The Undercover Policing Inquiry, which still has not considered any evidence in public, is at a crossroads. It has already been marred by delays and legal argument in its consideration of preliminary matters. Now, there are further concerns that its ability to hold undercover policing to account will be extremely limited.
While Sir Christopher Pitchford, the inquiry’s first chairperson was seen as hesitant, there have been serious doubts placed on the commitment of his successor, Sir John Mitting, to deliver a transparent outcome.
Last month, 13 women who had been deceived into intimate relationships with male undercover officers, ostensibly to monitor their political activity, wrote to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd to raise their concerns about the inquiry’s direction.
Mitting’s appointment, the women say, represents ‘a significant shift towards greater secrecy’ and his failure so far to acknowledge the culture of sexism that made such abusive behaviour possible brings up questions over the inquiry’s future.
The voices of the spied upon
The new report by Helen Mills shows that the public inquiry needs to change direction if it is to be a legitimate attempt at holding undercover policing to account.
Core participants in the inquiry who were the victims of abuse and political policing have repeatedly called for greater openness and transparency in the proceedings. But they have been met with obstructive police lawyers and continuous delays.
When Theresa May, then still the Home Secretary, announced the public inquiry in 2014, the assumption was that it would report back to the Home Office in 2018. So far, however, not a single evidence hearing has taken place, with the Metropolitan Police Service’s requests for anonymity for its undercover officers slowing down any progress. The earliest that evidence hearings are now expected is 2019, which means that the inquiry is running at least two years behind schedule.
The delays have been caused by an adversarial stance taken by the Metropolitan Police and other policing agencies, with a power imbalance in terms of access to funds and resources that favours the police over the non-police core participants.
While the victims of undercover policing abuses have maintained from the beginning that the inquiry has to be open and transparent in working towards its remit, the police have brought argument after argument that the details of their operations should remain hidden from the public and from those who were spied on.
It is true that there have been some recent disclosures of cover names to the inquiry. In August, the inquiry released the cover identities of three officers who had infiltrated a series of socialist, anti-racist and anti-war campaigns in the later 1960s and early 1970s. And the inquiry chair is likely to release further names in due course.
But almost all other information that has been made public has been painstakingly researched and corroborated by those whose lives were infiltrated, by activist researchers and by a single former undercover officer turned whistle-blower.
They offer an alternative way of holding undercover policing accountable, one that the official inquiry should listen to.
What is remarkable in all of this is that those whose private and political lives had come under surveillance by political policing units are still engaging with a process that seems so stacked against them.
Public inquiries of this sort are notoriously expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic, and they rarely satisfy everyone’s thirst for knowledge. The victims of undercover policing have come up against the legalistic nature of the inquiry system, against unmovable Terms of Reference and against the continuous and well-funded blocks by the Metropolitan Police to hear any of the evidence in the open.
Helen Mills’ report entails quotes by core participants who are clearly frustrated. And yet, over and over again, they spend their time and energy trying to turn this into a process that will actually provide some answers and allow for some measure of accountability.
The new chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry will make a statement about the future of the inquiry on 20 November at the beginning of a three day hearing. It is to be hoped that he will listen to the voices of those who were spied on before making his decision.
Raphael Schlembach is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton