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Cops spend £18m on informants – but won’t say if they targeted BLM groups

Exclusive: Forces said revealing whether anti-racist activists had been paid off could expose the UK to a higher risk of terror attack

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
16 March 2022, 2.01pm

Police watch people attending the Black Trans Lives Matter march in London, June 2020

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SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

Police have refused to say whether they are spending public money on buying off anti-racism activists, claiming that releasing the information could leave the UK “at risk” of terror attacks.

openDemocracy can reveal that forces across the UK spent at least £18m on informants between 2015/16 and 2020/21.

But police would not tell us how much, if anything, was spent on people linked to Black Lives Matter groups.

More than a dozen forces emailed openDemocracy identically worded excuses for withholding the information, which was also requested in relation to environmental protest groups.

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In each case, the copy-and-paste response said disclosure “would provide those intent on committing criminal or terrorists [sic] acts with valuable information as to where the police are targeting their investigations”.

Forces also claimed that revealing whether or not cops had paid informants within Black Lives Matter or green groups could lead to intelligence channels drying up, “thereby undermining national security and leaving the United Kingdom at risk of more terrorist attacks”.

Forces using the bizarre excuse include the Met Police, which was accused of racism this week after it emerged that officers had strip-searched a Black girl at a north London school, without any other adults present, while she was on her period. The 15-year-old was left traumatised by the humiliating experience, safeguarding chiefs heard.

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The Met alone accounted for £5.2m of the £18m spend over six years – nearly a third of the entire national total.

The findings have sparked alarm among campaigners, who point to the Met’s history of using undercover cops to target peaceful activists’ groups, some of whom have formed romantic relationships and even had children with the people they are surveilling.

‘Manipulative pretences’

Police in Wales were secretly recorded last year trying to recruit a Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist to be an informant.

Lowri Davies, who was one of the organisers for Swansea BLM group, accused the police of “grooming to entice me into being an informant”, adding: “I was asked to be an informant under manipulative false pretences, and asked questions that made me fear for my safety as well as the safety of my loved ones.” Last month, Swansea BLM group decided to close down, citing the attempted recruitment as one of the reasons.

Last July, a former police officer turned environmental campaigner claimed the Met tried to recruit him to spy on Extinction Rebellion.

And in January, a tribunal ordered the Met and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to pay £229,000 in compensation to an environmental activist who was deceived into having a sexual relationship with an undercover officer. An inquiry into undercover policing is ongoing.

‘Astronomical’ spending

Using FOI requests, openDemocracy asked the UK’s 48 police forces how much they had spent on informants since 2015, including on informants within BLM and green groups.

Of the 32 police forces that disclosed figures, Kent Police, Thames Valley Police, West Midlands Police, Police Scotland and Police Service of Northern Ireland were among the biggest spenders.

Kevin Blowe from the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) told openDemocracy: “Policing's knee-jerk response to any question about its intelligence capabilities is always to 'neither confirm nor deny'. However the detail behind these figures matter…

“We know national units are particularly interested in new and emerging campaigns and there is evidence this has recently included Black Lives Matter campaigners, not least because the policing's own inspectorate body has said so.”

We deserve assurances that this doesn't include the chilling police spying of protest groups that we've seen before

In 2021, the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services found that a new national unit “held national telephone conferences with forces to report on events and share information” during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Blowe added: “How much of this shared information came from paid informants for intelligence on people based on their political beliefs, which deserve a higher level of protection because of our rights to freedom of assembly and expression? As long as the police refuse to say, we can only assume the worst.”

The police’s use of informants was also criticised by Jake Hurfurt, head of research and investigations at Big Brother Watch, who said the spending was “astronomical”.

“The public deserve assurances that this doesn't include the chilling police spying of protest groups that we've seen in the past,” he said.

“Following the outrageous revelation that police have tried to convert BLM campaigners into police informants, we have been increasingly concerned that police may have simply changed tactics since the undercover police scandal was exposed and are opting for real-identity informants instead.”

Hurfurt added: “The bottom line is that peaceful campaigners shouldn't be spied on at all. Police use of informants to spy on protest movements is an assault on everybody's protest rights and our democracy itself, treating activists like serious criminals.”

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