JUSTICE welcomes inspector’s call for reform of undercover policing

JUSTICE welcomes the recommendation of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Sir Denis O’Connor, that the use of undercover surveillance must be subject to prior oversight.

In our November 2011 report, Freedom from Suspicion: Surveillance Reform for a Digital Age, we called for the use of covert human intelligence sources to be subject to judicial control to better protect our right to privacy and the right to a fair trial for those subject to surveillance. JUSTICE called for our legal framework for surveillance – in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) – to be reformed wholesale; to introduce greater clarity; and to ensure more effective independent oversight.   

Surveillance is often vital and can save lives, but secret intrusion into our private lives needs proper oversight in order to ensure that it is proportionate, necessary and accompanied by appropriate safeguards. The Mark Kennedy case shows that RIPA is not up to the job.

Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy said:

“We repeat our call for a judge to control the work of undercover agents.  Sir Denis today adds his voice to the call from senior police officers for better regulation.  It’s time for the Government to listen.

From phone hacking to undercover agents out of control; it is clear we need a new legal framework to govern surveillance in the UK.”

For further comment, please contact Angela Patrick, JUSTICE’s human rights policy director, on 020 7762 6415 (direct line) or apatrick@justice.org.uk.

Notes for editors

  1. JUSTICE published Freedom from suspicion: surveillance reform for a digital age on 4 November 2012. In that report, we called for judicial authorisation of covert human surveillance of complex police operations either by a Surveillance Commissioner or a Circuit Court judge. We called on all uses of human surveillance by non-law enforcement bodies to be subject to prior judicial authorisation. You can read the report here.
  2. Since being passed, RIPA has featured heavily in a number of controversies, including the failure of the Metropolitan Police to investigate phone hacking (contrary to section 1 of RIPA), the use of directed surveillance by Poole Borough Council against a family suspected of sending their children to school out-of-zone (which had been originally authorised under RIPA), and continuing revelations about police use of undercover officers to infiltrate protest groups (Part 2 of RIPA governs the use of so-called ‘covert human intelligence sources’). In early 2011, it emerged that an undercover officer, called Mark Kennedy had infiltrated a group of climate change activists, something not disclosed to lawyers representing 20 members of he group at trial for aggravated trespass. Their convictions were subsequently quashed.  This case is estimated to have cost the taxpayer more than £2.25 million.  See Freedom from suspicion, paragraph 301.
  3. The Government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill proposes new limited oversight for local authority surveillance, but nothing in the Bill would address the wider use of these intrusive powers by other public bodies, including the police. JUSTICE proposed amendments to the Bill at Committee Stage, calling on the Government to commit to a review of RIPA. You can read our briefing here
  4. On Monday 6 February 2012, JUSTICE will hold a parliamentary discussion on the reform of RIPA, including the need for better oversight of undercover agents.