Holding undercover policing to account

The undercover policing of political protest groups and social movements has generated urgent questions. But thus far few answers, argues Helen Mills

By: 
Helen Mills
Date: 
Thursday, 30 March, 2017

Last week saw revelations about alleged police hacking of political campaigners’ and journalists’ emails. A Metropolitan police unit, in collaboration with their counterparts in India, used hackers to look at the emails of activists and monitor several journalists, it was reported.

Pressing questions are again being asked about undercover policing: Are these practices still going on? Who authorised them? Why? And with what legal authority?

The reports also alleged the police’s wilful destruction of this information to prevent it ever coming to light. This is not the first time police whistle-blowers have made such claims. Indeed, this week sees the retirement of Chris Greany, a senior officer implicated in the Met’s destruction of undercover information by another police whistle-blower.

His departure prevents any potential disciplinary action against him.

Long list of allegations

The above add to the already long list of allegations about the secretive world of undercover police operations against political activism and social movements. This has included forming sexual relationships with female activists as a method of infiltrating protest groups, and colluding with employers to blacklist trade union activists.

It’s clear from looking at who was targeted by police spying that its remit extended beyond any justification on national security grounds or the threat of physical harm: people campaigning for justice following controversial deaths in custody and associated allegations of police corruption, as well as their legal representatives; climate change campaigners; the anti-fascist movement; and police monitoring groups.

A judge-led public inquiry is the state response of our times when it faces serious issues of tarnished reputations, potential cover-ups, and concerns about institutional failings. A public inquiry has the power to compel witnesses to give evidence and the promised operational independence necessary to ensure scrutiny. If that can’t get to the bottom of it, what process can?

But where undercover policing is concerned, I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer. Nearly two years into the judge-led public inquiry tasked with discovering the truth about the undercover policing of political campaigners, its ability to succeed in doing so remains distinctly unclear.

Inquiring into undercover activities

‘[Gathering] evidence as to what has happened in the past. This is a process that is likely to take several months to complete.’ This, the assessment by the inquiry chair Sir Christopher Pitchford at the outset, hasn’t proven to be the case. Nearly two years on from the inquiry opening, it is yet to hear from a single witness. It likely won’t, the inquiry now says, until 2019.

The problem can be boiled down to this, say the inquiry team, ‘the difficulties inherent in conducting a public inquiry into undercover policing.’

To date, the inquiry has been focused on establishing the processes for its work rather than delivering on truth recovery itself. It has been bogged down in protracted legal argument, particularly over how much of the inquiry can be held in public and how much behind closed doors.

It has not been helped by continued requests for delays and missed deadlines by the Metropolitan Police’s legal team. A preliminary hearing at the inquiry next week – to be held in public – is expected to finally draw a line under these delays. However, even if the inquiry succeeds in pressuring the police to comply a timely fashion, this is unlikely in itself to pull it out of the current legal quagmire.

The process for requesting anonymity for former undercover officers, and the associated redaction of documents, is such that even the inquiry’s ‘potentially overly optimistic’ timetable puts it almost two years away from its first evidence hearing.

Public inquiries taking too long may sound a familiar complaint. But as time passes, there are fears that the public interest necessary for maintaining pressure is fading away. If recent allegations prove to be true, more material losses may well be at stake too.


The Centre is currently exploring the issues undercover policing raises in this project.