UK: Files on politicians, journalists and peace protestors held by police in "domestic extremist" database

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At least two elected Green Party politicians, a well-known comedian and journalist, and an 87 year-old peace protestor have been the subject of ongoing police surveillance, with officers monitoring and logging in the National Domestic Extremism Database their presence at demonstrations, public meetings, conferences, and on television. The police reportedly hold nearly 9,000 files on "domestic extremists".

It's not easy being Green

In late October Ian Driver, a Green Party councillor in Thanet, Kent, submitted to the Metropolitan Police a subject access request, which allows individuals to request details of the information held on them by public and private organisations. He received details of 22 separate entries held on the Metropolitan Police's computer systems, which noted his attendance at public meetings and peaceful demonstrations against live animal exports. [1]

His role as chair of a "public meeting in support of equal marriage" is noted in one entry. Driver pointed out that "Equal Marriage is now the law of the land. It was supported by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition so why did the police waste time and money recording the fact that I organised this meeting in their extremism database?" [2]

Similar questions were raised by Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, after she received a copy of her file following a subject access request to the Met. They had logged details of her attendance at a number of events going back to 2003: amongst other things a conference against public spending cuts, a march against police violence, a meeting opposing the bi-annual DSEi arms fair, and the monthly Critical Mass cycle ride. [3]

Jones referred to the file as "pathetic", saying that "my concern is that this is incredibly intrusive in people's lives on a level that is not of any value". Keith Taylor, a Green Party MEP for the UK's South East Region, has written to the Metropolitan Police demanding that they delete the records on Ian Driver. [4]

"Ealing comedy meets the Stasi"

On Wednesday the comedian and journalist Mark Thomas revealed that his own file, which he also obtained through a subject access request, contains "63 individual entries spanning 7 pages", making up "a bizarre list of events monitored by the police, lectures given, panels attended, even petitions I have supported". [5]

On one occasion police at an anti-war protest noted that "he said hello to us as he passed and seemed very happy", which Thomas has remarked is "wonderfully odd in an Ealing comedy meets the Stasi sort of way and has all the reassurance of a stalkers' smile".

Thomas' file takes what he calls a "sinister turn" when it turns to details of his journalistic work, listing television programmes he made for Channel 4, articles written for the New Statesman and a programme produced for BBC Radio 4.

An email sent by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to its members on Wednesday said that:

"As well as Mark, we are aware of some other journalists who are on the domestic extremism database… Given that the police have admitted monitoring nearly 9,000 individuals it is likely other NUJ members will be on the list.

"The NUJ is supporting Mark in a legal challenge to challenge this police policy and to demand the deletion of files held on journalists, and want as many other members as possible to find out what information the Met is holding."

The union is encouraging its members to make subject access requests and has produced a template letter [6] that people can send to the police in order to request information held on them.

Blacklisting connection

The NUJ called on its members to find out whether they were listed on the police's "domestic extremism" database as part of the Trades Union Congress' national day of action on blacklisting, which saw protests across the country [7] and the launch of a legal challenge by building workers' union UCATT against a number of construction companies including McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Laing O'Rourke and Skanska. [8]

Mark Thomas' name was also on the blacklist maintained by major companies in the construction industry, "as a result of his campaigning work", according to the NUJ's Wednesday email.

Major firms in the construction industry have for decades maintained a list of workers deemed "unsuitable" due to their involvement in trade unionism or simply for seeking better health and safety policies on building sites. Unions and politicians investigating the scandal have argued that blacklisting almost certainly continues today. [9]

Peace protestor as "domestic extremist"

In a high profile case in March this year, peace campaigner John Catt went to Court of Appeal to argue that his details should be removed from the National Domestic Extremism Database. Judges ordered that his details be deleted, saying that police had failed to show "that the value of the information is sufficient to justify its continued retention". [10]

Details, including those of Catt's car's numberplate, photographs of him on various demonstrations, and notes regarding his appearance, behaviour and movements - were stored on the National Domestic Extremism Database.

Information on Catt was obtained over a number of years, with the first entry into the database made on 21 March 2005, and at the time of the court case the last known entry was made in July 2011. It was largely gathered during his attendance at trade union, anti-militarist, and peace protests. It is currently unknown whether the police have complied with the order to delete the information from their systems.

National database

The information gathered on these four and thousands of others is stored in the National Domestic Extremism Database. This contains information gathered by police forces across the UK, but the Met is the "lead force" and has responsibility for the central system after it was transferred from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in 2011. The Guardian reported in June this year that almost 9,000 people have files on the database. [11]

A statement made by Stephen Greenhalgh at his appearance before the London Assembly's Police and Crime Committee made clear the wide scope available to the police for including individuals on the database. According to him, it is used to hold "intelligence about people who may operate outside the democratic process [emphasis added]… That's the whole idea of domestic extremism, it's people who operate outside the normal democratic process".

Greenhalgh's comments are indicative of the ongoing confusion over the term "domestic extremism", which is defined in different ways by different agencies. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary "has the potential to incorporate a very wide range of protest activity" that could "lead to protestors and protest groups with no criminal intent being considered domestic extremists by the police". [12]

Training materials for Police Liaison Officers (who are deployed at protests in order to mingle with the crowd and gather intelligence) describe "extremists" as "people with extreme opinions - (one who favours or uses extreme or violent methods, esp. to bring about political change)". [13]

Given the inclusion in the National Domestic Extremism Database of entirely peaceful protesters, journalists and elected politicians, it would appear that the police maintain a wide-ranging definition of "extreme".

Failure to make changes

A review of undercover policing undertaken by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in February 2012, in the wake of the scandal surrounding Mark Kennedy and other undercover police officers, recommended that ACPO and the Home Office "should agree a definition of domestic extremism that reflects the severity of crimes that might warrant this title".

In June this year a review of the implementation of HMIC's recommendations found that:

"There has been no agreement between ACPO and the Home Office on a definition of domestic extremism that reflects the severity of crimes that might warrant this title. This recommendation has therefore not been implemented."

HMIC could not see "any justification for the failure to agree a suitable definition, and would urge a renewed effort to achieve this"
. [14]

Jenny Jones argues that the holding of files on people who have committed no crimes "is incredibly intrusive in people's lives on a level that is not of any value". Other "domestic extremists" have been targeted with even more intrusive measures, such as long-term infiltration by undercover officers with whom they have had intimate personal relationships.

The surveillance by the state of political activists and politicians in the UK is of course nothing new. Officers attached to police Special Branch departments, along with the internal security agency MI5 have for decades kept tabs on suspected "subversives". In a 1977 book by Tony Bunyan, now Statewatch Director, wrote that:

"The state's characterisation of a wide range of political activities as either 'Communist' or 'subversive' represents a handy means of portraying alien or violent interests at work… The liberal and the socialist (of the Labour Party variety) have been as of great an interest as the avowedly revolutionary." [15]

[1] Metropolitan Police response to Ian Driver's subject access request, 23 October 2013
[2] Ian Driver, 'Spied on for Opposing Live Animal Exports', Ian Driver Thanet's Green Councillor, 9 November 2013,
[3] Martin Hoscik, 'Is the Met guilty of an indiscriminate approach to gathering intelligence?', MayorWatch, 11 November 2013
[4] Keith Taylor MEP, 'Metropolitan Police accused of 'spying' on Green Party Councillor', 28 October 2013
[5] Mark Thomas, 'Help the NUJ expose the monitoring of journalists', National Union of Jouranlists, 20 November 2013
[6] NUJ, 'Template letter for blacklisting and surveillance campaign', 20 November 2013
[7] Rory, 'ACTION UPDATE.... TUC Day of Action on Blacklisting, 20 November', Blacklist blog, 14 November 2013
[8] Mark Ellis, 'Blacklisting victims seek justice as legal action launched on TUC's 'day of action'', Daily Mirror, 20 November 2013
[9] Trevor Hemmings, "Every Man a Capitalist": The long history of monitoring 'unsuitable' workers in the UK', Statewatch Journal, August 2013
[10] 'Campaigner John Catt wins appeal over extremism database', BBC News, 14 March 2013
[11] Paul Lewis, Rob Evans and Vikram Dodd, 'National police unit monitors 9,000 'domestic extremists'', The Guardian, 26 June 2013
[12] Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, 'A review of progress made against the recommendations in HMIC's 2012 report on the national police units which provide intelligence on criminality associated with protest', June 2013
[13] 'Spies in Blue Bibs', Netpol, 21 October 2013
[14] Ibid. at [12]
[15] Tony Bunyan, 'The Political Police in Britain', Quartet Books, 1977, p.134

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