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.



Former Pensions Secretary Blasts Prime Minister over Motability Failures

Peter Hain called on David Cameron to stop his government “acting callously and punitively” against a disabled constituent badly let down by glaring failures in the Motability regulations.

Standing in a heated session of Prime Ministers Questions, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions stated: “The Motability car which my severely disabled constituent Mark Francis has had for 11 years is being taken from him in two weeks.”

“Born with Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia, he cannot walk without leg braces and crutches and although he has worked all his life his physical health is now deteriorating by the week.”

The Neath MP went on to ask: “His case is being reconsidered – but that won’t happen for 3 months and meanwhile his car will be callously and punitively snatched by the DWP on 25th February.  Will the PM immediately rectify this disgraceful injustice?”

His constituent, Mr Mark Francis, suffers from a rare disorder known as Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia – this badly affects the muscles in his legs, making it difficult and painful for Mr Francis to walk, he must use crutches as a consequence.

Mr Francis began using a Motability car in 2004, however after recently being transferred from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments, he was shocked to discover that he was no longer considered eligible for the higher rate of Motability payment.

He received a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions notifying him of its intention to take away his Motability car by the 25th of February.

Mr Hain said; “this is systematic of the DWP under this government, unable to fully think through its regulations. Mr Francis was badly let down during his PIP assessment, now he’s being unfairly penalised. Despite having launched an appeal against the decisions made against him, he’s still having his car taken away – badly hampering his quality of life.”

House of Commons Governance – Question

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend personally and to all of the Committee, especially as this was a unanimous report? There were differences among Committee members, as I saw when giving evidence. On the question of speed, is that not true of all the recommendations? No doubt he will come on to that in respect of the director general.

Mr Straw: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention and for his evidence. We did come to the issue from different perspectives, but the fact that this is a unanimous report does not reflect any sense of it coming from a search of the lowest common denominators—rather, the highest common factors. I will come on to the issue of implementation in a moment.

PM Accused over Northern Ireland

David Cameron is not engaging “closely or energetically enough” with the political parties in Ulster, a former Northern Ireland secretary claimed today.

Labour’s Peter Hain, who held the post from 2005 to 2007, said the situation needed “constant care and attention” from Downing Street.

He asked current Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers during questions in the Commons: ” Do you agree the current political paralysis in Northern Ireland is undermining already shaky local faith in their elected politicians?

“I do not believe that the Prime Minister has been engaging closely or energetically enough with the parties to ensure that the 2007 settlement remains in good faith.

“I make no party point on this. From experience, I know that Northern Ireland needs constant care and attention from No 10 and I hope it will now get that.”

Ms Villiers said she could assure him that Northern Ireland did get constant care and attention from Mr Cameron.

She said: “Not just with his decision to bring the G8 to Northern Ireland, but every day in focusing on the security situation and on repairing the Northern Ireland economy and, of course, closely following these talks.

“I agree it is vital we don’t let disputes about parades, painful though they are, get in the way of the need to reach resolution on important issues like the budget, like flags and like a reform of parading decisions in the future.”

Published in the Belfast Telegraph on October 29th 2014,

You can read it here 

Statement on the Scottish Referendum

I welcome this result but no one would be fooled by the idea that this is an endorsement of the status quo.

We have to accept that this is a strong mandate for greater federalism in the UK, for decades now the Celtic Nations have been calling for greater devolution and the English regions like Cornwall and the North are reigniting their desire for greater autonomy. I think Ed Miliband’s plans for greater city autonomy clearly shows Labour is the party to deliver on these ideals shared by much of the of British people.

And in Westminster we need to accept that decisiveness is urgent to finally address our constitutional issues including the House or Lords, which I have been calling for my entire parliamentary career.

People throughout the UK will not stand for inertia from Whitehall and the House of Commons any longer.

This referendum has woken up political engagement in the UK and that is something to be celebrated, it’s absolutely vital that we take heed of that but it’s what all of Britain, regardless of political creed wants.

There is a strong case for the Committee Stage of English-only Bills to be scrutinised and amendments debated by English MPs only.  But it would be fatal to balkanise Westminster by creating first and second class MPs for votes on the floor of the Commons.  Otherwise only London MPs should decide on laws for London and so on, and crucially the Prime Minister would in practice be elected by English MPs alone since the PM would have to command a majority in the ‘England section’ of Westminster.  The solution is devolution in England coupled with a federal UK Parliament in which English MPs would as they do now dominate, comprising 80 per cent of all MPs.