MI5 asked police to spy on political activities of children, inquiry hears | MI5

MI5 asked police chiefs to collect information about the political activities of schoolchildren as young as 14, a public inquiry into undercover policing has heard.

The request – circulated to chief constables throughout Britain in 1975 – was approved by the head of the Security Service and a senior Whitehall official.

An undercover police unit regularly stored files recording the political beliefs of schoolchildren, along with photographs of them. These included reports on a 17-year-old who was said to spend “a lot of his spare time” at his girlfriend’s home, and two schoolboys, then 14 and 16, who were described by the covert officers as “effeminate”.

Among those spied on were schoolchildren who were campaigning against fascists who were carrying out violent attacks on vulnerable ethnic minorities.

Details of MI5’s top-secret request were disclosed to the public inquiry into the undercover policing scandal, which restarted on Monday.

The inquiry – headed by the retired judge Sir John Mitting – is examining how undercover police officers spied on 1,000 mainly leftwing political groups over more than 40 years. The inquiry was set up after a slew of revelations about the conduct of the undercover spies including deceiving women into intimate relationships and monitoring grieving families.

Over the next two weeks, the inquiry will question managers of the covert unit the Special Demonstration Squad, who were responsible for authorising and supervising the early stages of the infiltration operations between 1968 and 1982.

The current round of public hearings opened with a statement from David Barr QC, lead counsel to the inquiry.

Barr disclosed previously secret documents that suggest senior Whitehall officials had in the 1970s questioned whether too much information about political activists was being collected by the police, but had apparently not acted on their concerns.

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For years, MI5 and undercover police officers worked closely to spy on thousands of political activists and compile huge files logging their activities. This large-scale surveillance has drawn accusations that the state violated the civil liberties of activists who were engaged in peaceful and lawful campaigning.

Barr highlighted the request circulated by MI5 to chief constables in December 1975, about what it called “subversive activity in schools”.

MI5 said it wanted information about “older pupils (14 or over) who are active in subversive organisations which are exploited for subversive purposes”. It also requested details of teachers who “are using their position for subversive purposes, eg attempting to convert pupils or making school premises available to subversive organisations”.

Barr said MI5 recognised the “sensitivity” of the request as it had added: “We do not ask you to make enquiries in schools on our behalf, but we would welcome any help you could give us on the basis of information which comes your way from the local papers or from members of the public, or by recourse to other sources outside schools which you can use without risk of embarrassment”.

He said the request had been approved by Sir Michael Hanley, the then director general of MI5, and Sir Arthur Peterson, then the Home Office’s most senior civil servant.

Barr added the request could explain why undercover police officers had spied on children involved in political activism, citing their “extensive” reports on a group called School Kids Against the Nazis (SKAN). Large numbers of schoolchildren joined this group in the 1970s to oppose fascists recruiting supporters in schools.

The inquiry has previously examined reports on SKAN that were compiled by Paul Gray, an undercover officer who infiltrated the Socialist Workers party (SWP) and the Anti-Nazi League between 1978 and 1982. Gray told the inquiry last year that “no consideration was given by me to the appropriateness of reporting on children. They were active members of the SWP taking part in demonstrations.”

Gray had also said these reports updated existing police files on the school pupils and would enable police to identify them at future demonstrations.

Barr highlighted documents that he said showed that in the late 1970s, senior officials within the Home Office had concerns about the extent of the police’s surveillance of political activists. They noted for instance that one young man was monitored “because of some badges he was wearing when he passed through Dover which indicated that he was opposed to racism”.

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