Wednesday, March 05, 2014
The scandal of Britain's political secret police keeps widening, and those affected are banding together to maximise pressure for truth and justice. Last Thursday there was the launch meeting of the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance in London. It was oversubscribed (I'd guess about 150 people were in the room). For those who couldn't be there, I''ll summarise what was said by the main speakers.
A panel of six people spoke about their experiences, and hearing them in succession, talking about different groups and issues affected over such a long period of time, really hammered home the scale of what has been happening.
Liz Davies, chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers chaired the meeting. What was clear was that even full answers about what happened to one person or group is not enough. There needs to be a single, overarching, independent inquiry with the power to compel witnesses.
IMRAN KHAN - LAWYER FOR STEPHEN LAWRENCE'S FAMILY
Imran Khan, long-term lawyer for murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence's family who were spied on, spoke first. He read a statement of support from Stephen's mother Doreen and said that the current raft of police self-investigations aren't convincing anyone. Even if we maximise our benefit of the doubt and say they'll be objective and fair, they will still not be credible because they're not independent.
He spoke of the obvious first questions of accountability - Who was in charge of the secret police units? What was the chain of command? Did it go to the very top? Whistleblowing officer Peter Francis has recounted a personal visit and thanks from the Commissioner - complete with a gift of a bottle of whisky - for their work. How long were they deployed for? Who saw the information that was gathered? Who decided not to tell the supposedly air-clearing MacPherson Inquiry into policing around the Lawrence case?
We know that at least three officers including Peter Francis were deployed around the Lawrences and other black justice campaigns. Unfortunately, the brief of the secret police is not to gather evidence but intelligence. This means things were not meticulously logged for verification. Quite the opposite, information was sanitised to remove clues of its provenance before being passed on. So a look at the files will never be enough, we need the testimony of those involved.
Yet Chief Constable Mick Creedon, the man running the biggest investigation into the secret police, has threatened the one whistleblower with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. This is, of course, done to discourage others from coming forward.
Everyone deserves answers. Not just the Lawrences and the bereaved families put at risk when officers stole their dead child's identity, but all those involved including the people who were less likely to get unalloyed public sympathy such as the political activists and the lawyers.
DAVE SMITH - BLACKLISTED CONSTRUCTION WORKER
Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group got up to speak next, pointing out that as an old school trade unionist he stands to speak at meetings.
In the five years since the Information Commissioner's Office raided the Consulting Association - the company that ran the illegal construction industry blacklist - we've seen no prosecutions and no justice. 3,200 files were found. Smith's own was ten pages and included details of his family, his car registration, and ten years of his employment history.
The blacklist was used by many of the biggest names in construction - Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, McAlpine, Skanska - and only employees at director level were invited to attend blacklisting meetings. Workers appear on it for trying to unionise, but also for raising health and safety concerns. Some people weren't even construction workers - one was a teacher who was listed because they had been involved in an anti-BNP campaign. Several hundred environmental campaigners (me included) were on it. It cost the companies about £2 per search, and invoices were found for £28,000 for one firm in one year.
There was information that can only have come from secret police. Indeed, late last year the Independent Police Complaints Commission confirmed that illegally supplying the information for this illegal work was a routine part of Special Branch work across the country. Another police unit that spied on protesters, the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, had meetings with the Consulting Association even though the CA's activities were wholly illegal.
It's not just the same units, it's the same officers. Peter Francis believes his intelligence was used for it. Yet again, the secret police show that corporate profit is more important than the law and that their remit was actively counter-democratic.
Mark Jenner - who was undercover as Mark Cassidy - told the partner he lived with for five years that he was a construction worker. He even turned up on pickets alongside Smith and chaired meetings. (In reality he spent his 'working' days with his wife and family or with police). He also infiltrated black justice campaigns and so, like Francis, is another crossover officer.
The blacklisting campaign started out as an industrial relations dispute, straightforward labour versus capital. But what has been revealed is far more than that. This is a conspiracy between big business, government and the secret services to trample fundamental human rights. Like the undermining of social justice activists, it is not over. Blacklisting was used on projects for the 2012 London Olympics.
Furthermore, if celebrities get a public inquiry for having their phones hacked then what possible excuse is there for not having such an inquiry for this far greater and graver invasion of lives?
I would also add a question - does anyone think construction is the only industry with a blacklist, or just the only one exposed?
HELEN STEEL - SOCIAL JUSTICE CAMPAIGNER
Helen Steel made the next contribution. A lifelong campaigner for environmental and social justice, she is perhaps best known as one of the McLibel Two who defended themselves in the longest trial in English history. Their group, London Greenpeace (nothing to do with the massive Greenpeace) distributed a leaflet called What's Wrong With McDonald's - co-written by a member who was in fact undercover police officer Bob Lambert.
She had a long-term relationship with an undercover officer called John Dines, who had stolen the identity of a dead child called John Barker, and is part of a group of women suing the police.
He had confided in her about the death of his mother, his isolation as an only child, and how he dreamed to have children one day. All of this was untrue - it was policy to only send in officers who were married with children - but he successfully manipulated her feelings over several years. She fell in love with him.
Shortly before the McLibel writ was served they began a relationship that lasted several years. During the last six months he appeared to have a breakdown, which was very stressful and draining for Steel to handle. He left and she received two letters from South Africa, saying once he sorted his head out they may get back together.
After years of searching, one day on the way home from court at McLibel she impulsively went into St Catherine's House and searched the death records, finding the real John Barker's, proving her partner had been someone else. All those years and shared experiences and plans, and she didn't even know his name. So began her uncovering of the truth. She travelled to New Zealand, but the police were aware of her search and had got there first, paying Dines to get out of the country to frustrate her enquiries.
Police have given conflicting responses, saying it is never acceptable to have these relationships yet also saying it is inevitable and even essential. They acknowledge deceit but say that other people lie to partners too. Firstly, police abuse cannot be justified with the line 'but other people do it'. Secondly, this isn't a lie. This is a false identity, false marital status, false job, false politics. If this happened to anyone - police officers included - they would feel violated and traumatised.
Police also suggested that Mark Kennedy's relationships were the actions of a rogue officer. John Dines proves otherwise. Steel's legal action involves eight women who had relationships with five officers over 25 years. And there are others taking legal action, and still more that can't face the gruelling fight.
This was deliberate, repeated strategy. This is institutional sexism, derailing women's lives in order to shore up secret police operations with no oversight.
To search your home there needs to be a warrant, gained from a judge who has seen evidence of the need. Yet a secret police officer can live in your home for years with no scrutiny, nor any need for evidence against you. A suspect in custody is cautioned and may have a lawyer present, yet these officers question you without you even knowing. It's this depth of intimacy, of emotional entanglement, that causes the trauma rather than the sexual element that is the media's preoccupation.
The recent response - to 'neither confirm nor deny' anyone was an officer, the new 'tougher guidelines' that make no mention of sexual relationships - prove that they want to keep this as an option, that it is still going on.
HARRIET WISTRICH - LAWYER
Harriet Wistrich represents the eight women in Steel's case. Having all had their sense of trust shattered by their experiences, it's not been easy for them to work as a group and yet they have made great efforts to support one another. It's clear that what was done was textbook, the pattern of the relationships - the troubled early life, the devoted correspondence, through to the prolonged 'breakdown' when they're about to leave - is strikingly similar in all the cases.
Wistrich expected that, faced with such starkly immoral and operationally indefensible deeds, the police would have held their hands up and said it was wrong but have claimed to have learned lessons and moved on since then. It's been a surprise to see them defend it and obstruct justice. Their main tactic is 'neither confirm nor deny' (NCND), which they pretend is a long-held inviolate principle.
They are also trying to get cases struck out because 'this has no basis in law'. What happened to these women is very rare, and its exposure rarer still, so of course there is no list of similar historic cases.
The Metropolitan Police officers doing the self-investigations met with Mark Jenner/Cassidy's partner, asking for details, letters, photos, diaries. They were from the Professional Standards department, an internal body. Yet still they held the line that they would not confirm that Jenner was a police officer.
I'd also point out that the Met is defending legal action by Jenner's ex-partner, so there's a conflict of interest in them investigating on the one hand whilst trying to stifle investigations on the other.
The three women who had relationships with Mark Kennedy did so after the Human Rights Act came into force, so had a claim there. It has been thrown out of real court and sent to an Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a secret court where the women and their lawyers are barred from being there or seeing what evidence the police provide (or omit), then the judge makes a decision without giving any reasons and there is no right of appeal. Historically, all cases at IPTs find in favour of the state.
All the women have claims under common law for deceit, assault and misfeasance in public office. The police are trying to have these struck out, saying that as their refusal to give evidence about their officers means they won't get a fair trial.
I find thehe idea that someone caught committing a crime can say their own choice not to speak up in court is the denial of a fair trial an amazing, bold obstruction to justice. Try doing that if you're nicked for burglary, see how far you get.
ROBBIE GILLETT - CLIMATE CAMPAIGNER
Robbie Gillett was one of the Drax 29 who stopped a coal train going into Drax power station in 2008 and whose convictions were recently quashed because the prosecution had withheld evidence from the activists' driver, undercover officer Mark Kennedy.
He corrected the common phrase that the Director of Public Prosecutions "invited them to appeal" against their wrongful convictions. This was not benevolence from diligent investigators at the Crown Prosecution Service, it was giving in to pressure about an embarrassment that was ballooning. The 'invitation' came in July 2012, 18 months after the collapse of the Ratcliffe power station trial, also due to Kennedy's involvement. It is the exposure of the secret police and the work to keep it in the public eye that is yielding results.
Sir Christopher Rose's report said that the failings of police and prosecutors at Ratcliffe were 'individual, not systemic,' yet the Drax case had already happened with different police forces and prosecutors. Add to this John Jordan's prosecution a decade earlier alongside an officer who never broke cover, and undercover officer Bob Lambert's admission that he was prosecuted as activist Bob Robinson a decade before that, and systemic is the only word for these miscarriages of justice.
With such wide-ranging, long term infiltration using the maximum possible invasion of citizens' lives, it's easy to get acclimatised and stop being shocked at new revelations. We get normalised to police misconduct. But just because something is normal doesn't mean it is acceptable and we must maintain our outrage and our thirst for justice.
LOIS AUSTIN - SOCIALIST PARTY
Lois Austin is a trade unionist who works for the public services union PCS and is a member of the Socialist Party. She was a member of the Socialist Party's forerunner, Militant Labour, and was chair of its anti-racist campaign Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) at the time they were infiltrated by Peter Francis.
When they used a bug detector to sweep the YRE office at the time it lit up like a beacon. People forget how controversial the now lauded anti-racist and anti-apartheid campaigns were in the 1980s and 1990s.
I'd note that the anti-apartheid campaign was focused on economic sanctions, and threats to corporate profit are one of the main targets of the secret police.
Many campaigners who'd never been arrested for anything were spied on and had extensive Special Branch files. Peter Francis says there were already files on around a hundred Militant and YRE members when he was deployed, and he opened 25 more. This is political policing to prevent protest, colluding with big business and state bodies, seemingly without any boundaries on the methods used. Illegal action, such as supplying the blacklist, perjury or being an agent provocatuer, were accepted practices for these officers of the law.
This is not a rogue officer or rogue unit overstepping their brief. These methods were so widespread, sustained and interlaced with other agencies that it can only be seen as the accepted, organised strategy. When we've heard Helen Steel's story, it makes you wonder what else there could be.
So this campaign needs to be broad. The initial central demand is an independent inquiry with testimony from all known victims and the power to compel witnesses. We especially welcome Doreen Lawrence's statement that she doesn't just regard her family's case as the boundary but as part of something much bigger. We've seen the recent Hillsborough Independent Panel and Bloody Sunday inquiries reveal much truth but stop short of fully attributing blame.
It is inconceivable that the Commissioner of the Met and the politicians above him didn't know about this. The police are on the back foot with this issue, hence the threatening and smearing of Peter Francis. Pretty much everyone has sympathy with some people who were targeted, so we need to build and popularise this campaign. There is a statement to get union branches and organisations to sign up to. Let's take this beyond the groups affected and out into wider society.
JUST THE BEGINNING
So, that was the six speakers. Even though I already knew much of what was said, hearing it from those affected one after another was intensely moving and made a very coherent picture come into focus. And, although there were people from so many disparate groups, this was by no means the full story. There was nobody there from the Hillsborough families who were spied on. There was no mention of the Muslim groups that were the focus of the final few years of pivotal undercover officer Bob Lambert's final few years in the police.
Beyond the list of known targets, we should remember that all this comes from the unmasking of about a dozen undercover officers. More than 90% of them remain totally unknown to us. How many more court cases were nobbled? How many more children were born to briefly bolster an officer's cover then abandoned? How many outrages were committed the like of which we haven't even thought of yet?
The chief thrust of COPS is to push for a judge-led inquiry. Whilst, as Lois Austin pointed out, it has led to a fuller public understanding of things like Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday - though no convictions - we do also need to be cautious about seeing that as a final goal. Bloody Sunday had an initial judge-led inquiry that was a whitewash, and the Taylor report into Hillsborough, though sympathetic to victims and critical of police, was also unable to marshal all the facts or address the cover-up. It was only after decades of sustained campaigning that the more recent, more accurate judge-led inquiries were held into those events.
With Hillsborough we saw a new model of inquiry, a panel outside of arms of the state, trusted by all sides. It succeeded where judges failed. Enforcers of state power are not the best placed people to objectively investigate large scale abuses of state power.
But, as the Lawrence and Hillsborough campaigns have shown, no single inquiry will provide the complete answer. We must go for what will bring forth the next nugget of truth, and once we've got that out into the light, go for the one beyond it. The case for a proper independent inquiry is so strong, and will be supported by such a broad spectrum of society, that it is the obvious next step.
COPS has been founded to make that happen. They're also on Facebook if you want to give them a Like and stay up to date that way.