Spying by undercover Met Police officers on left-wing groups was 'unjustified', inquiry finds

29 June 2023, 12:50 | Updated: 29 June 2023, 13:01

Undercover policing tactics were 'unjustified', a report has found
Undercover policing tactics were 'unjustified', a report has found. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Undercover policing tactics on left-wing and anarchist groups by a secretive Met Police squad was "unjustified" and the unit should have been axed, an inquiry has found.

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The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) infiltrated more than 1,000 political groups like Sinn Fein and anti-apartheid activists from 1968-2008, with the aim of keeping public order.

And the group also spied on justice campaigns, like the scheme led by the family of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager killed in a racist murder in 1993.

Officers were also later discovered to have had sexual relationships - and even fathered children - with women who were unaware of their true identities.

The actions of 139 SDS officers are being investigated by a public inquiry, led by Sir John Mitting. The first stage of the inquiry, covering the squad's initial 14 years, reported on Thursday.

Sir John found that if the activities of the SDS had been properly examined earlier on, it would have been "brought to a rapid end" in the 1970s.

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Campaign banner outside the Royal Courts of Justice at a preliminary hearing
Campaign banner outside the Royal Courts of Justice at a preliminary hearing. Picture: Alamy

Authorisation for the SDS had to be given every year by the Home Office. In 1976 a group of senior police officers found the squad should continue work with at least 12 undercover officers.

But Sir John found that key issues had not been considered, including long-term undercover assignments meaning officers were intruding into the personal lives of many hundreds of people, including deceiving them to enter their homes.

He said that officers' tactics "would have been bound to have given rise to legitimate public concern and to embarrassment to the commissioner and to his police authority - the home secretary".

His report added: "Long term deployments into political groups inevitably required the undercover officer, male or female, to befriend members of the target groups and to enter into their personal and political lives.

"Putting to one side the risk that sexual relationships might develop, this intrusion into the lives of many hundreds of people in this era required cogent justification before it should have been contemplated as a police tactic."

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Sir John went on: "None of these issues appears to have been addressed by senior officers with the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) or by Home Office officials during this period."

He added: "If these issues had been addressed, it is hard to see how any conclusion could legitimately have been reached which would not have resulted in the closure of the SDS."

He said the infiltration of only three of the groups that were targeted at the time could be justified - (Provisional) Sinn Fein and two others that have not been publicly named.

"The principal, stated purpose of the SDS was to assist uniformed police to control public order in London," Sir John found.

"Long-term deployments into left-wing and anarchist groups did make a real contribution to achieving this end, even though this was or could have been achieved to a significant extent by other, less intrusive, means.

Doreen Lawrence has spoken out
Doreen Lawrence has spoken out. Picture: Getty

"The question is whether or not the end justified the means."

He went on: "I have come to the firm conclusion that, for a unit of a police force, it did not; and that had the use of these means been publicly known at the time, the SDS would have been brought to a rapid end."

Sir John said among 2,600 documents from between April 1975 and May 1978, 1,400 were about people's identities and lives; 1,200 were records of the meetings and activities of groups that were spied on, and 200 were reports on forthcoming events that might have an impact on public order in London.

He said: "It is a striking feature of the reporting of almost all SDS undercover officers that it contained extensive details about individuals - their political views, personality, working life, relationships with others, and family and private life."

This is the first report to come from the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which was set up in 2015 by then home secretary Theresa May in response to outrage over various tactics used by undercover officers. The inquiry, which has so far cost £64 million, is expected to finish in three years' time.

The two later stages of the inquiry will cover the squad's work until 2008, looking into scandals over women being deceived into sexual relationships, the use of dead children's names without their families' consent and spying on groups like the Lawrence family.

In the foreword to Sir John's report, he said the impact of the deceitful relationships, the use of dead children's names and spying on justice campaigns were best addressed once all the evidence is in.

Sir John also concluded that the absence of targeting of right-wing groups at the time was not due to political bias, but the fact those groups were already sufficiently covered.

He said: "The fact that in this period no decision was made to infiltrate right-wing groups did not result from political bias on the part of those responsible for targeting, but from the belief that existing coverage sufficed and through concern about the risk of violence which such a deployment might pose."

Lord Peter Hain, who was part of anti-apartheid groups that were targeted by undercover officers, said: "The report reveals clear political responsibility for illegitimate undercover police operations targeting anti apartheid and anti racist groups going right up to Prime Ministers of the day.

"However in stating 'that no decision was made to infiltrate right wing groups did not result from political bias' is an astounding endorsement by Sir John Mitting of the very political bias the police and security forces displayed at that time.

"The fact is the police and security forces were consistently on the wrong side of history and the inquiry has just ignored that.

"It is reprehensible that Sir John Mitting does not take a stand on the very evidence of discriminatory policing his inquiry uncovered."

Baroness Doreen Lawrence, whose campaign for justice for her murdered son Stephen was spied upon, said: "Now that Sir John Mitting has condemned undercover policing as unjustified, I now want to know who ordered the spying on me and my family?

"Who thought it necessary to intrude on a law-abiding family fighting for justice for their son? Who signed off on this unlawful practice?

"Given that the Home Secretary was ultimately responsible for the Metropolitan Police, I am looking to find out which Home Secretary was responsible for the spying into me."

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) claimed that the report was "full of astonishing credulity".

The pressure group added that the report was "definitively calling police witnesses 'truthful' as if they've somehow been objectively tested. Mitting takes them at their word unless there's heavyweight evidence to the contrary. He's very wary indeed of condemning any individual."

Their fellow campaign group Police Spies Out Of Lives said: "Thanks to years of efforts by campaigners the authorities are now on the back foot.

"We are proud to have helped shift the official narrative from 'neither confirm nor deny' what took place, through 'just a few bad apples', to 'some unlawful operations', and now 'an entire force and policing culture that is rotten to the core' and sanctioned by the state."

Responding to the report, the Met admitted that Sir John had found examples of "unacceptable and immoral behaviour by some undercover officers."

But the force said that "the great majority of deployed undercover officers and their operational managers performed their duties conscientiously and in the belief that what they were doing was lawful and in the interests of the public."

Met commander Jon Savell said: "We know that enormous distress has been caused, and I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the apologies made to women deceived by officers into sexual relationships, to the families of deceased children whose identities were used by officers, and to those who suffered a miscarriage of justice because of the actions of SDS officers.

"I want to reassure the public that undercover policing has undergone radical reform over the years, with greater regulation, professional codes of practice, and judicial oversight. The way in which undercover policing was conducted in the 1970s bears no relation to how it is conducted today.

"In today’s Met, we are setting clear expectations of all our people to create a Met Londoners can be proud of, and where damaging behaviour such as this is not tolerated.

"We are committed to working with the Inquiry to examine the conduct of our undercover officers throughout each stage of the Inquiry, and learning lessons from the findings."

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