State repression in Britain

Binyam Mohamed has made allegations of MI5 collusion in his torture at various detention camps, including Guantánamo Bay. The Guardian has recently exposed a police databank on thousands of protesters. A wave of repressive legislation has been introduced.
Tony Saunois looks at these and other attacks on civil liberties, and the need for all socialists and trade unionists to take up the important task of defending democratic rights.
The state, cartoon by Alan Hardman, photo Alan Hardman

The state, cartoon by Alan Hardman, photo Alan Hardman

Under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’ and ‘combating crime’ New Labour has introduced an avalanche of repressive legislation. This effectively criminalises protest and takes away basic democratic rights.

Socialists understand the genuine fear of terrorism and crime felt by millions of working people and support any democratic measures that will help prevent them taking place. Yet, New Labour has introduced repressive measures which are being prepared for use against working people fighting for their rights.

The police are preparing for a “summer of rage” as the economic recession takes grip. Superintendent David Hartshorn, who heads the Metropolitan police’s public order branch, warned that “middle-class individuals who would never have considered joining demonstrations may now seek to vent their anger through protests.” In his comments Hartshorn specifically mentioned the G20 protests.

The threat of growing mass protest and civil disobedience has led the government and state apparatus to strengthen its repressive powers. It is polishing its arsenal of legislation against activists and protesters.

The use of legislation, justified as necessary to ‘combat terrorism’, is already being widely used against sections of the population. For example the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – justified as a piece of anti-terror legislation, has been used by local authorities to monitor people suspected of fly-tipping, fishing illegally and even applying for a school place outside a designated catchment area.

These measures, introduced over the last decade and recently strengthened, are unprecedented in recent British history. Once pictured as the ‘mother of democracy’, Britain has now become one of the most repressive and monitored societies in the world. The government, on paper, has acquired powers giving it all the trappings of a parliamentary ‘bonapartist’ repressive regime.

42-day detention without trial, justified to combat terrorism, would be one of the longest detentions in the world had it been voted in. Even the existing 28-day limit outstrips that of other countries hit by terrorist attacks including Spain (five days), Turkey (seven and a half) and the USA (two days).

More laws

Police on the protests against the war in Gaza in january 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

Police on the protests against the war in Gaza in january 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

By 2008 New Labour had created over 3,600 new offences; an average of 320 a year. Of these, 2,367 were introduced with no debate in parliament, using secondary legislation such as orders in council and statutory documents. Among them was legislation to make it illegal to disturb a pack of eggs when instructed not to by an authorised officer! It is also now illegal to create a nuclear explosion!

More ominous, though, is legislation designed to restrict democratic rights, including the right to protest. In 2005 an amendment was added to the 1997 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 4 (SOCPA) which was not debated in either chamber in parliament. This can be used to ban protests of any kind. As in Latin America, the right to protest is being criminalised.

In 1997 the Protection from Harassment Act was introduced into parliament. The government argued that it would protect women from stalkers. But this Act was used against Oxfordshire environmental campaigners. Thrupp Lake, a local beauty spot, was under threat from RWE npower, which owns Didcot power station. This company wanted to empty the lake and fill it with pulverised fly ash. Protesters launched a petition and some stood in the way of contractors who were trying to cut down trees.

Right to protest

Police on the protests against the war in Gaza in january 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

Police on the protests against the war in Gaza in january 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

The company obtained an injunction against the protesters to keep them away from the site, with a threat of up to five years imprisonment if they broke it. Under the Protection from Harassment Act, it is only necessary to prove that someone felt “alarmed and distressed” by protesters.

Maybe this is a well-intentioned piece of legislation, badly drafted and misused? Not exactly. Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who acted for RWE, claims that his law company helped draft the legislation in 1997. He boasted that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”.

Although the company eventually backed down that was not the end of the struggle for the Oxfordshire protesters. The National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) is a police team which has been established to coordinate the fight against “domestic extremists”. A NETCU manual advises officers on policing protests.

To help identify “extremist elements” police officers are recommended to check the list of “High Court Injunctions that relate to domestic extremism campaigns”. This was published on the NETCU website. On the list of so-called domestic extremists was Dr Peter Harbour, a 70 year old retired physicist. He was never convicted of anything. He is on the NETCU list as a consequence of his activities to prevent Thrupp Lake from being turned into an industrial dumping ground.

Since this case was exposed by George Monbiot, NETCU has modified its website and all sections on it apart from press reports of successful prosecutions, simply state: “Site temporarily unavailable”.

Even these measures are not sufficient for New Labour. Just in case an investigation by a local coroner’s court starts posing difficult questions – then the Coroners and Justice Bill (2009) which is currently being drafted has the solution. It gives the government powers to suspend controversial inquests, hold them without a jury and when desired amend the Data Protection Act!

In order to carry out the monitoring and surveillance of activists and protesters the police have established new branches of the secret services which are totally unaccountable. Even the formation of these bodies has been carried through without any parliamentary debate or questioning. NETCU is one such organisation. Another is the more recently established Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU).

Among those to be targeted, according to the Daily Mail, are: “organisations behind industrial action such as secondary picketing”. It will collect data on organisations and individuals and also infiltrate targeted groups. The same article warned that the CIU will take legal action to prevent publication of material revealing its activities.

Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) now routinely operate on all protests and demonstrations. FIT teams are charged with compiling information and taking photographs of demonstrators and those they associate with. Such information, stored on databases of course, is often passed from one demonstration to the next to allow the police to target known activists.

As well as protesters, journalists and reporters have been drawn into the net. It is now illegal to refuse or prevent the police from taking your photo on a protest. Yet since February 2009, it is illegal to take a photo of a police officer engaged in anti-terrorist activity. This makes it, in practice, illegal to photograph any police officer.

State of emergency

One of the most pernicious and authoritarian pieces of legislation was carried through parliament and received scant media coverage at the time. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 allows for the declaration of a state of emergency and rule by decree.

For the first time, the government has the right to declare a state of emergency without even the use of the Royal Prerogative. Government ministers, including the chief whip, under this Act are empowered to declare a state of emergency providing there is “sufficient justification”. Grounds for such a declaration, at regional or national level, include interruption, or threat of interruption, of the supply of money, food, water, transport, energy, communication or provision of health services as well as the threat of war or terrorist attack and of course “damage to property”.

The powers that the government could assume amount to the imposition of a dictatorship and the right of ministers to issue “regulations” by decree. All of these powers can be assumed without parliamentary approval. Parliamentary ratification of such a declaration of a state of emergency need only be sought “within thirty days” and “regulations” approved after seven days.

While the right to strike and take industrial action cannot be formally removed the government would have the right to ban any assembly or protest and compel all citizens to undertake any task demanded and be moved from or to any specified location. In addition, special ‘tribunals’ can be established to deal with those defying government regulations. Communication by mobile phone or email can also be shut down.

While the ruling class in Britain has overseen emergency legislation before, the powers included in the Civil Contingencies Act go much further than earlier emergency legislation, such as laws introduced in 1920 and 1948.

So pernicious has New Labour become that unbelievably the House of Lords can appear as a defender of democratic rights. The House of Lords report by its constitution committee, ‘Surveillance, citizens and the state’, reflects the concern of a section of the ruling class that these measures will simply alienate big layers of society and undermine the ability of the ruling class to maintain stability and rule. The Lords’ report warns that mass surveillance: “risks undermining the fundamental relationship between the state and citizens, which is the cornerstone of democracy and good governance”.

Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, who made her career running covert operations against the miners in the 1980s, is, among other things, no friend of the working class and socialists. However, even she has opposed the latest measures on the basis that they will give justification to “terrorists” because people will live “in fear and believe they are in a police state”. The ‘libertarian right’ in the Tory Party have taken up the cause and opposed at least some of the measures that New Labour has introduced.

Yet opposition to these repressive measures should not just be left to those sections of the ruling class and radical commentators like Henry Porter or George Monbiot. This repressive legislation is there to be used against workers and left-wing, socialist activists when the government deems it necessary. Socialists, workers and young people must oppose such existing and pending legislation.

The recent strikes by the prison officers, the postal workers and oil refinery workers have illustrated, that when faced with a determined mass movement with a combative leadership, the existing anti-strike and repressive laws cannot prevent a struggle taking place.

Defend democratic rights

But the introduction of this legislation must sound the alarm bells. There is the urgent need for a mass campaign to oppose the repressive legislation such as the Serious Organised Crime Police Act and demand the repeal of the ‘anti-terror’ laws such as the Regulatory Investigative Powers Act and all anti-trade union legislation. Such a campaign needs to also demand the disbandment of ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers (see box), the CIU and NETCU.

Socialists are not opposed to community policing to protect and defend communities. However, this can only be done through the establishment of a fully democratically controlled police service which is under the control of, and accountable to, the community. It needs to be linked to the need to build a mass party of working people, committed to fighting for democratic rights and for socialism.

CCTV – Big Brother is watching you

Like a modern day version of Big Brother in George Orwell’s book 1984, New Labour’s Britain has become the most ‘watched’ society in the world. Nobody knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are in use. The most recent estimate is somewhere between four and five million, roughly one camera for every twelve people! Each one of the population can be filmed on CCTV up to 300 times a day.

Deep underground in central London, a maze of tunnels, entered at Piccadilly Circus, lead to a central control room. This houses a bank of forty-eight plasma screens which allow operators to monitor the unsuspecting population moving about on the surface. This government-financed surveillance operation cost £1.25 million to establish and is among the most sophisticated in the world. It is regarded by the Home Office as the ‘best-practice example’ on which the UK’s future public surveillance should be modelled.

160 fixed cameras keep an eye on population movements in Belgravia along with dozens more ‘mobile’ units which are fixed to walls and linked to Wi-Fi connections. 6,000 visitors from 30 different governments – including the USA, Brazil, Mexico, and China have visited the centre – regarded as a model which will be copied elsewhere.

There is no accountability or control over who uses or has access to the information collected. It is justified as helping to combat crime. Yet the evidence for CCTV effectiveness is not exactly overwhelming. A joint Home Office/police report found that 80% of the images from CCTV are of such poor quality they cannot be used for detecting crime and one police surveillance expert estimated that only 3% of crime is solved as a result of CCTV.

Data collection – “freedom is slavery”

Under New Labour, Britain has become the data capital of the world. Huge amounts of information are accumulated by the state on every aspect of the lives of millions of the population.

Staggeringly the UK DNA database is now proportionally the largest in the world with DNA profile stored on 7% of the population. This includes the DNA of over one million young people under the age of eighteen; 337,000 are under the age of sixteen.

Often, these DNA samples arise from minor crimes from which there is no prosecution but the DNA remains on the database until the individual reaches one hundred years of age. DNA records have been used in numerous cases to prevent employment or to provide a basis for dismissal.

Yet, it is not only DNA records which are being compiled. In a phrase worthy of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania in 1984, Britain now has a “transformational government” strategy. This means sharing information across all databases. It will require, according to the former chairman of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Sir David Varney, the state possessing “a deep truth about the citizen based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs or desires”.

Former Whitehall security coordinator Sir David Omand admits that: “finding out other people’s secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules.”

Yet while the state is free to observe our movements and listen to our conversations and discussions the New Labour government has been more reticent to open up records of its own deliberations. In Orwell’s Oceania, the ‘Ministry of Peace’ was responsible for war. The Ministry of Truth propagated: ‘War is Peace’; ‘Freedom is Slavery’; and ‘Ignorance is Strength’.

In New Labour’s Britain, Jack Straw uses the Freedom of Information Act, not to open up government to public scrutiny but to prevent publication of the record of discussions in the Cabinet in the lead-up to the Iraq war!

ACPO – unaccountable, unelected, powerful

A large part of the police legislation is a direct result of proposals made by ACPO – the Association of Chief Police Officers. This organisation is now regularly presented in the media as ‘the viewpoint’ of the police and it has a major role in driving government policy.

ACPO was established in 1997 to replace an informal network of regional police chiefs. Since then it has developed into a powerful, unaccountable, unelected, organisation which acts almost like a ‘state within a state’. Even the Mail on Sunday described it as: “one of the most mysterious and powerful organisations in Britain”.

While formally a non-profit making private company it is in effect mutating into the high command of a national police force. It has been responsible for establishing organisations like NETCU and the CIU. Among its achievements is the distribution of 10,000 stun guns to police officers throughout the country.

Funding for ACPO ‘project work’ from the government increased from £1.3 million in 2005 to £15 million today. From ACPO you can purchase a “police certificate” verifying that you have no criminal record for £70 – it actually costs ACPO 60p to obtain the information from the police computer. These certificates are used for visa applications to work or live in the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Alternatively you can go on a training programme for speed camera operators run by a senior police officer who was banned from driving for speeding!

Yet this organisation has acquired the power and influence it has without a single debate or vote in parliament.

State repression by numbers

20 – the percentage by which the proportion of the British population in prison has risen since 1997.
151 – the number of people locked up in Britain out of every 100,000. By comparison China jails 119 per 100,000 and Saudi Arabia jails 132 per 100,000.
4,842 – the increase in the number of police officers since 1997, the highest number ever.
1 – the right to demonstrate within one kilometre of parliament has been removed. You can still do it in Serbia.