on the world: a view on human rights
In recent years, laws curtailing civil liberties and sanctioning greater surveillance of British citizens and residents have been passed in the Houses of Parliament, making it an unusual venue for a meeting on the Undercover Police Inquiry, even though the inquiry core participants include a number of politicians.
A public meeting was hosted there by Naz Shah MP on Tuesday 10 October to discuss recent critical events in the trajectory of the inquiry, called for over three years ago. The inquiry should have completed its work and produced a report by now. Instead, not a single piece of evidence has been heard and allegations have come to light that a secret police unit concerned shred evidence weeks after the inquiry was ordered in 2014.
The focus of the meeting lay on the actions of the new inquiry chair: Sir John Mitting is a controversial figure with a long history of work in secret courts and protecting government interests. One of his first actions as chair was to publish a “minded to” note granting restriction orders on the disclosure of the cover and real names of a number of officers involved, on the grounds of protecting the privacy and rights of spies.
Attendees at the meeting passed a unanimous motion demanding Mitting’s resignation. How and when Mitting’s resignation will be formally demanded will be set out in the coming weeks. Neville Lawrence, father of teenager Stephen Lawrence whose racially-motivated murder led to the inquiry, stated “no one trusts him [Mitting]”. A group of women coerced into relationships with undercover officers have already written to the Home Secretary to raise their concerns about his appointment.
In the lead up to this motion, the meeting was introduced by Suresh Grover, from host organisation The Monitoring Group, which since the 1970s has led justice campaigns against racist state violence. His own contact with undercover police officers goes back to the 1990s. He stated core participants are concerned about the slow progress being made and the actions of the new chair. As well as granting restriction orders to officers, Mitting has ordered closed (secret) hearings to hear restriction applications. This is even though for the first time the inquiry has named three former undercover policemen.
People need to know the names of the officers that spied on them and how they operated to be able to hold the state to account. Under Mitting, the inquiry is moving towards a closed inquiry with “a fundamental loss of trust in the authorities”. He called for an open, transparent inquiry to prevent such events happening again.
He also criticised the exclusion of the racial motivation for spying on black activists, particularly given that the inquiry comes off the back of undercover policing of the campaign for justice for murder victim Stephen Lawrence. Black activists are considered “collateral intrusion” by the police. Although marginalised, the role of racism is particularly important, given that the first undercover secret police unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS – 1968 – 2008), adopted methods used in anti-colonial struggles.
Baroness Jenny Jones, the only other politician at the meeting, was on the Metropolitan Police’s “domestic extremism” database. She was denied core participant status by Lord Pitchford, the previous chair, as she had been spied on by regular police and not a covert unit. A police whistleblower told her the police had destroyed its files on her to prevent her “from discovering the extent of the police’s monitoring of her political activities”. This is in spite of her having no criminal record and serving on the Metropolitan Police Authority and as a former Deputy Mayor of London. She called it part of a bigger picture under the repressive Conservative government and called for activists to continue raising the issue to ensure it does not go away.
Guardian journalist and author Rob Evans, who has done extensive work on undercover policing, said that in 2010 the public knew little about the issue and that more has emerged since largely due to the work of people who have been spied on. He read out a statement by former undercover policeman and whistleblower Peter Francis in which he stated that he was still waiting to hear whether he is going to prosecuted for the revelations he first made to The Observer newspaper in 2010. He also stated that he refuses to be part of the ongoing police cover up through the inquiry.
Imran Khan, solicitor for Stephen Lawrence’s family and a number of core participants, traced the history of the inquiry. He said that he did not think that his clients would be spied on. However, following Peter Francis’ revelations, an inquiry was sought. This was delayed due to Operation Herne on undercover policing and the Ellison Review into allegations of corruption in the police investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder; the findings of the latter led the Home Secretary to call for an inquiry.
However, rather than look at the single issue of spying on the Stephen Lawrence family campaign, the matter was found to be broader and ongoing since 1968. Initially, participants had high hopes and expected the police to cooperate. Instead, information has not been forthcoming and the police still insist on anonymity.
He expressed concern about the decisions made by Mitting, stating that he works on the premise that undercover policing is part of the apparatus of the state. The initial purpose of the inquiry was whether undercover policing is ever justified in a democratic state, but it is now veering towards the question of what kind of undercover policing is desireable. The change of focus is likely to lead many participants to abandon the inquiry, which is what the police want. Unless the inquiry achieves its initial aims and the purpose for which it was set up, the situation will repeat itself and, particularly with the broad surveillance sanctioned by the threat of terrorism, would create a police state.
Stafford Scott from Tottenham Rights focused on the black community’s experience of undercover policing and how it is being marginalised by the inquiry, particularly through the police’s consideration of black activists as collateral intrusion, when in fact black and Asian groups have long been a direct target of police spying, surveillance and institutional racism. There was no need to spy on such campaigns, active since the 1980s, as they acted openly and sought justice, not infiltration.
He called the term “core participant” a euphemism for “victims” of a state that kills members of communities and then expects communities to accept that. There are 170 core participants, represented by 13 lawyers, most of whom are white, as is the judge. There is thus a lack of representation of ethnic minorities and of the role played by race in the matter.
He stated that the inquiry cannot be ditched as that would be giving in to the police and that under Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the state and police are coming closer together. He criticised the role of Mitting; although no evidence has been heard, under Mitting, this would be done behind closed doors. Further criticism of Mitting’s closed sessions was expressed in a statement read out on behalf of Michael Mansfield QC.
Helen Steel spoke about her experiences as a woman deceived into a relationship with an undercover policeman. She had a two-year relationship with a policeman called John Dines, whom she knew as John Barker. Having met at a London Greenpeace meeting, he emotionally manipulated her with a story about the loss of his family. They moved in together and talked about having a family. After 18 months, he had a mental breakdown and disappeared shortly afterwards. When she tried to track him down, she found out he had been using the identity of a child who died years ago. She only learned more 18 years later when another woman came forward with a similar story.
Eight women brought cases against the Metropolitan Police involving five officers over 20 years. What emerged was a systematic pattern of behaviour and the realisation that there was institutional sexism against women. The Met apologised in 2015 but it offered no disclosure or explanation of why it happened. No one has been held to account.
Over 1000 groups have been spied on but the police refuse to name them. The inquiry has revealed nothing new so far. These police units were used for intelligence gathering, not investigating crimes. In order for people to come to terms with the truth they need to see the information held about them. The inquiry also needs to broaden its scope abroad as many undercover officers operated internationally; the Scottish police are also excluded from the inquiry.
Neville Lawrence spoke briefly about the impact on his family and the pain caused to them by the police’s actions.
As well as calling for the resignation of Sir Mitting and transparency, speakers highlighted the power imbalance between those affected and the state, with the police setting the pace of the inquiry, manipulating its terms and even demanding respect for their privacy after extensive gross intrusion into the private lives of many people and communities.
Time is of the essence as the inquiry heads towards its fourth year without any evidence having been heard. Core participants and the concerned public must act now to save the inquiry and get it back on track, with the core participants at its heart. In a world of increased surveillance and state intrusion into private lives, the consequences of not resolving the issue could be drastic.
Background on the issue: https://onesmallwindow.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/spy-cops-watching-me-watching-you/