Did police cutbacks allow extremists to hijack student demonstrations?
The head of the police squad tackling domestic extremism was forced to quit days before anarchist students smashed their way into the Tory Party headquarters, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
Intelligence for such protests would normally be provided by the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU), which provides “tactical advice and guidance” on how to deal with any potential disorder.
NETCU’s database contains the names of around 2,000 protesters, including photographs taken at demonstrations and full background details, despite many individuals having no criminal record.
It built up the files after taking over MI5’s covert role watching groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, trade union activists and Left-wing journalists six years ago.
It also targets animal rights, environmentalism, antiglobalisation or anti-GM crop campaigners and “crime and public disorder linked to extreme Left or Right-wing political campaigns”.
But in the run up to last week’s events NETCU began a major internal reorganisation which will lead to it being merged with two other units tackling domestic extremists, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and the Confidential Intelligence Unit.
As part of that reorganisation, both the head of NETCU, Supt Pearl, and his boss, National Coordinator, ACC Anton Setchell, have retired in the last two weeks.
Supt Pearl, who helped set up NETCU, said his departure had been forced upon him.
“I would rather have stayed. But I was told my contract was not being renewed.
“It is part of the public service cuts. The three domestic extremism units are being merged. I was told that duplicate posts are being done away with and the merger meant there would be no job for me.”
He added: “I have no idea what the unit’s role was in the run up to the student protests. I was not involved. Normally NETCU would liaise with the local force and offer assistance.
“Intelligence is not an exact science and sometimes it is wrong. But when you lose experienced officers like myself and ACC Setchell it can’t fail to have had an impact
“Between us we have had some 60 years in the police force – ten years on domestic extremism. Ideally, you would not lose all that experience in one go.”
Last night former ACC Setchell confirmed that he too had stepped down. He said: “I’ve retired. It has been planned for some time.
“NETCU is not being shut down but it is facing cutbacks in line with the rest of the public service.”
He added: “I don’t know what information NETCU passed to the Met before these demonstrations. It was not our operation and I was not involved, so I don’t think it is appropriate to comment.”
An internal Metropolitan Police inquiry is investigating why the force were so ill-prepared for the violent scenes at Millbank, near Westminster, which marred the student demonstration against massive increases in university tuition fees.
The central question is why there was apparently no intelligence that anarchists were planning to hijack the event despite evidence that they had been boasting about their plans on the internet.
Patrick Mercer, a former Conservative Homeland Security spokesman, said: “It seems apparent that the Government’s cut backs in policing are already having a negative effect on intelligence gathering. This must be looked at very carefully and with great urgency. Prevention is better than cure.”
Vernon Coaker, the shadow policing minister, said: “We’ve seen again this week that keeping public order requires not only policing at the front line but good intelligence gathering too. We are very concerned that this vital work could be undermined by deep and swift cuts being demanded by the Home Office. This is not the time to be losing some of our most experienced people, but the scale and pace of the government’s cuts are putting the police in an impossible position.”
Last night a spokesman from the office of the National Coordinator for Domestic Extremism confirmed the departures from NETCU. He said that ACC Setchell’s deputy, Detective Chief Supt Adrian Tudway, a former Metropolitan Police officer, had been appointed as the new National Coordinator of Domestic Extremism.
Det Supt Tudway said: “My team and I are keen to maintain the services and support for police forces but are reviewing current unit practices and spending in preparation for budget cuts which are taking place across the public sector.”
A Home Office spokesman confirmed that the policing of domestic extremism was also being re-examined in the light of criticism of the handing of the G20 protests in London.
The threat of violence and criminal damage were used by police as a reason to detain, or “kettle”, protesters during the April 2009 demonstrations.
A bystander, newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, died shortly after being pushed to the ground by a police officer and two protesters were later awarded thousands of pounds in compensation after the police admitted they had been treated unlawfully.
The Home Office spokesman said: “The Government is working with the police to look at the governance and accountability of domestic extremism policing units in line with the recommendations (of the report into the official policing of the protests).”