Thursday, March 06, 2014

What Kind of Public Inquiry?

Well that was quick. The Home Secretary has ordered a public inquiry into undercover policing.

Responding to today's publication of the Ellison report that found that the Special Demonstration Squad secret police unit spied on Stephen Lawrence's family, she is as shocked as Captain Renault and has ordered a judge-led inquiry. It is to cover the work of the Special Demonstration Squad, though it's not clear how full a review it is, nor if it covers allied units.

Ellison said

Whilst a Public Inquiry would have the power to order the production of documents, require the attendance of witnesses and examine witnesses in a public forum, the potential for it to discover more than we have may well be limited. Fundamentally this is because of the chaotic state of the historical records held by the MPS. There are incomplete records of the moment; files have been destroyed; and the MPS uses a multitude of file-logging systems. In addition, a natural depletion of records will have occurred over time

But it's more than that. Intelligence work, by its nature, is averse to paper trails. It does not have the meticulous ordering of evidence-gathering, and much of it will never have been written down. This is why any inquiry that aims to uncover the truth must have the power to compel those involved to testify under oath, and be able to offer immunity from prosecution.


The Stephen Lawrence case is perhaps the Metropolitan Police's most vulnerable point. There is simply no defending what happened, no blaming individuals or errors. At the 1998 MacPherson Inquiry they had to concede that they were institutionally racist and show that they had come clean and moved on.

Secret police whistleblower Peter Francis, who was tasked to find dirt to smear the Lawrence family in an operation overseen by undercover godfather Bob Lambert, says he argued that the Special Demonstration Squad should have told the MacPherson Inquiry what they did. He was overruled as the secret police were desperate to hide their methods - their very existence - from the public eye.

So on this most clear cut and sensitive of cases, to find that the police had behaved in an even worse manner than the one that led to all the outrage is truly damning.

When the Undercover book exposed the workings of Britain's secret police last summer Bob Lambert, the officer most implicated, did some desperate firefighting. He went on Channel 4 News and admitted to lying in court and some of his sexual relationships (in the 1980s Lambert lived with an activist for several years and had a planned child with her - he kept this family and his existing wife and children ignorant of one another until he was exposed by activists in 2011).

Lambert carefully chose his words to deny the smear campaign in a specific timeframe, and said he had no knowledge of evidence being gathered on the Lawrences.  To leave it there was, at best, misleading of him. It was later established that the secret police did keep files on the Lawrences, and today's report proves even more.

On page 23 of the Ellison report we're told that the SDS officer who had been spying on the Lawrence family had a meeting with one of the team who were drafting the Met Commissioner's response to the devastating MacPherson Inquiry. Ellison condemns this attempt to get one over on the Lawrences as 'wrong-headed and inappropriate'. And who did Ellison find set the meeting up? Bob Lambert.

For all the clever tricks of the secret police, Lambert seems unaware of the obvious fact that the lies are unravelling, and as truths contradict his excuses he becomes ever more discredited, pulling more attention on to his role rather than less. If he's shown to have lied about some things, what else is there?

He was part of a cell of three animal rights activists who simultaneously planted incendiary devices in three branches of Debenhams in protest at selling fur. Lambert says he didn't do it. Either he did, or else there was a fourth bomber that neither he, nor the others, nor the courts have mentioned, who Lambert failed to have arrested.


Any public inquiry needs to have the entire anti-democratic remit of the secret police put squarely in the limelight. In 1999 the Labour government set up the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). They deployed Mark Kennedy, Rod Richardson and Lynn Watson. Thier work was identitcal to the SDS.

In mid 2011 the NPOIU, along with two other secret police units (the National Domestic Extremism Team  and the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit) were amalgamated. They are now called the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit. The undercover activities were taken over by four Special Project Teams. This work, and its methods, are still going on, just under different acronyms. 

Any parcelling off of the inquiry into just the SDS is a denial of justice. It needs to be the whole of our political secret police, past and present.


Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that terms of reference for the inquiry will be published soon. Is there anyway people like Harriet Wistrich, Imran Khan, us lot, can lobby that it should include all the multiple follow-up versions of the SDS? And that the inquiry must have the powers to compel witnesses to attend and give evidence under oath?

Anonymous said...

Just popped you on Newsnight. Interesting shit, keep digging...

merrick said...

We've got a long run up to the inquiry, I'm hearing that it won't even begin until after the fob-off farce of Operation Herne reports, which isn't thought to be until 2016 at the earliest. The prominent, respected, unarguable voices like Doreen Lawrence and Imran Khan are already saying that it needs to be justice for everyone affected.

I think the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance has a lot of promise and hope that will help with the remit.

The best thing we can do is keep exposing the breadth of the spying so that it is untenable to exclude known outrages. This means an inquiry with teeth and all spy untis covered; it also means private spies covered, and it means the government and civil service - who funded the spying and who the spies ultimately reported to - need to be made to speak up too.