The public inquiry into undercover policing, which has just held its third phase of hearings, is on course to become one of the longest ever. It was set up in 2015 by the then home secretary, Theresa May, after decades of abuses by undercover police came to light. The proximate cause was that London’s Metropolitan police force had spied on the Stephen Lawrence family campaign to discredit it. By then, the public was also aware that officers had deceived multiple women into long-term relationships to infiltrate political groups, and used dead children’s identities. This was an espionage operation within Britain. The inquiry is looking at 139 officers spying on at least 1,000 mainly leftwing political groups since 1968.
Ever since it was revealed that at least 20 officers formed intimate bonds with women as a means of winning activists’ trust, a key question has been: who knew? A new book by five of the women, Deep Deception, makes it painfully clear how much it matters to them to find out. Last year, the former Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) officer Graham Coates gave an answer in his evidence. He said “management knew what was going on” and a “blind eye” was turned to sexual banter. Another former officer, Peter Francis, has said managers advised officers to “use condoms”. But over the past fortnight, 13 former senior managers have told the inquiry that none of them knew what officers were doing. If they did not know, how did it happen?
Secret work should be properly monitored and proportionately authorised. In one sense, the assertion of managerial ignorance could let institutions off the hook. But it also undermines the Met’s claim to be a trustworthy and competent organisation. Based on the evidence so far, it is reasonable to conclude that where supervision is absent, abuses will occur.
In years past, activists with suspicions about undercover policing were accused of paranoia. But fears turn out to have been justified. The public inquiry has disclosed that, in 1975, MI5 asked the police to spy on children involved in “subversive activity in schools”. Groups spied on included School Kids Against the Nazis, while the Socialist Workers party was under near-constant surveillance from 1970 to 2007. These were soft targets. By contrast, a decision was taken not to deploy undercover officers in fascist groups because they were too violent. (The SDS first sent an officer to infiltrate the far right in the 1980s.)
The vast majority of police targets were non-violent, with the exception of some animal rights groups. While the choice of targets is perhaps not surprising, based on existing knowledge about police attitudes, the extent of the intrusion into people’s private lives remains shocking. New evidence about the extent of police cooperation with MI5 makes it more so.
Undercover officers are needed to counter terrorism and organised crime. But when things have been shown to go so wrong, there must be accountability. Despite past abuses, ministers refuse to set limits. Last year they chose to override sensible amendments to their covert human intelligence sources bill, which would have protected children, and restricted the kinds of crimes that undercover police can be involved in. This is all the more troubling given that it is unlikely spying on protest groups – and politicians – has stopped. In the police’s view it seems yesterday’s subversives are today’s domestic extremists.
Undercover officers’ sexual relationships with activists were, the inquiry heard, “endemic and common”. With this phase of the inquiry focused on the period up to 1982, all the women tricked into relationships since are still waiting for disclosure. They fought for, and won, an apology. It is cruel to make them wait so long for an explanation.
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