UPDATE: Southampton University and Special Branch

Peter Salmon / Undercover Research Group
6 July 2015

In April we wrote about how Hampshire Special Branch had put pressure on Southampton University to cancel an academic conference on Israel. We highlighted this as it was evidence of ongoing political policing and blacklisting through the back-door – in particular through the Government’s PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy. PREVENT, as we have demonstrated elsewhere, is merely Special Branch in another guise.

So it is was of interest that in the same week the latest bout of counter-terrorism legislations commences, requiring educational establishments take up political policing against radicals and ‘extremism’, Hampshire Police also responded to our FOIA about the Southampton University – Special Branch meetings.

It seems we were right in our assertion that one of those meeting with the head of security for Southampton University was no less than the head of Hampshire Special Branch, Scott Chilton. Chilton is Head of the Joint Operational Unit between Hampshire Police and Thames Valley Police forces, where he has command of Special Branch and Covert Policing, and someone we suspect of having involvement in other covert police actions against animal rights activists in this time.

In the period April 2014 to April 2015 there were five meetings between Southampton University security and Hampshire Special Branch, of what appears to have been dubbed ‘Operation Berrier’. All of them took place in March 2015, three at the University and two at Police ‘Support Training and Headquarters’. The minutes have not released as a matter of national security, but given that no meetings took place through the year and suddenly there is the need to have five, we think it is not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that it is about the banned academic conference.

Is this really suitable for a national security exception? Or is it appropriate to write they can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether an officer of rank of assistant chief constable or above authorised such a meeting on the law enforcement exception to the FOIA requirements? Apparently, it would jeopardise the intelligence gathering abilities of the police. In particular, they tell us:

The disclosure of the requested information would undermine these tactics which would consequently be detrimental to Hampshire Constabulary’s ability to be able to deal with the ongoing extremist/terrorist threat it faces. By providing the topics discussed at these meetings together with any relevant records or emails held would enable the individuals to build a picture of potential tactics and resources currently available to Hampshire Constabulary. It is felt that the disclosure of this information would potentially prejudice the effectiveness of the national counter terrorism effort and would allow inference to be drawn about our force level resources when dealing with events where a large scale protest is likely to occur.

Pardon us, but what has that got to do with an academic conference on Israel and whether a top echelon officer knew the meetings were taking place? We are not asking for operational details here, merely whether there was the appropriate oversight.

Judging by the level of officers involved in the discussions, Hampshire was taking the conference quite seriously. Apart from DCS Scott Chilton, there was the man who oversees policing for the Southampton District, Supt. James Fulton. Also involved were three Chief Inspectors (Kelly Whiting, Simon Tribe, Ian Whyton), and four Inspectors (Paul Pressley, Mark Lewis. Georgina White and Sharman Wicks), as well as Tim Feltham, the media relations and PR officer for Hampshire police.

Though parts of the scanty notes are obscured for security reasons, when one puts them in conjunction with what was stated in the court case to stop the university cancelling the conference (see Asa Winstanley’s account here), one can only assume there was no credible threat – merely supposition and vague inference, nothing something that amounted to credible intelligence of anything other than protest – and since when was that a crime? Last we checked, that was still protected under the European Convention on European Rights.

When you see that one of the issues being looked into is whether the conference amounted to racial harassment under UN definitions, one cannot help but wonder just how far away from counter-terrorism and national security the police putting on the pressure actually drifted. But then, Special Branch has always flexed the notion of national security to its limits to take in any protest it or its political masters find uncomfortable. The Southampton University case demonstrated if anything that the ill-defined notion of ‘national security’ is still the police’s favour way of attacking fundamental rights to protest.

Our original blogs are here and here. The FOIA release of the notes of meetings can be found here. We have requested an internal review of the decision not to release the name of authorising officers for the meetings.