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Legislation is Needed to Stop Undercover Policing From Abusing our Trust

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The fallout from planting covert officer Mark Kennedy into the heart of the environmental movement put the shadowy world of undercover policing under the microscope. Kennedy, masquerading as drug-dealer-turned-climber Mark Stone, was involved in nearly every major green protest during his seven-year mission. He eventually switched sides to give evidence in court on behalf of the group he infiltrated. When the case against six activists accused of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass at a UK power station collapsed following his unmasking last year, the inquest into what went wrong began.

As part of that process Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) embarked upon a review of undercover policing. Published today, its report is a nudge in the right direction; recognising the need to improve the approval procedure for covert operations. But more is required. HMIC doesn't call for undercover officers to be authorised by the Courts, apparently because of an unsubstantiated concern over judicial independence. Instead, and rather more meekly, the report suggests that undercover deployments be made subject to the Office of Surveillance Commissioner's approval.

Bureaucratic tinkering won't suffice. Senior officers granted the authorisations in the Mark Kennedy case, and look where that got them. If the police want to search your home, they must seek a magistrate's warrant. If they wish to tap phonecalls they have to get the Home Secretary's go-ahead. Yet when it comes to their own infiltration of peaceful protest groups, the police are left to authorise themselves - despite the huge risks to personal privacy and democratic dissent. Why should the police be allowed to green-light the far graver intrusion of putting imposters amongst your friends and colleagues? Think of the risks of them inciting criminal behaviour rather than investigating it.

We're not alone in our desire for judicial pre-approval. After the revelations over Mark Kennedy and covert officers forming intimate relationships with campaigners, we staged our Undercover Policing and Public Trust seminar. At that event President of ACPO Sir Hugh Orde called for an end to police self-authorisation of covert deployments; stating that independent prior approval by the courts would be far more appropriate.

We hoped the HMIC review would go further, but it's still a welcome step. It does include the encouraging observation that the working definition of "domestic extremism" is too broad and covers too wide a range of protest activity. It recommends that the term be significantly tightened, and that undercover deployments be used only where the anticipated disruption to the community from serious criminal activity is particularly severe.

Nevertheless, we need a bigger and more fundamental debate about the danger of police officers being transformed into domestic spies, and how long-term infiltration missions can ever be justified even where there's no real prospect of criminal prosecution. Today's intervention rightly identifies the weaknesses of the current approval system but the solution must be more robust.

There is simply no substitute for prior approval by the courts, and parliament must act now to tighten up the law. The grandly titled "Protection of Freedoms Bill" would be a perfect opportunity. Undercover policing may have its place but only legislation will stop future Mark Kennedys playing 007 and abusing our trust.

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