitimate political dissent.
In previous years, we demanded the abolition of the secretive national unit responsible for mass surveillance on political campaigns. Its existence has proven an increasing embarrassment to the Metropolitan Police and it was eventually consigned to history, although its functions were largely absorbed into the police’s national counter-terrorism structures.
The smearing of individuals and campaigns has, however, endured unabated: a regular feature of Prevent ‘counter-radicalisation’ workshops where causes that have no association with terrorism are portrayed in the most negative light.
The revelations that led to the Undercover Policing Inquiry demonstrated how unaccountable political policing has a tendency to elevate the hunt for so-called ‘extremists’ to the point of obsession.
Netpol argues that the police have no business conducting surveillance based solely on people’s political beliefs – and as a first step, we must consign “domestic extremism”, a term that has absolutely no legal basis, to history too.
Taking to the streets and expressing our dissent is a right we can take enormous pride in exercising. On Monday 5 February, we are therefore holding a pre-work protest outside the Metropolitan Police’s new headquarters on Victoria Embankment between 8am and 9am. It is close to Westminster tube station (see map).
We are then heading to the Royal Courts of Justice for the latest hearing of the he Undercover Policing Inquiry, starting at 10am.
Why not come and join us? For further details, see this Facebook event
If you cannot make it, we are asking campaigners to share photos of their protests, actions and assemblies on social media – making it clear the police must stop spying on us – with the hashtag #DomesticExtremist.
In the final stages of this month’s general election, Prime Minister Theresa May attempted to bolster her increasingly fragile position with another attack on human rights laws, a move that was rightly condemned by national and international human rights groups.
With coinsiderably less publicity, however, a United Nations report on human rights in the UK, published in May, provided a reminder that legislation, on its own, does not protect our fundamental rights. People acting together to protect these rights are just as important. Read more
On Wednesday and Thursday this week, groups and individuals targeted by undercover police will address a hearing of the Undercover Policing Inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice, demanding an end to further delaying tactics by the police.
A picket has been called for 9am to 10am outside the court, in support of those targeted by political policing units for nearly 50 years. These targets include many of the individuals and organisations who founded Netpol back in 2009.
This is a general call for people to support the picket, as this hearing is crucial for the future direction of the Inquiry.
Royal Courts of Justice, the Strand, London WC2A 2LL, 9-10 am.
People spied on by undercover police are attending a hearing this week to demand
- the immediate release of the cover names used by undercover police officers, the campaigning and community groups they spied on, and the personal files held on those spied on
- that Inquiry Chair Lord Pitchford puts a stop to police cynically delaying the Inquiry to avoid disclosure of their misconduct.
- vital changes in the way the Inquiry process, to redress a massive imbalance in resources between them and the police.
Feedback from supporters who took part in last week’s Domestic Extremism Awareness Day was very clear – people believe strongly that the freedom to protest remains valuable and important and deserves protection from efforts by the state to undermine and disrupt its effectiveness.
Campaigners resent the smearing of their activism as ‘extremism’, not only because this label is evidently so easy to apply without the slightest evidence, but because it seems deliberately intended to drive away wider public support. Read more
Launched in 2013, Netpol’s annual “Domestic Extremist Awareness Day” takes place on Monday 6 February. This year, we are calling for a complete end to the meaningless but sinister use of the ‘domestic extremist’ label against all legitimate political dissent.
As we have argued repeatedly over the last couple of years, the term “domestic extremist” means pretty much whatever the police want it to mean.
It is a critical justification for state surveillance on protest movements in the UK, but both the government and the police have struggled to devise a credible definition robust enough to withstand legal scrutiny. As a result, Prime Minister Theresa May’s flagship counter-terrorism and safeguarding bill, announced back in May 2016, is currently floundering precisely because government lawyers have still been unable to codify ‘extremism’ or ‘British values’ in ways that are compatible with fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Read more
The Information Commissioner, in rejecting an appeal by Netpol over the refusal of the police to release details of a programme to ‘deradicalise extremists’, has endorsed unfounded and unsubstantiated links between anti-fracking protests and the threat of terrorism.
In October 2015, we asked Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside police for details of referrals made in the prior ten months through Channel, a ‘counter radicalisation’ process that is part of the government’s anti-terrorism Prevent strategy. Channel supposedly offers voluntary support to people identified as “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism” and although there are a number of agencies involved in it, the police play a central role in its delivery. Rather than overall statistics, we asked specifically for the number of individuals seen as allegedly at risk through their involvement in anti-fracking campaigns.
Our requests were the result of concerns raised with us by campaigners from the region who were angered that their opposition to fracking had been used as an excuse to refer them to Channel, in most cases by universities or further education colleges. All related to an alleged ‘risk’ to adults rather than children.
In a startling determination, the Information Commissioner has said:
Channel may be appropriate for anyone who is vulnerable to being drawn into any form of terrorism… It follows from this that, for a referral to be made to Channel, it must be suspected that an individual is at risk of becoming involved in terrorist related activity.
In effect, the Commissioner is insisting nobody is referred unless there is a good reason for doing so – even if this is for nothing more than expressing legitimate political opinions about fracking. Read more
Netpol has published a new report, ‘Protecting the Protectors: Monitoring the Policing of Anti-Fracking Protests since 2014’, which summarises our activities, findings and analysis of the policing of protests against fracking since 2014.
Drawing extensively on discussions with anti-fracking campaigners, as well as our own observations at prospective fracking sites, the report covers our
- •Engagement with – and development of resources for – anti-fracking campaigners
- Concerns with the policing of anti-fracking demonstrations and camps
- The intrusive surveillance of anti-fracking campaigners; and
- The opaque relationship between the police and the fracking industry .
We have argued that the way policing operations are planned for anti-fracking protests, the scale of intrusive surveillance against campaigners and ‘zero tolerance’ attitudes towards civil disobedience has a cumulative ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms of assembly and expression:
When coupled with an unfounded association with serious criminality and ‘extremism’ and an unwillingness by police to accommodate protests without routinely making arrests, this can start to quickly chip away at campaign groups’ support and participation and have a disruptive impact on their effectiveness and activities.
With the imminence of new test drilling and exploration sites around the country, the report also outlines the next phase of our campaigning work between now and September 2018.
Your can download a copy of the report here [, 1.2 Mb]