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14 November 2013, 17:34
Cambridgeshire Police have been accused of attempting to spy on students, after a national newspaper published undercover footage.
A film clip obtained by the Guardian shows an unnamed Cambridgeshire officer trying to persuade a student to pass on information on potential supporters of groups including UK Uncut, the English Defence League, Unite Against Fascism and anti-fracking demonstrators.
He asks the student, who is in his 20s, to pass on details of topics discussed at the Cambridge University student union, asking about "things that they discuss that can have an impact on community issues''.
The officer says about protests: "We would want to know who is going.
Do they plan on a peaceful protest, which is absolutely fine, and how are they going to go, what vehicles they are going to use, index numbers?''
This comes in the wake of criticism levelled at Scotland Yard for the activities of its secretive Special Demonstration Squad, which has faced accusations that officers had sexual relationships with women who did not know their true identities, and assumed the names of dead children.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said police should not be allowed to authorise their own undercover operations.
He said: "For the police to pay students to infiltrate and spy on anti-fracking or educational campaign groups, where there is zero suspicion of any wrongdoing, is a gross abuse of surveillance powers.
Coming after attempts to discredit the family of Stephen Lawrence and undercover officers fathering children with activists this episode makes clear why the police should not be able to approve their own undercover surveillance operations.
Judicial oversight is essential if these kinds of abuses are to be prevented.
Were it not such a stark reminder of the weak oversight of police intelligence operations you'd be forgiven for thinking this was the plot for a student film, albeit inspired more by David Brent than James Bond.
There should be a full, independent inquiry into the activities of this unit and I will be writing to the Independent Police Complaints Commission to ask that they investigate.''
Rachel Wenstone, deputy president of the National Union of Students, said the move undermines the legitimate right to protest.
She said: "This revelation is an absolute scandal.
Students' unions do fantastic work to defend the rights of students in colleges and universities and these measures completely undermine students' civil liberties, their right to protest, and to work collectively to improve society.
To group the activities of hardworking students' unions within the same realm as those of the EDL is grossly offensive.
This is yet another example of the questionable tactics that undercover police officers have taken in recent years to infiltrate campaign groups and extract information.
We now need to know just how widespread this practice is.''
Cambridge University has declined to comment, saying the matter is one for police to deal with.
A spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police said: "Officers use covert tactics to gather intelligence, in accordance with the law, to assist in the prevention and detection of criminal activity.''