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New Inquiry chair prepares to protect Lawrence family spycop

Pitchford Watcher photo
Pitchford WatcherLondon
New Inquiry chair prepares to protect Lawrence family spycop
Mitting’s first statements in Undercover Policing Inquiry causes campaigners to fear a more secretive line from the new Chair.

Last week, new Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Mitting, provided the first insight into how he intends to approach the Undercover Policing Inquiry. He tackled a matter that goes right to the heart of how the Inquiry will be shaped - the thorny and much disputed issue of disclosing undercover operations. Though headlines were made with the revealing of three new undercovers, a sift through the 60 documents released indicates that Mitting may be undermining his predecessor’s position by going for greater secrecy.

The Inquiry’s 3rd August release of anonymity applications was nervously anticipated by campaigners. Indeed the last two years of legal battles built towards this moment. This is the first tranche of details to emerge, and the first set of applications addressing actual disclosure. As such, the tone for all subsequent disclosure hearings and releases will be determined by the outcome of this set of applications.

Campaigners have long argued that justice cannot be done if they do not have the details about who actually spied up on them. Pitchford, the previous Inquiry Chair, stated that, given the absence of documents, calling former undercovers is fundamental to the success of the Inquiry. However, mindful of various issues, he permitted those officers and the Metropolitan Police to make applications for restrictions on the admission of the officers’ real and cover names.

After over a year of delays, Pitchford finally cracked the whip on the Metropolitan Police in April (if halfheartedly), setting a timetable for applications for restriction orders and supporting risk assessments to be filed in a series of tranches over the summer. Which it seems, duly embarrassed, the Metropolitan Police managed to do, supplying a number of applications for anonymity and supporting material. 

With the exception of Peter Francis, until now, all detailed information on spycops in the public domain has emerged from the work of political groups who had been doing their own research. Thus, the release of three new undercovers is a step forward, though it has to be pointed out that one of them was already known to campaigners, having been rumbled by the group he was targeting back in the 1970s.

The real significance here is that it shows the final nails have been put in to the coffin of the contested police policy of relying on ‘Neither Confirm Nor Deny’ to frustrate disclosure. This is a relief for campaigners, but they remain aware that the Metropolitan Police have simply moved onto exploring other avenues to avoid disclosing details, including reiterating the claim they made life-time assurances of never disclosing an officer’s deployment as a undercover cover.

However, behind the headlines of the three undercover officers being confirmed, the wider story is how Mitting is considering the restriction orders in general. This is a real concern of the non-police/state core participants. Many are mistrustful of Mitting, whose background in secret tribunals and the patriarchal throw-back of the Garrick Club gives them little confidence he is the right man to hear issues about the institutional sexism and racism which riddled the undercover police.

Thus, the key material is how Mitting is suggesting (in his ‘Minded To’ note) he will approach the restriction order applications now before him. Overall, it appears he favours greater secrecy and is prepared to give fears over press intrusion (into the lives of ex-undercovers and their families) pre-eminence over the uncovering of abuses by the spycops.

Most notably, Mitting is prepared to keep secret details of ‘N81’, the undercover police officer who spied on the Lawrence family during the Macpherson Inquiry. Though no final decision has officially been made yet, Mitting has said he is minded not to disclose the real name. He has also ordered a closed hearing on the issue. Since other core participants are excluded from closed hearings, it is likely he will only hear arguments against disclosing the cover name of N81 and little on the extensive wider public interest ones.

If Mitting does agree to keep N81’s details secret, this will necessarily require that the group(s) he infiltrated will also be kept secret in order to protect such identity. Without doubt this will not go down well, not least given that N81 is suspected of spying on other family justice campaigns besides the Lawrences.

In general, Mitting has indicated that he is inclined to give significant weight to Article 8 rights to private life. Particularly where the police have secured medical statements on the stress and anxiety that will be caused to the former undercovers if things go public. In one case, that of ‘HN7’, he has already given a unilateral order for anonymity on the basis of HN7’s mental health. For others, he is accepting that the minimal risk of press intrusion may be sufficient for such anonymity orders, even when there is no risk to safety. In another instance, his main concern is the effect on the widow of an undercover.

He also appears to be of the opinion that he can do what he needs to meet the terms of reference of the Inquiry, just by reference to cyphers and cover names, an approach that increases secrecy and further limits participation by those targeted by the undercovers. These core participants believe that in doing this, he is completely disregarding their needs and that they are being denied the right to the truth. One such core participant told us:

Mitting has shown no interest in the victims, but is demonstrating a willingness to protect the abusers by accepting the spurious argument put forward by the police. In doing so,he ignores how the success of the Inquiry depends on the victims of undercover policing abuses being able to come forward and bring the truth with them. The accounts of inappropriate sexual relationships and other issues are not going to be found in sterile intelligence reports, but from those who are able to recognise what happened on the ground. How can they come forward if the spycops are continually being protected from scrutiny in this way? It is another bitter blow for those who have fought long to get to this moment.

Another core participant, Carolyn Wilson, was more scathing,

The police tend to tell us "If you've nothing to hide, then you've got nothing to fear". People are trying to come to terms with the very real trauma of finding out they'd been deceived into intimate relationships with cops from these secret units. They are desperate for information so they can deal with what's happened, and heal their lives. How dare those same cops now have the nerve to claim that they face being "traumatised" by details of their past activities being brought out in public? If they haven't done anything wrong, why would they be embarrassed about their neighbours and families finding out about it all? How hypocritical of them.

Much of this is yet to be subject to final rulings, but the ‘Minded To’ note clearly sets out the tone that the new chair takes. There is a real fear that the principle of justice needing to be seen to be done will be abandoned by a judge well versed in secrecy.

For details of the new undercovers released and the applications see the Inquiry's press release.

#Undercover Policing Inquiry, #Spycops, #Mitting