I hope the news that the Metropolitan Police sent undercover police to spy on the Stephen Lawrence family becomes the turning point in the on-going spy cops scandal.
It’s surprising it has taken until now for broad calls for a public inquiry. Why not when we first discovered undercover police officers had been having long-term intimate relationships with activists as a tool for gathering information? What about all the other victims of police spies?
The Met had a unit that stole the identities of dead babies, apparently withheld information from a judicial inquiry and used sex as a tool to gain information and cover from innocent women.
Plus, we already have a fresh set of allegations that police spies infiltrated campaigns against police corruption. The sorry saga of perverted and possibly illegal undercover policing needs a public inquiry to get to the truth, or as much of it as we can.
There are currently between 12 to 15 inquiries or reviews looking into different aspects of the murky world of police spies.
The time has come for one judicial inquiry to look at all the allegations, including the crimes Mark Kennedy committed in Germany, Bob Lambert authoring the McLibel leaflet, fathering children with the women they spied on and the allegations about the firebombing of Debenhams raised under Parliamentary privilege.
There must be senior Ministers who are open to the inquiry idea, in the same way that the Met Commissioner appears to be.
It’s been 20 months since the Met launched Operation Herne, their own investigation into undercover policing, but the Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee are yet to be told how many matters have been referred to the IPCC for investigation, how many cases the CPS are looking at, if any disciplinary action has been taken against officers, or if these officers are still supervising undercover operations.
There are 23 officers and 10 staff working on the case, but there have been no arrests and the Home Secretary only heard about the alleged smearing of the Lawrence family via the media.
A judicial inquiry, unlike the internal police investigation and Tom Ellison QC’s review, would allow the victims of undercover operations – the women, the children of officers, the parents whose children’s identities were stolen and the Lawrences – a voice in this process.
They could tell their side of the story and see those responsible held to account in public for their actions and decisions.
PS, I will be questioning the Commissioner about undercover policing at Thursday’s meeting of the Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee.
I will also be speaking in the Speakers Forum, Green Futures Field of Glastonbury at 3pm on Saturday.
The most powerful voices talking about undercover officers and the best way to start this article, is to hear directly from the women affected:
I feel cheated, I feel I was violated in a cruel way, almost like a prostitute. That it wasn’t a real relationship. He had his real relationship, he was married with children.
This person who I spent so much of my life with and you know who I really loved and who I lived with and I don’t even know his name. All the photographs that I’ve got, all memories I’ve got are of a nameless stranger. What do you do with that?
When the scandal of undercover officers was first exposed, we heard from senior police that it was “never acceptable” for undercover officers to have sex with people they were targeting, commenting that “something has gone badly wrong here. We would not be where we are if it had not.” It was the classic bad apple defence.
I was told by the Met that no authority is ever granted for an undercover officer to engage in a sexual relationship whilst deployed on an authorised police operation. So why are there so many apparent examples?
I have faced an uphill struggle to get answers from the Met while they insist on fighting a case against eight women and one man, who claim they were deceived into forming relationships with undercover officers, and the Met seems determined to have this case heard in secret.
If the case is heard at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, as the Met wants, rather than in Court it will be so secretive that if the women lose their case they will not be told why and will not have the right to appeal. They also do not get to see any of the evidence being presented nor will the lawyers acting on their behalf, who are also shut out of this Tribunal. How can these women have any confidence in a system they are not able to participate in?
It looks like the Met are adamant to prevent these women – who have had their lives disrupted in the most invasive way – from hearing evidence or scrutising police actions. The Mayor and the Met should admit that what has happened was wrong and simply apologise to the women whose personal lives have been intruded upon, rather than fighting an expensive court case and wasting public money on lawyers.
There are allegations that undercover officers have fathered children with woman they were targeting. Does this not mean the Met has some parental responsibility for these children? Do the children, who are now young adults, not have the right to know the real name of their legal father?
Continually I am told lessons have been learnt and guidance to officers changed. However, the guidance is confidential so I am told to trust the Met. Just as I was told to trust them over phone hacking. With each new revelation the Met’s response has been that this was a one off and could not happen again.
Of the undercover officers exposed, seven of the nine that I am aware of engaged in long-term relationships and approached the women in each case in a similar way – this indicates a pattern of behaviour rather than the actions of lone officers. Meanwhile the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime claims to have no specific political oversight of domestic undercover operations despite the Metropolitan Police Authority agreeing to have oversight in this area before it was abolished. If the police continue to refuse to be scrutinised by the people who are elected to oversee their work, then a full public inquiry is the only solution.
My third place in the London Mayoral contest was a big blow to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition. After promising to scrap tuition fees and oppose austerity, doing the opposite has shattered many Londoners’ trust even in their outsider candidates like Brian Paddick.
The result was an endorsement of the Green Party’s focus on pay equality, lower fares paid for with a pay-as-you-drive scheme (“Oyster for your car”), lower rents delivered with co-operatives and private rented sector reform, and healthier streets thanks to less traffic and cleaner vehicles.
We are determined to push forward with these ideas on the London Assembly.
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A quarter of Londoners live in private rented homes, but the Mayor doesn’t seem to spend a quarter of his housing efforts improving their lot.
I’m a lead member of the Assembly’s Planning & Housing Committee, and we recently conducted an investigation into poor housing conditions in the private rented sector, I was surprised at some of the arguments that were put forward against reforms.
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The Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) has been both rewarding and infuriating; a chance for a mix of politicians, independents and magistrates to question the Met in public, but still astonishingly impenetrable when it chose to be.
There was genuine dialogue – sometimes tetchy and difficult, but the Commissioner had to respond directly.
This contrasts with the new arrangements for policing in London, where the Mayor Boris Johnson will keep both the executive power and direct scrutiny of the Met.
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I was sent one of those hush, hush confidential Met briefings recently, about who approves police under-cover operations and what the mechanisms are.
It all seemed sensible stuff, except the fascinating omission from the document of any justification of why they would conduct an operation against a particular group and how this relates to the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
Perhaps there is a different briefing which explains the justification for targeting people like ‘Reclaim the Streets’ a bunch of 1990’s campaigners who, like me, didn’t like the pollution which comes from building new roads? I suspect not.
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Both the Prime Minister and the Mayor have raised concerns that the police were slow to deploy and used tactics that didn’t work. It has been too easy for them to jump for tough-sounding solutions like water canons, plastic bullets and an army presence in emergencies. But 16,000 officers seemed to work on Tuesday night, so we need to first ask whether our much-cherished policing model can work with some better tactics.
The fires and violence were incredibly frightening for residents, and must have been for the police and other emergency services. I certainly would not have wanted to go out onto the streets of London three nights in a row to try and deal with it.
Yet, many Londoners feel very let down by the police.
The first and most obvious question is whether we had enough officers out there to deal with the troublemakers. In Catford a group of five brave officers charged a group of 40 looters. Why so few? Once the 16,000 officers were deployed the streets calmed down. Could we sustain 16,000 officers on the streets for longer periods? Will the 12,000 police during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games be adequate?
The Met have said how overstretched they were, which I can understand. But this wasn’t just about numbers available. Where they were present, such as on Mare Street in Hackney, the Met seemed to focus on containing the rioters to stop them spreading. Shopkeepers were incredulous when riot officers didn’t intervene to stop people breaking their windows.
We must also ask why the police took so long to catch up with unfolding events. During the student protests they seemed unable to cope with the speedy, highly mobile protestors using social media and mobile phones to organise themselves. I was critical of the violence employed against too many of those young people, most of whom were taking their first steps into peaceful political activism.
This time, they are facing criticism for almost the opposite – appearing to stand back when faced with crowds of genuine criminals. These riots may have included some angry people, but mostly they were just plain greedy, indulging in a consumer driven frenzy of looting and vandalism. The Met’s public order tactics struggled to catch-up.
This was not a case of mass aggression against the police, with lots of people in one place. Although terrifying, the police have training and tactics to handle this. Instead, we saw organised or at least connected groups emerging in different locations and with different intentions.
The Met must again consider how they can create flexible and adaptive public order tactics and training to cope with what may come in the months and years ahead. We must also ask questions of their intelligence. For example, were the structures and communication networks of London’s gang culture the main drivers of this action?
A further question is whether the police can work more effectively with organised communities who resist outbreaks of criminal behaviour. The spontaneous growth of self organised protection by communities like the Kurds in Dalston demonstrated a realistic assessment on Monday night that the state would not be able to protect their property and livelihoods. Should the Met have worked hand in hand with shopkeepers determined to protect their neighbourhoods, and can they do so without promoting vigilante behaviour?
One final question on police tactics: what role does leadership play? It took the Met until Tuesday to respond adequately to the spreading violence at a time when the Met is without a permanent Commissioner, and when the Prime Minister and Mayor were on holiday. Are the police able to respond quickly to unfolding events without this leadership, whether to dictate a change in tactics or to absorb tensions such as those arising from the death of Mark Duggan, or was this simply an organisational delay due to mustering so many extra police?
These pressing questions about British police tactics must be examined, before calling for the sort of policing we normally associate with repressive states. They must be thought through in a wider debate about our society, its deep inequality and “me, me, me” consumerist culture. The biggest question of all is why a minority of young people were so happy to participate in violence, destruction and theft.
Note: this article has been edited since the original post, to cut it down.
Everyone knows that police forces are facing major budget reductions. Yet, the Mayor of London has said he is both increasing police numbers and boosting the frontline, claiming London will be “the envy of every police force in the country” and will “buck the trend”.
The reality behind the Mayor’s claims is a little different.
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Myth one: the housing benefit bill is out of control
Not all myth. London’s housing benefit bill rose from £3bn to £5bn in the seven years from 2002 to 2009, putting an extra £2bn a year into the pockets of landlords in order to help people afford a home .
Myth two: the cuts will fix the problem
Who knows? The basic problem is the increasing number of people who need housing benefits to afford to live in London. The Work and Pensions department’s own analysis showed that almost 70 per cent of growth in the benefit bill was due to more people claiming benefit . The Mayor’s research showed that the increase in the number claimants over 2002-07 almost exactly matches the shortfall in affordable rented housing .
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Every new generation of campaigners from the peace movement of the 1980s onwards has been through workshops which teach you how to make an impact and how to handle the police.
Non violent direct action (NVDA) has to be part of a wider, mass protest to be really successful, but from Greenham Common to Swampy and Greenpeace, it has as much a place in Britain’s cultural life as Glastonbury or a Royal Wedding.
If done properly, it can not only generate the right kind of publicity, but direct it against the right institutions.
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