Meeting date: Thursday, June 30, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 30 June 2016
Agenda: Undercover Policing, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time
Good morning, everyone. The first item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-00003, in the name of Neil Findlay, on Scotland, Pitchford and undercover policing. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
I remind members that, with regard to matters being sub judice, their remarks should focus not on individual cases but on the generality of the issues that are raised in the motion and the call for the Pitchford inquiry to be extended to Scotland.
That the Parliament believes that a growing number of Scottish citizens have been identified as being involved in undercover policing scandals involving the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and the Special Demonstration Squad of the Metropolitan Police, either as victims or as officers working on cases; considers that these units operated in Scotland keeping political, environmental, trade union and other activists under surveillance using unethical and often illegal methods; understands that the Pitchford inquiry, established by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to look into undercover policing since the 1960s, does not cover Scotland in its remit; further understands that the Scottish Government has written to the UK Government asking for the inquiry to be extended to cover Scotland, and notes the view that, should this request be refused, the Scottish Government should set up its own inquiry so that all UK citizens, including those in Lothian who have been affected by what it considers this scandal can have the opportunity to get to the truth.10:45
The police play a hugely important role in our society in dealing with dangerous and distressed people. In doing so, they are put in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They have my full support, and I am sure that they have the full support of every member of the Scottish Parliament.
Despite those pressures and the human frailties of officers and the fact that inevitably sometimes things go wrong, the police in this country are respected and have overwhelming public support and confidence. However, that support and confidence is not automatic—it has to be continually worked at and protected by robust processes and systems to prevent its erosion. I believe that that is vital in maintaining good relations between the police and the community, and in maintaining public confidence.
Therefore, when things happen that damage and dent that confidence, they must be dealt with swiftly, transparently and robustly, otherwise they leave a lingering sense of closing of ranks, of cover-up and of unwillingness to admit failings and wrongdoing. The police are not and cannot be above the law that they are responsible for implementing. With that in mind, I want to focus on the experience of social justice and environmental campaigners and their interaction with a unit of undercover police officers in the special demonstration squad and the national public order intelligence unit.
On too many occasions over the years, we have seen the following formula play out: an incident or event takes place, the police version of events and the experience of people who were there at the time do not match up, a version of what happened is spun through media outlets and becomes the accepted wisdom, people are arrested and charged, the justice system gets involved, questionable evidence is presented or downright lies are told in court, often people are convicted of crimes that they did not commit, and lives are ruined or are badly affected.
At that point, a campaign begins and the truth starts to come out, the spin unravels, the lies are exposed and the real story begins to be dragged out of the darkest nooks and crannies of our justice, legal and security systems. Hillsborough, phone hacking, the Guildford four, the Stephen Lawrence case and the blacklisted construction workers are just a few of the most high-profile cases. All of them began with a contested version of events, all of them were covered in a cloud of suspicion and cover-up, and all of them were eventually exposed as organised conspiracies involving various sections of the establishment and the state machine.
The work of justice campaigners across the United Kingdom has forced the hand of the United Kingdom Government to establish the inquiry into undercover policing that is chaired by Sir Christopher Pitchford. The purpose of that inquiry is to
“inquire into and report on undercover police operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968”.
The inquiry will not examine events that took place in Scotland or the activities of undercover officers who operated here with or without the authority of senior officers here. It will not examine the role of Scottish officers working undercover, the code that they operated under, control systems, the ethics and legality of what went on here in our country or the impact on Scottish political, environmental and social justice campaigners and their families.
There is now a growing body of evidence that tells us that the SDS and the NPOIU operated in Scotland monitoring a broad range of campaigns and campaigners. The undercover officers engaged in wholly unethical and illegal practices while operating here, including duping women into relationships—some resulting in children being born—and, most disturbing of all, using the identities of dead children to maintain cover for their assumed identities.
We know that a growing number of Scottish officers were seconded or employed by those units; for example, the new chief constable played a senior management role, and Eleanor Mitchell was involved. She went on to become the head of professional standards at Police Scotland, despite having been a senior officer in an organisation whose professional standards have been wholly discredited. We know that 100 officers have been identified as having worked in the units and that an astonishing 460 organisations, many operating in Scotland, were monitored.
We know that more and more Scots are coming forward as victims of those discredited practices, and that many more are unaware that they were victims. There are people such as Nick McKerrell, who is a law lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, and who was active in the antipoverty campaign at the G8. He found himself on a construction industry blacklist, having never worked in the sector. Eleanor Hutson works for a Scottish National Party MP. In this Parliament at a meeting that we held, she spoke very bravely and publicly about her knowledge of the role of notorious officer Mark Kennedy, who was an undercover officer in Scotland. Eleanor Hutson was blacklisted, having never worked in the construction industry. There are many, many more such people.
We know about the collaboration between the big construction companies and the intelligence services. Today, under the privilege that this Parliament gives me, I can name Gayle Burton, who is a former head of human resources at the Costain construction company, who now works for the Jockey Club and who has been identified as the key link between the construction industry, the Consulting Association and special branch. Her name is identified as the source of information on files of blacklisted Scottish workers. We also know of the involvement during the 1984 miners’ strike of Stella Whitehouse, now Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, who was regularly on the picket line at Polkemmet colliery, not 3 miles from my house, during that period.
All that and more should come out in the Pitchford inquiry but, as things stand, none of it will come out because Scotland is not included in the remit of the inquiry—only England and Wales are. When I first raised the issues, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice was dismissive. Now, under pressure, he has joined the call by around 50 members of Parliament—many of them from this Parliament, but also members of the UK Parliament and the European Parliament—to extend the inquiry. Amnesty International also supports that call.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s new-found support. However, let me be absolutely clear: if the Home Secretary fails to extend Pitchford, we must have a Scottish inquiry. We cannot have a situation in which the only people in mainland UK not to have access to the inquiry and to potential justice for them and their families are Scots. Given that known and admitted abuses were carried out in Scotland on Scottish citizens, the Scottish Government has a duty not to side with the establishment but to ensure that the truth comes out.
I know that the police, the judiciary and others will pressure the cabinet secretary to resist. Those are the very same forces that pressured politicians not to go near the Lawrence case, the Birmingham and Guildford cases, and the Hillsborough case, but brave decisions were made in the interests of truth and justice. So, I urge the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs and the cabinet secretary to do the right thing: take the brave and right decision to initiate an independent public inquiry in Scotland, should it prove to be not possible to extend Pitchford.10:55
I congratulate Neil Findlay on securing parliamentary time for his members’ business motion today, and I recognise his continued efforts to bring this serious issue to Parliament on behalf of his constituents in the Lothian region, and indeed people across Scotland. The implications, understandably, have broader application across the UK, and it is right and appropriate that we have the opportunity to address them here in the Scottish Parliament in light of recent developments.
In Scotland, as we all know, transparency in policing has dominated both the political and the public discourse since the creation of the single police force three years ago. In particular, debates surrounding Police Scotland’s firearms standing authority and stop and search tactics have underscored the public’s appetite for honesty and openness where policing is concerned. Subsequent reports on those issues from the Scottish Police Authority and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland have rightly acknowledged the critical importance of
“the principle of policing by consent and the statutory principles of engagement and accessibility”.
I have to say that the recent discussion and announcement in Scotland about the uplift in the number of armed officers was handled very well by Police Scotland, because it engaged at an early stage. The announcement had the potential to provoke public criticism, but because the police were up front and engaged with parliamentarians and the public at an early stage they gained from that, so that is a useful way to go forward.
On the point about engagement and accessibility, I was interested to read Sir Christopher Pitchford’s opening statement on the inquiry into undercover policing, in which he states:
“As far as I aware, this is the first time that undercover policing has been exposed to the rigour of public examination ... The Inquiry’s priority is to discover the truth ... This is a public inquiry to which, as the name implies, the public will have access.”
That transparent approach is an extremely commendable one that must be taken forward. However, as the motion from Neil Findlay emphasises and explains, it is nevertheless problematic, as the territorial scope of the inquiry is currently limited to England and Wales. As such, although Scotland can certainly benefit from the recommendations of the inquiry’s final report, the Scottish public and those inadvertently and unwittingly involved will not learn the facts in relation to the covert operations that, as Mr Findlay has said, were implemented north of the border.
That asymmetrical situation seems fundamentally unfair. We were previously under the impression that evidence from relevant Scottish witnesses would be admissible to the inquiry, but there is no guarantee that that will be the case given the limited terms of reference. The Scottish Conservatives therefore support the extension of the Pitchford inquiry to Scotland, and that is why, if that extension is not possible, we agree with Neil Findlay that we must urge the Scottish Government to establish its own inquiry into undercover policing.
We all know from the useful briefing from Amnesty International, and from other information on the debate, that it is not just Scotland that wants to be included in the Pitchford inquiry. There are also good examples from Germany.
It is important to recognise that such an undertaking will be logistically complex given the different jurisdictions that are involved, but I genuinely hope that those difficulties can be overcome. We must also be aware of the operational imperatives that might serve to limit the comprehensiveness of an inquiry. Equally, where possible, we must not let such imperatives act as an obstacle to the truth. However, let us not try to run before we can walk. I understand that discussions are under way between the Scottish Government and the Home Secretary on this matter, and I look forward to hearing from the minister how that is progressing.
I am encouraged. As the new parliamentary term gets under way, there is cross-party consensus that transparency is key where policing is concerned. Policing by consent is central to our society and we must do all that we can to ensure that that remains very much the case.10:59
I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to highlight these issues in the Scottish Parliament. I thank Neil Findlay for securing the debate and for his contribution today, which effectively sets out the challenge that we face in Scotland in securing transparency, accountability and ultimately justice for people who have been affected by undercover policing of the nature that has been described this morning. I give credit to all the activists and campaigners who have, often in the face of strong resistance, relentlessly raised the concerns until they have got action.
It is crucial that the Government has confidence in the way that the police operate and I recognise that undercover policing is important to detecting and preventing criminal activity. We have only to consider cases that involve child abuse, human trafficking or organised crime to realise that an element of it is necessary. However, any surveillance must be proportionate, clearly justified and robustly regulated.
The scale of the concerns about historical undercover policing methods—concerns that stretch back to the 1960s—is so significant that the Home Secretary announced a judge-led inquiry in March 2015, to be led by Lord Justice Pitchford. That was the right thing to do. The police throughout the UK have a difficult job to do and deserve our support. It shows the strength and commitment of the force that it is able to scrutinise its practices and is prepared to be accountable. I welcome the full commitment to the inquiry.
The monitoring of political activists and trade unionists and the infiltration of their groups blurred the distinctions between criminal activity and legitimate process. During questions at Westminster on the inquiry, Joan Ruddock MP outlined her experience:
“In 1981, I was elected as chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Two years later, an MI5 agent, Cathy Massiter, blew the whistle on the surveillance, the phone taps and the collection of special branch reports on me. She cited political interference in the service and said that what had happened was illegal, and she resigned. In 1987, I became a Member of this House and took the loyal oath. In 1997, I became a Minister, and I subsequently signed the Official Secrets Act. How is it that surveillance was carried out on me for all that time? I want to know and to get the Minister to understand: who authorised that surveillance, and on what grounds was it authorised? He needs to answer those questions, because this is a political issue.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 26 March 2015; Vol 594, c 1585.]
In the same debate at Westminster, Jack Straw spoke about the time when he was Home Secretary. He was the Home Secretary who ordered the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case and said that he
“may also have been subject to unlawful surveillance”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 26 March 2015; Vol 594, c 1587.]
when he was Home Secretary. It is an extremely complex situation. It is not just about how the police made the decisions but about who authorised them and the extent of political direction in police operational matters.
No one could fail to be shocked by the reports of police surveillance that employed unethical and often illegal methods. We have read allegations that SDS officers engaged in sexual relationships and even fathered children, then left the women as if the relationships had never occurred. There have been horrific reports of the identities of dead children being used for covert identities. It is judged that, between 1968 and 2008, some 42 deceased children were used to create cover legends for undercover officers. Although the Metropolitan Police has apologised, families still do not know whether their children’s identities were used.
The inquiry is, therefore, hugely significant. Its remit is:
“To inquire into and report on undercover police operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968”—
a period of some 48 years. It is a long period that requires extensive and studied attention. However, the inquiry does not extend to Scotland, which is not acceptable. I agree with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s statement in his recent letter to Neil Findlay that a “single, comprehensive inquiry” would be the best solution. It is difficult to see how the situation does not impact on Scotland and difficult to accept that the operational activity by the Metropolitan Police units under inquiry is not relevant to Scotland. The minister is not able to answer for the Home Secretary, but it would be helpful if she could outline what discussions or exchanges are taking place between the Scottish Government and the Home Office on the matter.
There is an issue of expediency with extending the inquiry because, as Neil Findlay outlined, we are already about a year into it. However, if it is not extended, evidence that suggests that covert police operations violated the trust of and breached intimacy for individuals in Scotland must be presented through a Scottish inquiry and justice must be delivered for victims. I hope that the minister will commit to continuing to pursue extending the Pitchford inquiry but, if that is denied—at this point, it looks like that will be the case—the Scottish Government must commit to a full Scottish inquiry.11:04
I add my congratulations to Neil Findlay on securing the time for this debate and on choosing to bring such an important motion to the chamber for debate. It is a little surprising that more members have not chosen to be with us to debate an important issue that deserves the cross-party consensus that those of us who have chosen to be here hope for. Mr Ross talked about cross-party consensus and concern about the issue and I would have hoped to see a little more of that being demonstrated by presence in the chamber.
It is a necessary but uncomfortable truth that policing is a difficult job and that undercover policing also has to happen. Its conduct raises and will always raise profound ethical challenges. Just weeks after the political assassination of a politician in this country by a far-right activist, it is clear that there are those who pose threats to public safety and groups of people. Many people who have experienced the wave of Brexit racism during the past week or two will also want far-right and racist movements to be policed carefully and rigorously so that the kind of threats that we see in other countries do not grow to such prominence in this country.
There are others who pose threats such as, for example, organised crime and the abuse of children and other vulnerable people. There will, of course, always be a need for difficult and challenging undercover operations in the interest of the common good and the safety of us all. When those operations happen, it is critical that they are held to the very highest of standards, including to a high standard of transparency.
However, such has been the ubiquity of such operations among legitimate and democratic activism in our society over generations that, in the environment and peace movements, it is a running joke to speculate on which activists might be plants or acting in an undercover capacity. The most frequent running joke is that it is quite handy to have one involved because they usually have a van, which is useful for a lot of small, community-led activist movements.
When people who are conducting legitimate and necessary campaigns on climate change or against fossil fuels, or in their trade unions, or against nuclear power have their ability to operate democratically and to act in the name of those causes threatened, we have lost something absolutely fundamental. That kind of undercover policing operation is counter to the principles of a free and democratic society.
Mr Findlay circulated a briefing for today’s debate that quoted a certain Michael D Higgins, who, just yesterday, so impressed us all when he spoke to members. The briefing quoted something that he wrote in his time as an MP—I will not get anywhere close to the beautiful voice that we heard yesterday. He said:
“This type of activity undermines respect for the law and it is very sinister in that it can damage good causes.”
One of the arguments that President Higgins put to us was that the principle of free speech must include the freedom to speak the truth. If we are not free to do that, if we are not free to give vent to the causes that many people struggle for in our society, we will have lost something absolutely fundamental.
I therefore endorse the terms of Mr Findlay’s motion and the insistence that such matters should be held up to proper scrutiny and be transparent. I know that Theresa May has other things on her mind at the moment but we might turn that into an opportunity if the Scottish Government is resolute in insisting that the inquiry should be extended to cover Scotland. Let us say that she must do that before she demits office in her current term as Home Secretary. Let us give a clear deadline for her to make that decision and make it equally abundantly clear that if she fails to do so, the Scottish Government will ensure that these matters are held up to scrutiny in a Scottish inquiry.11:10
I am pleased to respond to the debate and thank members—including Mr Findlay, who secured the debate—for their speeches. A number of interesting points have been made. A previous members’ business debate on the subject took place on 6 January. Since that time, the call for the Pitchford inquiry to be extended to Scotland has been steadily gathering support, and I commend Mr Findlay’s efforts in that regard.
The cabinet secretary last wrote to the Home Secretary on 25 May to push for enabling the inquiry to deal with the actions of relevant Metropolitan Police units in Scotland. Many voices have now joined the Scottish Government in calling for the inquiry to be allowed to consider all the operational evidence irrespective of which jurisdictional boundaries it crosses. The operational activity that the Pitchford inquiry has been set up to look at was not confined to England and Wales; indeed, the operations were multijurisdictional. Mr Findlay referred to the interests of people on the UK mainland, but he may be aware that the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland has also written to the UK Home Secretary on a number of occasions, seeking to enable the inquiry to follow any evidence—if uncovered—that leads into Northern Ireland. That is an important point for members to be aware of.
As Claire Baker alluded, the only way that the Pitchford inquiry can consider the full picture is if it is allowed to follow the evidence irrespective of geography, and the Scottish Government absolutely agrees that the inquiry should look at events that took place in Scotland if that is where the evidence leads. A single, comprehensive inquiry that was able to gather all the evidence in a coherent manner would best serve the public interest on this occasion. An inquiry that was limited to England and Wales would risk doing a disservice to those who believe that they have been adversely affected by the operations of Metropolitan Police units in Scotland.
Although the Scottish Government is rightly accountable to the Scottish Parliament for policing, it is not responsible for the activities of the Metropolitan Police service or its specialist units. Although the Deputy Mayor of London has a role to play, it is the UK Home Secretary who is ultimately responsible to the Westminster Parliament for those matters.
The Scottish Government has listened very carefully to the arguments that have been put forward over recent months for a separate Scottish inquiry, and it has a great deal of sympathy for those who seek truth and justice in these matters. Where police forces do not live up to the high standards that are expected of them, they should be held to account and there should be absolutely nowhere to hide.
Is the minister saying that, if the Home Secretary does not expand the Pitchford inquiry, there will be no Scottish inquiry? If that is the case, can she say very clearly today that victims in Scotland will have no route to justice? Let us be up front and straight about it. Let us not be choosy with our language; let us make it very clear what she means.
I thank Mr Findlay for his intervention. The point that I am making—indeed, the point that others including Claire Baker have made—is that the approach that best serves the public interest and the interests of those who have been adversely affected is a whole, complete inquiry, and that is the Pitchford inquiry. We are focused on having the UK Home Secretary extend that inquiry to allow it to consider operations in Scotland if that is where the evidence leads. That is our focus, and I encourage members to exercise what influence they can. I suggest that Mr Ross urge his party colleague the UK Home Secretary—who is perhaps soon to be the Prime Minister—to do the right thing and extend the inquiry.
Although there is no shadow secretary of state for Scotland at the moment, there might be one soon, and I would urge that pressure be brought to bear via that route, and indeed via the current leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons. There are other routes to bring pressure to bear. The Scottish Government is absolutely focused on having the inquiry extended to Scotland.
The minister put a challenge to Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and every other politician here. We are doing as much as we can. I jointly signed the letter that Mr Findlay sent out. As I said in my speech, Scottish Conservatives support the inclusion of the Scottish element in the Pitchford inquiry.
If the minister is asking other parties to do something, will she give a guarantee that, if the efforts that she mentioned are unsuccessful, the Scottish Government will set up a separate inquiry in Scotland? That is the guarantee that we need from the Scottish Government—if all other efforts fail, although those efforts are on-going.
The Scottish Government is absolutely focused on having the inquiry extended to Scotland, because that is the approach that best serves the public interest and the interests of those who may have been affected in Scotland. That is what we will continue to do.
Claire Baker rose—
Patrick Harvie rose—
Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab) rose—
I need to make a bit of progress. I am now in my last minute and have been generous with the interventions that I have taken.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. This was a very undersubscribed debate. You said at the beginning that there was plenty of time for the debate, so I am sure that you would be very generous to the minister if she wanted to take further interventions.
That is not a point of order, Mr Findlay, as you well know. As you also know, it is up to speakers to decide whether they are willing to take interventions.
Will the minister take an intervention?
I am trying to get through quite a few important points that were raised and alluded to in the debate. I have been asked to respond to the debate as a whole and I am trying to make some progress in that regard.
Mention was made of the issue of undercover policing in general. It is important that I, as the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, stress that undercover policing is a legitimate policing tactic. Deployment of undercover officers is an operational decision for the chief constable, whose operational independence in relation to investigations and police tactics must be protected.
At the same time, the Government recognises that undercover policing can intrude on privacy and must always be subject to the most robust procedures and rigorous oversight. Significant measures have therefore been put in place to strengthen the control of undercover officer deployment by Police Scotland.
Will the minister take an intervention?
I would like to continue with this point, because it is important that we put on record what actions we have taken in this regard.
The Scottish Government has introduced legislation that raised the rank at which authorisation may be made, such that all authorisations are to be notified to the Office of Surveillance Commissioners. The Scottish Government requires all deployments, once they reach the 12-month stage, to be approved by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners. Those are important safeguards, and it is important, in the context of points that have been made in the debate, to mention the safeguards that we have introduced.
Will the minister give way?
Certainly. I will take one last intervention.
Does the minister recognise that, while the Scottish Government has made efforts to improve undercover policing and build public confidence in it, unless we get an inquiry in Scotland those efforts will be undermined? I repeat that, while I agree that a single inquiry is the best way forward, if that is not achieved and the Home Secretary denies Scotland involvement in the inquiry, will the Scottish Government commit to holding an inquiry in Scotland?
As I have said, we are focused at this point on having the inquiry extended to activities of the Met in Scotland, if that is where the evidence leads. We believe—this has been mentioned in the debate—that that is the way that we best serve the public interest in terms of those who may have been affected in Scotland. That is what we are absolutely focused on securing and achieving in our discussions with the UK Home Secretary at this time.
I wish to make a point about Police Scotland’s code of ethics and the fact that every constable now makes a solemn declaration, when appointed, that they will uphold fundamental human rights. Undercover officers are required to comply with and uphold the principles and standards of professional behaviour that are set out in Police Scotland’s code of ethics. That is another extremely important point to note in respect of the duties and responsibilities of our police force in Scotland, which does such a great job in protecting us, day in, day out.
As I have said, the Scottish Government is leading and supporting moves to allow the Pitchford inquiry to consider actions of relevant police units in Scotland. We will continue to pursue the matter in a determined manner with the UK Home Office. I would encourage other members to use their good offices, in whatever route that may take them, to seek that result—
Neil Findlay rose—
I am just concluding.
It is the result that would best serve the public interest in terms of those who may have been affected by those actions in Scotland.11:20 Meeting suspended.
11:40 On resuming—