Paul Mobbs & MEIR:
NETCU, WECTU and NPOIU: Britain’s Secretive Police Force
Politicising the Policing of Public Expression in an Era of Economic Change
In late 2008 I was asked by the Free Range Network to write a ‘wider-ranging’ review of the changes to protest law in the wake of 11/9 and the crackdown on dissent as part of ‘The War on Terrorism’. The purpose wasn’t simply to highlight what was happening at that moment, but to explore how we got there in the first place – and what processes led to that state of affairs. The result, published in April 2009, was, ‘NETCU, WECTU and NPOIU: Britain’s Secretive Police Force’.
“What's the relationship between the recent ‘authoritarian’ crack-down on ‘protesters’ in Britain, the current economic crisis, the debate on growth, the economy, climate change and resource depletion? Perhaps not that obvious? This report from the Free Range Network ties these issues together to try and find a deeper motivation behind the recent authoritarian shift against protest and dissent in Britain.”
The report begins with a look at the history of policing in England – and its past political excesses – and the founding of modern policing in the 1960s. Since then, beginning with the Thatcherite crack-down on dissent following the Miner’s Strike, anti-nuclear protests, and the Peace Convoys of the 1980s, the history of public order policing has been one of a continual ratcheting-up of the controls on the public’s rights to dissent.
What the report focussed on was the rise of semi-privatised units within the Association of Chief Police Officers – ACPO – which sought to monitor and control dissent by the public; but which invariably had a quasi-political role in preserving the economic and political status quo in response to the public’s call for change. Instead of facilitating protest, these units sought to discredit dissent by labelling it as ‘domestic extremism’ – and the British media fell for that story, even when it had been wholly manufactured by figures within these units (e.g., see pages 23 & 24).
At the time the Free Range Network had just come into possession of a booklet, Policing Protest: Pocket Legislation Guide, created by ACPO for policemen policing protests. We made a facsimile edition of that publication available on-line (PDF), and launched it alongside this report in order that people could better understand how ‘political policing’ was being managed by the state.
From harassing pensioner peace protesters, to shutting down the animal rights movement, to raiding peacefully preying Hindu worshippers with police in riot gear in order to (without any opposition) seize their sacred bull, the decade of the 2000’s marked a step change in the policing of public dissent not seen since the 1980’s. Even the everyday summary of police expenditure sent to local council tax payers started to talk-up the vital role of countering ‘domestic extremism’ which threatened ‘key economic sites’ (see example, left, section highlighted).
That work was led by three groups, run by ACPO, which sought to prevent the legitimate, peaceful expression to corporate and government policy:
- The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU)
- The Welsh Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Unit (WECTU – aka. Uned Atal Terfysgaeth ac Eithafiaeth Cymru)
- The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU)
Stung by ongoing criticism, NECTU and NPOIU were reorganised in late 2010/early 2011, with their functions passing to the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit, the Metropolitan Police Specialist Operations Directorate, and other bodies in the National Police Chiefs Council – thus still avoiding direct scrutiny of/accountability for their operations. WECTU persists as a label covering Wales, but it also has changed to reflect national priorities. The role of these new bodies is to implemented the now widely discredited counter-terror ‘Prevent Strategy’, which has seen peaceful members of the public, and even school pupils interested in anti-fracking or Extinction Rebellion protests, targeted for surveillance and on occasion referred to specialist teams for ‘deradicalisation’
As politics degrades into paid-for lobbying, as accountability in both politics and public life diminishes, and as the financially-stressed mainstream media plays along with that and ignores the public’s dissatisfaction, protest has never been more important – and yet so difficult to carry-out effectively because of overzealous policing and fickle reporting by the media.
Over ten years on from the writing of the report the crack-down on dissent continues, and thus the content of the report is still largely up-to-date despite the demise of the agencies it sought to highlight. And still the state enacts yet more mechanisms for ‘political policing’ it renders the arguments are the core of the report more pressing.