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Goldsmiths and MI5- Trying to access the archives

The headquarters of the current Security Service, MI5 at Thames House on the north side of the River Thames. Image: MI5 Thames House Image Gallery, (OGL v1.0).

The Goldsmiths’ History Project becomes the subject of a freedom of information battle this week.

The Information Tribunal First Tier in London is hearing an appeal by Goldsmiths’ historian Professor Tim Crook on his application for MI5/Security Service files kept on staff and students before 1989.

This will take place in Court 7 Field House, 15-25 Breams Buildings
London, EC4A 1DZ starting on Wednesday 10th July at 10 a.m.

The Tribunal has allocated two days to the case.

There are significant events in the history of the staff and students where the perception of political extremism and actions may well have attracted the engagement and interest of the Security Service otherwise known as MI5.

The Communist cell forcing a Warden’s resignation

Cover of “Golden Sunrise’- Sir Ross Chesterman’s memoirs.

In his candid memoir ‘Golden Sunrise: The Story of Goldsmiths’ College 1953-1974’, the fifth Warden (or Chief Executive), Sir Ross Chesterman, wrote that on his appointment in 1953 he learned that:

“…the Communist Party had succeeded in establishing a cell in the College – a collection of about half a dozen men and women dedicated to the communist cause, and prepared to further their way by all kinds of obstructive actions. […] The communists were so well organized that they had managed to dislodge the previous Warden who, realizing that he was defeated, had resigned his post, taken Holy Orders and had gone to run a small North of English Church College.”

He reported that Metropolitan Police Special Branch were visitors to the College ‘collecting information about left-wing activities.’

It is a fact that the previous Warden, Mr. Aubrey Price, did resign one year before the completion of his first four-year term.

His resignation was received with great regret by the University of London Goldsmiths’ College Delegacy.

Although submitted to the agenda and identified as part of the minutes of the relevant Delegacy meeting, his resignation letter has been removed from the College archives.

The student union President who went to Moscow

Sir Ross Chesterman, Warden of Goldsmiths’ College 1953 to 1974. Image: Goldsmiths Archives

Sir Ross Chesterman further writes about a President of the Goldsmiths’ College Student Union in 1952-3 ‘with very pronounced left-wing views’ who embezzled several hundred pounds from student union funds to finance his expensive trips to Moscow, Russia and other Soviet controlled Warsaw Pact countries.

In a remarkable account Sir Ross describes choosing not to prosecute the Student Union President in return for his paying off the debt over many years.

The individual given the pseudonym ‘Fred Soames’ was in all probability the late Clifford Peter Faith whose visits to Russia and Moscow led to regular cultural and educational delegations visiting the College during the height of the Cold War and being awarded the special Soviet emblem of ‘the best college in English Universities.’

Clifford Peter Faith’s report on a violent incident he witnessed behind the Iron Curtain for Goldsmiths’ College magazine in 1953.

Extremist students supporting fascism and terrorism

The College archives disclose texts and articles that caused distress and consternation at the time of their publication.

Virulently anti-Semitic and misogynistic propaganda was signed off as ‘The Fascist’ during the early 1930s.

Another student gave himself the moniker ‘Nationalist’ when justifying the deadly terrorist bombing of Coventry and other places in Britain in 1939 and early 1940.

CND, Vietnam and the 1960s

College students and staff played key roles during the 1960s in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the violent protests against the Vietnam War in London in 1968.

Bertrand Russell (centre), alongside his wife Edith and Ralph Schoenman with Michael Randle (second left), leading an anti-nuclear march in London, 18 February 1961. Image: Tony French CC BY-SA 3.0

The Student weekly newspaper Smith News ran the story in 1969 that Metropolitan Police Special Branch had been given access to student files. The decision and debate arising were highly controversial matters for both students and staff.

Government agents posing as students

The current Mitting Inquiry into undercover policing has received evidence from a Goldsmiths trainee teacher student at the College between 1972 and 1975 in which she sets out her experience of being deceived into an intimate relationship by a police officer posing as a student activist.

While the connection here is with the activities of the police ‘Special Demonstration Squad’ the statement of the anonymized ‘Mary’ raises the acute public interest issue of disproportionate methods being deployed by the state to gather information on activities which are on the borderline of political activism and political subversion and a threat to national security.

What are the connections with MI5 and files collected and kept on Goldsmiths student and staff activists?

A further statement to the inquiry by Tamsin Allen of Bindmans LLP contains multiple references to another political activist student at the College during this time, Richard Chessum, making allegations about the same undercover police officer with the cover name Rick Gibson having intimate relationships with other Goldsmiths’ College students while investigating political activism.

Goldsmiths- the happy home of the Communist Party of Great Britain?

University of London, Goldsmiths’ College seems to have been the spiritual and ideological home of the London District of the Communist Party of Great Britain- the largest and most influential part of the CPGB.

The annual congresses of the London District were regularly held at Goldsmiths by the invitation of the student union throughout the twentieth century up until at least 1982.

Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. Image: Paasikivi. CC BY-SA 4.0

This was at a time when the Communist Party of Great Britain had always been the subject of surveillance by the Security Service.

The CPGB was a political organisation committed to supporting revolutionary action to achieve its political objectives and the recipient of financial support from the Soviet Union.

The College archives reveal that in 1953, the College had the distinction of hosting both a left-wing Socialist Society and a separate Communist Society run by the students and supported by members of staff.

The legal issues

Professor Crook’s appeal is being opposed by both the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Home Office.

They argue that the Security Service/MI5 is not subject to FOI law and any information relating to security bodies has absolute exemption status on a neither confirm/nor deny basis.

They also say the Home Office has never been responsible for MI5 archives and information.

In short as they did not hold the information requested, the appeal must fail.

Professor Crook’s position is that MI5 was the responsibility of the Home Office before the Security Service Act 1989.

He submits that a ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, Magyar Helsinki v Hungary 2016, gives him a standing right to public interest information for historical research purposes.

The Home Office is going to be represented by counsel to oppose his appeal.

The hearing is open to the public.

The appeal is a test case challenging the absolute exemption blocking historical researchers from requests for files and information held by the intelligence agencies relating to people and events more than 30 years ago.

If Professor Crook is successful in persuading the Tribunal that MI5 was the constitutional and legal responsibility of the Home Office before 1989, this could open a gateway for FOI applications for historians in this area.

The appeal is supported by the Chartered Institute of Journalists, which has campaigned for FOI access to the historical files of the intelligence agencies where there is no risk to the interests of national security.

Update 23rd July 2019

Judge Alexandra Marks CBE ruled Friday 19th July that the Home Office did not hold the information at the time Professor Crook made his FOI request and dismissed his appeal.

In her ruling Judge Marks observed that Professor Crook submitted at the hearing:

  1. The Security Service Act did not reform MI5 but transformed it (from an executive function of the Home Office (HO) to a separate statutory body). Though MI5 was not ‘part of’ the HO, it was ‘of’ the HO.
  2. HO is the responsible state government body that should provide access to the information requested.
  3. Because of the public interest of his academic historical research project, the ‘standing information right’ determined by Magyar fits this case ‘like a glove’.
  4. The Tribunal has the opportunity – for the first time – to decide that Article 10 rights apply to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The ‘parallel’ route – namely seeking information from a public body under the common law and, if access to such information is denied, applying for judicial review – is neither preferable nor necessary. It is also a burdensomely expensive course for an academic historian;
  5. HO’s position of ‘closing the gate’ to FOIA by saying it does not hold the information is not sustainable after Magyar. That case changed the jurisprudential environment by recognising a standing right to state information, thus serving democratic accountability and academic research.

The Tribunal rejected all of Professor Crook’s grounds of appeal. It decided that as the Home Office did not legally hold the information at the time the request was made, the Article 10 issues did not arise.

Professor Crook says: ‘Journalists and academic researchers in Britain should have been given freedom of information access rights to state information as a result of the ECtHR Grand Chamber ruling in 2016.

Yet, the UK Freedom of Information legal regime has very little to do with providing actual freedom to information.

I’m wanting access to historical information that is more than 30 years’ old and is not likely to pose any threat to national security.’

The decision of the Information Tribunal is downloadable on the link below:

016 190719 DECISION

Update 21st August 2019

An application for leave to appeal to the Upper Tribunal was made to Judge Alexandra Marks.

Professor Tim Crook argued:

1. The decision on 19th July in EA/2019/0073 means that the current UK legal FOI regime does not provide the applicant with Article 10 freedom of expression rights to access state archives for the purposes of public interest/watchdog historical research when no other human rights are being breached.

This is a denial of remedy under Article 13 of the Human Rights Act and European Convention of Human Rights particularly as the Grand Chamber Ruling in Magyar Helsinki v Hungary 2016 establishes this qualified standing right for the applicant as a matter of jurisprudential principle.

The FOIA is therefore incompatible with Articles 10 and 13 in respect of ECtHR jurisprudence.

The applicant believes the historical information being sought is being physically and/or virtually held by the UK’s Security Service; otherwise known as MI5 which according to section 1 of the Security Service Act 1989 operates ‘under the authority of the Secretary of State’ for the Home Office.

Section 23(3)(a) of FOIA prevents the applicant making any application directly to the present manifestation of the Security Service as constituted by the SSA. As the Security Service operates under the authority of the Home Secretary whose government department is the Home Office, the applicant believed the Home Office was the relevant authority to apply for the information.

The applicant argued that on the balance of probabilities there was evidence in law that prior to the Security Service Act 1989, the Security Service was a covert executive body operating as part of the Home Office and this position further justified the relevance of making the FOI application to the Home Office; particularly as all the information sought related to matters and people occurring before 1989.

By ruling against the applicant’s contention that he had the gateway sought via Section 3(2)(b) of FOIA, he has no remedy available to him to achieve a proper consideration of his Article 10 right to state information for public interest/watchdog historical research purposes.

He argues that the interference with the applicant’s freedom of expression rights was not “necessary in a democratic society,” and there was no “pressing social need” for such abrogation.

In conclusion, the applicant therefore submits that under Human Rights Law, he is entitled to proper consideration of his request for access to the historical information being held.

2. The applicant argues that there is a point of law of general importance about whether on the balance of probabilities he should be denied the engagement of Article 10 rights because the State government body applied to ‘did not hold’ the information sought when it was applied for.

3. The applicant argues that on the balance of probabilities he did demonstrate in law that the information requested was held by a security service under the legal constitutional and executive control of the Home Office and the Secretary of State for that government department e.g the Home Secretary.

On 20th August 2019 Judge Marks CBE refused leave to appeal and her decision is downloadable on the link below.

019 200819 PTA Ruling

Forthcoming ‘That’s So Goldsmiths’- an investigative history of Goldsmiths, University of London by Professor Tim Crook.


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