A brick wall of silence at Undercover Policing Inquiry

Connor Woodman writes about the latest stages of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, following a public hearing earlier this week

By: 
Connor Woodman
Date: 
Wednesday, 07 February, 2018

On Monday 5 February, 2018, the Undercover Policing Inquiry held another hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice. The hearing dealt with seven more requests from former undercover police officers who wish to have their real and cover names concealed from the public.

Although the Inquiry was due to be nearly completed by now, substantive evidence hearing are not likely to even begin before 2019.

Extraordinarily, although the Inquiry has a budget in the millions, a 33-person team, and 25 legal representatives working on behalf of the various ‘core participants’, the amount of useful information to have emanated from its operations is thus far dwarfed by the tiny Undercover Research Group operating, in its own words, on a ‘shoe-string budget’.

Why the delay?

Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer who spent years infiltrating drug gangs (operations not covered in the current Inquiry), argues that ‘the Met are dragging their feet over this tactically’. Indeed, the police force has routinely failed to promptly submit applications for anonymity orders, argued that the scope of the Inquiry should be restricted, and even applied to have large-parts of the Inquiry held in secret. As one spying victim put it to us last year, ‘non-cooperation by the police is the biggest problem.’

Other clues as to why the Inquiry is taking so long can be found buried within the statements the Inquiry has released on its website. The November 2017 update noted that over one million documents have been received from the Met so far – a promising sign. But a footnote stated:

Not all of the documents provided are relevant. For example, on one drive […] nearly 120,000 documents were provided of which over 90,000 comprise non-user generated files such as executable and help files for standard applications, printer drivers and manuals and other similar “documents” which are very unlikely to advance the Inquiry’s investigation.

The Inquiry team has to trawl through these pointless documents to ensure nothing crucial slips through. The Met’s tactics may well be to drown the Inquiry team in mostly-useless documents in the hope that important fragments will escape their notice. And, in the finest traditions of the British state, we already know of credible allegations that documents have been illegally shredded by the force in an attempt to escape public scrutiny and accountability.

Secrecy, violence and the far-right

The frustration of the spying victims is growing. As was outlined in our report last year, many ‘core participants’ are losing faith in the whole Inquiry. As one put it, ‘We are nowhere near a disclosure, we are nowhere near a public [evidence] hearing.’

On Monday, virtually all information concering two undercover officers – known only as HN23 and HN40 – was concealed. The reasons for the concealment were themselves concealed, beyond the vague statement that any disclosure could put the officers’ physical and mental safety at risk. As the lawyer for the spied upon stated in response (p.37),

It strikes us as extraordinary that we cannot even be told, for example, was this officer engaged in a deployment in relation to left wing groups or right wing groups. How on earth can the disclosure of that fact alone put that officer at risk?

Sir John Mitting, the Inquiry chair, refused to answer, stating (p.36) in no uncertain terms that the lawyers were ‘going to meet a brick wall of silence,’ and that there is ‘a flat refusal to say anything about the deployment in open [hearings]’.

At this point, several spying victims vacated their seats in desperation. ‘What’s the point of even being here?’ one cried out as he left.

So who are HN23 and HN40? One would assume they are officers who infiltrated far-right groups, but for all we know, they could be vital deployments pertaining to the infiltration of Stephen Lawrence’s family or trade unions. As the lawyer for the spied upon noted at the beginning of the hearing, another officer, HN58, had a management role in the SDS during the spying operations against the Lawrence family – but this was concealed until recently.

Even if HN23 and HN40 are officers who infiltrated fascist groups (which may pose a slightly higher risk of violence to exposed officers than other groups), the public still has an interest in knowing the details of the deployments. After all, there is a murky history of police collaboration with far-right groups in this country and elsewhere.

Peter Francis, the former British undercover police officer turned whistle-blower, suggested at the hearing that officers in the Special Demonstration Squad were authorised to engage in violence whilst embedded in rightist groups. As his lawyer put it (p.45),

Violence was permitted by Special Demonstration Squad managers to be used by Special Demonstration Squad officers […] in order to maintain cover.

At the moment, it appears these questions will only be explored in closed hearings, sessions at which only the judge, Mitting, and the police lawyers are allowed to attend.

Legal rationality and the power of the judge

As these hearings rumble on, those resisting political spying have tried to fracture the court’s staid legal rationality through confrontational interventions in the proceedings.

On Monday, Peter Francis made an impromptu interruption, undermining the endless arguments from the Metropolitan Police that former undercover officers are at risk of physical or emotional abuse if their names are revealed in public.

Reminding everyone that these officers are trained in ‘spinning a very believable yarn’, he argued that Mitting himself is being played by the police.

Francis then made the strongest point of the hearing, pointing out (p.47-8) that Neil Woods, the former undercover drug buster who now criticises the ‘War on Drugs’, had personally ‘led to more imprisonment than the entire Special Demonstration Squad from 1968 to 2008’. Woods walks around in public, in his real name, despite having put dozens of people behind bars for an aggregate total of around 1,000 years – and Woods has never suffered any physical attack from vengeful victims. Thus, the claim that former police officers who infiltrated political groups will be at risk of harm – when none of those who have been revealed so far have suffered attack – seems dubious at best.

This outburst of common sense seemed to ruffle Mitting, who shut down Peter Francis’ next attempted intervention by sternly declaring that ‘these proceedings have to be conducted by advocates and by those core participants such as Ms Steel, who are representing themselves in their own right’. He attempted to re-impose his authority and the authority of legal rationality, the same rationality which is causing the spying victims so much anguish and frustration.

Indeed, the reliance of the Undercover Policing Inquiry on the figure of the judge – without the respected panel of advisors that accompanied the MacPherson Inquiry or the Hillsborough Independent Panel  – means that Mitting’s every move and statement is being carefully scrutinised by onlookers. His suggestion (p.78), for instance, that former undercover officers with longstanding post-deployment marriages were less likely to have slept with activists whilst undercover, was met with laughter and derision from the public gallery, forcing him to admit (p.119) that he may be ‘naïve and a little old-fashioned’. One wonders whether his membership of the establishment, men-only Garrick Club has anything to do with his ignorance on this matter.

In sum, Monday did little to re-inspire confidence in an open, transparent and prompt Inquiry. The proceedings were primarily filled with attempts by Peter Francis’ and the victims’ lawyers to argue against Mitting’s inclination to conceal the names of former undercover police officers – often without being told the basis of Mitting’s preliminary decisions, and without being given any information about the officers concerned. The army of police lawyers remained largely silent, perhaps confident of their chance to sway the judge in closed hearings.