At the session of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday the 26th of November 2013 Cambridge MP Julian Huppert asked Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright about the police spying on students unions.
This follows a Guardian article: Police tried to spy on Cambridge students, secret footage shows based on footage taken by a Cambridge based activist who the police tried to recruit to spy on groups including the city’s students’ unions.
Julian Huppert MP : Can I just ask a very specific question to Sir Graham as obviously we have mutual constituents.
This committee has an interest in under-cover officers; we have had discussions about that before.
You’ll be aware that an officer from a covert unit in Cambridgeshire sought to recruit a young man to to inform on what was happening; to “target student union type stuff” that was happening among students.
Now undercover officers have a role. Do you as a matter of policy think that is the role that under cover officers ought to have within a police force?
Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright : Now that was very much an operational matter.
Julian Huppert : [Laughs] I thought you might say that.
Graham Bright : No. I was unaware it was happening. I spoke to the Chief Constable instantly I knew about it to say why was it being done.
Well it was obvious why it was being done.
Were we within the rules? And there was a 2000 act which spelt out quite clearly what the rules were to that and our police service is monitored and inspected by the appropriate authority and certainly there is no reason to believe they acted outside the remit that they had.
You and I know that there is always that sort of activity taking place. One dreads to think that something could happen in Cambridge like it did in Woolwich.
And you know it has to go on. The thing is to ensure it is done in the right way and sticks to the rules and as I say the rules are there quite clearly for everyone to read.
I’ve actually sent all the students who wrote to me details of that act and I’ve had some very nice letters back thanking me for sort of setting it all out for them.
Julian Huppert : Thank you. There clearly is a role for undercover officers. The original question was if monitoring a student union is one of them. Just to be clear your policy on this is that Cambridgeshire Constabulary should operate just on the framework of what the existing law is; you don’t have any other policy decisions.
Graham Bright : Not at all no.
Julian Huppert : Thank you for clearing that up.
West Central Area Committee Discussion
I raised this at the Cambridge West Central Area Committee 14 November 2013; this is the body of councillors who democratically set the police priorities in central Cambridge, in the area where the attempt to recruit the individual to spy on the student union reportedly took place.
Richard Taylor : The question relates to today’s news that the police have been trying to recruit a student [it's now been clarified he's not a university student] to spy on Cambridge University Students’ Union. I can’t see anywhere else where the police can be held to account. This is a local matter, it is in your area, I thought it would be useful to ask the police what’s going on next time [when they will be at the meeting].
Particularly as we’ve got at least a couple of councillors here who know what a students’ union is. I think it might help if Cllr Rosenstiel and Cllr Smith explain to the police that a students’ union is a statutory democratic part of this city’s civic infrastructure and it’s not something they should be scared about and not something they should be seeking to spy on.
Simon Kightley : Right well I have’t seen that particular item in the newspapers so can’t comment myself. Colin Rosenstiel
Cllr Rosenstiel : I’ve seen very little of this too and I’m not sure it’s quite how Mr Taylor has presented it to us. My understanding was it was the police using methods which I’m not going to go to attempt to defend but to investigate the activities of students which they were suspicious about. I didn’t think it was actually through the student union itself. The students union has got involved in defending its own members which is its perfectly legitimate role and I totally support that.
I have to say that when I was a student whenever there was a demo there were certain familiar figures who were not students watching what was going on and they were from MI5 I’m sure, or the special branch. I have to say some things never change. They seem to be trying to use more subt…. underhand methods to try and see what’s going on.
Cllr Hipkin : They are here this evening
Cllr Rosenstiel : I am sure.
Cllr Cantrill : They could be sitting next to you.
Cllr Rosenstiel : I doubt what’s being done will be very effective at what they’re trying to do which is to identify possible extremism of danger to the public in this country which is a serious matter which cannot totally be ignored and frankly the student union will be very peripheral to that.
Simon Kightley : Right. Well the main danger here this evening is becoming cold and hungry. I would like to suggest we move on.
I think the police have misunderstood the role, function, and nature of students unions.
I would like to see the police, and other appropriate bodies, taking steps not to spy on students’ unions, but to strengthen them. I think dysfunctional students unions is a big problem in Cambridge and I would like to see the police making clear they are willing to tackle those committing crimes aimed at preventing the proper functioning of students unions.
Where institutions breach the education acts and fail to ensure the provision of democratic students unions I would like it to be much clearer, who, if anyone is responsible for enforcing that law. I’ve been interested in this for many years but do not know if it is the Charity Commission, to some extent perhaps the police, or the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
I am aware the Police and Crime Commissioner has been pointing people to the police university liaison officers. These have been PCSOs, though the most recent one I am aware of is a PC.
I would like to see a senior officer, with expertise in universities and the public sector, taking on the role of liaison officer so that those with concerns about serious crime within the university will report it, with the confidence it will be taken seriously and the matters understood.
The kind of thing we have seen here with the police targeting the students unions shows how little the police understand of the city’s universities and would I think add to the factors deterring the reporting of crime.
Monitoring Police RIPA Authorisations
Our local councillors monitor their councils’ use of surveillance on a regular basis; I would like to see those responsible for oversight of the police doing something similar.
I would like to see statistics on surveillance authorisations published and monitored so that trends can be spotted and questioned.
When we had a Police Authority I suggested the authority take on this role; they did not act on this.
I would also like significant proposed policy changes to be discussed in public before being approved, or not, by the Police and Crime Commissioner.
Members of the police and crime panel; or councillors on the relevant local council scrutiny committee could be used by the police and crime commissioner to assist him in monitoring the police’s performance in this, as with many other areas.