Liberty demands judicial authorisation for undercover policing following HMIC report

02 February 2012

Today Liberty repeated its call for undercover officers to be authorised by the Courts after a new HMIC review of covert policing failed to go far enough.

Currently the police can authorise their own infiltration of protest organisations despite the significant risks to personal privacy and peaceful democratic dissent. This contrasts with intercepting telephone conversations, which requires Home Secretary authorisation, and securing search warrants, which requires the approval of magistrates.

The HMIC report identifies the need for improvement but only recommends that authorisation for this kind of undercover policing be subject to Office of Surveillance Commissioners’ approval. It falls short of recommending judicial oversight because of unexplained concerns over compromising judicial independence. Additional bureaucratic process is no substitute for prior approval by the Courts – it was senior officers granting authorisations in the Mark Kennedy case, which demonstrates the limitations of internal approval.

Elsewhere the review contains the more encouraging observation that the working definition of “domestic extremism” is overbroad and covers too wide a range of protest activity. The HMIC recommends it be tightened significantly to “threats of harm from serious crime and serious disruption to the life of the community arising from criminal activity”. The report concludes that undercover deployments in this category should only occur in exceptional circumstances where the level of anticipated disruption is particularly high. But the more fundamental danger of turning police officers from law enforcers into domestic spies is not addressed. The report fails to consider how these long-term infiltration operations can be justified even where there is no real prospect of criminal prosecution.

Rachel Robinson, Policy Officer for Liberty, said:

"This report is a nudge in the right direction but Parliament must now act to tighten up the law.

“If a judge has to sign off a warrant to search your premises, why on earth should the police be able to self-authorise the far greater intrusion of putting a mole amongst your colleagues and friends?

“The report says that judicial sign off would compromise independence without any proper reasoning for this assertion. Only legislation will prevent more Kennedys playing James Bond and abusing our trust."

Contact: Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. President of ACPO Sir Hugh Orde called for an end to the self-authorisation of police undercover deployments and recommended the introduction of independent judicial authorisation for such operations at a Liberty seminar, Undercover Policing and Public Trust, held last year after the Mark Kennedy case came to light: http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/2011/undercover-policing-and-public-trust.php

2. Read Liberty’s response to the 2009 Home Office RIPA consultation, in which we called for independent judicial pre-authorisation for the most intrusive CHIS operations: http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/pdfs/policy09/liberty-s-response-to-the-ripa-consultation.pdf  

3. The Protection of Freedoms Bill, currently going through Parliament, is amending RIPA to allow the Secretary of State to require pre-authorisation by magistrates for the use of CHIS operations by local authorities, but fails to address authorisation by the police and other bodies.