All content from June 2015

Reinforcing Spycops : The National Undercover Scrutiny Panel

PrintIf you haven’t heard of the College of Policing‘s National Undercover Scrutiny Panel, don’t worry. It appears that you weren’t really meant to.

After some mentions on social media, they responded on 12 March with a press release entitled National undercover scrutiny panel set up. This is somewhat misleading, as it had been set up and agreed its terms of reference far earlier, in July last year. It had further meetings in October 2014 and February 2015, still without any public mention.

But who were they? The interest aroused on 12 March forced them to disclose the Panel’s line up the following day.

But how did they get there? A Freedom of Information request was made on 15 March asking for copies of any advertisements that were published seeking Panel members, any documents that outline the desired qualities and/or qualifications for participants, and minutes of any meetings where the selection of participants was discussed.

On 28 May the College of Policing admitted they were in breach of the Freedom of Information Act by not giving an answer within the mandatory time limits. And still, it goes unanswered.

Two weeks after the initial revelations they gave further detail about the Panel’s purpose and belatedly put minutes of meetings online.


As far as we can tell, none of the individuals or groups targeted by the disgraced undercover policing units and methods, nor their legal repesentatives, were informed of the Panel’s formation, let alone asked to participate.

Undercover policing is in the spotlight because of the public outrage following the exposure of the political secret police units. What kind of credible scrutiny can there be when the Panel is laden down with officers involved in the old ways and doesn’t have a voice for those who were abused?

One of those on the Panel is Mick Creedon, who was put in charge of the police’s self-investigation Operation Herne after its previous head Pat Gallan was removed from the post following her ludicrously implausible cover-up testimony at the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Herne is now starkly seen as a damage limitation exercise. There is no clearer example than its response to the revelations about police spying on the Stephen Lawrence campaign.

Two teams, one from Operation Herne, the other led by Mark Ellison QC, looked at the issue. Drawing on the same documents, they issued reports on the very same day. Ellison basically said that the campaign had been spied on and it pointed to much more beyond Lawrence. Herne essentially said the opposite, and even refused to concede that the whistleblower Special Demonstration Squad officer Peter Francis was ever actually in the police.

It is one of the countless examples proving once more what we all already know, that no organisation, especially one with power, can impartially investigate itself. And no matter how well intentioned, such actions can never have credibility.

The establishment of the forthcoming public inquiry is a de facto admission that Herne has failed, that it’s the police marking their own homework, and something wider, more robust and independent is needed to improve the public’s understanding of what has been done to them over the last fifty years.

The political policing scandal is not a partnership issue, this is a perpetrator and victim situation. For the police, their enablers (and the public) to understand what they did wrong, they need to hear it described by those they did it to.

The Scrutiny Panel being established in secret among police officers is an act of bad faith. It appears to be nothing more than an extension of the damage limitation we’ve already seen from some of the officers on the Panel.


They did have two critics of the police on the Panel. Ben Bowling is professor of criminology and criminal justice at King’s College, London. He was one of the founders of the Monitoring Group who have been powerful advocates for people who have been racially victimised by individuals and the state over the last thirty years. He gave an excellent talk, ‘From Robert Peel to Spycops; Where Did It All Go Wrong?‘ at the Monitoring Group’s extraordinary Police Corruption, Spying, Racism and Accountability conference on Saturday 7 February, just two days after attending a Panel meeting.

Sophie Khan is solicitor-director at Sophie Khan & Co, who specialise in actions against the police, and also an occasional media commentator where she is an advocate of civil liberties and often critical of policing.

Ahead of the Panel meeting at the end of April she posted on her Telegraph blog that

Vested interests are being protected by the police-led Panel but what about the rights of those who will be subjected to undercover policing? Do they not have a right to be heard and for their interest to be considered?

She wanted the process to

include more non-police voices, campaigners and activists who challenge undercover policing. This has been advanced in previous meetings, but there has been no change in the police-led, police-focused and police-chaired panel.


A fortnight later, just three weeks ago, she was exhorting people to join the Panel process and ‘be part of the solution’. This week she stood down from the Panel and, to her credit, boldly made it public, saying


I am disappointed that the College of Policing has asked me and others to volunteer for a Panel that was never designed to progress the work on undercover policing.

The lack of transparency and the imposition of public official duties on private individuals has also contributed to my decision.


It’s surprising that it took eleven months to realise that an opaque police body was intended to shore up existing methods. Like so many of the previous official reports and inquiries on this issue, it was designed to be seen to be doing something rather than actually doing anything, to bolster rather than challenge police power and credibility.

That last bit of Khan’s about imposing public duties is intriguing and somewhat cryptic. We can only hope that she will explain it in the more detailed piece she’s said will follow shortly.

As far as we know, Professor Ben Bowling remains on the Panel.

We are grateful to the Undercover Research Group for their piece this week on the Panel, and particularly for their characteristically thorough profiling of all the Panel’s members.