Special Branch Terror Unit

Statement from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, 26 May 2006

Police announced this week that the Special Branch Community Contact Unit operating in Tayside on a trial basis since last October is to be made permanent. And it appears that the scheme is set to be adopted by other Scottish police forces. Police consider the Tayside unit to be a success. This is not a view that we share.

According to recent newspaper reports, the unit has been operating in both of Dundee's universities. At the time the unit was set up, police said that it would be operating in schools, universities, youth clubs and other places to gather intelligence about possible "home-grown terrorists in our midst" and to look for signs that young people were receiving "extremist" teachings. This is unashamed, in-your-face political policing and there is no place for it in Scotland. It is particularly disturbing that schools and universities are being targeted by political police in this way.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS, said last October "I think many people would think it was unnecessary to have police in schools for intelligence-gathering purposes. If there was some sort of presumption that there was an enemy in our midst that we were trying to weed out then I would be concerned. Youngsters need to be aware of the issue of terrorism, including the causes, in a rounded educational way rather than purely from the perspective of the security services. Schools shouldn't be places where security service agencies plough their furrow." We believe these concerns are still valid.

It would be risible for Special Branch to be sending its officers into schools if the possible consequences for students were less serious. But there is a grave danger that policies like this will lead to people being placed under surveillance or even arrested as a result of political profiling. This would be an outrage were it to happen to a person of any age; for young people to be targetted in this way is indescribably shocking.

Special Branch Community Contact Units have been operating in parts of England for some time and claim to provide communities with protection both from racist attacks and "Islamic extremism." It's impossible to understand what is meant by this. Racist attacks are criminal offences; "extremism" is not even defined in law. Linking these things looks suspiciously like a protection racket. Activities like this undermine relations between police and the communities they serve. If relations are to be rebuilt, policing must be de-politicised. It is not the job of our police forces to protect Tony Blair from criticism and it certainly isn't their job to protect foreign governments from criticism.

Many people have been deeply alarmed by the creation of the Special Branch Community Contact Unit in Tayside but have so far kept their own counsel rather than give this propaganda stunt the oxygen of publicity. Police spin is now labelling the scheme a success. This is profoundly mistaken.

Tayside police are earning a reputation for a bizarre kind of heavy-handedness. Last autumn a pedestrian was threatened with charges under anti-terror legislation for walking through Dundee docks on her way to work in Dundee from Broughty Ferry. Police took a very heavy handed approach towards Dundee protestors who were making their way by bus to the Gleneagles anti-G8 demo last July. And there have been perstent reports of police monitoring legitimate political protest in Tayside. It looks very much as if local police are using the people of Tayside as pawns in a game directed at strengthening the position of the force in UK policing. It's time for this to stop. And we certainly don't want their wild schemes exported to the rest of Scotland.

We remind members of the public that they are under no obligation to answer the questions of Special Branch officers (or indeed of other police officers). Of course it is right for people to go to the police if they have information about a real crime. But political activity is no business of the police and we urge people not to discuss such matters with them. Anyone who feels they are being harassed by the police should consult a lawyer. We need a return to responsible policing.