Hats off to Paul Lewis and Channel 4, who last night managed to shed some well-needed light on the extent to which undercover police officers are used to spy on British activists.
‘Dispatches: The Police’s Dirty Secret’ centres around former undercover officer Peter Francis, who has decided to blow the whistle on the operations of the now-defunct SDS (Special Demonstrations Squad). In the programme Francis reveals that he had been instructed to spy on the family of Stephen Lawrence during their campaign for justice in an attempt to obtain any information which could be used to discredit them in the public eye. He also makes further allegations that male officers have routinely been instructed to enter into sexual relationships with female activists in order to gain their trust.
Yesterday politicians were keen to weigh in on the debacle, many (including the PM himself) calling for investigations, inquiries and even prosecutions. Home Secretary Theresa May disappointingly insisted that the matter should be dealt with by the toothless IPCC, whilst others including shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called for an independent and judicially led inquiry.
The Met in their official statement declared:
“At some point it will fall upon this generation of police leaders to account for the activities of our predecessors, but for the moment we must focus on getting to the truth.”
This all sounds laudable enough, but I am disappointed that the discussion around the issue is already being narrowly and poorly framed. Many are rightly shocked that the Lawrence family were targeted in their darkest hour but it is wrong to view that incident in isolation or to brand this as some kind of ‘Stephen Lawrence scandal’. The use of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) more generally needs to be considered and I find it alarming that people are not connecting the dots and realising that this kind of thing still goes on today.
In 2010 Mark Kennedy was famously outed as an operative of the SDS’s successor, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), after having infiltrated left-wing protest groups all over Europe for 7 years. Kennedy had been involved in sexual relationships with several women, the longest of which lasted 6 years.
This raises two issues:
Firstly, why are seemingly-innocuous activist groups being spied on in such an insidious and intrusive manner? After apparently ‘going native’ Kennedy himself admitted in a documentary that those he spied on were good people who cared about the world in which they live, and whom had committed no crime. In one famous case regarding environmental activists who intended to break into Ratcliffe-on-soar powerstation, the judge described the defendants as acting with “the highest possible motives”.
It has also been revealed this week that whilst infiltrating Greenpeace, undercover officer Bob Lambert was actively responsible for the publication which led to the notorious McLibel case, the longest legal battle in history which involved millions in legal costs. Lambert went on to concede that Greenpeace is “a peaceful group”.
How could this action be justified? It is perfectly understandable that covert surveillance can be a useful and necessary tactic for fighting against terrorism or serious organised crime which can present a serious danger to the public. But how can the police justify the use of such tactics to target otherwise law-abiding people who simply oppose racism? Or care about the environment? Or the treatment of animals?
Secondly, those officers who entered into sexual relationships with protesters (and in Lambert’s case even fathered a child) seem to have abandoned every last shred of humanity in order to carry out the most cruel acts of deception imaginable. Women who believed they were in committed, life-long relationships suddenly found themselves left with nothing. Their lives have literally been torn apart. In the programme one victim stated “phone hacking is nothing compared to this. Our bodies have been hacked”. Another victim, who gave birth to Lambert’s child, declared that she had been “raped by the state”. Should these victims not have some legal redress for the blatant violations they have suffered?
It seems clear that if they do, it will be more than an uphill struggle. The notion that undercover officers were sleeping with their ‘targets’ is not a new one, and first came to light when Mark Kennedy was outed. In November 2012 a group of women who were all deceived into sleeping with Kennedy brought a claim against the Police under a number of legal tenets including Art.8 (right to private and family life) and Art.3 (right not to be subject to inhumane and degrading treatment) of the ECHR. Thanks to s.65 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, human rights claims of this nature must be heard in the secretive Investigatory Powers Tribunal, meaning that the claimants cannot even see or challenge the evidence which the state wishes to rely upon. The IPT’s decisions cannot be appealled, and is not even required to give reasons for the decisions it makes.
Lawyers representing the victims applied for the claims to be heard in the open, in the High Court but their arguments were rejected in January 2013. Incredibly, Justice Tugendhat attempted to draw a parallel with James Bond, essentially asserting that when Parliament enacted RIPA they were perfectly aware that undercover police may end up having sex with those whom they were spying on. This meant that the human rights claims must be heard by the IPT, but leaves open the door for the other claims (including assault, negligence and deceit) to be heard in the High Court. Will it be possible for the victims to get justice under the IPT? The statistics are not encouraging: out of 1120 claims heard between 2000 and 2010, just ten were upheld (less than 0.9%).
Action to be taken:
The latest round of victims intend to claim against the police, and details of their ongoing campaign can be found here.
For blowing the whistle, Peter Francis should be commended. Whilst admitting that he did things which he now accepts were wrong, he invites other operatives to come forward and speak out. He also confirms that he would be willing to give evidence in court against the police.
When Mark Kennedy was outed we found ourselves in a farcical situation in which some corners of the media portrayed him as the victim. Whatever emotional trauma he may have suffered, it is in my opinion perverse to suggest that anybody but those people he deceived are the primary victims in all of this.
What the Kennedy saga does show is that the problems associated with undercover policing as alleged by Francis are not mere relics of the past, they are prevalent in today’s force. The remedial action we take must reflect this. The IPCC have a fairly abysmal record for finding fault with the police; I believe a judicial inquiry and legislative reform (introducing proper judicial oversight) is the only way this issue can be dealt with. Politicians have spoken of prosecutions. I would hazard a guess that these are unlikely, but leaving this aside, whom should be targeted? The ‘frontline’ undercover officers have committed appalling acts of deception but if they alone are targeted, the system of abuse will continue unaffected. More institutional reform is necessary, and the senior officers who gave these dubious orders need to be held to account.