Undercover Policing

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Home Affairs if she will make a statement on whether the public inquiry into undercover policing will examine files held by the special branch on Members of Parliament.

The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Mike Penning): Undercover policing is an essential tactic in fighting crime. However, we have known for some time that there have been serious historical failings in undercover policing and its practices. To improve the public’s confidence in undercover work, we must ensure that there is no repeat of these failings. That is why the Home Secretary established a public inquiry earlier this month—to investigate thoroughly undercover policing and the operation of the special demonstration squad. The appointment as chairman of Lord Justice Pitchford, a highly experienced criminal judge of the Court of Appeal, has been confirmed.

The scope of the inquiry, announced to Parliament on 12 March, will focus on the deployment of police officers on covert human intelligence sources, or CHIS, by the SDS, the national public order intelligence unit and other police forces in England and Wales. The inquiry will review practices and the use of undercover policing to establish justice for the families and victims and make recommendations for the future, so that we learn from the mistakes. Lord Justice Pitchford and his team will consult all interested parties in the coming months and will review and publish their terms of reference for the inquiry by the end of July. We should encourage Lord Justice Pitchford to get on with this important piece of work.

Mr Hain: I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he pass on to the Home Secretary my request that she ensure that the remit of the public inquiry she has announced into the operations of the special demonstration squad includes the surveillance of the MPs publicly named by Peter Francis when he was an undercover officer between 1990 and 2001?

Is the Minister aware that Mr Francis saw a special branch file on not only me but my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who was actually Home Secretary for four of those years? He also saw files on my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), as well as former colleagues Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Bernie Grant.

Did the monitoring affect our ability as MPs to speak confidentially with constituents? What impact, if any, did it have on our ability to represent them properly? We know, for example, that the campaign to get justice for Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered by racists, was infiltrated by the SDS and that the police blocked a proper prosecution. Did police infiltrators in the Lawrence campaign exploit private information shared by constituents or lawyers with any of us as MPs? Will the Home Office order the police to disclose all relevant information and, to each of the MPs affected, our complete individual personal registry files?

It is hardly a revelation that the special branch had a file on people like me, dating back 40 years to anti-apartheid and Anti-Nazi League activist days, because we were seen through a cold war prism as “subversive”. Even though we vigorously opposed Stalinism, that did not stop us being lumped together with Moscow sympathisers.

Surely the fact that these files were still active for at least 10 years while we were MPs raises fundamental questions about parliamentary sovereignty and privilege—principles that are vital to our democracy. It is one thing to have a police file on an MP suspected of crime, child abuse or even co-operating with terrorism, but quite another to maintain one deriving from campaigns promoting values of social justice, human rights and equal opportunities that are shared by millions of British people. Surely that means travelling down a road that endangers the liberty of us all.

Mike Penning: The right hon. Gentleman has put his point to the House very well. It is important that the country has confidence in the way the police operate, and that is exactly why the Home Secretary has instigated the inquiry. I am sure that Lord Justice Pitchford and his officials will be contacting the right hon. Gentleman and others in this House, and those who have left this House, to make sure that their views are known as he addresses the way he is going to take his inquiry forward.

Why where Special Branch watching me even when I was an MP?

Printed in the Guardian

Following media revelations about old MI5 files held on Labour government ministers, the head of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, came to see me at the Foreign Office in 2001 when I was Europe minister. Low key and courteous, he confirmed there had indeed been such an MI5 file on me and that I had been under regular surveillance. However, he was at pains to say, I had nothing to worry about because the file had long been “destroyed” when I had ceased “to be of interest”. Furthermore, he was anxious to impress, I had “never been regarded by the service as a communist agent”. He made no mention of what appears to have been an entirely separate tranche of files compiled by special branch on me and a group of similarly democratically elected, serving MPs.

That special branch had a file on me dating back 40 years ago to Anti-Apartheid Movement and Anti-Nazi League activist days is hardly revelatory. That these files were still active for at least 10 years while I was an MP certainly is and raises fundamental questions about parliamentary sovereignty. The same is true of my Labour MP colleagues Jack Straw, Harriet Harman, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Ken Livingstone, Dennis Skinner and Joan Ruddock, as well as former colleagues Tony Benn and Bernie Grant – all of us named by Peter Francis, a former Special Demonstration Squad undercover police spy turned whistleblower.

Formed in 1968, the SDS, an undercover unit within special branch, infiltrated “radical” political movements which it deemed a threat to the UK state. It is documented that Britain’s security services penetrated progressive campaigns, leftwing groups and trade unions during the 1960s-1980s when even noble fights against the evil of apartheid, protests against the Vietnam war, or strikes against worker exploitation, were seen through a cold war prism as “subversive”. Although activists like me vigorously opposed Stalinism, that didn’t stop us being lumped together with Moscow sympathisers, providing a spurious pretext to be targeted.

But Peter Francis states that he inspected our files during the period from 1990 when he joined Special Branch to when he left the police in 2001 – exactly when we were all MPs. Jack Straw was a serving home secretary from 1997, and I was a foreign office minister from 1999, both of us ironically seeing MI5 or MI6 and GCHQ intelligence almost daily to carry out our duties.

Because the principle of parliament’s sovereignty and independence from the state is vital to our democracy, having an active file on sitting MPs deriving from their radical activism decades before is a fundamental threat to our democracy – even more so if special branch considered our contemporary political views or activities as MPs merited such a file.

Though on 6 March 2014, the home secretary, Theresa May, announced a public inquiry into the SDS’s operations, she has so far refused a request from me to include within its remit surveillance of the MPs identified by Peter Francis.

This is intolerable. The inquiry is now being established and should investigate on what basis, and for what purported reasons, MPs were targeted by the SDS, who specifically was monitored, how that took place, what information was collected about them, with whom was this information shared and on what basis.

The House of Commons also needs to know whether this monitoring affected our ability as MPs to speak confidentially with constituents, and what, if any, impact that had on our ability to represent them properly. Did this surveillance by the SDS cause any miscarriages of justice, for example, if a constituent confided in an MP regarding a complaint or claim they intended to pursue against the police or any other state body with which the SDS shared information.

We know, for example, that the campaign to get justice for Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered by racists, was infiltrated by the SDS and that the police blocked a proper prosecution. Did police infiltrators in the Lawrence campaign exploit private information shared by constituents or lawyers with any of us as MPs? Parliament should be told.

At the very least, the home secretary should order the police to disclose all relevant information and, to each of the MPs affected, our complete individual Personal Registry Files. In September 2001 MI5 was forced to open many of its secret files for the first time after an independent tribunal accepted that a blanket ban on releasing information was unlawful under the Data Protection Act.

It is one thing to have a file on an MP suspected of crime, child abuse or even cooperating with terrorism; quite another to maintain one deriving from radical political activism promoting values of social justice, human rights and equal opportunities shared by many British people from bishops to businessmen.

This whole affair also raises a question as to whether the 1966 “Wilson doctrine” now needs expanding to cover surveillance as well as telephone tapping of MPs. That year, after a series of scandals over tapping MPs’ phones, prime minister Harold Wilson told parliament that MPs’ phones should not be tapped and that any change to that position would be a matter for the Commons. The Wilson doctrine has never been contradicted by any of his successors. Indeed, when I was a cabinet minister, Tony Blair reaffirmed it.

The question raised by this evidence from Peter Francis is whether the police and the security services really have their eye on the ball. Their absolute priority should be to defeat serious crime and terrorist threats – and that may obviously involve going undercover in a manner that can be completely justified. When I was secretary of state for Northern Ireland, from 2005 to 2007, I was aware of such undercover operations and of the vital role they often played. But conflating serious crime with political dissent unpopular with the state at the time is different. It means travelling down a road that endangers the liberty of us all.



Stoping ISIL Is Our Duty


Why British military action against ISIL’s barbarity, but not Assad’s butchery? And shouldn’t the haunting, ill-fated legacy of invading Iraq instruct us to stay well clear?

In the Cabinet in 2003 I backed Tony Blair over Iraq because I honestly believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong: he didn’t – we went to war on a lie. And the aftermath was disastrous.

Which has made me deeply allergic to anything similar in the region – certainly anything remotely hinting of western cowboy intervention.

But that doesn’t mean doing nothing. When I was Africa Minister we were right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999.

The Syrian horror from which ISIL has sprung is very different. Of course Assad’s forces have unleashed waves of terror, but his Jihadist opponents have also committed terrible atrocities.

Instead of trying – and humiliatingly failing – to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike in Syria in late August 2013, David Cameron should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise.

For Syria never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.
It is a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain should tread at dire peril, at its heart the incendiary internal Islamic conflict – Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And also a cold-war hangover: the US with all its considerable assets in the region versus Russia with its only Mediterranean port in Syria.

Even more crucially, Assad is backed by 40 per cent of the population, his ruling Shia-aligned Alawites fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority along with Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Although few like his repressive Baathist rule, they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism.

Assad never was going to be defeated. And if western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos in the Syrian quicksand would still have ensued.

As the UN set out, a political solution was always the imperative. And that means negotiating with Assad’s regime, and with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him. Our failure to undertake this is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish.

Medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal which views its own narrow Wahhabi sect dating from the 18th century as possessing the sole truth, ISIL labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – the justification for exterminating both them and any other religious group blocking their way to establishing a caliphate.

The icy cast-iron certainty of ISIL’s fundamentalism has to be stopped, and like the US, Britain has military, surveillance and intelligence capabilities which those on the front line fighting it do not. In northern Iraq, only US air power – at the request of the Iraqi government, the Kurds and the minorities facing genocide by ISIL’s remorseless advance, and crucially with the military participation of half a dozen nearby Arab countries – has knocked back ISIL’s well-equipped army.

That Iran gave its de facto if covert blessing is of seismic importance, opening an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included.

Britain should also help local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL with air strikes, drones, military equipment and other support. But not with troops on the ground. Countries in the region have to take ownership of this battle because ISIL threatens each of them.

However ISIL will never be defeated if it is constantly allowed to regroup from its Syrian bases, and UN authority for air strikes in Syria won’t be granted without Assad and Putin’s agreement – maybe Rouhani’s too.

Yet engaging doesn’t mean befriending. Rather, akin to Churchill in 1941: ‘If Hitler invaded hell,’ he told his private secretary as Germany readied to invade Stalin’s Russia, ‘I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.’
Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – and in ISIL they have helped unleashed a monster which threatens to devour them all.

By acting carefully not bombastically, and by making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy, Britain could possibly even help realign Middle East politics to overcome the bitter and violently corrosive Sunni/Shia fault line in the region. A big ask, but a worthwhile one.


What was needed to deliver the historic peace settlement in Northern Ireland


The bitterness of families and friends of the four soldiers killed in the 1982 Hyde Park terrorist atrocity over the John Downey debacle is understandable. After being officially cleared as a suspect, he was prosecuted in circumstances I still find astonishing, then yesterday that prosecution was aborted. No wonder there is anger on all sides.

But before politicians and pundits rush to vent their spleen with loose talk of “deceitful deals” by Tony Blair’s government as part of the peace process, let’s just keep one fundamental truth to the fore. Northern Ireland today is light years from where it was. Almost universal peace and stability has replaced the hideous horror of the past.

And that did not just happen. It is the product of 10 years of determined leadership by Blair and his ministers, together with Northern Ireland leaders willing to show courage and also lead from the front instead of, as they had mostly tended to do, from behind.

But the “end game” to bitter conflict is always incredibly difficult.

As the wind howled off the North Down coast on Remembrance Day 2005, notes of The Last Post echoing hauntingly, I was left in no doubt as to just how difficult.

Speaking to widows at the annual prison officers memorial service, only a few months after the IRA had declared an historic end to its war – which meant no more victims like them in the future – this was of scant consolation. For those decent and dignified people, the endgame meant only “betrayal”. They didn’t and still don’t accept the abnormal measures that were necessary to normalise Northern Ireland, just as bringing closure to other bitter conflicts around the world has required governments to do controversial and difficult things.

They were in uproar when, following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, over 400 loyalist and republican paramilitary prisoners, many convicted of appalling terrorist crimes, were released on licence. But it was the right thing to do to seal the agreement and lock in the peace.

Although nobody should presume to ask victims to draw a line under the past, there are times when the government must take a view on the best way for society as a whole to move on, to get closure on the past, difficult as that is.

Yet the 1998 prisoner releases left an anomaly of more than 200 Northern Ireland terrorist suspects “on the run”, completely outside the reach of our justice system, concerning terrorist offences before 10 April 1998, who could face jail yet who, had they been in prison at the material time, would have been part of that early release scheme.

This was important to Sinn Féin because they needed to bring all active republicans along with them behind the peace process. With some freed after Good Friday, but others potentially facing arrest and prosecution, the whole process could have been badly disrupted.

I therefore introduced legislation in the House of Commons to establish a process to address the matter. I did so knowing full well how very hard it was and still is for those, like the prison officer widows, who had lost so much.

But having asked for and approved this legislation, Sinn Féin was then pressured by the Social Democratic and Labour party to switch because the process applied to British soldiers and not just terrorist suspects. It always had to be even-handed.

There is rewriting of history now – including opportunistically by some Conservative politicians – but everyone knew that the “on-the-runs” anomaly remained to be addressed, as Tony Blair and my predecessor had agreed it would be at the Weston Park talks in 2001.

So a process was put in place. It was not something casual. Names submitted were painstakingly assessed according to robust procedures approved by government law officers. The cases often involved crimes committed many decades before. A unit of Police Service for Northern Ireland officers carefully examined each one. If there was insufficient evidence to enable a prosecution, the people involved received an official letter from a Northern Ireland official: 187 of them did so, Downey included.

But there was no “amnesty” or “immunity” granted to these on-the-runs: an amnesty would have meant the suspects being pardoned, which was never contemplated. Indeed without it there would have been a de facto amnesty because the IRA suspects would have all remained beyond the reach of the law.

Despite being attacked and criticised for this process, it was necessary. Just as it was necessary to do “side deals” with Ian Paisley’s DUP, which I also did. Without all these, old and bitter enemies would not have been governing Northern Ireland together as they have now for seven years. Notwithstanding some rigor mortis from the past, we have achieved closure on the horror and violence. I make no apology for that.


Labour’s achievements are something to be proud of

More evidence to buttress Seumas Milne’s scorn of Tory-Lib Dem “recovery” propaganda (Comment, 18 September). Output in the US and German economies rose above pre-crisis levels in 2011. In Britain GDP is still 3% below its 2008 peak. Our recovery is three years behind America’s and Germany’s.

The UK economy began growing again under Labour in 2010 but that was choked off by George Osborne’s budget cuts. His savage squeeze has meant that the UK is taking six years to achieve what our two major trading partners did in three, at terrible human cost and economic waste. The much trumpeted last-quarter “recovery” is barely a third of the US equivalent because Obama invested where Osborne cut. At our conference next week, Labour should be making these arguments with much greater vigour and confidence than we have been.

Published in The Guardian, 19th September 2013: Letters