Undercover policing – the status quo is a danger to political rights

The Liberal Democrats should be commended for their principled opposition to The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (criminal conduct) Bill, which is better known as the “spycops” bill. Yet, they have much work to do in securing the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. What has gone on with undercover policing for decades is a threat to hard won political liberty and social progress. Liberals have to learn lessons of undercover policing gone wrong from the Undercover Policing Inquiry.

With all due respect to Baron Paddick, who wrote the article The ‘spy powers’ bill is a step too far, he needs to realize the status quo of undercover operations is toxic, as far as the police go. He wrote:

if all this legislation did was to provide legal authority for the police and security services to authorize informants, when necessary to commit crime, it would maintain the status quo and the Liberal Democrats would have no argument for it.

Liberals need to consider how zealous efforts by undercover police officers could cause people to act criminally, in cases they ordinarily would not have. Considering the case of animal rights activist Geoff Sheppard, he claims then-undercover Metropolitan Police Officer, Matt Rayner (not his real name) asked him to show him how to make an incendiary device. Sheppard received a four year sentence for possession of a shotgun, ammunition, and material to make an incendiary device.

The common law principle of facing your accuser, remembered in the words by Walter Raleigh of “let my accuser come face to face and be deposed”, has been potentially undermined. One personal interpretation of mine is that, if Mr. Sheppard had known Rayner was an undercover policeman, he could have possibly pleaded entrapment. That he was allegedly coerced into criminal action, an abuse of process, is something so unfair and wrong that the court should not allow a prosecutor to proceed with what is, in all other respects, a regular proceeding.

To reform the system, Liberal Democrats need to ask probing questions. It is widely known that they opposed the 2003 Iraq War. In one case an undercover officer was among the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. He said they wanted to try to persuade people to their point of view. Liberals need to find out if undercover operatives are being used by the governments of the day, to provide information that furthers the agenda of the party in power. In the case of the 2003 Iraq War -the Labour Party. Think of Lisa, (not real name), an environmental activist with a Nottingham environmental group. She said:

I was at a fair share of demonstrations that didn’t go according to plan because the police knew what we were about to do and were ready.

Did the police undermine anti-war activists against the 2003 war in Iraq?

For a liberal party, the idea of undercover police potentially stifling social change is no trivial matter. Some years ago the case of the Women’s Liberation Front was considered a worrying trend. Yesterday the state picked on women’s rights activists, and tomorrow it will be another cause liberals care about.

The status quo is not fine.

Editorial note: Apologies to Shane as this was originally published under a wrong name.

* Shane Burke has had extensive dealings with Liberals in the United Kingdom. He is an aspiring writer on issues related to Liberalism. He is not a member of the Liberal Democrats.

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9 Comments

  • The type of inchoate offence anticipated here already exists in English law. I am certainly not a fan of undercover policing but I am not a fan of activists acting illegally or on the edge of the law either.

  • Shane Burke 2nd Mar '21 - 5:40pm

    Thanks Peter, I take the point that activists are actually breaking the law, but it should be asked if undercover operatives are making a bad situation worse? the operatives often push themselves as the most ardent hardliners.

  • Activists have rights. Provided their activities are lawful, they should have the freedom to go about their business. If they are intent on breaking the law, they are a potential danger to people or property and the police are obliged to do their best to prevent such criminal activity.

    This creates the role of the undercover police man or woman. If I understand your point (forgive me for not studying all the information sources that you cite) you are concerned that undercover officers can incite activists to break the law when in the absence of the officer, they would not break the law. Incitement is a crime even if the crime is not yet committed.

    It is clear that the officers must perform a passive role though circumstances may make this impossible, particularly if the officer’s life is in danger if he/she refuses to cooperate with the preparation for criminal activity.

    However, I agree that this is neither clear cut or satisfactory, but it is reality. We live in an imperfect world. Do we give the benefit to the police that they will act fairly and responsibly whilst recognising that sometimes circumstances will cause problems? Or do we give the benefit to the activists so that the presence of an undercover officer gives them some sort of immunity from prosecution?

    It is very clear to me that if activists are not contemplating any criminal activities then they need not have to worry about undercover police and the police don’t have to worry about it either. All of which makes me wonder, why are the Lib Dems worried about it?

  • Brad Barrows 2nd Mar '21 - 7:19pm

    I have no problem with undercover operatives infiltrating organisations that plan criminal acts to further their cause. I do not think we can have one rule for those organisations planning criminal acts in support a cause we support and another for those planning criminal acts in support of a cause we oppose. The line is either that criminal actions are permitted if they are used to promote a cause, or they are not.

  • Neil sandison 2nd Mar '21 - 10:58pm

    How do we feel about infiltration in order to incite an illegal act by an activist ?

  • @ Mark
    In my opinion, any undercover police officer who incites criminal activity is guilty of an offence and is behaving in a way that justifies instant dismissal.

    I agree that criminals and activists can and do exist as separate groups but unfortunately, they also constitute a continuum where the dividing line becomes blurred. When feelings are strong and emotions are high making a protest can seem inadequate and a more forceful message may seem necessary. This phenomenon, known as noble cause corruption, is well known.

    Some activist organisations try to be as forceful as the law permits and this involves operating close to the line between lawful and illegal action. It is therefore not surprising that some activists may go too far. I have doubts about the usefulness and moral case for having undercover officers but that is a matter for the police and politicians. I would imagine that they are deemed necessary and effective otherwise they would not be used.

  • Ronald Murray 3rd Mar '21 - 11:21am

    I feel that some individuals and organisations are so dangerous to society covert operations are the only way to stop them. This should not turn into what M Thatcher wanted security services spying on her political opponents, which she did not get as going against the organisations charter.
    The way to deal with this is to have proper neutral oversight from an organisation with suitable authority to prevent things going too far. Sadly we have a government in Westyminster now that can do what it likes and is already breaking the law on PPE contracts and nothing is being done. Dangerous times.

  • What does “has had extensive dealings with Liberals in theUnited Kingdom” mean ?

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