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Expert Comment: Undercover policing enquiry

Raphael Schlembach Monday 10 March 2014

Dr Raphael Schlembach, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in Sociology, looks at last week's announcement by the Home Office that there will be an inquiry into undercover policing.

Last week, the Home Secretary Theresa May ordered a judge-led public inquiry into undercover policing. The accompanying press coverage on the issue, especially last Thursday’s BBC Newsnight programme, pushed the issue back into the limelight.

On the programme the BBC reiterated allegations it had made in 2006; that an investigating officer in the Stephen Lawrence murder case had been paid off by the father of one of Lawrence’s murders.

The call for an inquiry was sparked by the publication of the Ellison report, which concluded that a secretive unit within Special Branch, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), had spied on the Lawrence family. The aim of the undercover operation, according to the former SDS officer-turned-whistleblower Peter Francis, was to dig dirt on the family in order to discredit their campaign for justice. It comes as a further blow to the family, after the 1998 MacPherson inquiry into the case concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) was ‘institutionally racist’.

However, open questions remain over how far-reaching this new inquiry will be.

The controversial practice and behaviour of undercover police officers is not restricted to a few ‘bad apples’. There is increasing evidence that it is only the most publically reprehensible manifestation of a police culture within the MPS which makes little differentiation between a threat to national security and a threat to police credibility.

As an example, I think it is important here to highlight the practice of police infiltration of other campaign groups, publically revealed by the journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis in their book Undercover.

The two best known cases are those of Mark Kennedy and of Bob Lambert, though there are likely to be many more. Bob Lambert, one time second-in-command of the SDS had sexual relationships with four women from whom he hid his identity, and fathered a child with one of them.

Now a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, Lambert remains one of the most controversial figures at the centre of this inquiry. Peter Francis, in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme last year, accused his superiors of wanting to find evidence to smear the Stephen Lawrence campaign. Bob Lambert has denied this, but his denial will be scrutinised by the public inquiry.

Mark Kennedy infiltrated environmental networks across Europe over a period of several years. As recently as this January, the convictions of 29 activists who had disrupted the operation of a power station by stopping a coal train were quashed when it emerged that the persecution had relied on evidence by Mark Kennedy without revealing his true identity.

Mark Kennedy also entered intimate relationships with women while on undercover duty. This practice forms part of a legal action brought by eight women deceived into long-term relationships against five police officers who had infiltrated environmental and justice campaigns. They have little chance of receiving recognition after a ruling that the case should be heard by another little-known institution of British justice, the Investigatory Power Tribunal, which investigates complaints against GCHQ, MI5 and MI6. The IPT will not allow the women to attend the court hearing, nor to see any of the evidence that the police might bring, nor will they receive a reason for the judge’s ruling, nor have a right of appeal.

The revelations about undercover policing have also had an effect on my personal history as a campaigner. Working alongside environmental groups over the past few years, I am now aware that at least three of my acquaintances who had presented themselves to me as friends were in fact police officers. Unfortunately I did not know this when a few years back I was invited by one of them, Marco Jacobs, to attend a protest in Wales. He invited me to stay over at his flat, and the next morning took me to the demonstration in his car. On arrival, however, I was arrested, had my biometric material taken and was held for 24 hours, though I was never charged with a crime. While in detention, police searched my house and confiscated a number of items, including my laptop, dictaphone and literature – all containing material relevant to my PhD research. It was not until several months later that the material was returned to me.

Of course this personal experience is not comparable to that of the victims who were deceived into developing close personal relationship with these officers. The point here is to suggest that the impact of infiltration and undercover police work that undermines political dissent or justice campaigns goes much wider than the judge-led inquiry will be able to determine.

The SDS was disbanded in 2008, but successive governments have set up a string of other secret police bodies focused at political and justice campaigns. The latest incarnation is the Orwellian-sounding National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit. It is unlikely that the public inquiry will put the spotlight on the work of this unit today.

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