Targeting students 'abuse of power'
Attempts by an undercover police officer to target students planning to join protest groups have been branded "a gross abuse of surveillance powers".
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 the county's police force said: "Officers use covert tactics to gather intelligence, in accordance with the law, to assist in the prevention and detection of criminal activity."
The allegations against Cambridgeshire Police will heap further pressure on forces to examine their use of undercover policing following a string of shocking claims.
Inappropriate sexual relationships, using dead children's identities, forging libellous leaflets and even planting a bomb are among some of the accusations levelled at undercover police.
The spotlight has been on covert operations since former Pc Mark Kennedy was unmasked in 2011 as an undercover officer who spied on environmental protesters as long-haired dropout Mark "Flash" Stone.
Mr Kennedy is among five undercover officers who allegedly infiltrated environmental campaign groups between the mid 1980s and 2010 and had relationships with women lasting up to nine years.
Several women are currently suing Scotland Yard over claims they were deceived into having long-term intimate relationships.
A police investigation, Operation Herne, was set up in October 2011 to look into allegations made against the Met's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).
Jules Carey, a solicitor representing several claimants taking action against the Metropolitan Police over the alleged behaviour of undercover officers, said of Cambridgeshire Police: "The force has clearly lost its way. There can be no justification in a democracy for attempting to deploy informants into student groups and protest organisations.
"The force should be seeking to uphold the fundamental right to protest, not taking cynical steps to undermine it".
Isabella Sankey, director of policy for human rights campaigners Liberty, said: "After scandalous infiltration of grieving families and environmental movements, police now set their sights on student activism.
"That any group which dares to dissent is apparently fair game should alarm anyone committed to proportionate policing and democracy itself.
"Proper judicial checks on police surveillance are badly overdue - Parliament must take responsibility and act."
Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU) said it was "absurd" that its members were a focus for the police.
It released a statement to say: "We are alarmed by news of police surveillance on Cambridge student activists. CUSU believes that all individuals have the right to protest peacefully.
"CUSU has always constructively engaged with the police when planning or supporting protests and demonstrations. As such, CUSU finds it absurd that our members should be the focus of these investigations.
"Tactics such as these are not only intrusive, they also waste time targeting groups which are involved in making important and positive change in our society. We condemn the actions of the police in this matter and hope the Government will look critically at the use of surveillance measures by UK security forces."