UK: Special Branch Guidelines 1995

New Guidelines for the Special Branch were jointly issued by the Home Office and the Scottish Office in July 1995. The Guidelines were first issued in 1971 but never published. The revised Guidelines in 1984 were published. Under the 1984 Guidelines the Special Branch "assisted" MI5 in its work on espionage, sabotage and subversion but it gave intelligence on suspected IRA members and their activities to the Metropolitan Police Special Branch. The lead role for combatting the IRA was transferred to MI5 in 1992. The new Guidelines however show that in major areas of their work the Special Branch now serves MI5, the Security Service. The other major shift is the increased emphasis given to public order, with `animal rights extremists' singled out for special attention.

The Special Branch is part of the police force, each of the 52 forces in the UK have a Special Branch. Its officers are recruited from the uniformed branch of the police and have the same powers of arrest. The size of the Special Branch rose in the 1980s. The present figures, excluding civilian staff, are around (1978 figures in brackets): Metropolitan Police Special Branch: 520 (409); England and Wales outside London: 1,400 (850);
Scotland: 100+ ; Northern Ireland: 280+ . Below is a summary of the main points in the Guidelines.


Special Branches exist primarily to acquire intelligence, to assess its potential operational value, and to contribute more generally to its interpretation. They do so both to meet local policing needs and also to assist the Security Service in carrying out its statutory duty under the Security Service Act
1989 - namely the protection of national security and, in particular, protection against threats from espionage, terrorism, and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means. The Security Service provides advice to Chief Officers [of police] about its requirements for assistance in their force area. (para.3)


...countering the threat from terrorism, originating within and outside the United Kingdom, is the most important single function of the Special Branch. In partnership with the Security Service, Special Branches acquire intelligence on those who may be responsible for acts and threats of terrorism, their sponsors and supporters. When necessary, they take action to prevent or disrupt any developing terrorist activity (para.4).

Information about terrorism obtained by Special Branches is provided to the Security Service, which is the lead agency for the acquisition, assessment, dissemination and exploitation of intelligence on terrorism in Great Britain [a term which excludes Northern Ireland]. In the case of Irish republican terrorism in Great Britain, such information is copied to the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (para.5).

The Special Branch provides `armed personal protection for people 'judged to be at risk' visiting their police area. A large number of Special Branch officers are assigned to work at ports and airports as part of their counter-terrorist duties, `Their task is to seek and gather information, [and] identify persons of interest...' (paras.7 & 8). `The other areas in which Special Branches may be asked to assist the Security Service... are':


Special Branches will continue to be involved in gathering and exploiting intelligence relating to covert or illegal attempts to gather information and material of assistance to another State (para.11).


Special Branches will investigate proliferation activities which are assessed to be a threat to national security (para.11).


Special Branches will continue to investigate subversive activity though, as with counter-espionage, at a level commensurate with the current, much-reduced threat (para.11).

Public order

One of the continuing and `key' role of the Special Branch is `maintaining the Queen's Peace' for which it needs:

accurate assessments of the public order implications of events such as marches and demonstrations. They need such an assessment in order to ensure: the physical safety of participants and the wider public; that the rights of the participants to participate and of members of the wider public to go about their lawful occasions are upheld; and that proportionate and cost-effective policing arrangements are made to deal with any likely disorder or violence (para 13).

Chief Constables:

`routinely look to other parts of their organisations to provide information on public order events where the possibility of politically motivated violence or subversive influence does not arise' (para.14).

Singled out for special attention under their public order role is `animal rights extremist activity' by `seeking to prevent attacks on persons and property targeted by such extremists'. The Special Branch acts as the channel for intelligence gathered by the uniformed and CID branches within in each force to the Animal Rights National Index (para 12). This Index is located at New Scotland Yard and its database is available to all local police
forces (para.18).

Immigration and naturalisation

`In many forces, the Special Branch acts as the focal point for immigration and nationality work which complements its counter-terrorist and public order roles'. It monitors foreign nationals required to register with the police; conducts immigration inquiries for the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office (that is, provides intelligence for `immigration raids'); and interviews certain applicants for naturalisation (that is those engaged in political activity in the UK or their country of origin).


One change in the organisation of the Special Branch since the 1984 Guidelines is the creation of the Regional Special Branch Conference chaired by a Chief Constable (using the mutual aid provisions under the Police Act 1964 and the Police (Scotland) Act 1967) (para.17). This appears to be a liaison mechanism with the regional MI5 offices.

The National Joint Unit at New Scotland Yard is staffed by officers from the Metropolitan Police Special Branch and other Special Branches. It `coordinates enquiries and applications from police forces in Great Britain concerning people held under the prevention of terrorism legislation...[it] processes applications for extension of detention and exclusion orders...and coordinates the preparation of up-to-date assessments in connection with the review of exclusion cases' (para.18).

The `initial and continuing training of Special Branch officers is provided jointly by the Metropolitan Police Special Branch and the Security Service' (para.18).

Guidelines on Special Branch work in Great Britain, Home Office & Scottish Office, July 1994

Statewatch, Vol 4 no 6, November-December 1994

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