MI5 asked police chiefs to gather information on the political activities of schoolchildren as young as 14, according to a public investigation into undercover police.
The request, distributed to police chiefs across Britain in 1975, was approved by the head of the Security Service and a senior Whitehall official.
A covert police unit regularly stored files that recorded students’ political beliefs, along with photographs of them. These included reports of a 17-year-old man who was said to be spending “much of his free time” at his girlfriend’s home, and two schoolchildren, then 14 and 16, who were described by undercover agents as ” effeminate “.
Among the spies were schoolchildren campaigning against fascists who were carrying out violent attacks on vulnerable ethnic minorities.
Details of the MI5’s secret petition were revealed in the public investigation into the undercover police scandal, which resumed on Monday.
The investigation, led by retired Judge Sir John Mitting, examines how undercover police officers spied on 1,000 mostly left-wing political groups for more than 40 years. The investigation was created after a series of revelations about the behavior of undercover spies, such as cheating on women in intimate relationships and controlling bereaved families.
Over the next two weeks, the investigation will interrogate the directors of the covert unit of the Special Demonstration Squadron, who were responsible for authorizing and overseeing the early stages of infiltration operations between 1968 and 1982.
The current round of public hearings opened with a statement from David Barr QC, the lead lawyer for the investigation.
Barr revealed previously secret documents suggesting that Whitehall senior officials had questioned in the 1970s whether police were gathering too much information about political activists, but apparently had not acted on their concerns.
For years, MI5 and undercover police officers worked closely to spy on thousands of political activists and compile huge files recording their activities. This large-scale surveillance has led to allegations that the state violated the civil liberties of activists engaged in peaceful and lawful campaigns.
Barr highlighted the request that MI5 circulated to police chiefs in December 1975 about what he called “subversive activity in schools.”
MI5 said it wanted information on “older students (14 years of age or older) who are active in subversive organizations that are being exploited for subversive purposes.” He also called for details from teachers who “use their position for subversive purposes, for example, trying to convert students or make school facilities available to subversive organizations.”
Barr said MI5 acknowledged the “sensitivity” of the request, adding: “We do not ask you to consult schools on our behalf, but we would appreciate any help you can give us information that comes to you from local newspapers or from the public, or from other sources outside of schools that you can use without risk of embarrassment ”.
He said the request had been approved by Sir Michael Hanley, then director general of MI5, and Sir Arthur Peterson, then the highest official in the Home Office.
Barr added that the request could explain why undercover police officers had spied on children involved in political activism, citing their “extensive” reports of a group called School Kids Against the Nazis (SKAN). A large number of schoolchildren joined this group in the 1970s to oppose the fascists who recruited followers into the schools.
The investigation has previously examined reports on SKAN compiled by Paul Gray, a covert officer who infiltrated the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and the Anti-Nazi League between 1978 and 1982. Gray told the investigation last year that ” “It was taken into account by me for the convenience of reporting on the children. They were active members of the SWP who took part in demonstrations.”
Gray had also said that these reports would update existing police files on school students and allow police to identify them at future demonstrations.
Barr highlighted documents that he said showed that in the late 1970s, senior Interior Ministry officials had concerns about the scope of police surveillance of political activists. They noted, for example, that a young man was being watched “because of badges he wore when he passed through Dover indicating that he was opposed to racism.”