Many readers will remember that MI5 held files on MPs and members of the public (‘60s-80s), opening correspondence and tapping phones – in some cases without going through the correct channels. See also today’s Secret State – 11: MI5 surveillance.
A Sutton Coldfield case
We well remember Madeleine Haigh, who lived in Sutton Coldfield and persisted in her objection to surveillance and after the usual round of denials eventually police admitted that her allegations were justified.
Bernard Porter in Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1790-1988, tended to debunk these occurrences but did write:
Walsall North MP David Winnick raised the case in the Commons and a most interesting account was given of his submission in Hansard, including this extract:
On 20 October 1981, Mrs. Haigh telephoned Sutton Coldfield police station to say that, earlier that evening, two men who stated that they were police officers had called at her house and inquired of the babysitter whether they could see Mrs. Haigh. On being told that she was not at home, they said that would return during the daytime. She tried to establish whether it was known who the officers were and what the inquiry was about. She was informed the following morning that there was no trace of any officers from Sutton Coldfield having called on her and she was advised that, if the men returned, she should check their warrant cards.
The following afternoon, one of the men returned and inquired about a sum of money which was alleged to be owing to a catalogue firm. On being told by Mrs. Haigh that the debt was not hers, he left. Later that afternoon, Mrs. Haigh telephoned the firm concerned to be informed that it knew nothing of any such inquiry and that it did not work in that way. Mrs. Haigh so notified the police and the normal inquiries made in such cases were undertaken by a local uniformed officer. His conclusion, which was notified to Mrs. Haigh in December 1981, was that it had not been possible to identify the men who had called on her . . .
Mrs. Haigh was still worried about the affair and, in February 1983 . . . arrangements were made for individual members of Special Branch to be interviewed, and it was then revealed that the two men who had called on Mrs. Haigh in October 1981 were from Special Branch. In the light of that information, the chief constable arranged for a senior officer to call on Mrs. Haigh to offer his apologies for the embarrassment and inconvenience that she had been caused by the police’s failure to identify the two men earlier. He also asked an assistant chief constable to inquire into the reasons for this failure and to establish the justification for making the original inquiry of Mrs Haigh.
MI5 also opened a permanent file on the Greenham Common women’s peace camp on the grounds that it was “subject to penetration by subversive groups”. The writer, who visited Greenham once, placing a photo of her baby son on the fence (left) and went on several CND marches, found her foreign mail and any packages were opened and the phone was tapped. An extension upstairs would ring about ten times before the main phone downstairs.
A complaint to the postman about their opened and unsealed post was met with dismay “They should have sealed them up” but also understanding: “Ah yes, I know what that will be. Just leave it to me and you’ll have no more trouble”. And that was correct, the phones worked properly from that day and no more correspondence was damaged . . . until this year.
Round 2 – the new targets, the old tactics?
MI5 was said to have given up these activities in the mid-1980s, after the miners’ strike, to concentrate first on Northern Ireland and, later, on countering Islamist-inspired terrorism.
However, once more the writer’s airletters from Mumbai are being opened – but this time at least correctly placed in a plastic envelope with an apology. They were slit open into jigsaw pieces and several lines cut through making them either difficult or impossible to understand part of the family news contained therein.
We also read in March that the GMB union discovered that a blacklist, kept by the Consulting Association, used by employers to flag up workers involved in union or political activity or whistleblowers who raised health and safety issues, also included about 240 environmental activists.
A complaint will be made to Royal Mail – this time the postman who was consulted said that he was unable to put matters right – but gave the correct address after some prompting.
We encourage readers who are facing this problem to do this – with a copy to their MP.