Protests and promises: Mitting’s first hearing as chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry
Monday and Tuesday saw the first open hearings being held by the new Undercover Policing Inquiry chair, John Mitting. Given the many thorny issues and growing distrust of the Inquiry, it was an important chance to learn more about the man and his approach. What followed were promises of openness and requests to be trusted, punctuated by a passionate protest on the rights of those spied upon. We give highlights and analysis from the two days.
No Justice! No Peace!
Mitting began with a prepared statement on how he would conduct the Inquiry. He stated his commitment to getting to the truth, and for the need for openness, but at the same time was keen to stress his pragmatic, case-by-case approach. Despite his actions to date in holding a number of closed hearings, he was not willing to revisit issues that could make way for the greater secrecy the police continue to push for.
However, not long in there was an outburst of chanting from the full gallery of ‘No Justice, No Peace!’ Several core participants and others stood to voice their anger and concerns, restating long-term demands that, for them, go to the heart of the Inquiry’s integrity: the release of all cover names of undercover officers, along with the groups they spied upon and to hand over the personal files held on them by the police. The inequality they faced was plain, with a single barrister representing 200 individual core participants, as opposed to many more for the police who filled the benches.
Mitting called security to deal with the rebellion, but as it became clear he was being presented with passionate, articulated messages, he listened instead. Later he acknowledged that it was a powerful display of feeling and he that needed to earn trust. Chatting to some of participants afterwards, it was obvious they are weary from the long fight, but that was no reason to give up being heard. For them, too much of the discussion to date continues to be centred on the needs of the police, whose heel-dragging remains unchecked, at a personal cost to them.
Two days of debate
The first day of hearings focused on the important, if dry, matter of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Core participants sought reassurance that, among other matters, convictions which could amount to miscarriages of justice were not being used to justify hiding detail of undercovers with vested interests. The hearings then moved on to its substantive work, considering individual undercover officers applications to keep secret their real and cover names. This was the exercise that would demonstrate in practice how much would actually be revealed to the world.
It is notable how much the debate has changed. Much of the argument focused on the release of real names of undercover officers, as opposed to simply their cover names. Though seemingly Mitting is minded to find in favour of restricting release of the real names, it is far from absolute.
In his opening remarks, Mitting talked of the moral right of women targeted for relationships to know the name of their abusers, unless it posed too great a risk to the officers' safety. This was put to the test during the application for the real name of a 1970s officer, ‘Rick Gibson’, to be kept secret. The barrister for the non-police core participants, Philippa Kaufmann QC, revealed it was now known that Gibson had several relationships. The impact was palpable with Mitting acknowledging it changed things a lot. Even the Metropolitan Police’s barrister, Jonathan Hall QC, conceded that where relationships were concerned, keeping undercovers' real names secret was going to require a high bar.
The Gibson revelation had another impact, showing that the little weight to be given in the early day of the Special Demonstration Squad was a false assumption. Something core participants are unhappy about, not least as a number of them remember those days well enough.
Though it played a lesser role in this hearing, there was a similar commitment to the problems around the targeting of the family and friends of Stephen Lawrence. Senior officers, Mitting stated, would be expected to give their evidence in their real names. He has also shifted on one of the key officers, ‘N81’, whose cover name he is now willing to reveal, contrary to earlier intentions.
A feel for Mitting
If the previous Chair, Sir Christopher Pitchford, was cold and aloof, Mitting is a more tangible character. He engaged with the process, interjecting as he sought or provided clarification. At one point he acknowledged his mind had been changed by Ms Kaufmann.
There was a sense that the judge wishes to move things forward and get things out in the open. We learned he gave little weight to much of the police material submitted in favour of anonymity. The reasons on which he is considering granting such applications are mostly on significant physical or psychiatric risk to the officer, or leaving undisturbed families of officers deployed a long time ago.
Though relatively new to the role, Mitting patience with the Metropolitan Police is frayed. At one point he threatened to remove their right to redact documents prior to release because of their excessive approach – something with potentially significant consequences for future releases of material.
His pragmatic approach was demonstrated in one case, where an officer said they would leave the UK altogether if their name was released. Mitting chose the route which would get him the evidence even if it meant an unwelcome closed hearing.
For core participants, all this is seen as small, positive steps forward, though with many still to go.
The last words of the hearings went, deservedly, to Helen Steel, representing herself. She spoke after all the lawyers had their say, making the point how even now, twenty four years after her life had been invaded by an undercover officer, she was still being demeaned by the police. She pointed to various aspects of the evidence submitted by the police where her search for justice was being mis-characterised as ‘harm to individuals’ - when the reality was that what happened to her had been an abusive relationship.
Helen also noted that many of the known undercovers exited using nervous breakdowns as the cover for their disappearance, and that they were actually trained liars. Statements from them about psychological distress had to be read in that light. And if there was mental distress being caused, then it was being done to the non-state participants by the significant power imbalance and ongoing withholding of evidence by the police.
No final decisions were made – these will come through in the next few weeks, with more hearings due in the new year.
The author was in court for the entire two days. Transcripts of the two day of hearings can be found here.