Time for Police Spooks to be reined in

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalisinng Communities
Sunday 26 April 2009

SACC takes very seriously the recent revelations that undercover officers working for or with Strathclyde Police have been trying to recruit environmental activists as informers. We are asking Scottish ministers to use the powers available to them under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act to stop police interference in political activities.

The police seem to believe that they have an automatic right to know everything. There is a name for countries where that right exists. They are called police states.

Strathclyde Police have been reported as saying that the operation was conducted according to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The use of "covert human intelligence sources" in Scotland is controlled by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act (RIPSA). RIPSA was rushed through the Scottish Parliament without adequate debate and came into force on 2 October 2000. The surveillance powers that it grants to police forces and other public bodies are far too wide and far too vaguely defined. SACC has previously drawn attention to the abuse of the Act by local councils investigating anti-social behaviour, smoking and other minor matters. We are also deeply concerned at reports suggesting that Special Branch officers at Glasgow airport routinely use "stop and question" powers under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 as an opportunity to attempt to recruit informers from the Muslim community.

But even though the powers available under RIPSA are wide, they are are not unlimited.

The use of "covert human intelligence sources" can only be authorised if it is "necessary" for preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder, or in the interests of public safety, or for protecting public health. So informers cannot be used in circumtances falling short of necessity. They cannot be used just because police think they may turn out to be useful.

And "covert human intelligence sources" can in any case only be authorised if the operation is "proportionate to what is sought to be achieved."

The "Plane Stupid" campaign targeted by the police has never carried out any violent activity. It is most unlikely that it ever will. So it is impossible to understand how the attempted invasion of privacy by police could be proportionate to anything the police could legitimately seek to achieve.

In targeting campaigns like "Plane Stupid" the police aren't just undermining the privacy of a few individual activists. They are also undermining the right of people to organise politically in ways that are independent of the state. Without that right, there can be no democracy.

RIPSA, despite its flaws, gives Scottish Ministers the power to prohibit particular uses of covert human intelligence sources and/or to impose requirements, in addition to those provided under RIPSA, that must be satisfied before an authorisation for an intelligence operation of this kind can be granted.

SACC urges the Scottish Government to act promptly to stop police snooping on political and community activists. And in the longer run, the Scottish Parliament must replace RIPSA by legislation that properly respects individual and collective rights to privacy.

In closing the debate on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament on 14 June 2000, the Deputy Minister for Justice Angus MacKay said:

"The legislation that we are discussing is vital to protecting the use of those techniques by law enforcement agencies in coming to grips with organisations and activities over which - as I am sure every member of the chamber would agree - we wish to see effective law enforcement. I am thinking especially of serious organised crime and terrorist activities. The bill will allow surveillance to remain an important tool in the fight against serious crime, today and in future." That is not how RIPSA is being used. It's time for it to go.

Notes

  1. Police caught on tape trying to recruit Plane Stupid protester as spy (The Guardian, 24 April 2009)
  2. anti-terror/organised crime measures targeting anti-social behaviour" (SACC, 9 June 2008)