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The UK Has Launched Its First Public Inquiry Into Undercover Policing, and the Findings Could be Explosive

Those spied on include Labour MPs, anti-racism groups, trade unionists, and the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. The inquiry will investigate undercover policing from 1968 until the present day.

by Sally Hayden
Jul 28 2015, 5:26pm

Photo by Will Oliver/EPA

The UK has just begun its first major public inquiry into undercover policing, and with Britain's covert officers already known to have stolen dead babies' identities, used sexual relationships to get closer to targets, and possibly committed crimes, the next revelations could be astonishing.

Among those targeted by undercover police operations were Labour MPs, anti-racism groups, justice campaigners, trade unionists, and the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. At least 57 convictions have since been quashed to date as a result of miscarriages of justice caused by undercover policing activities, with suggestions that there could be more.

Speaking to VICE News outside the courtroom, one trade union activist in his 40s pondered the huge scale of the inquiry's scope. "This has lasted my whole lifetime," he said.

Some 40 people gathered in Courtroom 76 in London's Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday morning, ready to hear the first statement from Lord Christopher Pitchford, the judge charged with leading the inquiry.

Present were journalists, trade union members, veteran activists, and several of the women who were duped into having longterm relationships with undercover policemen.

After greeting the assembled crowd, Pitchford spoke for 45 minutes about the events and disclosures that lead up to the inquiry, and rehashed the terms of reference as laid out by the UK Home Secretary Theresa May earlier this month.

Related: 'We're Going Up Against the State Here': The UK's Victims of Deep Undercover Policing Tell of Their Trauma

The judge said the inquiry would cover the English and Welsh police and their undercover actions from 1968 — when the notorious Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) was set up — until the present day. The inquiry may "expose both creditable and discreditable conduct, practice, and management," Pitchford said, adding that — to his knowledge — this will be "the first time that undercover policing has been exposed to the rigor of public examination." 

The home secretary previously stated that she expected the inquiry to be finished within three years, a timescale that Pitchford said he intends to stick to.

Policeman Bob Lambert and his son, fathered while he was undercover as activist "Bob Robinson." Photo via Jacqui

Due to the vast expanse of claims and the convoluted nature of the events, Pitchford said the inquiry would be separated into three separate modules of investigation. 

The first would involve investigating and gathering evidence as to what happened in the past, a process that will likely take several months. This will involve oral and written testimony from police officers and those who have been impacted by their actions, according to Pitchford. 

It will also assess the value of the contribution made by undercover policing, while embracing "a vast amount of human experience and therefore about evidence about which we need to learn," the judge said.

The second module will investigate the systemic issues affecting the deployment of undercover police officers, including their authorization, governance, and oversight, the selection criteria for the role, and the training, management, and care they are given. It will also inspect the role of the government, particularly the UK Home Office.

The third module will be "devoted to consideration, by drawing lessons from the past, as to the manner in which undercover policing should be conducted, managed, and governed in the future." This will involve expert evidence and an examination of "good practice" in other jurisdictions.

It was 2011 when media reports began making allegations of misconduct during undercover policing operations by a London Metropolitan Police unit called the SDS. Since then, disclosures and allegations about various units have continued to emerge, while some former undercover police officers have been tracked down and outed.

Speaking to VICE News before the terms of the inquiry were announced, activists spoke of their efforts to find and expose the undercover officers involved — and the subsequent difficulties they have faced in trusting people.

Several official investigations have also been carried out over the past few years, including Operation Herne and the Ellison review, though Pitchford noted that he would have to make a decision about whether to revisit the evidence and conclusions that emerged from those reports.

Some of the former activists who were targeted have expressed fear that the Pitchford inquiry could be a "whitewash," while others are worried that key police officers will be granted anonymity when testifying. 

"These are serious human rights abuses, and unless the truth comes out we're not going to be able to prevent them in the future," Helen Steel, one of the women who is currently taking a case against the Metropolitan Police after having a longterm relationship with an undercover police officer, told VICE News.

Steel was present in court on Tuesday, but said that she still doesn't know how to feel about the inquiry. She elaborated by saying that her biggest worry is that police will be able to hide behind anonymity.

Pitchford said on Tuesday that any approach from a witness who requests confidentiality will be respected, and the conditions of their testimony will be discussed with them privately before any decision is made about how their evidence will be given.

Related: This Woman Was Awarded $685,737 After Learning Her Boyfriend Was an Undercover Cop Sent to Spy on Her

Former undercover policeman Peter Francis told BBC Radio 4 that he's hoping that the Pitchford inquiry will discover who, other than the police themselves, authorized undercover operations against political activists.

Speaking shortly after she received a 425,000 pounds ($660,000) payout from the Metropolitan Police last October, "Jacqui" — the former animal rights activist who had a child with undercover policeman Bob Lambert — told VICE News about the breakdown she suffered after discovering Lambert's true identity, two decades after he disappeared, leaving her to raise their son alone.

"What I realize now is that his time with me was his work. When I thought he was at work that was not work. When he was at work was our everyday life," she said. 

"So he went to family functions with me. My parents treated him as a son-in-law. My sister treated him as a brother-in-law. He was in family photos, stuff like that, and he's a ghost. It turns out he's nothing."

Responding to Tuesday's statement by Pitchford, Jacqui told VICE News that she felt it was crucial for the investigation to be "open, transparent, and robust" in order for the public to regain faith in the policing system. 

"I think [the inquiry] now has a real opportunity to carry out a robust investigation into how undercover policing went so badly wrong and wrecked so many people's lives," she said.

Jacqui continued: "We are still awaiting from the chair on who the inquiry's core participants are, it should include all those who have been affected, from miscarriages of justice to sexually abused women and my innocent son."

She also voiced her disgust at the systematic use of dead children's identities by undercover police officers, branding it "obscene."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd