Tuesday 31 December 2013

A Year in Film 2013

The close of 2013 approaches and, in keeping with previous years, it is time to review the films I've seen over the last twelve months.

As you can see, I let things get a little out of hand... I blame the unexpected free time provided by redundancy and part-time work, along with the gift by former colleagues of BFI membership that meant access to the London Film Festival.

This is an anniversary – the tenth year I've been posting an annual list after successfully completing the challenge to watch and review one film a week back in 2003 (see onefilmaweek.blogspot.com). Last year's total of 74 films, up from 47 in 2011, looked like a tough target to beat – but this year I went to the cinema a staggering 98 times.

Incidentally, over the last decade I've paid to see 473 films. Blimey.

According to the wonderful Letterboxd, this year's film-going represents 182.6 hours of screen time, an average of 1.9 films a week (and believe me, around 14 this year were rather less than the full integer). This doesn't include the adverts and, for the record, if I never have to see that teeth-gratingly awful Volkswagon 'Silence of the Lambs' ad ever again, it will still be soon. Seventy four of the films I saw were at my local Stratford Picturehouse, which does insist on showing this ad all the time – please, you guys are brilliant, but just stop now.

In keeping with previous years, I only count actual trips to a cinema - not films on DVD or BluRay - and as usual I've arbitrarily rated the films I've seen. You can find ratings for the last decade here. Here's the 2013 list:

5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

The Impossible (***)
Gangster Squad (**)
Django Unchained (****)
False Trail (***)
Lincoln (*****)
Zero Dark Thirty (****)
Beautiful Creatures (**)
Warm Bodies (****)
No (***)
Fire In The Blood (***)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D (*)
Stoker (****)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House or God (****)
Under the Cranes (**)
Robot & Frank (***)
Welcome to the Punch (***)
Trance (***)
Good Vibrations (*****)
Cloud Atlas (****)
Oblivion (***)
The Place Beyond The Pines (***)
Promised Land (***)
Olympus Has Fallen (**)
Iron Man 3 (****)
Byzantium (****)
Best Friends Forever (**)
Star Trek Into Darkness (****)
The Great Gatsby 3D (***)
Mud (****)
The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (****)
The Purge (***)
Village at the End of the World (****)
Behind the Candelabra (****)
The Iceman (***)
Man of Steel (*)
World War Z (***)
Much Ado About Nothing (***)
Now You See Me (***)
The Act of Killing (****)
In The Fog (***)
The Bling Ring (***)
Pacific Rim (***)
The World's End (***)
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (***)
Leave to Remain (***)
Wadjda (****)
The Wolverine (***)
Stories We Tell (*****)
Only God Forgives (**)
Frances Ha (****)
Before Midnight (***)
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa ((****)
The Night of the Hunter [1955] (*****)
Elysium (***)
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (**)
Lovelace (***)
The Kings of Summer (*****)
The Way Way Back (*****)
Riddick (**)
About Time (**)
Rush (****)
Hawking (****)
InRealLife (***)
What Maisie Knew (*****)
Prisoners (****)
Nothing But a Man [1964] (****)
In a World... (****)
Blue Jasmine (***)
How I Live Now (***)
Philomena (****)
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
[part of the London Film Festival] (**)
The Fifth Estate (***)
Kon-Tiki [part of the London Film Festival] (****)
Let The Fire Burn [part of the London Film Festival] (****)
11.6 [part of the London Film Festival] (***)
Trap Street [part of the London Film Festival] (****)
Drones [part of the London Film Festival] (***)
Drinking Buddies [part of the London Film Festival] (**)
Captain Philips (****)
Enders Game (***)
Nosferatu {1922] (***)
Thor: The Dark World (***)
Short Term 12 (*****)
Gravity (****)
Filth (***)
The Counsellor (**)
The Butler (**)
Utopia (***)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (****)
Parkland (***)
Computer Chess (*)
Nebraska (****)
Saving Mr Banks (****)
Inside Llewyn Davis (****)
Kill Your Darlings (***)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (***)
Blue is the Warmest Colour (***)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (***)

Wednesday 18 December 2013

NMP Olympics Policing Report Highlights Reality of Stop & Search

This morning, Newham Monitoring Project published a report setting out  how it deployed close to a hundred 'community legal observers' (CLOs) during last summer's Olympics and how the experiences of these volunteers can help other organisations, both in the UK and abroad, to consider using a similar community legal observation model in the future. You can download a copy here.

I contributed to writing the report and recommend reading the daily 'timeline' appendix summarising some of the feedback from CLOs who were out on the streets. Amongst the stories is one incident, similar to so many others we heard repeatedly during the Olympics, that involved a young Asian man who chose to assert his rights when he was stopped and searched in Stratford. It illustrates how, even when someone is confident and knowledgeable about their rights, this is not enough to prevent a frustrating and intimidating encounter with the police:
While waiting for my partner at Stratford station, I was approached by three officers yelling 'take your hands out of your pockets'. As they gathered around me, I asked what they wanted and was told they had planned to just ask me some questions but because I was being ‘aggressive’ and ‘anti-police’ they were now going to carry out a stop and search.

One officer began the search without any explanation, so I asked why they were failing to follow ‘GOWISELY’ (an acronym used in police training as a reminder of information officers must provide when they perform a stop and search1). The officer was very unhappy I asked this and after consulting his colleagues, he said I was suspected of placing drugs in my socks. Officers were very rude as they then began the search and asked many questions, which I chose not to answer. They also threatened me with arrest when I refused to provide my name and address.

My partner arrived as the search was almost completed. As I explained what had happened, one of the officers called out to her: 'does he lie like this to you all the time?' They then said I was free to leave but I reminded them that they had forgotten to offer me a record of the search and I wanted one. The officers kept insisting to my partner 'he is free to go, he is a free man' but she politely said, 'I think he wants his receipt, even if we’re late'. One of the officers then filled in a search record and handed it to me, which said I had been seen pulling up my socks and had appeared agitated around a sniffer dog – which hadn't even arrived until after the search had begun. I immediately challenged the search record and said it was false. One officer again told my partner that I was a liar and walked away to write up his notes. Luckily I had paper and a pen with me and was able to note the officers' badge numbers. I am now pursuing a formal complaint.
What makes this young man different from many of his peers is that he happens to be a caseworker for Newham Monitoring Project and somebody who provides advice and training on police stop and search powers. He also has a law degree, but all the officers saw was a someone young and black, which was enough to make him a suspect.

As NMP's report notes, "It is hardly surprising that, in similar circumstances, someone who is far less confident about their rights would find those rights are ignored". And in this is the basis for everything we have argued about why the police are still not trusted by young people.

Friday 13 December 2013

Students Respond To Police Violence With Call For #CopsOffCampus

These videos provide a good summary of Wednesday's student 'Cops Off Campus' protest in London against police violence, organised largely through social media.

Not everyone was convinced it was quite the 'victory for the student movement' that some have claimed

'The curiously all too quick 'victory' of #copsoffcampus' at The Multicultural Politic
'Student Demo a victory? Don’t make me laugh' at The Accidental Anarchist

See also:

Vice - London students reclaimed their campus yesterday
Channel 4 News - No arrests at #CopsOffCampus student protest
indyrikki - For once, a huge police mobilisation didn’t beat students up!
Manchester Evening News - Students occupy Manchester University office in policing protest

Monday 9 December 2013

Metropolitan Police Fails to Respond to Seventy Percent of Personal Data Requests

More on the magical mystery tour I've embarked upon to prise personal information from the hands of the Metropolitan Police.

 Back in June, I wrote a piece explaining how campaigners, if they believed they may have been targeted for undercover surveillance, could submit a Subject Access Request under data protection legislation to find out what personal details are held about them by the police. My own initial submission to the Metropolitan Police, whose Special Demonstration Squad targeted the Lawrence family, their supporters and police custody death campaigners during the 1990s and who are now responsible for the National Domestic Extremism Unit, apparently went missing but a second request was formally acknowledged on 25 July.

Five months ago, when I said that despite an entitlement under the Data Protection Act to receive an answer within 40 days, no-one ever receives a response in that time, I had little idea just how prophetic that would prove to be. After chasing the Met's Public Access Office, I finally received a letter from them three months later, on 25 October, which apologised for the delay in responding but gave absolutely no indication when, if ever, it planned to respond to my request. I therefore complained to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), who told me in early November that they had written to the Met asking them to provide me with a full response by 9 December.

The ICO's deadline is today. It has been 138 days since the Metropolitan Police received my request for personal data, it has still failed to respond despite repeated prompting and now it has ignored the independent regulator set up to promote openness by public bodies.

Curious to discover whether police resistance to providing the data it holds about me is less wilful non-compliance and more staggering incompetence, I also submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for the number of Subject Access Requests received by the Metropolitan Police during the six months from 1 April 2013 to 30 September 2013 and how many were completed within the 40 calendar day limit. Remarkably, the Met replied last week refusing, initially, to answer these simple questions on the grounds of cost, because I had asked for the number of successfully completed requests. It claims it has no internal systems in place to monitor this and insisted it would need to check each of the 480 submitted in the six month time period that were simply completed. Eventually, however, the Met did manage to admit that it received 1600 requests between April and September this year.

So now I know my request is one of the staggering 70% (1120 out of 1600¹) that the Metropolitan Police has failed to respond to within the required 40 days during the six months from April.

This degree of repeated failure to provide adequate public transparency by any public body is shocking but to put it into some context, it's worth remembering that  for the first three months of the period from April, the ICO said it was monitoring the Met over concerns about its timeliness.

I have now asked the ICO to again intervene on my behalf but, when it is evident that the Metropolitan Police is neither transparent or accountable on the personal data it holds, the time has surely come for the Information Commissioner to begin regulatory enforcement action.

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) has produced a detailed guide to writing and submitting Subject Access Requests to check what information is held by the National Domestic Extremism Unit. It is available to download or online here.

¹ This includes any Subject Access requests received by the Met right up to 30 September: my FoI request was made exactly 40 days after that date.

Sunday 24 November 2013

The Problem is Civil Obedience

This is terrific - Matt Damon, a lifelong friend of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in January 2010, reads excerpts from a speech Zinn gave in 1970 as part of a debate on civil disobedience.
And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem.... Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience.

Monday 21 October 2013

Spies in Blue Bibs

This is a comment piece I wrote for the Network for Police Monitoring

Are Police Liaison Officers – suspiciously friendly in their pale blue bibs and now commonplace at marches and demonstrations – really deployed simply to ‘facilitate protest’ and ‘ensure there are no surprises’, or is their role rather more duplicitous? For some time, campaigners from groups involved in the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) have suspected there is more to these officers, created in response to severe criticism by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s ‘Adapting to Protest’ report of intelligence gathering at the 2009 G20 protests, than their public image suggests.

In March this year, NetPol highlighted how Chief Inspector Sonia Davis, head of the Police Liaison Teams (PLT) unit in the Metropolitan Police, gave evidence as a prosecution witness in the trial of Critical Mass cyclists arrested on the evening of the Olympics opening ceremony. Under cross examination, Davis admitted that PLTs gather information on protesters and had even been covertly deployed at previous Critical Mass rides to try to identify ‘leaders’. This might sound a lot like intelligence gathering to most people, although Davis and other senior officers deny this. However, the standard operating procedures for the deployment of Police Liaison Officers had never been made available. Without greater transparency, it was difficult to been difficult to see whether the Met’s claims were truthful.

In early July, NetPol was approached by a constable from the Met’s Gateway Team, who coordinate and train Police Liaison Officers. He had read NetPol’s concerns about the Critical Mass court case on our website and, in the suspiciously friendly way we have come to expect, invited NetPol to participate in forthcoming PLT training, saying this would “offer a real insight into how we deploy Police Liaison Teams and may go some way to alleviating your concerns”. Collectively, NetPol members decided to politely decline, but asked for copies of the training materials and other policies and procedures that might provide some genuine insight without participating in what felt like a public relations exercise.

Incredibly, the officer told us the only way we could access information inevitably available at training sessions we had been invited to attend was through a Freedom of Information Act request. So in late July, we submitted one.

In August, the Met provided a surprisingly detailed response (summarised here by Statewatch). Amongst the training materials released was a presentation on Protester Tactics that contains a hugely disingenuous definition of people involved in protest: we know that the national domestic extremism database contains information on a far wider range of people than those described here as ‘extremists’:
Indeed, with recent demonstrations like the Tower Hamlets anti-EDL protest in September facing such intense restrictions that the Met has, for all intents and purposes, itself become an events organiser, this is probably far closer to the truth:
The document released by the Met on Crowd Psychology (PDF) is also interesting: it’s acknowledgement that crowds have “multiple and separate psychological groups” that “will not always be influenced towards violence by other groups in the crowd” is at odds with the Met’s use of mass arrests to sweep up and arrest protesters, the vast majority of whom later face no further action (as we have seen with cases from 145 arrests of UK Uncut activists at Fortnum & Mason in March 2011 to the 286 arrests of anti-fascists in Tower Hamlets in September 2013). In both cases, the claimed aim of PLTs to “differentiate between groups in the crowd, particularly when using force” seems to come a distant second to intelligence gathering. In the case of direct action at Fortnum & Mason, the then Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that “the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities”.

Most revealing are the Standard Operating Procedures (PDF), which specifically address the intelligence, acknowledging that “any suggestion that PLT’s are intended to be ‘intelligence gatherers’ is likely to undermine efforts to build trust and confidence amongst protest groups and individuals”. However, it goes on to say:
“recent experience does tell us that PLT’s do gather accurate intelligence in the normal course of their duties. This is mainly because, pre and post event they are engaging with protest groups and do elicit information in the course of these duties which could be regarded as intelligence . This could include : numbers attending, start and finish times, route, intentions of the group, others groups likely to associate themselves with the event, persons likely to attend, etc . Similarly, on the day of the event, the PLT’s are likely to be working inside or around the group in question and, as a result, are likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members [emphasis added].”

It adds that “all PLT officers must ensure all intelligence is recorded on Crimint” (a criminal intelligence database) and all intelligence obtained during an event “is passed to Bronze Intelligence for analysis and dissemination to Silver and the rest of the Command Team (in the same way as any other intelligence)”. The document goes on to describe the deployment of PLTs as a “tactical option” to deal with identified ‘threats’ to an event, an alternative to deploying Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) spotters and photographers that is the “least intrusive” option.

This confirms what we have suspected for some time: Police Liaison Officers do have an intelligence gathering role and, in certain circumstances, this may become their main role. This means that if individual protesters chat to them, details of a conversation may end up on a Metropolitan Police database.


One a final note, at least the Met provided the information we asked for. A similar request to Sussex Police was refused. Despite the extensive use of PLTs at anti-fracking demonstrations in Balcombe and anti-fascist protests in Brighton, the force claims it has no agreed, formal policies, operational documents or standard operating procedures – a claim that lacks any credibility. Even if it is using national guidance produced by the College of Policing, Sussex Police is legally obliged to release this: the Freedom of Information Act covers information held by a public authority, not just data it creates or owns. Unfortunately, a similarly opaque response has been given by Thames Valley Police. NetPol is looking at taking this further with the Information Commissioner.

Meanwhile, NetPol is currently awaiting the outcome of an FoI request to the College of Policing, which is due in early November.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Resisting Police Surveillance - An Overview

This is an unedited version of an article I wrote that appears under the title "Keeping an eye on us" in the current issue of Red Pepper magazine. It aims to give an overview of the complex issue of police surveillance and undercover spies.

Surveillance officers at Kings Cross station for UKUncut protest, April 2012 [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
The existence of a secret Special Branch unit that had infiltrated and gathered intelligence on political groups has been known for some time: the journalist Peter Taylor spoke to a number of anonymous former members of the Metropolitan Police's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) from the 1970s and 1980s for his television series 'True Spies' as far back as 2002.

However, the unmasking in October 2010 of police officer Mark Kennedy, who had worked undercover for seven years in the environmental protest movement, was unique. For the first time, a police spy had been publicly named and it led to further revelations about other undercover officers, including 'Lynn Watson' in Leeds, 'Marco / Mark Jacobs' in Cardiff and PC Andrew 'Jim' Boyling inside the roads protest group Reclaim The Streets in London. It has also triggered an internal Metropolitan police review led by the chief constable of Derbyshire, Mick Creedon, and a two year investigation by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, which has so far identified 12 police spies inside different protest movements. The publication in June this year of their book, “Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police”, with an accompanying Channel 4 Dispatches programme, has reignited public and media interest in the conduct of these officers and the lack of accountability of undercover police operations.

Unravelling the secret identities of men like Mark Kennedy has revealed genuine individual suffering that has resulted from their lies and deception, including the cynical sexual abuse of women activists, who have begun legal action against five officers, and the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry based on information passed to private companies by the police. However, much of the headline-catching and often shocking information from former Special Demonstration Squad officer Peter Francis, the Guardian's whistleblower who is central to Lewis and Evans' book, focuses on the period from the late 1980s to 2000 when Francis was working undercover. His exposures include the key role of one former SDS officer Bob Lambert, now an academic at the University of St Andrews, in co-authoring the London Greenpeace leaflet that led to the infamous McLibel defamations trial in 1994. Francis has also revealed the targeting of the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence and of anti-racist and black justice campaigns throughout the 1990s, including one, the Newham Monitoring Project in east London, that I was active in at the time.

However, keeping the spotlight on activities involving the now-disbanded SDS during the 1990s has, to some extent, allowed the Metropolitan Police to try and distance itself from what it is portraying as 'historical allegations' that are hard to investigate: in a statement, Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said, “finding out the truth about what happened 20 years ago is not a straightforward task”. Although the surveillance of the Lawrence family in particular is embarrassing for the Met, it has distracted attention away from undercover officers like Kennedy, Watson and Jacobs, who were active much later, during the last decade.

Until they were uncovered in 2010, all were part of a different and far bigger operation than the London-centred SDS, called the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which operated undercover throughout England and Wales. Until 2010, when it came under the command of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command, the unit was based within the Association of Chief Police Officers, a private company, which meant that it was largely exempt from any public scrutiny. As recently as 2009, Mark Kennedy's activities for NPOIU led to the arrest of 114 climate activists in Nottingham for conspiring to shut down a coal-fired power station and came close to creating a serious miscarriage of justice: evidence he had gathered that exonerated many of the arrested activists was not disclosed to the defence at their trial and 20 people were convicted of conspiracy. These convictions were only quashed when the case against six others collapsed after Kennedy has been exposed.

Units like NPOIU that were created in the late 1990s represented an expansion in tactics by the police. The last decade has seen a significant shift towards gathering vast quantities of intelligence data and sifting it for patterns and connections to predict how individuals and groups will act, the basis for the National Intelligence Model originally developed in 2000 for tackling serious organised crime. The same approach has been adopted wholesale by officers monitoring protest movements and the result is that, with little democratic debate or accountability, large numbers of people who have been engaged in legitimate campaigning, many with no criminal records, are now on secret police databases for opinions or activities (like non-violent civil disobedience) that were once seen as “normal” in a free society. A recent estimate suggests there could be as many as 9000.
Police Liaison Officers at the anti-EDL protest in Tower Hamlets in September [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
Whilst there are almost certainly still undercover officers at work, collecting data on an industrial scale involves more visible and far more invasive methods. Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) police photographers target 'persons of interest' at protests. Officers make widespread use of stop and search powers, as was evident at the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth in 2008, or refuse to allow demonstrations to leave a police 'kettle' until they provide their names and addresses. It can even mean mass arrests as a form of intelligence-gathering, which according to testimony given in Parliament by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, seems to have been the main reason for the detention of UKUncut activists who briefly occupied the Fortnum and Mason store in London in March 2011. A recent Freedom of Information request about Police Liaison Officers, the officers in blue bibs who have appeared at demonstrations since 2009 and whose role is supposedly facilitating protest and improving communication, has confirmed that they are "likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members" and “must ensure all intelligence is recorded on Crimint" [a Met police database]. During the trial of a number of cyclists arrested at a Critical Mass on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year, a senior officer revealed that at least six Police Liaison Officers had attended the previous Critical Mass in plain clothes and on bikes to 'identify organisers'.

Coupled with the use of technology to monitor social media by the successor to the NPOIU, the National Domestic Extremism Unit, the police are aiming to build a detailed picture of individuals that involves far more than investigating and prosecuting offences. According to Val Swain of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol), which brings together a number of groups concerned about the rising level of protest surveillance, “while ostensibly acting against criminality, intelligence-led policing of protest has the potential to disrupt and deter the act of protest itself”. Put simply, its origins in tackling organised crime mean it is almost designed to frighten people into avoiding the exercise of their right to protest and worse, says Swain, it operates “away from the scrutiny of the criminal justice system, there are no checks and balances, no public visibility, and no effective accountability”. NetPol argues that it is this lack of accountability that protected undercover officers like Mark Kennedy for so many years and ensures that almost anyone can be treated as a potential criminal if they participate in many forms of protest. It is calling for the abolition of the National Domestic Extremism Unit saying, “we do not accept that the case has been made for the necessity of continuing the activity of a unit that has been associated with unethical and possibly unlawful behaviour, nor any other that specialises in the surveillance of dissent”.

FIT photographer at Occupy's 'Meet The 1%' protest, May 2012 [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
But while the surveillance of protest continues, what can individuals do to protect themselves? There are some simple steps: avoid talking to Police Liaison Officers, for example, would seem sensible considering what we now know about their intelligence role. The campaigners from FITwatch recommend using face coverings to ensure police Forward Intelligence Team officers cannot photograph you: masks are always legal to wear, although in certain circumstances a police officer may arrest you if you refuse to remove one. It is probably a good idea too to avoid carrying a mobile phone with every personal contact you have if there is a possibility that you may be arrested. NetPol is also arguing that protesters should avoid agreeing to leave a police 'kettle' in exchange for providing personal details to officers, particularly now that the High Court has ruled that it is “not lawful for the police to maintain the containment for the purposes of obtaining identification, whether by questioning or by filming [and] not lawful to require identification to be given and submission to filming as the price for release.”

It is important to remember, more than anything, that almost every effort to gather more and more intelligence on protesters has been successfully resisted by activists and their lawyers. Meanwhile, if you want to find out what data the police already hold on you, consider making a Data Protection Act subject access request to find out if you are on the “domestic extremist” database. Guidance on how to do so is available from Guardian or here at Random Blowe.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Photos From Yesterday's Stop The War Coalition Protest

Yesterday afternoon, I ambled into central London to take some pictures of the small Stop The War Coaition (StWC) demonstration billed as a 'victory march' after Thursday's House of Commons vote blocking British involvement in military intervention in Syria.

The vote may well have been, as StWC's Andrew Murray puts it, "a vindication of the mass anti-war movement in this country over the last decade", but the march was a pale imitation of the protests from a decade ago: a couple of thousand people at most, mainly the usual subjects from the far left and from CND. Within a smaller crowd, it was considerably easier to spot the people who refuse to accept that, whilst bombing Syria will make a bad situation worse, Syria President Bashir Al-Assad is still a war criminal.

Anyway, here are a few photos: there are more on Flickr.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Welcome To Zero-Hours-Tolerant Newham

In the wake of the CIPD report this week suggesting that up to one million workers in the UK are on zero hours contracts – where an employee is expected to be on-call and is paid only for hours worked – the discovery that Newham council uses them has been highlighted on Mike Law's blog but hasn't yet made it into the Newham Recorder. The paper should probably pay more attention. This is a story that has the potential to deeply embarrass not only Newham Labour's council leadership but the national Labour Party too.

The Freedom of Information (FoI) request that reveals the number of staff on zero-hour contracts is buried deep within the FoI Disclosure logs on the council's website. So that others don't have to search for it, enquiry number 15701 on page 48 of the 228-page log for May 2013 says the following:

Subject: Zero Hour Contracts

I would like to know

(a) How many workers employed by the council are employed through zero hours contracts.

- I’d like figures in the financial year ending 2012-13 and
- for the financial year ending 2009-10

(b) For both years, I’d like a breakdown of workers employed in this way:
i – Directly through the council
ii – By private companies operating on council contracts

c) What percentage the figure is for each year of total council employees

The council's response was as follows:

1. A total of 1060 workers were employed by Newham Council through zero hour contracts during 2012/2013. This represented 7.6% of all of our employees as of the 31st March 2013. These are sessional workers, or casual staff who work on an as-and-when basis. They work largely in schools and community centres delivering advice sessions, tuition and sports coaching.

These sessional workers are not subject to a ‘mutuality of obligation’. That means they do not have to work when asked, nor are we obliged to ask them to work. All other employees are required to work to contract and we are obliged to provide them with their contracted hours.

A total of 1044 workers were employed in the same way through zero hour contracts during 2009/2010. This represented 7.6% of all employees as of 31st March 2010.

2. All of the employees holding zero hour contracts were employed directly through the Council. It is not possible for us to determine whether or not any of the private companies operating on council contracts during the periods given employed any staff on zero hours contracts.

3. As of 31st March 2013, 7.6% of all employees were on zero hour contracts.
As of 31st March 2010, 7.6% of all employees were on zero hour contracts.

Zero-hour contracts are the classic example of McJobs – it's no shock that 90% of McDonalds staff are on them. Not everyone thinks they are a bad thing – the almost comically blue-blooded Etonian Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who married an heiress, took his nanny with him when out canvassing and will never, ever experience what Jarvis Cocker called a life “with no meaning or control”, thinks zero-hour contracts are great for business. However, people I know who have been on them describe this type of contract making their lives more precarious – slashing their previously regular wages when introduced (by as much as 50%) and often leading to dismissal when their period of employment might lead to some actual rights (usually close the two-year mark). Equally, Newham council may talk about ‘mutuality of obligation’ and that workers are not forced to work when asked, but the experience of people I've spoken to (who mainly work in home care) is that refusing to accept on-call hours when asked means an employer stops ringing: you card is marked as 'unreliable'. This places enormous pressure to accept any hours, no matter how inconvenient, which makes the idea of having anything like 'quality time' equally precarious.

What makes the discovery that a significant number of Newham council staff – around one in every thirteen workers – are on zero-hour contracts so politically damaging for Labour is not just the decision of its leader Ed Miliband to highlight how “for too many people in Britain, the workplace is nasty, brutish and unfair” and to specifically condemn “the exploitation of zero hours contracts to keep people insecure” and .”using agency workers to unfairly avoid giving people the pay and conditions offered to permanent staff”. It's that this keynote 'One Nation' speech was made at Newham Dockside, the home of the zero-hours-tolerant Newham council.

It's damaging too because a statement that I wholeheartedly agree with by Dave Prentis, General Secretary of local government union UNISON, said:“the vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain”. Yet one Unison National Executive Committee member, John Gray. cannot possibly support his General Secretary without facing accusations of hypocrisy, because he is a Labour councillor in zero-hours-tolerant Newham council.

And it's damaging for precisely the reasons Mike Law has highlighted – that not one of the prospective Labour candidates standing for zero-hours-tolerant Newham council has had a single word to say on this issue.

Opposition to zero-hours contracts is apparently Labour Party policy. So will the party's 100% majority of local councillors - and the candidates who face inevitable election in 2014 - make a start on their leader's concerns about "our responsibilities to each other" by taking a stand in their own borough?

Thursday 27 June 2013

How To Find Out What Secret Police Surveillance Says About You

On the face of it, this might seem like a very niche post. I've put this together primarily for activists involved in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) and police custody deaths campaigners (including individual families and people at INQUEST) who may have been targeted for undercover surveillance revealed by the Guardian this week. It's based on my own Subject Access Request to the Metropolitan Police, submitted on Tuesday.

However, the steps below are just as applicable to anyone wanting to find out what personal details are held about them by the police, for example on the National Domestic Extremism database. There is a 2011 guide on the Guardian website - note that some details (such as who to make payment to) have since changed.

Why make a request?

The revelation that undercover surveillance by the Special Demonstration Squad during the 1990s targeted the Lawrence family, police custody death campaigners and organisations that supported them - people involved in lawful campaigning activities - is alarming but incomplete. The Guardian's report doesn't name of the SDS officer who targeted NMP and we have no idea how widespread the surveillance was or what was included in the so-called 'intelligence' reports.

The Metropolitan Police are likely to resist calls for the release of this information, but a flood of Data Protection Act Subject Access Requests will at least force the Met to examine their records and confirm or deny whether information was gathered. They could potentially help everyone to understand whether, as I suspect, the 'intelligence' was nothing more than gossip and rumour designed to smear campaigners.

As the process involves handing over a certain amount of personal information (including your address and your date and place of birth), it is only worthwhile submitting a Subject Access Request if you think there is a chance that your details are held on police records. There is no point feeding the surveillance officers with information they don't already possess.

Writing a Subject Access Request

First, download MPS Subject Access Form 3019 - there is a Microsoft Word version or a PDF on the Metropolitan Police website.

After completing the personal information sections, Section 3 asks:

Please specify exactly what information you require (e.g. Crime Report)?

I have written:
I require any information about myself gathered by the former Special Demonstration Squad and subsequently by the National Domestic Extremism Unit.
In response to the question "What happened to cause you to have contact with the police?", I have added:
Recent news coverage has indicated that undercover officers from the Special Demonstration Squad were responsible for covert surveillance on a number of groups including the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) and justice campaigns concerned with deaths in police custody. As I have been actively involved in NMP since 1990 and was the secretary from 1997 of the United Families and Friends Campaign, the umbrella group for many of these campaigns, I wish to find out whether this undercover surveillance gathered information on me.
This is obviously personal to me. If you were involved in what the Guardian refers to as "associated groups", such as a family campaign, INQUEST or another organisations, then you need to add you own concerns why the SDS may have included you in its nefarious activities.

Under "When did this happen?" I have said:
Potentially between 1990 and 2008 for the former Special Demonstration Squad and from 2008 until the present date for the National Domestic Extremism Unit
The National Domestic Extremism Unit took over the work of the Special Demonstration Squad in 2008. If, like me, you are still a campaigner, then it is worth finding out whether there is any more recent 'intelligence' about you.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe may have told the London Assembly today that "we are now in a different context... the main reassurance I can offer you is that we are aware it has been alleged in the past, I don't want it to happen in the future... and I don't believe it is happening at the moment." However, if the National Domestic Extremism Unit is prepared to gather data on an 88-year-old man sitting in a folding chair drawing sketches at demonstrations, then it is capable of anything.

In response to the question "Where did this happen and how was it reported?", I've have said:
Unknown – the alleged covert surveillance most likely took place in the London borough of Newham but potentially could have happened anywhere in London.

Again, this will need amending, depending on your individual circumstances.

Submitting your Subject Access Request

You need to send a cheque, British postal order or international bankers draft for £10 payable to 'Mayors Office for Policing and Crime' and two forms of identification that "provide sufficient information to prove your name, date of birth, current address and signature." This means a driving licence, medical card, birth/adoption certificate or passport, along with a recent utility bill or bank statement.

I sent a copy of my passport and a photocopy of a gas bill - both a bank statement and definitely a telephone bill seemed like a really bad idea!

The form, payment and identification should be sent to:

Metropolitan Police Service
Public Access Office
PO Box 57192

Don;t forget to keep a copy. If you do not receive confirmation that the data protection officer has received your request within two weeks, ring the Public Access Office on 020 7161 3500 and ask to speak to the data protection unit, or email publicAccessOffice@met.police.uk.

What happens next?

You are entitled under the Data Protection Act to receive an answer within 40 days but no-one, it seems, ever receives a response in that time. The Metropolitan Police is so bad at responding to requests for information that in April, it was one of three public authorities the Information Commissioner’s Office said it planned to monitor over concerns about its timeliness.

The Met may decide to withhold information, but it must clearly explain why. As the activities of the SDS relate to historic surveillance of lawful campaigning, it will be interesting to see what excuses they come up with.

You can challenge any denial of information by lodging an appeal, and asking the department to reconsider the decision. The Network for Police Monitoring (which Newham Monitoring Project is a member of)  is currently putting together guidance on following up Subject Access Requests and when it is ready, I'll make this available.


Thanks to Emily for this: a Freedom of Information request from last year confirms that Special Demonstration Squad data "was amalgamated into a MPS system and is not held in a standalone searchable database". This is likely to cause delays but does suggest that the data exists and was kept.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

We Must Have A Far-Reaching Inquiry Into Police Spying

This is a piece I wrote for Red Pepper on today's revelations that undercover police spied on Newham Monitoring Project and campaigns for justice for those that died custody

Today’s new development in the long-running exposure of undercover police targeting campaigners has suddenly became very personal. The Guardian reported that covert officers from the former Special Demonstration Squad had spied on a number of organisations concerned with corruption and harassment within the Metropolitan Police, including the east London community group Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), and on justice campaigns for people who had died in custody. I have been an activist for NMP for 23 years and from 1997 to 2007 was the secretary of the United Families and Friends Campaign, an umbrella group of custody death families. It seems likely my name appeared in some of the secret so-called ‘intelligence’ reports.

I’m disturbed that NMP was targeted but not entirely shocked. In some ways it might be seen as a positive reflection on our effectiveness in exposing cases of police misconduct and how worried senior officers had become about the damage that the actions of some of their officers was inflicting on the Met's reputation. I certainly know the police have never been able to get their heads around what motivates independent grassroots activism: how campaigns emerge from practical casework rather than, say, an attempt to recruit people to a party and how supporting individuals and families suffering injustice makes the anger that drives a desire for answers feel very personal.

Furthermore, the fact that a decision was made to spy on an organisation whose events were open to the public and whose activities were reported in great detail in our annual reports and publicity says more about the Metropolitan police than it does about NMP: it illustrates the deep level of resistance to accountability within London’s police during the period when the Special Demonstration Squad were snooping around our activities.

However, I’m appalled and angry too, that campaigns NMP advised and supported that were set up and sustained by bereaved families struggling for justice for their loved ones after a death in police custody – always in the face of overwhelming hostility from every part of the criminal justice system – may have been targeted for covert surveillance, for no other reason than to try and undermine them. I can only imagine that, in the absence of any actual ‘plotting’ by these campaigns, undercover officers were simply busy trying to find out more about families' legal strategies or looking for gossip and rumour that they could use to smear ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances by grief and the need to find the truth.

On top of the allegations of serious sexual misconduct and betrayal by undercover police and the stories of identities stolen from dead babies, the shameful targeting of the bereaved now means the case for an independent public inquiry is overwhelming. The Home Secretary’s insistence that the current investigation by Derbyshire’s Chief Constable is adequate lacks any credibility. We need a far-reaching and robust inquiry to find out what so-called ‘intelligence’ was gathered by officers, who ordered the surveillance and how it was used. Just as importantly, we urgently need to know to what extent the successors to the Special Demonstration Squad, such as the National Domestic Extremism Unit, are still secretly targeting campaigners.

Personally, I and other NMP activists also really want to know the fake identity and the real name of the officer that we may have inadvertently worked with in good faith. I want to know what kind of person pretends to support campaigns for justice but instead was secretly working to try and prevent the truth from ever emerging. For the sake of the transparency and accountability we have always demanded, the Metropolitan police owe all of us that, especially all the people we have supported over the years.

Monday 17 June 2013

Photos from 'They Owe Us' Protest at Canary Wharf

In response to the combined crises of cuts and climate chaos and the call for a week of action against the G8, a number of campaigners including UKUncut, Fuel Poverty Action and Disabled People Against the Cuts came together on Friday to protest in Canary Wharf - what they called "the penthouse suite of global capitalism".

Technically the protest was illegal -in 2011, its owners Canary Wharf Group obtained an indefinite injunction that prohibits "any persons unknown remaining on the Canary Wharf estate in connection to protest action" (all 14 million square feet is private land). The police presence on Friday was pretty heavy for a small protest of 150 people and as usual, Forward Intelligence Team photographers from the Metropolitan Police were busy gathering information for the police 'domestic extremist' database, but the event was entirely peaceful. Here are a few photos I took - the set is on Flickr here

Thursday 25 April 2013

Launch of New Local Activists' Network "The People's Republic of Newham"

I am one of those who has long felt that local campaigners would really benefit from closer cooperation, so I'm pleased to be part of the launch of "The People's Republic of Newham", a network of local independent activists who want to try and help and support community campaigns by sharing the wealth of knowledge, skills and experience in the borough.

Local communities are increasingly required to using campaigning tactics to defend services, resources and rights in the face of indifference from largely unaccountable local institutions.There is also an urgent need for local campaigns to support and learn from each other. The "People's Republic of Newham" is an attempt to bring together campaigners and look at mutual support and skill-sharing. It currently organising on Facebook but if there is enough interest, it can expand to an email group and meetings, depending on what members feel is most helpful.

Let's see. Meanwhile, please invite other local activists you know and who you think should be part of the network to get in touch. You can find the page at https://www.facebook.com/PeoplesRepublicofNewham

Wednesday 17 April 2013

The End of Thatcher

I've been saving these for today, because of the inevitable sycophancy that surrounded today's state-sponsored Conservative Party rally. These photos are from Saturday's "Thatcher's Dead" party in a rain-drenched Trafalgar Square.

Sunday 14 April 2013

UKUncut Protest Against The Bedroom Tax

Photos from yesterday's UKUncut protest against the bedroom tax, outside the "spare" home of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Lord Freud.

Monday 1 April 2013

How Credible is Call for Referendum on Newham's Mayor?

It's been a while since I last blogged – the imminent prospect of redundancy has kept me busy these past weeks. There has, however, been loads of things that I've wanted to comment on and one of those is the announcement by George Galloway's latest project, the inappropriately named Newham People’s Alliance (NPA), that plans have been hatched to start a petition calling for a referendum on Newham's mayoral system. On 10 March, the NPA website briefly announced:
In an NPA meeting on Friday night in East Ham, over 100 local community and religious leaders voted unanimously to press ahead to trigger a referendum on the mayoral system. This comes after years of disengagement, faith-phobia, gagged representatives, and trophy projects at the expense of the ordinary people in one of the poorest and most disenfranchised communities in the country.

The NPA will be working closely with its legal team and the Department for Communities and Local Government to submit a petition in the coming months.
That was three weeks ago – and since then, not a word.

Don't get me wrong: if there is a realistic prospect of securing 10,000 local signatures for a petition to get rid not only of Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales but also the system that enables him to operate with little accountability, then I'm in. I wrote a blog post on how it could be done as far back in December 2011, after all. However, as I warned in a follow-up in January last year, collecting enough signatures is only half the battle:
“...even if there are enough people willing to put in the hard work to collect signatures and trigger a referendum, any local 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign would also need to be brilliantly organised, better than anything the borough has seen previously. It would need the confidence to guarantee that enough people actually turn out to vote for change: in January 2002, the referendum that created the Mayor and Cabinet system had only a 26% turn-out. That would mean ward-by-ward voter mobilisation, lots of willing volunteers and money: enough to pay for publicity to cover over 91,000 households. ”

In other words, trying to trigger a referendum is not a decision made without a great deal of thought. Get it wrong and the Localism Act prevents another challenge for ten years.

Having worked with Newham's voluntary and community sectors for over a decade, I know there are hundreds of people who will sign a petition for a referendum. I'm just far less convinced that the Newham People's Alliance, which its links to the Respect party and its close identification with the specific concerns of a section of Newham's Muslim communities, has either the capacity or is sufficiently broad-based to coordinate a campaign that is better organised than anything the borough has seen before.

Certainly, in the weeks since the NPA announced its intention to trigger a referendum, there has been little evidence of initial momentum: no attempts at coordination with potential allies, no call for open discussion about the potential obstacles faced, silence on the need to debate more sweeping reforms that might convince local people this isn't just a dull procedural change aimed at returning to the way things were in 2001. Instead, the announcement looks too much like a stunt, an opening shot in Respect's campaign for Yvonne Ridley's candidacy for MP in two years time. And if that's all it it is, then it will fail.

The election for the next Mayor of Newham is in May 2014, which leaves little time for the steps necessary to abolish the mayoral system itself. I really wish a genuinely broad 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign in Newham was possible - but I fear a half-hearted one even more.

Friday 1 March 2013

Viewing London From The Shard

On Wednesday, I went up to floors 68, 69 and 72 of the Shard building by London Bridge, which is the highest public viewing platform in London at 244m (800ft) above the city, to take some photographs. There are a number in colour on Flickr - but these, rendered into beautiful black and white, are my favourites.

Monday 18 February 2013

Photographing Chiang Mai's "Soi-Art"

Last night I returned from a fortnight's holiday in northern Thailand, where I visited one of my closest friends who has just had given birth to a gorgeous baby girl. The trip provided a welcome opportunity to think about how to respond to the threat of impending redundancy whilst spending time with my new not-god daughter and exploring and photographing Chiang Mai's Old City.

Holiday photos can be a bit predictable - I have plenty of pictures of temples but after noticing the amount of street graffiti as I wandered between cafés and food shacks in the blazing heat of the day, I managed to spend an enjoyable afternoon taking photos of some of the city's "soi-art":

I'm also really pleased with this photo - at the Buddhist temple on the Doi Suthep mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, I noticed some workers knocking down the shell of a building with little regard for concerns about health and safety:
Anyway, it's good to be back, although I still don't know what is happening about my future employment. I hope to know a little more later this week.

Friday 25 January 2013

Nowadays All Work Is Precarious

It has taken a while for me to start blogging again this year because of an overwhelming number of other priorities - not least a sudden threat that I could be made redundant in a couple of months time. At the moment this is just a warning that my employer may reluctantly have to let me go, but after 12 years working for the same charity, doing a job I really love, I know that once talk turns to possible redundancies, it's hard for it to stop. It looks increasingly likely that, at 45 and now with a physical disability, I'll be back on the job market in the worst period of unemployment for years. So let me begin the year by writing something personal.

I've been made redundant before and I've known plenty of others who have been through the same difficult process themselves. I've therefore learnt one of the most sobering realities: that no matter how invaluable someone thinks they are and how much they kid themselves their former employer will struggle terribly without them, it's very rarely true. Even after more than a decade in the same job, I know that if I am forced to leave this year then, internally, I will become little more than a fading memory within about six months - a name that pops up in some old documents or in the odd conversation. This is a bit sad but there is little point in bemoaning it - the fragility of the charity sector means a focus on struggling to solve immediate problems, not focusing on the past and anyway, years of experience count for most when organisations are growing or expanding - something that few, neither charities nor businesses, are contemplating with much optimism at the moment.

After about six month, the same will probably apply externally too, among the majority of the community groups and voluntary organisation I've worked with - and I have absolutely no problem with that. There are already more than enough so-called "community leaders" in boroughs around London doing little more than trading on their past achievements (often the ones who happily accept a gong for half-remembered 'service to the community'). That doesn't mean I'm not proud of some of the things I've been part of - the groups supported, the connections made and a number of the campaigns, especially the battle to try and save Wanstead Flats from Olympic ruin. But community activism, if it means anything, is about continued resistance to poverty and injustice in the present, about passing on skills and experience picked up over the years rather than resting on the comfort of old war-stories. We should always judge community activists by what they are doing right now: to quote an old Billy Bragg song, "by their actions, not their pretensions".

Anyway, I've been very fortunate to have someone pay me for years to try and make the place where I live a little better. If I am made redundant, I'd love to find something similar locally, but like everyone else, I'll settle for just finding a job and finding space for community activism in my spare time. Periods of recession and high unemployment have a tendency to make people feel more insecure - and more disposable. I recognise that, for me personally, the injuries I received when I was knocked off my bike in 2010 have tended to strengthened my general feeling that each of us could easily suffer deprivation, injury or even death because of events far beyond our control. However, the economic situation we are facing now does seem far worse than the recessions I remember in the beginning of the 90s or the start of the last decade. So many people are losing permanent jobs and instead facing part-time or short-term contracts with few benefits or are spending some of their time volunteering without pay, whilst welfare support for those in this form of work is becoming increasingly unreliable. What is missing too is that sense of belonging to a workplace - the basis for trade union organising, incidentally - and, in some cases I can think of, a blurring of the lines between everyday life and the constant search for insecure employment.

Increasing numbers - not just those on the lowest paid jobs but in all kinds of work - are finding that what unites them is not their working conditions but that work itself is becoming increasingly precarious. I'm sure the current government are not only happy about this but that it's a deliberate strategy: it means that those who just manage to avoid this descent into greater insecurity are more likely to remain compliant. But it also means that, in struggling to solve immediate problems, community activism may need to become more vocally critical of some forms of local charitable action - like the Big Society's replacement of paid workers with volunteers, or the rather dubious benefits of food banks and other short-term relief in tackling the real causes of local poverty. These are not really about resistance to poverty and injustice: instead, in my view, they run the risk of simply reinforcing the growing precariousness of our lives.

Friday 11 January 2013

Newham Council Officers Arrested Over Fake "Law Enforcement Officer" Scam

Two Newham council workers have been arrested by police investigating the scam of spot fines being issued in the borough by bogus ‘law enforcement’ officers. This week’s Private Eye takes up the story:
Yet more embarrassment for Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales over his corps of Mickey Mouse “law enforcement” officers, who strut the streets in uniforms indistinguishable from those of real policemen.

In November, Eye 1328 revealed that a number of “law enforcement” uniforms had been stolen by criminals who took to the streets issuing “spot fines” to shopkeepers for bogus offences concerning food safety and waste disposal. The traders were easy marks for the conmen because the council had already flooded the streets with “law enforcement” officers issuing fixed penalties for trivial offences. Now the eye has learned that two council employees have been dismissed after being arrested and bailed by police investigating the scam.

This is not the first time Newham has been embarrassed by the behaviour of s staff member masquerading as a copper. In August 2011, roadsweeper Jason Marshall received an eight-month suspended sentence after admitting pretending to be a member of the British transport police carrying out “drug detection” inquiries on the Tube. Despite carrying a fake ID card – and claiming to be “on secondment from MI5” – Marshall aroused the suspicion of staff because his “sniffer dog” was, er, his pet Yorkshire terrier.
See also
Newham Council Apologises For Heavyhanded Action By Its Enforcement Officers
How Is This Not Impersonating a Police Officer?

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