What is the Undercover Policing Inquiry Hearing About?

'Undercover is No Excuse for Abuse' banner at the Royal Courts of JusticeThis week sees another preliminary hearing of the public inquiry into Britain’s undercover policing scandal.

BACKGROUND

On 6 March 2014, after more than three years of increasingly shocking revelations about Britain’s political secret police, then-Home Secretary Theresa May ordered a full scale public inquiry. It’s a vast undertaking, involving hundreds of officers spying on thousands of campaigns over fifty years.

It takes in numerous issues – officers deceiving women into life-partner relationships, collusion with industrial blacklisting, theft of identity, undermining democratic rights, spying on elected politicians, undermining campaigns for justice of victims of police killing – any one of which deserves its own inquiry.

The police have tried to obstruct the process at every turn, going so far as applying for it to be held in secret, even though the clue to the fundamental nature of a public inquiry is in the name.

Four years on, the Inquiry has still not properly begun.

WHEN?

On Monday 5 February 2018 the Inquiry will hold another preliminary hearing to decide on elements of its process and approach. The hearing will begin at 10am and will conclude at 4pm at the latest.

WHERE?

It will be held in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL.

WHAT?

Specifically, it is concerned with:

  • Anonymity applications by seven former undercover officers of the Special Demonstration Squad that the Inquiry intends to grant in full – ie to withhold their real and cover names. They are known by the code numbers HN23, HN40, HN58, HN241, HN297, HN322 and HN348
  • The Inquiry’s consultation on a proposal to change the process for determining anonymity applications by undercover officers
  • Submissions relating to images of undercover police officers

The Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Mitting, has said he is not inclined to release the real names or the cover names of any of the seven officers (except for one, HN297, as his cover name has already been known to activists).

Withholding the cover names means the Inquiry cannot perform its most basic function; without them, victims cannot know who among their comrades was an undercover officer, and so we cannot begin to learn from the victims what that officer did.

Without the real names, we will not be in a position to discover if that officer has furthered their abuses by training others in the same methods or by doing the same kind of spying for a private company, both of which are common among the exposed former spycops.

Both police and the victims – referred to as ‘Non-Police Non-State Core Participants’ (NPNSCPs) – have submitted paperwork on their intentions and arguments.

WHO ARE THE SEVEN OFFICERS?

H23 was deployed against one group and reported on other groups in the 1990s. They fear their friends and family will feel betrayed that they kept their spycop past a secret. This is not a valid reason to grant this person anonymity. There is no human right to freedom from embarrassment.

HN40 was deployed against two groups in the last decade of the existence of the SDS (ie 1998-2008). They were prosecuted under their false name. Despite this evidence of perjury and perverting the course of justice, the Inquiry seeks to fully protect the officer.

HN58 was an undercover officer who went on to become a Detective Chief Inspector in charge of the SDS from 1997-2001. This was at the time that the SDS sought to undermine the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, held five years after the teenager was murdered.

At the last Inquiry hearing Sir John Mitting described how various processes had failed to establish the full truth about the police’s reaction to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and that his Inquiry must succeed where others have failed. Hiding the identity of this officer contradicts that, and that’s before we consider what they might have done in their earlier undercover career.

For more information, see the Undercover Research Group’s profile of HN58.

HN241 was deployed against an unspecified group in the early 1970s. The Inquiry says ‘There is a real, but unquantifiable, risk that if the cover name were to be published, the real name could be identified’. It is almost impossible to link the cover name to the real name, unless the officer or other police have given us a link. Indeed, that is the point of having a fake name.

Using this tenuous excuse to relieve an officer of a slight risk of being named means victims of spycops get no information at all and just have to trust the police and Inquiry. Once again, the Inquiry seems to forget that they are here to get the truth about police wrongdoing.

HN297 has already been exposed. He was undercover as Rick Gibson, deployed from July 1974 to July 1976. He infiltrated the South East London branch of the Troops Out Movement (campaigning for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland) and took on roles at the national level in the organisation.

He tried to become a member of socialist feminist revolutionary group Big Flame, but they were suspicious of him. Having discovered he had stolen his identity from a dead child – as was common in the SDS – they confronted him, whereupon he disappeared from their lives.

The officer is now dead. Mitting initially wanted to withhold his real name, lest it upset his widow. However, Mitting has also made a commitment to give the fullest facts to women deceived into relationships by officers and at the last hearing the NPNSCPs’ lawyers dramatically revealed that HN297 had done this to several women. One has now come forward under the name of Mary.

HN322 has no known cover name. He says he was only in the SDS for a few months, probably in late 1968. Records show he was deployed into the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (South East London), though he denies actually doing it.

HN348 was deployed in 1972-73 to infiltrate the Women’s Liberation Front (affiliated to the Women’s Liberation Movement),a group of no more than 12 people. She wants anonymity not because she fears harm – she says the group was non-violent – but because she fears embarrassment if one of the people she spied on found out, and fears her current colleagues might disapprove. 

The Undercover Research Group have produced a helpful table of what’s known about each of the HN-numbered officers.

CONSULTATION ON ANONYMITY

There are somewhere around 200 officers from the spycops units and it is taking an inordinately long time to process them all. The Inquiry wants to limit the amount of supporting evidence it publishes, thus reducing the time spent considering whether it’s safe or appropriate to do so.

The Met have welcomed the proposal. The NPNSCPs say it means taking the police’s word on matters, treating the Inquiry as arbitration rather than investigation into proven police wrongdoing. Granting anonymity orders on the unilateral account of those who seek them, without public scrutiny of the underlying evidence, means we can’t let victims know who spied on them. This means the victims cannot report what the officers did, so the Inquiry cannot command public confidence nor fulfil its purpose.

The NPNSCPs are also calling for more disclosure, with one pointing out that many SDS officers used their skills and methods to encourage or commit similar abuses in the private sector after leaving the police, and only by knowing their real names can we find out which officers have done this.

Harriet Wistrich, lawyer for many of the women deceived into relationships by spycops, has given harrowing details how several officers continued their abuse of the women after their undercover deployment ended.

IMAGES OF OFFICERS

At the previous Inquiry hearing in November, Mitting assured the non-police core participants barrister, Phillippa Kaufmann QC, that they did not have to address the issue of images of officers. As such, it was presumed that pictures of spycops at the time of their deployment could be released when a cover name was.

However, when Mitting’s final orders came out restrictions on the release of images were included. This is outrageous behaviour by Mitting and he should have permitted the issue to be addressed properly when Kaufmann raised it in November.

The NPNSCPs’ lawyers have said that a distinction should be made between pictures that can identify the officer today and those that can identify them when they were undercover. As it was, for most, a long time ago, one would not lead to another. Importantly, photos can be invaluable in jogging the memories of those who were spied upon and thus help them to come forward with their accounts of what happened. Many activists are only known to one another by forenames or nicknames, so images can make the difference in recognition.

The Inquiry has confirmed that any orders made would only apply to pictures issued by the Inquiry, not to those already in people’s possession by any other means.

CAN I GO TO THE HEARING?

The public are welcome, but room is limited. At the last hearing there was an overflow room with a live video link, but this will not be provided this time.

Around 200 significantly affected people have been designated as core participants in the inquiry. Court 73 could only hold a fraction of them, let alone their supporters, so expect a squeeze.

Ten seats are reserved for journalists, if more want to attend they have to take their chances and try for a seat with the rest of us.

HOW CAN I FOLLOW IT ONLINE?

Although it is a public hearing, it is not livestreamed. Several of the activists attending will be live tweeting, including COPS and Tom Fowler, (assuming their batteries are well charged – the room does not have power sockets for core participant/public use). Follow the #spycops hashtag for more.

The Inquiry publishes transcripts of the hearings on the Undercover Policing Inquiry website, usually the same day or the day after.

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