Mounting pressure on Spycop Inquiry Chair
When the new Chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, Sir John Mitting, released his first formal opinions in August there was a horrified intake of breath by many of the core participants. His "Minded-To" note was a sharp deviation from the principles set out by his predecessor, Lord Justice Pitchford who in his ruling of May this year emphasized the ‘presumption of openness’. Mitting, has so far demonstrated that his approach would be to grant almost every request for anonymity from former undercover officers and the Metropolitan Police (the ‘restriction order applications’) regardless of the grounds.
Some of these reasons were clearly on the spurious side; for example, on the grounds that a widow of an undercover active in 1968 fear media intrusion – and even after he had noted: ‘There is no risk to [her] safety and minimal risk of intrusive interest in [his family] even if his real name were to be published’.
Even on matters as central to the Inquiry as the spying on the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, Mitting indicated that he was willing to consider full anonymity and would hold closed hearings to determine this.
Core participant criticisms
Those who were spied up by the undercover police, as represented by the near 200 'non-police, non-state core participants' (NPSCPs) in the Inquiry, are not having it. Outrage has turned into action. First came a letter from 13 of the women targeted for relationships by spycops in which they requested a meeting with Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Sent in September, it focused on 'institutional sexism' within the Metropolitan Police and saw Mitting's appointment and subsequent approach as reinforcing that problem - the judge is a member of all male establishment bastion the Garrick Club.
On the legal front, the lawyers have responded to the restriction order applications from the police and Mitting's 'Minded-To' note. Detailed submissions directly challenge their approach as departing from the normal course of things, which go so far as redacting even the backgrounds of medical experts. Major points of criticism have been Mitting's outright ignoring both ECHR Article 10 rights on freedom of expression as it relates to the media, and the rights of the victims in this scandal. They also argue that Mitting is essentially making findings of fact based on police information only, without hearing any evidence from other affected parties.
Reading through the documents, the impression left is that the judge is the adversary in all of this. It is unusual to see a sitting Chair of an Inquiry being torn apart in this fashion by those before him, something which reflects the immense frustration NPSCPs are expressing privately.
Things have accelerated somewhat over the last fortnight. Last Tuesday saw a meeting at the House of Lords where a panel spoke on the Inquiry, including Neville Lawrence and the family's lawyer Imran Khan. During an impromptu vote, there was unanimous agreement that Mitting should be sacked.
This Tuesday a second letter was sent to the Inquiry, signed by 115 of the non-police core participants. It was frank in it’s assessment, with spokesperson Kim Bryan stating:
As Core Participants we are rapidly losing confidence in the Inquiry and in the abilities of John Mitting. He is rowing back on commitments made by the previous Chair, Christopher Pitchford, who stated the inquiry’s priority is to discover the truth and recognised the importance of hearing from both officers and their victims along with the need for this to be done in public as far as possible.
The letter itself noted:
Furthermore, we would like, once again, to raise the issue of the significant imbalance in financial resources and power between the State and Non-State Core Participants in this Inquiry. This means that Non-State Core Participants are often prevented from making submissions on issues of concern to them, while the MPS remains in complete control of the evidence and is able to bog the Inquiry down with multiple applications of its choosing.
When we spoke to some of the core participants who signed, they made the point that in such a situation it is all the more important the Chair is seen to be impartial and act accordingly. Without this, trust in any inquiry rapidly breaks down, as has happened similarly with other public inquiries, such as the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry.
To add to the pressure, the same day the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published a report into how victims of the spycop scandal have had to fight for justice. It speaks of an 'almost impenetrable wall of silence' and is critical of continued police stonewalling in relation to the Inquiry. What emerges is a picture of an Inquiry supine is in the face of the police, substantiating the discontent felt by participants.
Response from Mitting
Coincidentally, Tuesday was also when Mitting issued a partial response to the legal submissions. He adopted a softer tone but did not meet many of the concerns expressed to the Inquiry by the NPSCPs. In some cases he has ignored their legal points outright, such as the holding of closed hearings prior to open ones to assess the restriction orders.
However, he stopped short of accepting arguments that would have prevented release of the cover name of a key officer (‘HN81’) involved in the spying on the Lawrence family. To many core participants this was inevitable, as to grant full secrecy would have been fatal to Inquiry. The Lawrence case has had such thorough investigation, each time exposing more systemic police failures and corruption, that it has become utterly toxic to the Met. Any active obstruction of truth and justice in this most notorious area would cause huge outrage.
That Mitting allowed it to go it so far is seen as either incompetent or deliberate mishandling. Not least, because with another officer (‘HN7’) he pushed ahead without taking submissions from NPSCPs and deferred to the police request to grant - full anonymity. Others are equally critical of the Metropolitan Police for continuing to push this line and adding years of unnecessary delay.
Most importantly, the Chair of the Inquiry’s recent response does not dispel the concern that he intends to reverse Pitchford’s commitment to openness and transparency. Mitting has said he will give a statement on the conduct of the inquiry at the next hearing, now scheduled for 20 November. It is fair to say that campaigners and core participants await it with foreboding. The Chair will have to shift position quite considerably to convince them that he is not as much part of the problem as the police are in hampering the conduct of the Inquiry.