Ex-minister Peter Hain says whistleblower’s disclosure of spying operations during 1990s raises questions about parliamentary sovereignty
Police conducted spying operations on a string of Labour politicians during the 1990s, covertly monitoring them even after they had been elected to the House of Commons, a whistleblower has revealed.
Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer, said he read secret files on 10 MPs during his 11 years working for the Metropolitan police’s special branch. They include Labour’s current deputy leader, Harriet Harman, the former cabinet minister Peter Hain and the former home secretary Jack Straw.
Francis said he personally collected information on three MPs – Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and the late Bernie Grant – while he was deployed undercover infiltrating anti-racist groups. He also named Ken Livingstone, the late Tony Benn, Joan Ruddock and Dennis Skinner as having been subjected to special branch intelligence-gathering. The files on all 10 were held by Scotland Yard.
The whistleblower said special branch files were often “very extensive” and typically described the subject’s political beliefs, personal background such as parents, school and finances, and demonstrations they attended. Some contained “some personal and private matters”, Francis added.
Hain called for the home secretary, Theresa May, to ensure that an existing judge-led public inquiry into undercover policing examines the extent of the surveillance of members of parliament.
Why were special branch watching me even when I was an MP?
In an article for the Guardian, he wrote: “That the special branch had a file on me dating back 40 years ago to anti-apartheid and anti-Nazi League activist days is hardly revelatory. That these files were still active for at least 10 years while I was an MP certainly is and raises fundamental questions about parliamentary sovereignty.”
The Met’s special branch has been responsible for monitoring political groups considered to pose a threat to public order. Francis worked for special branch between 1990 and 2001. For four of those years he went undercover to spy on anti-racist groups as part of a covert unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was controlled by special branch.
In recent years Francis has publicly detailed many aspects of this covert work, disclosing, for instance, that the SDS collected information on the relatives of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence and other families seeking justice over alleged police misconduct.
Francis approached Hain and described how he had read the pink special branch files – known as personal registry files – on the MPs while he was working for the police. He said some of the information in the files dated from the subjects’ days as political campaigners before they entered parliament, but special branch continued to store details of their political activities after they were elected to the Commons. “When you become an MP, the files don’t stop,” he said.
He said that while he was undercover pretending to be an anti-racist campaigner in north-east London, Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, often talked at meetings and demonstrations he attended. He reported back details of her activities to his special branch superiors.
To a lesser extent he collected information about Corbyn, the Islington North MP, and Grant, who represented Tottenham from 1987 until his death in 2000. “They were in meetings and I was there and they were talking about things and that is what I reported on,” he said. His superiors were “certainly very grateful” if he passed on information involving MPs, he added.
Last year the Metropolitan police said it did not know how many elected politicians it was currently monitoring, after it was revealed that it had logged the political activities of Jenny Jones, the Green party’s sole peer, and a Green party councillor in Kent on a secretive database.
May ordered the public inquiry after a string of revelations about the conduct of undercover officers who infiltrated political groups for more than 40 years. The officers routinely formed sexual relationships with women they had been sent to spy on. The remit of the inquiry, which is to be led by Lord Justice Pitchford, has yet to be defined.
Livingstone, former MP for Brent East and former mayor of London, said he backed the idea of an inquiry covering surveillance of MPs but said this would probably only be serious under an Ed Miliband government.
He said: “I wish I could have been a threat when I was an MP but I was completely powerless. My phone was being bugged in the 80s when I was on the Greater London Council. MI5 always denied it was them. So this was done by special branch?
“Did they think we were a threat to the western system? If only this were true. What a load of crap. What’s so ridiculous is that we were being subjected to IRA bombings right the way through that period and they were wasting officers spying on me and Tony Benn. It’s a complete waste of police resources. People like me and Tony Benn were sadly never a threat to capitalism because we never had the powers. I’d love to see the files. My kids would love to see the files. They’re most likely full of rubbish.”
Hain said the public should know whether covert surveillance hindered the MPs’ ability to represent their constituents and speak confidentially with them.
He said that when he was Northern Ireland secretary between 2005 and 2007, undercover operations to defeat terrorism and serious crime were vital. “But conflating serious crime with political dissent unpopular with the state at the time means travelling down a road that endangers the liberty of us all.”
Ruddock, the MP for Lewisham Deptford, described the news as “utterly appalling” and and “affront to parliament”.
She said: “It is a surprise and I think it is absolutely outrageous. The MI5 surveillance of me in the 80s had no justification whatsoever, was found to be illegal. The idea that it could carry on without even the pretext that I was involved in CND when I was a member of parliament is completely and utterly outrageous.”
Ruddock said she has written to May today demanding answers and would write again to whoever was the new home secretary after the election. She has also submitted a request to the police to see the file held on her and wants to know whether the Conservative political leadership of the day authorised the operation.
May has promised that the remit of the public inquiry will be drawn up in consultation with people who were spied upon.
Francis said: “My question is: how can people help formulate this public inquiry if they didn’t actually know they were spied upon? By me revealing that these MPs were also spied upon the same as many trade union members, countless law-abiding political activists and demonstrators also were, they can all demand to be included in the inquiry.”
A Met police spokesman said an internal police inquiry, Operation Herne, was unable to fully investigate claims by Francis as he has been unwilling to speak to the inquiry.
The spokesman said the Met had not shied away from issues raised by Operation Herne and another inquiry. “Whilst talking openly about undercover policing is challenging because of its very nature, the upcoming inquiry represents a real opportunity to provide the public with as complete a picture as possible of what has taken place,” he added.
Two SDS undercover officers previously spied on Hain in the 1960s and 1970s when he campaigned against apartheid and racism before becoming the MP for Neath in 1991.
Rob Evans and Rowena Mason
Wednesday 25 March 2015 18.13 GMT Last modified on Thursday 26 March 2015 00.40 GMT
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