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Police: Protest Groups

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the police about the use of undercover operations in relation to environmental protest groups.

My Lords, decisions on intelligence gathering are operational matters for chief officers working within the relevant legal framework. The Government do not discuss with the police the use of undercover operations in relation to environmental protest groups. The Home Office has spoken to Nottinghamshire Police about the next steps in this case, which has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is talking to ACPO and HMIC about which body is in the best position to undertake a review of the wider lessons to be learnt.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reply and I hope that we can have an inquiry into the workings of these police units. I am sure that she would agree that we cannot have a situation of overtly having freedom of speech and freedom to demonstrate but covertly demonstrators are in fear of agents provocateurs and of being spied on and put on databases held secretly when they have no idea what is going on. Does she agree that there is far more to this than the one simple case? We need to clean up the position so that people can demonstrate. If they commit criminal acts, they will be prosecuted, but if they demonstrate in good faith, they should be able to do so without fear.

My Lords, it is fairly clear that Nottinghamshire Police wish to have this episode investigated. They are aware that something is not quite right. We ought to await the outcome of that investigation, and indeed, if there is a wider investigation into the longer-term consequences, what HMIC will do. It is clear that there are governance issues, which ought to be looked at. The Government have already done certain things in relation to the governance of such matters. We are in favour, as is the whole House, of the right to peaceful protest and we will certainly not resile from that, but unfortunately not all protests are peaceful and in those circumstances the police need to benefit from good intelligence. Key to good policing of protests as a whole is ensuring the right to protest of those who are peaceful and limiting the activities of those who wish to do damage.

My Lords, is there a code of practice that describes the legitimate use of undercover police officers? Do not these officers, in going about their very important, difficult and often dangerous work, have to be very careful not to pressure, persuade or instigate the commission of an offence so as not to lead to their ultimate evidence being excluded by the trial judge on the grounds of unfair entrapment? If there is not a code of practice, would it not be a good idea to have one? If there is, is it being followed?

My noble and learned friend makes a very important point. As I mentioned, governance in this area is a very important element. I must say that the police agree. The chief constable of West Midlands himself has said that the line is not to be crossed between infiltration to gather intelligence and the agent provocateur. He is quite right.

As to the codes of practice, the legal framework is provided for by regulations contained in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. There is also a code of conduct and practice, which has been published by the Home Office under the previous Government, on how covert human intelligence sources should operate. The independent Office of Surveillance Commissioners has also provided procedural and interpretational advice.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, although I have not been briefed on this issue. Can the noble Baroness confirm that all such operations would require RIPA authorisation, and what level of authorisation is required? Can she also tell us whether there is an expectation that such operations would be subject to regular internal review at a senior level regarding whether they were still appropriate and proportionate in the light of circumstances?

RIPA—the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act—specifies how that should be done. The authorisation has to be by a senior officer. There has to be a regular instruction and record kept and there are various other procedures in the Act which are designed to manage and control the operation. I do not think that it is the framework that is lacking.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that undercover policing is an essential resource that has resulted in many dangerous criminals and criminal gangs being brought to justice—thanks, in large part, to the courage of the individuals involved in that work—and that it would therefore be an enormous pity if public confidence in that technique were to be diminished or undermined? In those circumstances, does she agree that undercover policing needs to be firmly controlled and used only in the most appropriate cases? Although she does not want to comment on individual cases, in general terms can she think of any circumstances in which it would be appropriate for an undercover police officer to be embedded for seven years among a group of climate change campaigners?

I think that there is widespread agreement in the House with what the noble Lord has said, for which I thank him. I do not want to comment on the individual case, but clearly the length of time would need to be looked at.

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned the possibility of a wider review following discussions with ACPO. In view of the debate today, does she agree that there ought to be a wider review? Can she also reassure the House that the outcome of that review will be made public?

My Lords, Nottinghamshire Police are in direct contact at the moment with ACPO and HMIC. The question is who does it: who is best placed to do it. I would have thought that that is a matter that would be made public.