The way undercover officers from London’s Metropolitan Police assumed the identities of dead children to spy on left-wing activists is an “unexplained mystery”, but could have been inspired by the 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal, an inquiry has heard.
The Undercover Policing Inquiry is looking into the activities of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which together infiltrated more than 1,000 protest groups from 1968 to 2008. Officers from the SDS assumed false identities, had sexual relationships and even had children with women whose political groups were being investigated. They also stole the identities of children who had died in order to construct their fake personas.
The latest phase of the inquiry covers the years 1972 to 1982. It is believed that undercover SDS officers started using the tactic of assuming the identities of children who had died in 1974.
The tactic became “part of the embedded cultural practice of the SDS, where it sat alongside alongside other abhorrent behaviours” without consideration of the consequences for bereaved families should they find out, and no review of whether the tactic was actually necessary, according to lawyers representing the families of children whose identities were assumed by police.
Lawyers for the bereaved families noted that “remarkably few” SDS officers appear to have had any moral qualms about taking on the identities of dead children in order to spy on left-wing political groups.
Before they started adopting the identities of deceased children, undercover SDS officers would simply construct fictitious identities, and lawyers representing bereaved families told the inquiry that there is no evidence that this was not working.
The unit’s 1972 Annual Report noted that “since the formation of the Squad no officer has been irretrievably exposed or identified”, and this observation was repeated in the 1974 Annual Report. Nevertheless, by 1974 the “normal way” of choosing a cover name was to go to Somerset House – where a registry of births and deaths was located until 1970 – and find the name of someone who had died, who would have been a similar age to the undercover officer if they were still alive.
Officers did not receive formal training about how to construct a convincing fictitious identity up to this point, evidence to the inquiry suggests. According to one officer, “I simply made my legend up as I went along” – suggesting that the police had not exhausted all of their options before deciding to use the identities of dead kids. The Metropolitan Police has argued that the practice was essential, however.
Lawyers for the bereaved families have suggested that the tactic could have been inspired by a spy novel rather than because it was actually necessary. They note that “the technique of using the cover of a dead person’s identity came to public prominence via Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. The novel was published in 1971 and the film of the book was released in 1973. The timing is interesting. Could it be that a work of fiction, rather than operational necessity, inspired the introduction of this repellent tactic?”
The method has a significant drawback, in that unlike a completely fictitious identity, anyone suspicious of the undercover officer could investigate their identity and prove that it in fact belonged to someone who had died.
This is what happened to DC Richard Clarke who was confronted by members of Big Flame – a working-class socialist feminist group that he infiltrated in early 1975 – with the birth and death certificates of his cover name. Members of Big Flame became suspicious of Clarke as he did not appear to understand the historical and political background relevant to the group. Clarke was withdrawn from infiltration in 1976. The compromise of DC Clarke led to “extreme safety concerns”, but the practice continued nonetheless.
The inquiry opened in 2020, five years after it was announced by then Home Secretary Theresa May.
The latest phase of the judge-led public inquiry has so far revealed allegations that a fourth undercover officer had a child with a woman he was spying on – previously three were known of. It has also been told that officers joked about the sexual relationships they had with women.
The inquiry has been met with concerns over whether it will be able to get justice for the victims of undercover policing and these concerns have been aired again on its re-opening. Barbara Shaw, the mother of Rod Richardson whose identity was used by an undercover officer, has been trying to uncover the truth since 2013 and is now unwell and very frail, and is distressed at the thought of not living long enough to find answers.
The inquiry announced a further delay as it reopened, with hearings planned for October 2021 now delayed until mid-2022. This has angered the Blacklist Support Group, a group for workers who were denied employment because of their trade union activities. The group is calling for Lord Tebbit, former employment minister under Margaret Thatcher, to be asked about his contact with the SDS, after he revealed that he used to be briefed by intelligence services about where left-wing trade-unionists went on holiday. The group has calculated that at the current rate of progress he will be 150 years old by the time he is called.