16 Jul 2015

What can new undercover policing inquiry achieve?

A judge-led inquiry is to spend the next three years investigating how undercover policing has been used and abused. Victims of malpractice are calling for it to name and shame those involved.

Silhouette of police officers (Getty)

Lord Justice Pitchford’s inquiry will look into “the justification, authorisation, operational governance and oversight of undercover policing”, according to the terms of reference announced by Home Secretary Theresa May. It will also look at whether undercover police operations have “targeted political and social justice campaigners”.

The inquiry will be able to call witnesses and access documents, where they still exist. Previous inquiries have found that owing to the highly secretive nature of the work, record-keeping was sketchy and some documents had been destroyed.

Baroness Lawrence, mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, said the inquiry should also have a “presumption in favour of naming undercover officers”. In 2014 an inquiry said the use of a police spy to infiltrate a group campaigning for justice for her son was “completely improper“.

Speaking to Channel 4 News (above), Stephen’s father Neville Lawrence echoed her view, saying he wanted to find out “who authorised the undercover police officers to come into my house, what information did they gather, the name of the officer who actually started spying on my family.”

Miscarriage of justice

The behaviour of undercover officers became a matter of public concern in 2011 after the trial of a group of environmental activists collapsed when it was revealed that a police spy, Mark Kennedy, had failed to hand over his secret recording that proved some of them had not been part of a conspiracy to break into a power station.

On Thursday the results of an inquiry by barrister Mark Ellison into possible miscarriages of justice as a result of undercover police activity found that there were “a number of convictions causing concern” which are now “under active consideration” by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

But Ellison also found that “there are a large number of convictions where the lack of surviving records prevent a detailed analysis” making it extremely difficult to say whether undercover activity was questionable or not.

Ellison report into miscarriages of justice

He also said the records showed that some covert officers had gone through other court processes in their undercover name, concluding “this inevitably entailed deception of the arresting officers and courts”.

Former undercover officer Mark Kennedy admitted that during his years posing as an environmental activist he had relationships with two female activists. He was not alone.

‘Raped by the state’

While undercover for the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a highly secretive Metropolitan Police unit that ran from 1968-2008, Bob Lambert had relationships with four women, and even fathered a child with one of them before disappearing from her life.

He later agreed his behaviour was morally reprehensible, admitting he had been “weak and cruel”. The mother of his child later said she felt she had been “raped by the state”.

Police forces also admitted to using the identities of dead babies to create a false identity.

In April the law was changed to make it punishable by up to 14 years in prison for a police officer to act in a corrupt or improper way.