MPs have demanded disclosure of all personal files compiled on them by undercover police officers while they were in Parliament. The call came during an urgent question in the House of Commons following revelations that police had kept a number of MPs under surveillance right into the 1990s.
Police are accused of spying on left-wing MPs including Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and Peter Hain. The surveillance began in the 1970s and 1980s when many of them were involved in causes like the anti-apartheid movement. It continued even after they became ministers in the Labour government after the 1997 landslide.
Ex-minister Peter Hain said: “I can understand why someone like me was spied on when I was campaigning against apartheid. It was a cold war mentality and many thought we were Stalinists, even though we strongly opposed Moscow. What is difficult to understand is why it continued for so long afterwards.”
Surveillance continued on Jack Straw even after he was appointed Home Secretary by Tony Blair, raising questions of who authorised the operation and if there was any democratic oversight. Despite the Urgent Question being directed toward the current Home Secretary, Theresa May, she sent her Minister for Police Mike Penning instead.
The minister was given a rough ride as successive MPs from the Labour benches demanded their files be disclosed to them. Penning pledged to publish as much as he could, but warned some elements may have to be redacted for national security reasons. This led to cries of “pathetic” from Labour MPs.
Dennis Skinner MP suggested that police surveillance was only ever carried out against left-wingers. He claimed that had surveillance not been limited to the left then paedophiles such as Jimmy Savile might have been caught. This was dismissed with “contempt” by the minister.
Penning went on to claim this was the first time he had come to the despatch box during his two years in the job and not said he was proud of British police.
The breach of confidentiality of MPs was also described by Speaker John Bercow as something he “takes very seriously indeed”. He ordered senior officers to investigate what House of Commons officials knew at the time or since.
Bercow also offered to look into concerns that MPs phones might have been tapped, in contravention of accepted privacy arrangements.