Police and Crime Commissioner Bright on Spying on Student Unions

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013. 5:58pm

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.

My Views

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.

5 comments/updates on “Police and Crime Commissioner Bright on Spying on Student Unions

  1. Paul Lythgoe

    The response from Sir Graham to the questions on covert surveillance are unsurprisingly disappointing. He makes much of the legality of the police recruitment and use of covert human intelligence, and the monitoring and inspection by the appropriate authority. He reminds us of the possible but unlikely scenario that the Woolwich attack is repeated in Cambridge. He references his letters explaining the rules of operation for which he claims to have been thanked by students. In all of this he is being disingenuous.

    If his letters to students are similar to the letter he has written to me, and his media quotes, all he has done is reference RIPA 2000 and the office of surveillance commisioners. The act itself is all encompassing and pretty much gives carte blanche for the police to spy on whomsoever they may wish on gorunds of their perception of public safety, public order and our collective economic interests. We have no right to know on what grounds they have employed Chis, how many and for what purpose. It does state protocols regarding authorisations, but we will never know what these are since we don’t have any right to know. He states there is effective oversight by the surveillance commisioners, but their budget to oversee all bodies operating in the UK including all police forces, security services, public bodies listed under RIPA is £1.4m which according to the surveillance commisioners figures works out at £85 per reported activity under the act for the country. The Commisioners report on each police force once a year, but it is difficult to imagine with their budget, and the time available they can do much more than agree that the police have written protocols and that they have accounts of the number of events under the act. We won’t know what the real case is because the report can be kept secret, and the commision is not covered by FOI. In any event their national report stated that they didn’t know the extent of police covert activity and didn’t have the manpower to assess it.

    Sir Graham clearly wants us to believe that the police were acting on the basis of the possibility of a terrorist threat, yet they wanted the student to observe union activists, the UK Uncut campaign, Cambridge defends education and Unite against Fascism. So spy on those who want corporations to pay fair taxes, those who wish to prevent cuts to our education services, and those who oppose racisim. These are not terror threats and his look to Woolwich is just wrong and appalling. As to students writing to him to thank him. Just how many students wrote to thank him for an explanation that failed to explain anything. He, of course, avoids the 130 academics who have written condemning their recruitment within the University, and the belated response of the Vice Chancellor to defend his students.

    It was good to see Sir Julian Huppert raise the issue, but dissapointing to see how lightly the issue is taken in the house. As for our local politicians they do us all a disservice let us hope they stay warm and well fed if that is all they can do and say.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

  3. paul Lythgoe

    The case has been sent to the Cambridgeshire police to investigate by the IPCC. Given all the previous form there is absolutely no chance that the police will do anything but exonerate themselves. This is how they operate. They have done so for a long time, and they are lead police force in the country in covert policing. The IPCC know this – the complaint was first submitted on August 4th -it has taken to substantiate that there is a case to answer. How long will Cambridgeshire force take to inspect itself, and when it does what is the betting that the full report will be unavailable to the public or the complainants. This case has real echoes of the Stasi, and in the political climate we are entering with the Tories and UKIP trying to rid us of the inconvenience of the ECHR this has real pertinance. We should all be concerned.

  4. paul Lythgoe

    Today the Guardian reports that two officers are being investigated for alleged misconduct during attempts to recruit activists to spy on other activists. At the time of the alleged misconduct I wrote to Sir Graham Bright who sent me a letter which is covered in my comments above. Sir Graham was complacent then and made much of letters that he had received in support of police activities. He also ducked responsibility for holding the Chief Constable and the police to account as these were operational matters. Two years on and with the cases out of the spotlight the police officers are being held to account and Sir Graham’s apparent support for the necessity of these surveillance activities is no longer in the public spotlight. Will anyone on the Police and Crime Panel question whether these were really just operational matters or a strategic approach with a budgetary spend for which he is responsible?

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