The not-so-public inquiry into undercover policing has started its evidence hearings

BSC member Raphael Schlembach reports on the oral evidence hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in England and Wales.

Undercover Police Unit

Raphael Schlembach is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. His research interests span social theory, criminal justice and political protest.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015, finally has begun to hear oral evidence. Yet, most participants remain side-lined and national security considerations dominate the proceedings. This article argues that the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Mitting, has lost the confidence of the majority of those with an interest in the scandal of undercover policing – victims, campaigners, journalists, academics – with the exception of the police and state representatives. Nevertheless, criminologists and policing scholars should follow the proceedings with interest.

A grainy photograph (see above) released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows the first undercover police unit set up in 1968, led by chief inspector Conrad Dixon with the blue jacket, deployed to spy on potential ‘subversives’.

It took a while. After some five years, £30million in mostly staffing or legal costs, and over a hundred anonymity orders preventing the publication of the names (and sometimes cover names) of former undercover officers, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) has held its first set of evidence hearings in the first half of November 2020.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Mitting, a former High Court judge, had been set up in 2015 by Theresa May as a public inquiry according to the 2005 Inquiries Act. Three home secretaries later, the UCPI finally has had its first police witnesses on a zoom call, though unless you are one of the few registered parties allowed to view the stream in a four star London hotel, you are restricted to follow a live transcript. That’s one of the many reasons, as its critics assert, that the inquiry is “public” in name only.

According to his remit, Mitting is tasked to ‘inquire into and report on undercover policing operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968’. But the context is much more specific and inherently political, as the first three weeks of evidence hearings confirmed.

In this first phase of its work, the UCPI considered evidence about the period from July 1968 to the end of 1972. In March 1968, following a large rally to protest against the Vietnam war, a large part of the demonstration entered Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, home to the American embassy. Protesters pushed back police lines and mounted police responded with charges and mass arrests. It was the impetus for a new, secretive unit reporting to Special Branch, eventually called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

SDS officers grew long hair and beards and adopted the cover identities of progressives and revolutionaries. Their first target was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and its key figures, including Tariq Ali and Ernie Tate. During the 1970s and 1980s followed long-term infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist and anti-racist groups. Later they also included animal rights groups, environmental protesters and some far right groups.

Giving his evidence over a full day of questioning, Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist author and intellectual, said that he has been spied upon by at least 14 undercover police officers over several decades. The surveillance continued until at least 2003, when Ali was on the national committee of the Stop the War Coalition mobilising against the invasion of Iraq.

There is considerable public interest in undercover policing, especially the targeting of so-called subversives and political radicals by the SDS and its successor organisation, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which apparently disbanded, or rebranded, in 2011. Over the next two years, the public inquiry will hear further evidence from former police officers and from those subjected to intrusive surveillance about the undercover deployments and their effects. Of particular concern are:

  • The deployment of undercover officers to infiltrate and monitor primarily left-wing political groups and individuals, including elected representatives
  • Methods of deception that included long-term friendships and sexual relationships with activists
  • The creation of cover identities based on the details found on the birth and death records of deceased children, without their parents’ knowledge or consent
  • The monitoring of trade union activity that led to the blacklisting of workers
  • Officers attending criminal courts in their cover names, contributing to large-scale miscarriages of justice

I have followed the work of the UCPI for almost five years, observing most of its preliminary hearings held in the Royal Courts of Justice from 2016 to 2019. I witnessed delays and legal arguments that some said were deliberate tactics of obfuscation and obstruction on the part of police lawyers. The inquisitorial process quickly turned adversarial, with activists, researchers and media representatives arguing for full disclosure, while those representing the Home Office and various police bodies attempted to guarantee maximum secrecy, anonymity and document redactions.

The start of the evidence hearings did not settle the concerns of non-state non-police participants that their participation mattered only as an afterthought. One recalled ‘the impression that the Inquiry believes it can do its work without the non-state non-police core participants if needed’. Another, the blacklisted trade unionist and author Dave Smith, compared the inquiry to the Magisterium in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, clinging on to an outmoded and alternative truth.

As an academic observer, I had intended to follow evidence hearings as best as possible. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, public access to the proceedings looked to be severely restricted. Crucially, the Chair ruled out a live stream, as is now customary for example in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Observers had to attend in person. Due to the pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the UCPI then decided to conduct this phase of hearings virtually. Instead of a publically accessible video or audio feed, a single live stream of the oral evidence was transmitted to a venue in a central London hotel. Even senior media observers complained, with the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeting that the lack of a video link to the virtual hearings ‘basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report.’ Anyone who wanted to follow the proceedings had to apply to attend each day separately, with limited places to maintain social distancing.

And just as England was placed into a renewed lockdown, the Chairman, in his interpretation of the Public Health Regulations, withdrew attendance rights from members of the public. Although journalists and recognised core participants received exceptions, academic researchers did not.

Beyond my professional engagement, I admit to a personal interest in the inquiry’s work. As a student activist for a variety of political causes, I now know that I encountered at least three undercover police officers who had infiltrated the groups that I belonged to. As fellow activists, they were passing acquaintances, rather than friends. On one occasion, an undercover officer going by the cover name Marco Jacobs acted as an agent provocateur to involve me in a protest and we were both arrested for a conspiracy offence. Though never charged, it allowed police to search my house and confiscate, as ‘evidence’, materials for the PhD that I was working on at the time.

There are thousands of such stories of ‘mundane’ uses of undercover policing employed as a mechanism to control protest and activism. Current estimates have it that over 1,000 political organisations were reported on between 1968 and 2011, though only a fraction of them are currently named.

This is a major public inquiry, which allows us to revisit policing history over more than 50 years. It shifts our attention from the ‘policing by consent’ model, to policing by deception. It also demonstrates the difficulty in holding secretive policing functions to account, even when they apparently covered deeply un-democratic roles.

Few, if any, on the non-police side the proceedings so far, have faith in the ability of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to deliver truth and accountability. It appears to be left to campaigning groups and non-academic researchers to find their own ways to scrutinise the role of undercover policing. Using the hashtag #SpyCops on Twitter, they shine a light on the police infiltration of political movements and demand a genuinely public inquiry.

Contact

Raphael Schlembach, University of Brighton

Email: r.schlembach@brighton.ac.uk

Twitter: @raphschlembach

Images: Courtesy of author