Launched today, the Special Branch Files Project is a live-archive of declassified files focussing on the surveillance of political activists and campaigners, revealing political policing of protest since 1968.
In the past three months, I was part of a small team working with a few key journalists who generously made their files available for the project. I am quite proud of what we have been able to put together within a short time and on a shoe-string budget. Here is why.
The Special Branch Files Project is sharing files that have been disclosed in the past and would be refused now. The site provides access to the documents themselves, complemented with engaging analysis in background stories. The documents reveal the intricate details recorded by Britain’s secret police about a range of protest movements in this country since 1968.
In the early years of the Freedom of Information Act, journalists obtained various Special Branch documents from the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office. Unfortunately this openness was short-lived. The authorities now routinely refuse to disclose Special Branch files, including information which they previously released.
This is what happened – in short. Over the past decade, the Met Police have narrowed their interpretation of the so called section 23 exemption, which has become so strict that Special Branch files are now by definition ‘information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters’. This means that to refuse disclosure is now very easy for the Met and that a public interest test does not apply. Appealing to the Information Commissioner has been tried and failed – the Met has convinced the ICO that this is the way to go.
As if this is not depressing enough, as of last week we know that the Met Police has even more radical ways to deal with requests for information. The first is shredding files. A whistleblower in Special Branch wrote to Baroness Jenny Jones to reveal the systematic destruction of records relating to her after the Green Party veteran had asked for her file to be released.
The second is slightly more sophisticated, at least for the moment. When the Undercover Research Group asked for the minutes of the National Undercover working group, the answer was no.
The reason to refuse the files was a new one, even to us. Apart from the usual reply that it would cost too much time to get it together, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) FoI Officer wrote to us:
I can further advise that the material you have requested will form part of the Undercover Policing Inquiry. The NPCC has been served with a section 9 request and is working with the Undercover Policing Inquiry in complying with that request.
While the inquiry is in its early stages, much of the information you have requested may form part of the Inquiry.
At this stage there has not been a section 19 restriction applied to the material under the Inquiries Act 2005. However this may change in the future and it may be that certain information relating to the Undercover Policing Inquiry may be exempt.
Translated into normal language this says that the Pitchford Inquiry has used the Freedom of Information Act to get information from NPCC. It also says that in the near future, under the restrictions on public access under section 19 of the Inquiries Act, the Met may refuse any request for information that relates to the Pitchford Inquiry .
These new grounds for refusal – which we will of course appeal – only emphasise the need for an initiative like the Special Branch Files Project.
Why is this project so important?
Sharing once released files is holding the Met to account. As their Disclosure Log states, information released under the FOI Act is released to the world. A disclosure to one is a disclosure to all. The Met may want to prevent further access to this information, but they can’t turn back the clock.
And that is not all.
Sharing the files online offers anyone interested the opportunity to go through the files by themselves, to explore the level of detail and maybe find new angles for research into political policing.
It is a practical and effective way to show what transparency is, or should be. Hopefully, it is inspiring too, the Special Branch Files Project aims to expand its collection and reaches out to people who wish to share further files.
And last but not least, the Project is a gentle nudge to the Pitchford Inquiry. See what has been released before! Don’t be too shy in disclosing documents. (And do make sure no further files get destroyed before you can look at them!)
Files currently on display
The Special Branch Files Project starts with five sets of documents, spanning several decades of surveillance of protest movements.
– The story about the demonstrations against the Vietnam War in 1968 provides background details about the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad. After a large demonstration in March in front of the American Embassy at Grosvenor Square in London got out of hand, Special Branch was given a free hand to make sure that would not happen again at the protest planned for October.
– The infiltration of the Anti-Apartheid Movement started around the same time. The files presented here come from a larger stack documenting the surveillance over 25 years – at least from 1969 to 1995. They contain a mixture of public documents such as leaflets and newspaper cuttings and private information, such as secret reports of demonstrations and meetings.
– The third case study is about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a pressure group at the height of its popularity in the 1980s, when fears of a nuclear war were running high. Labour Party policy at the time favoured unilateral nuclear disarmament, a key demand of CND. The documents relate to a few CND peaceful demonstrations in 1983 and 1984, including one coinciding with the Economic Summit and President Reagan’s visit, revealing how Margaret Thatcher clashed with the police in her efforts to have the demonstration banned.
– The Wapping strike of 1986-87 was a fight to save jobs on Fleet Street and against Rupert Murdoch’s efforts to destroy the power of the unions. The industrial dispute raged for over a year, with a visibly huge police presence to ensure that business continued as usual. The documents presented at the Project website reveal that the secret police effort was also substantial.
The book Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis reports that Bob Lambert, one of the undercovers deployed by the SDS was ‘often at the heart of the protests’ at Wapping; Jacqui his girlfriend at the time (and mother to his child, the Met settled her legal claims in 2014) remembers taking him there. Further research might reveal if his intelligence ended up in one of these files.
– Finally, the Project presents a set of files on the development of the SDS Welfare Policy. After several former undercovers had sued the Met for mental health problems caused by pressures on the job, the SDS tried to come with a plan to prevent further trouble. It took more than three decades to realise that a good drink with the lads down at the pub was not sufficient a cure to ensure mental welfare. The files offer treasures for those who can read between the lines, the policy the SDS put on paper reveals glimmers of what must have gone wrong.
As if the present situation is not bad enough, the government is currently considering to impose further the restrictions to the FOI Act; we of course support the campaign to stop foia restrictions.