A civil liberties group has just won an important victory over the Information Commissioner, the Home Office, and five police forces.
The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) took the case to challenge a freedom of information request refusal. Netpol wanted to know how many anti-fracking protesters had been referred to the Channel programme. (Channel is part of the government’s controversial Prevent counter-terrorism strategy [pdf] to stop extremism. The strategy was described in a 2017 UN Human Rights Council report as “inherently flawed”.)
But the police refused to either confirm or deny whether they had made any referrals based on involvement in anti-fracking protests.
In court, the Home Office, Manchester Police, and the Information Commissioner argued that Netpol shouldn’t be allowed the data. But the tribunal found in the group’s favour, ruling that [pdf, p10]:
the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notices were not in accordance with the law.
As Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe previously explained to The Canary, the appeal was:
the latest stage in a legal battle that began with freedom of information requests in October 2015 to five north-west police forces, asking for statistics on referrals of anti-fracking campaigners to the government’s Channel “deradicalisation” programme.
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Despite widespread evidence to the contrary, including a Prevent training presentation from the police describing anti-fracking protesters as extremists, the police argued in court that anti-fracking protesters were not viewed in this way. Blowe stated:
To this day, the police, the Home Office and the Information Commissioner continue to argue there is no proof that the anti-fracking movement has ever been targeted for surveillance by Prevent counter-terrorism officers, despite growing evidence showing this is exactly what has happened.
The police, the Home Office, and the Information Commissioner claimed that the information could not be disclosed due to “safeguarding national security”. But the court disagreed. And the police forces now have to answer the requests. The judgment [pdf, p10] also stated that transparency is needed on the Prevent programme and that:
we judge that answers concerning whether the requested numbers are held would make a small but worthwhile contribution to public understanding, and hence towards the effectiveness of the programme.
The tribunal further found [pdf, p8] that it was “stretching credulity to contend that such confirmation would be of material assistance to terrorists or potential terrorists”.
‘An important victory’
Netpol believes the victory is significant:
Netpol’s victory is important because the police and the Home Office have both repeatedly insisted, despite growing evidence, that there is no proof the anti-fracking movement has ever been targeted for surveillance by Prevent counter-terrorism officers.
It also viewed the victory in a wider context:
This over-reliance by the police on ‘national security’ to block greater transparency is a long-standing concern for many campaigners alarmed about the scale of intrusive surveillance on political dissent. It has been an excuse used again and again by the police during the ongoing public inquiry into undercover policing, even when the names of disgraced former officers have been widely reported.
It has taken two years for Netpol to get this judgment. It’s a disgrace that the police spent so much time and public money attempting to block this case.
It’s time for the police to be transparent in how they treat and view political activists. And it’s down to all of us to decide whether we’re willing to tolerate the suppression of dissent that exists in this country.
– Support Netpol.
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