The murky world of private security and its involvement in spying on ‘enemies of the state’: the road protest years

What follows is a skeleton summary of the involvement of private security firm Brays – amongst others – in monitoring anti-roads protesters on behalf of the state (at great public expense, almost entirely unaccountably, and largely in secret) during the Thatcher and Major administrations’ massive expansionist programme of building. It is mostly based on Hansard – the official Parliamentary record – and is offered here by way of rekindling interest in the topic, especially as it brings together both the issue of construction industry (and activist) blacklisting, and the use of long-term police (and private) infiltrators.

The Brays Detective Agency was hired to monitor roads protesters during the 1990s – variously by the Department of Transport, the Highways Agency (an Ibbs/Next Steps ‘Executive Agency’ under the purview of DoT) and the Treasury Solicitor.

There is no clear overall picture of exactly how much money was spent, as the various overlapping, conflicting or otherwise obfuscatory Ministerial and Agency replies to Parliamentary questions over the course of three years show:

  • 25 February 1993: £7,000 (detective agency fees to Brays on M3/Twyford Down protests)
  • 26 February 1993: £7,000 (detective agency fees to Brays on M3/Twyford Down protests)
  • 18 March 1993: £7,000 (detective agency fees to Brays on M3/Twyford Down protests)
  • 11 May 1993: £35,000 (detective agency fees on M3/Twyford Down protests since February 1992)
  • 18 January 1994: £256,211 (total manpower costs of security and policing in 1993 for M11 link road)
  • 23 February 1994: £200,000+ (additional costs of police operation on 16 February at M11 link)
  • 23 February 1994: £470,075 (total manpower costs of policing and security since September 1993 at M11 link)
  • 4 March 1994: £228,000 (payments to Brays by DoT from March 1992 to end of January 1994)
  • 4 March 1994: £193,875 (£165,000 ex VAT) (total cost of legal fees to date at Twyford Down)
  • 22 April 1994: £16,163 (additional manpower costs – NI contributions and overtime but not basic pay – for policing at M11 link/Wanstead Common in January)
  • 25 April 1994: £760,000 (total spend with private detective agencies by DoT since 1991)
  • 4 May 1994: £250,829.52 (detective agency fees on M3/Twyford Down protests)
  • 1 July 1994: £253,800 (£216,000 ex VAT) (total legal fees on M3/Twyford Down protests)
  • 14 July 1994: £100,000 (sum set aside to cover HA’s solicitors’ payment to private detective agencies in relation to Batheaston/Swainswick (Solsbury Hill) bypass protests)
  • 14 July 1994: £21,000 (payment due to be made to private detective agencies by HA’s solicitors in relation to Batheaston/Swainswick (Solsbury Hill) bypass protests)
  • 14 July 1994: £71,450 (expenditure to date by HA with Bray’s relating to M11 link, A11 (Norfolk) & Batheaston bypass)
  • 12 December 1994: £1 million (approximate security cost to HA of operation the previous week at M11 link protest site)
  • 12 December 1994: £100,000 (approximate cost to HA of site clearance at Claremont Road M11 link protest)
  • 12 December 1994: £3 million (approximate cost to HA for security staff at M11 link/Claremont Road from September 1993 to date)
  • 12 December 1994: £185,000 (fees paid by HA to Brays for Claremont Road/M11 link)
  • 12 December 1994: £180,000 (approximate legal fees payable by HA for Claremont Road/M11 link)
  • 12 December 1994: £500,000 (estimated monthly cost to HA for security at Claremont Road/M11 link)
  • 12 December 1994: £25,000 (estimated monthly cost to HA for engaging Brays at Claremont Road/M11 link)
  • 12 December 1994: £4,000 (estimated monthly cost in legal fees to HA at Claremont Road/M11 link)
  • 27 February 1995: £267,377 (total sum paid to Brays by DoT up to end of contract 31 July 1994)
  • 21 March 1995: £276,000 (total legal fees payable by HA for M3 Twyford Down protests)
  • 23 March 1995: £310,930 (total expenditure by Treasury Solicitor to Brays for work sponsored by DoT)
  • 5 April 1995: £294,000 (payments to Brays by HA, M11 link)
  • 5 April 1995: £25,000 (monthly payments to Brays by HA, M11 link)
  • 5 April 1995: £150,000 (payments to Brays by HA, Batheaston bypass)
  • 5 April 1995: £259,000 (payments to Brays by HA, M3 Twyford Down)
  • 5 April 1995: £1,500 (payments to Brays by HA, M65 Blackburn)
  • 5 April 1995: £200 (payments to other detective agencies by HA, M65 Blackburn)
  • 5 April 1995: £300 (payments to Brays by HA, A34 Newbury Bypass)
  • 5 April 1995: £450 (payments to Brays by HA, A11 Besthorpe-Wymondham)
  • 5 April 1995: £705,450 (total payments to Brays & other detective agencies by HA in relation to road protests)
  • 9 January 1996: £950,588 (total expenditure by HA’s solicitors on services supplied by Brays)

John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen raised some interesting points in his adjournment debate of 2 December 1994:

Twyford down was, as far as I can establish, the first time that widespread surveillance was carried out on British people by private detective agencies acting on behalf of the Government. Secondly, the Government have played a direct role in the retention of private security guards who used violence against protestors. Thirdly, the Government are now pursuing, at taxpayers’ expense, a punitive legal action against people who allegedly took part in protests of the most innocuous and innocent form.

Brays detective agency was hired, for what turned out to be a cost of more than £250,000, to take photographs of protesters and to serve papers on them. As far as I can establish, that scale of surveillance has never been undertaken by any Department. The privatisation of surveillance and snooping should therefore have been approached with great sensitivity and care—but far from it.

There are no guidelines, either in the Department of Transport or in the Government, as to the use of private detective agencies. I asked the National Audit Office to investigate the hiring of Brays, and the Comptroller and Auditor General confirmed to me in a letter dated 18 October that expenditure on Brays was allowed to grow from an initial £836 allowed within delegated authorisation to £250,000.

Expenditure reached nearly £100,000 before a proper written contract was let—albeit then without competitive tendering. It was only after I had tabled parliamentary questions about contracts that any formal contract was let. The Comptroller and Auditor General concluded: Whilst the Department felt they had to respond quickly to the escalating protest action it is still important for them to follow authorised contract procedures … in this case, however, the Department neither established a contract when the scope of the work changed from a one-off action to an on-going surveillance operation, nor held a competitive tender exercise once they recognised the extent of the work involved. The rules of the Department were not followed.

The National Audit Office was clearly not initially convinced that expenditure on Brays was even legal. The Comptroller and Auditor General wrote to me, saying: there were no special guidelines in place on employing private detective agencies; our financial auditors have looked into whether this expenditure should have treated as novel and contentious, and therefore subject to Treasury approval. I understand that the Treasury has now ruled that the expenditure was allowable, and there I suspect that the issue will remain unless it is challenged in the courts.

I must say that I doubt whether Parliament has ever knowingly voted money to the Department of Transport for such a use of private detective agencies. I hope that we can be told what the role of Ministers was in the affair. Were all the decisions taken by junior civil servants rattling around out of control, or were Ministers involved in the decisions on the surveillance? If so, which Minister took the decision to use Brays in this role, to overrule normal contracting procedures and to spend £250,000 of public money? I hope that the Minister for Railways and Roads can tell the House the answers.

Exactly who Brays were/are is an interesting question. The company has a surprisingly light internet footprint, comprising mostly an array of corporate records (such company and director filings) which are difficult to hide, being legally required documentation and made available for free by Companies House licensees such as Duedil, or else references on listings sites derived from scraped content from same.

A moderately detailed search on Brays will tell you that it began as a detective agency in 1929, but with little or no more detail than that.

In terms of Brays’ involvement in the monitoring of roads protests, the first reference to them comes on 11 November 1992, again via John Denham MP, during a debate on the Rio Agreement:

Are there no limits on how far the Government will sink in the promotion of environmental destruction, including the hiring of a private detective agency, Bray’s detective agency of Southampton, to photograph peaceful protesters at Twyford Down? Does the Minister have any limits as to how far the Government will go in destroying the environment and suspending the basic civil liberties of Her Majesty’s subjects?

On 18 November 1992 Roads & Traffic Minister Kenneth Carlisle MP acknowledged that the Department of Transport “has employed Bray’s Detective Agency (Southampton) Ltd. to serve papers on people who have trespassed on the Department’s land and to photograph trespassers” in relation to protests against the M3 extension at Twyford Down.

Carlisle further admitted that Brays “has been employed from time to time since March this year on an hourly basis at its standard rates, plus expenses,” an arrangement he envisages “will continue to be employed on this basis for as long as necessary.” (A statement by Carlisle on 4 March 1994 confirms that Brays was engaged by the DoT in March 1992, adding that “its contract runs until the end of July 1994”.)

A week later, on 25 November, Carlisle states (whilst describing the range of work for which the DoT might use private detectives) that “the cost of tracing an individual is usually in the range of £60 to £90 per case.”

The first reference to the specific cost to the tax payer of the DoT’s arrangement with Brays in relation to roads protests is, as noted in the list above, on 25 February 1993, when Mr Carlisle states that Brays – recommended to the Department by the Twyford Down engineer (presumably WS Atkins) – has up until that point “been paid approximately £7,000.” The £7,000 figure is repeated in Carlisle’s response to Bob Cryer MP the next day (26 February 1993), and then again on 18 March in response to a question from Mike Gapes MP.

Yet in just over a month, the cost of doing business had jumped up six-fold to £35,000, according to Carlisle’s 11 May response to Denham, snowballing yet further to £228,000 by the end of January 1994 (according to a subsequent Carlisle statement on 4 March), and then £250, 829.52 a couple of months later (see written answer on 4 May 1994 by Carlisle’s successor as Minister for Roads & Traffic, Robert Key MP).

Curiously, by 25 April 1994 Key was telling Martyn Jones MP that the Department of Transport had spent a whopping £760,000 on private detective agencies since 1991. No breakdown was offered of when, where and with whom this vast amount of spy cash was doled out.

The government did not even seem to be getting value for money, regardless of the constitutional or ethical ins and outs of spying on the citizenry. In his 11 May 1994 comment, Carlisle stated that Brays had by then served papers on “an additional three individuals” to the three served at the time of his 12 March statement (serving papers being – according to Denham himself on 25 February the sole reason for engaging Brays in the first place). In other words, by its own figures the government was paying a private company nearly £6,000 to serve papers on each protester accused of committing a civil offence of trespass.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

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2 responses to “The murky world of private security and its involvement in spying on ‘enemies of the state’: the road protest years

  1. how do i get a password?thnks

    >

  2. Hi Cathy – sorry, it’s just a work-in-progress I’m sharing with someone else at the moment – hopefully once it’s all tidied up and completed I will be able to publish it properly.

    PS I see on your blog you’re having trouble getting PDFs to display as images – I don’t think that’s a library network issue, I think it’s just that WordPress.com automatically renders PDF files as links not images.

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