The revelations about the Metropolitan Police’s efforts to discredit the family of Steven Lawrence have rightly brought cross-party condemnation. Taken alongside disclosures from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the wider questions about the oversight of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are too important to ignore.
As David Davis MP wrote in the Guardian:
“Sadly this is not an isolated example. Back in 2002 the Labour government set out to smear members of the Paddington Survivors Group, an organisation made up of those injured in the rail crash that killed 31 people. When the group’s leader, Pam Warren, dared to criticise Stephen Byers, then transport secretary, muckraking spin doctors quickly went digging for dirt on her political affiliations and even her sexual history.
Government officials have been on the receiving end of these tactics too. Soon after the communications adviser Martin Sixsmith left the Department for Transport over the “good day to bury bad news” scandal, critical stories appeared in the press. Spin doctors even asked journalists to try and extract embarrassing information from Sixsmith’s friends and colleagues.”
This is before you consider that we still have nowhere near got to the bottom of Britain’s involvement in extraordinary rendition, there has yet to be an inquest into the death of Mark Duggan and the revelations about the Serious and Organised Crime Agency failed to act for six years on evidence of large scale hacking of communications by private investigators and legal firms, among others. This follows the scandal of the Hillsborough inquiry and the atrocious behaviour of some officers.
With regard to undercover policing, there are currently four investigations already running under the banner of Operation Herne that are being supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the activities of undercover officers, and we expect further investigations will be launched as more details emerge.
Equally, with regard to the activities of GCHQ, we have previously highlighted how a questionably broad interpretation of legislation is allowing GCHQ to store the content of vast numbers of messages. The Regulation of Investigatory Purposes Act 2000 is unfit for the modern age.
The questions must go beyond the individual cases and look at the broader issues of oversight. The Interception of Communications Commissioner , the Information Commissioner, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal have all failed on occasion to properly investigate and hold accountable those they are supposed to oversee.
In a modern democracy, for political figures to be responsible for authorising activities of the police without any judicial oversight is an antiquated and indefensible model. Liberty’s proposal for a High Court warrant for covert operations is a start but the debate needs to be much broader. We need regulators with the resources and skills to do their job. We need external, independent authorisation and judicial processes. We need transparency about how often powers are being used and redress that is not hidden from view.
This only the start of the debate and whether GCHQ or the Metropolitan Police, it is essential that the public can have confidence that oversight is a real, meaningful check and balance and not a weak system that continues to be found wanting.