Head of ACPO: undercover policing should be authorised by judge

07 February 2011

Today in a speech to Liberty, Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), called for undercover policing operations to be authorised in advance by a judge. Sir Hugh suggested the significant change to authorisation procedure as an aid to restoring public confidence.

Self-authorised undercover policing has come under fire in recent weeks as a number of long-term and costly surveillance operations on peaceful environmental movements were uncovered. In one case, the officer switched sides to give evidence in court on behalf of the protest group that he had infiltrated. A number of undercover officers known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources were found to have formed intimate relationships with campaigners to gather information. 

The current system allows for undercover operations to be self- authorised by the police.

Sir Hugh Orde, President of ACPO, said: 

"The current system of retrospective inspection is, in my judgment, no longer sufficient to secure the confidence of right thinking people that such interference with citizens’ rights (with its foreseeable collateral intrusion on many) is appropriate. Therefore the solution must take the form of some independent pre-authority that is already a common feature in other areas of policing in this country......It is not for me to suggest the level or form but I do believe that an additional element of judicial oversight in keeping with our traditions of accountability to the rule of law need not be over-bureaucratic and the benefit would far outweigh the additional administrative burden.”

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:

"We can't applaud pro-democracy campaigners in Egypt whilst attacking peaceful dissent at home. Recent revelations of abusive infiltration into non-violent protest movements should shame every democrat in Britain. In past years, some senior officers accepted politicians’ promises of ever-more unchecked power. At last, one of the most important voices in British policing calls for greater legal restraint on intrusive surveillance. We agree with Sir Hugh that such an important Service should be accountable not to politics but to the law.”

The speech was delivered to an audience including lawyers, protesters, and journalists, also emphasised the importance of police independence and accountability.

Contact: Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831 128



1.            Covert Human Intelligence Sources 



Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS): A CHIS is a person who, under direction from a public authority, establishes or maintains a personal or other relationship in order to (covertly) use the relationship to obtain information or disclose information gained from the relationship.  This includes undercover agents and informants.  This power is available to numerous public authorities including the police and local authorities. Their use is governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).



The use of CHIS is one of three types of targeted surveillance that requires no prior external authorization. The other two being the use bugging in public places and access to communications data (i.e. records of phone calls, emails text messages etc). These types of surveillance are all self-authorising. All that is required is that the body seeking to use the technique is satisfied that the use is necessary and proportionate to one of the listed purposes. Use of a CHIS can even be authorized by the same person who wants to use the technique.  Covert surveillance techniques – particularly the use of CHIS - are highly intrusive. Liberty believes that considerations of necessity and proportionality can only be properly made by someone without any conflict, or perceived conflict, of interest. 


Purposes for which CHIS can be used

The circumstances in which undercover operatives can be deployed are broad and ill-defined. Authorisations can be granted if it is considered necessary in the interests of national security; it is for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder; or it is in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK. No definition is given as to what is, for example, ‘in the interests of national security’ or the ‘economic well-being of the UK ’. Authorisations can also be given if it is considered necessary in the interests of public safety, to protect public health and to assess or collect any tax, duty or other type of government charge. The Secretary of State can also, by order, extend the range of purposes for which authorisations can be granted. The use of broad and vague notions such as ‘national security’ and ‘economic well-being’ gives rise to a real risk that the disproportionate use of surveillance will be authorised, going beyond what is necessary to protect the public from harm.  This can interfere unacceptably with political and other lawful activity that ought to go unimpeded in a democratic society. By contrast, interception and intrusive surveillance (bugging in private) is limited to ‘serious’ crime. It is arguable that the use of CHIS, with its necessary interference in private life, should only be exercised in order to prevent or detect serious crimes.

2. Download a PDF copy of Sir Hugh Orde's speech

3. Further information on state surveillance