The Pitchford Inquiry into Undercover Policing
In March 2015, our then Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the Appeal Court Lord Justice Sir Christopher Pitchford would oversee a public inquiry into the undercover policing scandal. This followed on from publication of a damning report by Mark Ellison QC, who among other things confirmed that the family of Stephen Lawrence had been spied upon during the watershed 1998 Macpherson Inquiry.
Since the exposure of undercover officer Mark Kennedy in October 2010, the drip-drip effect of the ‘spycop’ scandal had grown intolerable, partly down to the constant exposure of further undercovers, and partly because one of them, Peter Francis had been brave enough to come forward as a whistle-blower. The number of scandals associated to undercover policing grew, whether inappropriate sexual relations obtained through deception, stealing the identities of dead children to create cover stories, to miscarriages of justice and even engaging in serious crime. Families seeking justice over the deaths of loved ones in custody were also targeted, as were the MPs who supported them.
Though, the Inquiry covers all undercover policing, it is clear to all concerned that its focus is those units targeting protestors, in particular the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, both of which were clearly lacking effective oversight.
Those most affected by the scandal have consistently stated that restitution can only come through a full and open inquiry, where first and foremost the truth of the abuses have come out. This includes the release of all cover names and the groups they spied upon. Without these, they say, the Inquiry relies solely on the work those who have exposed spycops in their lives, and many more who have suffered injustices are not in a position to come forward. For them the spying is about political policing, unjustifiable and anti-democratic.
The police, naturally are putting the welfare of their own officers first and foremost, initially seeking to prevent the inquiry being conducted in public, and maintaining a position of ‘Neither Confirm Nor Deny’ when it came to admitting individuals were in fact undercovers. Though they have now moved away from this position, it is clear that they are having an ongoing struggle with the Inquiry as the demands for transparency clashes directly with their deep desire to avoid a spotlight being shown on this secretive world.
As a result, an inquiry that was meant to have started in earnest by now has dragged on. Over two years in and it is still mired in preliminary legal issues. This column will look at what is going on in the Inquiry, give context to rulings and announcements, and draw on some of the reactions from the affected - somewhat of an insiders view.