Britain’s Private Militias

The Ratcliffe miscarriage of justice shows that we need a sweeping reform of the police.

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 19th April 2011.

Here, so far, are the results of the undercover surveillance operation the police conducted against a group of climate change activists:

– one trial abandoned, after great expense

– 20 people subject to what looks like a miscarriage of justice, at even greater expense

– a further £1.75m squandered on an operation whose purpose remains inscrutable

– a number of women sexually exploited, apparently with the blessing of the state

– the life of at least one person (the undercover cop) irredeemably ruined.

All for what? To spy on a group described by the judge as “decent men and women with a genuine concern for others” who “acted with the highest possible motives.” They were prepared to be held to account for their actions and they offered no threat to life or limb.

Yesterday, the Director of Public Prosecutions did something almost unprecedented: he asked people convicted in an English court to appeal against their sentences. He did so because the report he commissioned into the trial of 20 environmental campaigners – who planned to enter the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire to protest against its contribution to climate change – suggests that their conviction is unsafe. The police failed to disclose crucial evidence: that the protesters’ plan was hatched with the help of the undercover officer Mark Kennedy, who had been engaged to spy on these gentle, public-spirited people for seven years.

There is little doubt that the 20 will win their appeal. But that is just the beginning of what needs to happen. There’s an even more important task: to hold the people who commissioned this farce to account.

Kennedy was run by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. This is a body composed largely of police, but it was, at the time, under the control of no police force. It answered instead to an organisation whose continued existence is an affront to both democracy and justice. The Association of Chief Police Officers is not a public body. It is not subject to freedom of information requests or democratic scrutiny. It is a private limited company. It funds itself partly through the state monopoly it has been granted by the government – the kind of Royal licence that Charles II used to issue – to sell public property. It flogs items of data from the police national computer, each of which costs 60p to retrieve, for £70 apiece.

With these funds it has been running what is, in effect, a private militia in the United Kingdom. Until the Kennedy revelations made its role impossible to sustain, it controlled a number of police units, employing public servants to perform tasks over which there was no direct state control. As so often happens where accountability fails, the units worked for those who have power against those who don’t. They collaborated closely with large corporations; particularly closely with large corporations damaging the public interest. We’ve now seen how two of ACPO’s bodies – the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU) – have worked with companies running coal-burning power stations to prevent them from being held to account.

Their activities go far beyond the constitutional role of the police, straying into work that is blatantly political. When, for example, local people in Oxfordshire protested peacefully against RWE npower’s plan to fill the beautiful lake where they swam and picnicked with pulverised fly ash from Didcot power station, NETCU slapped them on its list of “domestic extremists”. They had broken no laws and done nothing extreme.

Watching the Mark Kennedy story unfold, seeing at the same time what looks to me like senior police officers turning a blind eye to what Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World has been up to, it is becoming obvious that police chiefs in this country are out of control.
They appear to see their role as protecting corporate power against the people, regardless of what the law says. To this end they are spending both public money and private money extracted from public hands, without obvious lines of accountability or constitutional authority. They are behaving as you would have expected the Guardia Civil under Francisco Franco to behave: working for private interests against the public interest.

If some good is to emerge from the outrageous Kennedy saga, it must start with the disbanding of the Association of Chief Police Officers. Though it has now lost some of its powers, it remains a sinister and undemocratic organisation. There is no role for a private company overseeing public policing, especially a private company run by senior public servants.

The police chiefs who commissioned the spy rings ACPO’s organisations ran must be held to account. If they have broken the law, they must be put on trial. Only then will we have some chance of believing that the law applies to everyone, and is not the exclusive property of corporations and secretive chief constables.