Undercover policing and the Pitchford Inquiry


Writing for Corporate Watch, the Undercover Research Group give their take on the Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing and what activists and those targeted by police operations can hope to get from it. They set out what the Inquiry will do, discuss the role activists can play in it, and regret what it will not cover, including corporate spying and blacklisting.

Last month, Lord Justice Pitchford opened the public inquiry into undercover policing. It comes on the back of five years of revelations about the roles played by undercover officers targeting left wing, environmental and family justice campaigns such as those of Ricky Reel and Stephen Lawrence. The revelations have been snowballing since the exposure of Mark Kennedy in October 2010 – particularly with the coming forward of former undercover Peter Francis as a whistleblower – and demonstrated the abuse and corruption that sits at the heart of the police system. Even an internal police report had to admit that the units were out of control.

Books such as the Guardian journalists Rob Evans & Paul Lewis’s Undercover, and Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain’ Blacklisted have brought the issue to public attention. Meanwhile, court cases and vigourous campaigning from the likes of Police Spies Out Of Lives, The Monitoring Group, the Sack Bob Lambert Campaign and the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance have kept the public pressure on.

It’s fair to say there has been widespread public revulsion over the activities of the undercovers – whether the sexual and emotional abuse entailed in having relationships with those they were targeting, the theft of identities of dead children or the spying on those who just wanted answers on police inaction over the tragic deaths of their loved ones.

There are two current state investigations into police activities. Operation Herne is the Metropolitan Police investigation, which cannot be said to have covered itself with glory and is generally derided by campaign groups and those affected. The Ellison Review is the Home Office response, overseen by Mark Ellison, the barrister who successfully prosecuted two of Stephen Lawrence murderers. Mostly looking at the same evidence as Operation Herne, he drew much stronger conclusions that were critical of the police. His reports were considered “devastating” by Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe.

The Pitchford Inquiry

In the face of all this, the Home Secretary answered the calls for a public inquiry and appointed Justice Pitchford to lead it. The Inquiry has its own website, where the terms of reference and other material is published.

It will cover:

  • All aspects of undercover policing, including operational matters, training, management, legal framework, justification, governance and oversight.
  • All policing operations in England and Wales from 1968 onwards. The 1968 date corresponds with the founding of the most notorious spy unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, but the Inquiry will take in all instances of police forces using undercovers.
  • The use of tactics such as relationships, stolen identities, and ‘neither confirm nor deny’.
  • Miscarriages of justice – a panel will be established with the police and Crown Prosecution Service to review miscarriages of justice due to non-disclosure of undercover officers in a case. This will include sending referrals to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

(Though no mention of political policing is in the terms of reference, it is thought the focus will be on this rather than other uses of undercover policing such as in drug stings.)

It won’t cover:

  • Undercover police work in Scotland or abroad.
  • The revolving door between police and the corporate intelligence world, including blacklisting.
  • The role of the Security Services.

The hearings will all take place at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The provisional timeline will be a year for gathering evidence, then another year for oral hearings, followed by a final report to the Home Secretary. Thus it may take three years in total.

The inquiry itself will be statutory, so held under the rules of the 2005 Inquiries Act. This gives it considerable powers to summon witnesses. Pitchford has said he will ask the Attorney General to lift the Official Secrets Act from undercover police who want to give evidence, and that evidence given by anyone at the inquiry should not be used to prosecute an individual. This is a key demand of campaigns, who have been calling for the Official Secrets Act to be lifted from Peter Francis.

However, it is clear from Pitchford’s opening remarks that not all evidence will be made public.

What it means for campaigners

We at the Undercover Research Group offer a cautious welcome to the inquiry. We recognise that under its terms of conditions it covers a lot of material. However, we are disappointed that corporate spying and blacklisting are not included as there is clearly collusion going on and it does form such an important part of the story. We do not think the full story of miscarriages of justice, of the intrusion into people’s lives and attacks on political campaigns can be understood without this side of things.

Equally disappointing is the lack of investigation into the transnational aspect of undercover policing – it is now well know just how significant a part of the activities this was of undercover police, and that they engaged in illegal activity during this, something that affects people in other countries.

We are however, not surprised that again the Security Services avoid accountability, even though it is clear they are running similar programmes of spying.

However, the Inquiry is a rare chance to understand this secretive world that affects everyone involved in protest and political movements. A common refrain is: ‘why us?’. But it is clear that the state is willing to target anyone who campaigns against the status quo or affects the reputation of the police and the powerful. In 1983, 48 groups in London alone were being investigated by undercover police.

The Inquiry allows members of the public to be ‘core participants‘. This gives people a chance to have a say, to submit and review evidence. Pitchford has made it clear there will not be a proliferation of lawyers, so it is clear those of us affected and who want to input need to be organising ourselves. Those who wish to be core participants need to write to the Inquiry by 18 September 2015.

We appreciate this is impractical for most people affected, and that while some groups will have legal representation, many are not in this position. As a result, the Undercover Research Group is looking at filling this gap for the environmental, animal right, anti-fascist movements, and the left in general, as these are where our own political roots lie. To this end we are going to seek core participant status ourselves, and are inviting people to get in contact. We hope to run a series of round-tables in late 2015 and throughout 2016 to explore this further. If you want to know more, please visit our website.

The police response

The UK’s highest ranking police officer, Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has responded by talking about the bravery of undercover officers – something that provoked ironic laughter among those of us who knew the likes of Mark Kennedy. But Hogan-Howe has form here, writing the original HM Inspectorate of Constabulary whitewash into undercover policing, the first version of which had to be pulped for its demonstrably wrong assertions. He also set up the derided Operation Herne, originally under his protégé DAC Patricia Gallan.

Elsewhere the College of Policing is using that established police tactic of seeking to pre-empt the inquiry by establishing the National Undercover Scrutiny Panel. It aims to provide some form of oversight, and address controversial issues such as ‘neither confirm nor deny’. However, it has got bogged down in debates over public need for accountability versus the police’s fear of transparency. More recent minutes indicate that it seems to be losing momentum as it shrinks dramatically into a group dominated by police and compliant academics.

We fully expect that the police will do everything they can to hide the activities of the undercover officers. They will without doubt focus intensely on how much the Inquiry jeopardises their operations and ‘puts them at risk’ – though what actual risk has never been specified. This will be a smokescreen to avoid a spotlight being put on a culture where anything goes, from fathering kids (Jim Boyling) to fire-bombing shops (Bob Lambert), and where accountability is avoided at all costs. Not to mention the exposure of just how political the undercover work actually is.

If the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry is anything to go by, there will be a lot of debate about formal authorisation of undercover work – hanging out to dry the middle ranking officers who formally gave the go-aheads. However, it is without question that much of what went on was condoned by a whole series of very high-ranking officers, who will now be seeking to protect their reputations.

Plea to Pitchford

If the public inquiry is to have any credibility, it must address what has happened, discover who knew what and disclose the names of those responsible. Without that, there will be no process of accountability, and no real challenge to the culture of abuse that pervades undercover policing. It would make the Inquiry into a whitewash. This is a plea for Pitchford not to bow down to police pressure to obscure facts or to hide behind operational myths to mask the utterly unjustifiable abuses of power.

However, there is a wider picture too. The issue is not just undercover policing in groups. There must be an open debate about the fact that protest groups and political campaigns are targeted in the first place, an odd situation for a government that lauds its democratic values. That journalists and MPs are among those these units had files on shows how far the disease has spread – and that the Wilson doctrine of not spying on those in Parliament was never in place. This spying is not about preventing crime, it is about an undemocratic political control by unaccountable bureaucrats.