The Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) published the conclusions of its first stage on 29 June. Campaigners celebrated the so-called ‘spycops’ report’s damning verdict of the Met Police and its undercover units. However, they also criticised it for not going far enough.
Undercover policing tactics were ‘not justified’
The Undercover Policing Inquiry Tranche 1 Interim Report summarises the inquiry’s investigation into undercover policing activities between 1968 and 1992. Most infamous of these was the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was so secretive that allegedly many senior officers within the Met didn’t know of the undercover unit’s existence. Officers recruited into the unit were sent to spy on trade unions, political parties, anti-apartheid and environmental groups, and other left-wing activist campaigns.
Tactics used by SDS officers included forming sexual relationships with women, adopting the names of dead children, and even infiltrating police accountability groups. However, the inquiry’s head John Mitting said in the report that these methods were unjustified:
Was the gathering of intelligence about subversive organisations or individuals so defined, by the means adopted by the SDS, a legitimate exercise of police functions?
I have come to the firm conclusion that, for a unit of a police force, it [was] not; and that had the use of these means been publicly known at the time, the SDS would have been brought to a rapid end.
However, Mitting’s conclusion also defended the decision of the SDS not to deploy into right-wing and fascist groups. Campaigners have long criticised the unit’s focus on left-wing causes, with Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) previously describing it as part of the SDS’s “prejudiced nature”. Mitting, however, claimed there was no bias in the decision:
the fact that in this period no decision was made to infiltrate right-wing groups did not result from political bias on the part of those responsible for targeting, but from the belief that existing coverage sufficed and through concern about the risk of violence which such a deployment might pose.
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The inquiry itself began in 2015, but was the result of many years of campaigning by affected activists; in particular, by women with whom some of the ‘spycops’ had sexual relationships and one person even had a child fathered by an undercover officer.
The inquiry is protecting the police
Campaigners both welcomed and criticised the report. A press statement by COPS said spycops’ victims “welcomed the findings” of the report. Core participant Zoe Young said:
The police have tried to justify their actions by saying they were targeting subversives and protecting public order. Their own evidence showed this was not the case.
They ignored violent groups such as the National Front in favour of reporting on cake sales and campaigns for free nurseries. While we were on the street calling for an end to racist murders, we now know police were spying on us. They treated as criminal anyone who wanted to change the world for the better.
If there is a subversive organisation in all this, it is the institutionally anti-democratic Metropolitan Police through their systematic attacks on basic human rights.
Police Spies Out Of Lives (PSOOL), a group supporting women that were coerced into sexual relationships with spycops, said those women also ‘welcomed’ the findings. However, it also noted the Met Police is yet to release the files it holds on the women. PSOOL accused the inquiry of “protecting police” by publishing its report without pressuring the Met Police to release its files.
Diana Langford, who participated in the inquiry and who was targeted by at least seven undercover officers, said:
The production of an interim report is cruel while women are still waiting to see files written by those who messed with their bodies and minds. The Inquiry is pandering to the Met’s cynical delaying tactics. The Met has not changed since the 1960s in its attitudes to women, people of colour and queer people, yet the Inquiry goes out of its way to accommodate the excuses, lies and prevarications of former SDS officers.
The Blacklist Support Group, which speaks for trade unionists blacklisted as a result of undercover policing, was also critical. While it said that Mitting’s key finding that the SDS’s tactics were unjustified “echoes and vindicates what activists have argued from the very beginning”, it also found his conclusion over a lack of right-wing infiltration “pure comedy gold”.
Labour peer Peter Hain also criticised that conclusion:
stating ‘that no decision was made to infiltrate right wing groups did not result from political bias’ is an astounding endorsement by Sir John Mitting of the very political bias the police and security forces displayed at that time.
It is reprehensible that Sir John Mitting does not take a stand on the very evidence of discriminatory policing his inquiry uncovered.
Part one of six
The report marks only the end of the first part of the inquiry, with a further five still to come. Yet, after eight years, this inquiry has so far proven a problematic exercise for those at the heart of the issues. Responses to the stage one report show that, rather than acting as a tool of accountability, the inquiry is something of a shield for the Met Police. However, this has been clear from the outset as past coverage by the Canary revealed.
Even so, the extent to which the inquiry criticises the actions of the SDS should illustrate just how far beyond the pale it really was. Furthermore, the fact that successive Tory and Labour governments continued signing off on the unit’s actions shows how the political class prioritised its own existence over that of supposed ideological rivals.
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