Met police ‘tried to recruit ex-officer to spy on climate change activists’

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

A former police officer who is now a prominent climate crisis campaigner has accused the Metropolitan police of attempting to recruit him to spy on Extinction Rebellion.

Former detective sergeant Paul Stephens, who joined XR after he retired from the London force in 2018, claims he was approached by an officer he knew near Parliament Square during the group’s campaign of non-violent mass civil disobedience in London in October 2019.

“He asked if I wanted to come on the books – to become a covert human intelligence source [Chis],” Stephens said. “But I turned him down straight away. I joined XR to make those in power do something about climate change, not to spy on peaceful people doing their bit for the planet.”

The Met said it could “neither confirm nor deny any Chis activity in relation to Extinction Rebellion”.

Stephens, who was liaising with the police on behalf of XR at the time of the approach, said it was immoral and a waste of resources to target people protesting to stop climate breakdown. “It is wrong to use these devious and intimidating tactics against peaceful protestors. XR is not an organised crime gang or terror cell,” he said.

“The police are desperate to find out who the organisers of Extinction Rebellion are, but there are no organisers. It is a fluid movement – not hierarchical, which the police seem to find very hard to understand.”

Stephens’s claims will raise concerns that the police, who are under intense pressure from the home secretary, Priti Patel, to crack down on the group, have been seeking to build up a network of informants inside XR, which is planning more protests in London in August.

It also comes in the midst of the inquiry into undercover policing, which was set up by the government in 2015 after it had emerged that covert officers had sexual relationships with at least 30 female activists and spied on up to 1,000 groups, including justice campaigns, leftwing parties and environmental movements, over 40 years.

Geraint Davies, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution, said: “Despite the public outcry around the use of covert human intelligence sources to infiltrate peaceful protest groups, it appears this practice is ongoing.”

Davies said undercover agents could encourage people to break the law: “The combination of police powers to ban protests for the risk of serious annoyance and legal immunity for covert agents means they could become agent provocateurs.”

The police are believed to be gathering vast amounts of information about XR activists, whom Patel has branded as criminals who threaten the “UK way of life”. Hundreds of phones and computers belonging to XR members have been seized since the group was set up in 2018.

Related: If defending life on Earth is extremist, we must own that label | George Monbiot

“They have arrested close to 100 people for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, with no one charged so far, but they have seized a hell of a lot of devices and gained a huge amount of information,” said Stephens.

There are at least four other ex-officers involved in XR, including an inspector and a chief superintendent.

Stephens, who served in the Met for more than 30 years, said: “My job in the police used to be about preventing immediate threats to life. But the threat to life from climate change is overwhelming.”

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