Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture

Rebecca Quinn, a campaigner for No Police Spies, responds to the news the undercover police story is being looked at, and calls for any inquiry to go further.

Rebecca Quinn is a campaigner for No Police Spies, a group fighting for an end to police infiltration of protest groups

The revelations that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have colluded with the police in suppressing crucial covertly obtained evidence has been met with outrage and deep concern by both activists and leading justice experts.

It comes as the latest scandal in a string of exposés that began in January of this year when the existence of an extensive network of undercover police officers tasked with living among groups of environmentally and politically active people hit front pages and news bulletins for almost a month.


What may very well have made a brief intrigue in the press was catapulted into the headlines by the collapse of the £1 million trial of six of the environmental activists as the CPS withdrew the case. This occurred just two days after the defence asked for full disclosure of any evidence they held that linked Mark Kennedy to their charge.

The reason given for this was that “previously unavailable information” had come to light that compromised the prosecution case, but as we have found out this week from an information leak within the CPS, that statement was an outright lie.

The CPS was in possession of information relating to Mark Kennedy’s role, and of evidence that would have “reinforced the difficulties” of prosecuting the case, for over a year before the trial collapsed. A previous trial, as part of the same case, had already led to 20 environmental activists being convicted. They have since been invited by the CPS to appeal these convictions unopposed.

Keir Starmer QC, head of the CPS, has this week called for an independent and public inquiry into its handling of the Ratcliffe trials. The remit of the inquiry is to specifically look at the role the CPS played in preventing certain evidence from reaching court.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) began an inquiry into the involvement Nottinghamshire Police had in this obstruction in January. The two investigations are from this point, according to Keir Starmer, going to work in tandem and use the same materials.

For those of us who have been long calling for a full and public judicial inquiry into the wide range of issues that have stemmed from the undercover scandal, our call has been far from answered. So far a total of eight ‘inquiries’, ‘investigations’ and ‘reviews’ have been launched into different aspects of the undercover issue. This is the first to be conducted with an independent legal expert to preside over it, but to put it bluntly, its remit is only to tackle the scandal of the week.

It is true that Starmer’s inquiry will provide some answers about what exactly has been going on behind closed doors regarding one case. As important as it is to gain answers about how and why the CPS broke their own guidelines in handling the Ratcliffe trials, this is only one part of one story.

We know that at least 15 undercover operatives employed by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) have lived and worked among politically active groups in this country for many years. What this inquiry will not tell us is whether we need to be worried about other cases the CPS has bought forward that have involved undercover officers. What other convictions have been made in British courts that have also had evidence withheld from them?

Ken McDonald QC and Vera Baird QC, speaking on Newsnight on Wednesday, recalled the terrible miscarriages of justice that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, such as that of the Birmingham Six. The restoration of justice to those wrongly convicted took years, but when the truth was finally established it lead to significant reform of the British Justice system and the dismantling of the corrupt state bodies.

Starmer’s inquiry may reveal why exactly one set of convictions were so unsafe, but it will not reveal how many other convictions may also have been made with the CPS withholding evidence gathered by undercover operatives. So far the CPS have offered no reassurance that the Ratcliffe trials are a unique case.

While we must wait to find out whether what happened to these defendants was intentional or negligent, either are indicative of what may very well be a systematic failing of the CPS and thus a systematic miscarriage of justice taking place since these kinds of undercover operations began. This can only be established if it is fully investigated.

The same goes for the multiple other dimensions to the undercover issue. The allegations made against Kennedy’s conduct, that he acted as an agent provocateur, that he used sex as a means to gain information and that he was selling information that he gained to private companies while a serving officer have not as yet been treated as an indicator of wider trends within this kind of policing.

The response to the undercover issue so far has been just to focus on individual officers alone and avoid implication that what has been exposed was, in fact, standard practice.

There is no rigorous inquiry currently looking into the wide scale deployment of undercover officers to target the politically active. Nothing is inquiring what justification existed to deploy these officers in the first place, what aims they had in mind, what guidelines and safeguards were put in place, and nothing  looks into the disturbing allegation that officers’ ‘rogue’ behaviour was not rogue at all, but condoned and encouraged practice.

The relationship between the CPS and the police in handling undercover evidence is just one part of an incredibly complex and largely invisible jigsaw that must be pieced together if public confidence is to ever be restored. This will only be made possible by an inquiry that has the remit and authority to look at the big picture, and ultimately establish how any of this was allowed to happen in the first place.

20 Responses to “Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture”

  1. Samir Jeraj

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture: //bit.ly/lNmXx2 by @NoPoliceSpies

  2. donmackeen

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture: //bit.ly/lNmXx2 by @NoPoliceSpies

  3. Double.Karma

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture: //bit.ly/lNmXx2 by @NoPoliceSpies

  4. Roxy Shamsolmaali

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture: //bit.ly/lNmXx2 by @NoPoliceSpies

  5. Inquiry Now

    Writing for Left Foot Forward our campaigner Rebecca Quinn sets out why the No Police Spies campaign is far from over: //t.co/hQGbZVD

  6. Cameron

    Writing for Left Foot Forward our campaigner Rebecca Quinn sets out why the No Police Spies campaign is far from over: //t.co/hQGbZVD

  7. Jason

    Thank you for this post. This is really interesting stuff, especially your comparison with the miscarriages of justice of the 1970s and the Birmingham Six. I have confidence the full details will come out in the end, but the difference as to whether it is 1 year or 30 years depend on whether people continue to express their anger.

    I wish your campaign well and hope MPs choose to come onboard.

    Also, shocking to see on Newsnight the other night that the minister responsible for giving Kennedys unit all that extra cash had absolutely no explanation! Reckon you should keep pressing McNulty on that score.

  8. Ed's Talking Balls

    I read the line about suppressing evidence and immediately my mind turned to suppressing stories. Inevitably, I then started wondering about LFF’s radio silence regarding the toxic Brownite cabal still leading Labour down an electoral cul-de-sac. I presume there will be an article next week?

    Regarding undercover policing, especially the infiltration of suspicious groups, I am happy, even reassured, that it goes on. I only hope that the police put competent, scrupulous undercover officers in, so that any evidence obtained is reliable and can be relied upon in court to obtain safe convictions.

  9. Stephanie Gwillim

    Writing for Left Foot Forward our campaigner Rebecca Quinn sets out why the No Police Spies campaign is far from over: //t.co/hQGbZVD

  10. Carl van Tonder

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture: //t.co/3NkfxwB by @NoPoliceSpies

  11. Emily

    @Ed’s Talking Balls

    The problem is that the police were not infiltrating “suspicious groups”. The Ratcliffe trial mentioned above concerns the pre-emptive arrest of 113 climate change campaigners who were arrested, held for 24 hours and given draconian bail conditions just for thinking about taking action.

    When you talk about “evidence that is reliable and can be relied upon in court”. The irony is that the evidence obtained by Mark Kennedy in the hours before the arrests was certainly reliable (it was an audio recording) and it could have been relied upon in court. However, it was suppressed because it would have actually aided the defence not the prosecution. It is this that made the convictions categorically unsafe!

    Surely you believe that all evidence that could help either prosecution OR defence should be disclosed in a fair trial?

  12. David Boothroyd

    If your protest group isn’t planning to cause serious disruption, you should openly work with the police and tell them exactly what you are planning. The police are not your opponents unless you make them. There is an increasing belief among some of the newer groups in never letting the police know anything but really this does not help.

    If what you’re planning is plainly illegal, I can’t see any objection to allowing undercover police officers to join, so long as they are gathering information and not agents provocateurs. It may well help: deprived of inside information the police may assume that a non-violent group has violent intent.

  13. Rónán Burtenshaw

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture //t.co/MIMRS1F via @LeftFootFwd

  14. Tim Nelligan

    Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture //t.co/MIMRS1F via @LeftFootFwd

  15. Emily

    @David Boothroyd

    It is greatly disturbing that you advocate a society where citizens have a duty to tell the police everything they are planning and doing. That sounds like a dark place to me. The police are not meant to be all-powerful in a healthy democracy.

    The groups who have been infiltrated have shown no violent tendencies. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

    As for acting ‘illegally’. If people choose to engage in civil disobedience (which has long been the means through which we have gained social change, as my right to vote testifies) then they fully expect to be put before the courts, where they also expect to be granted a fair trial. However, being arrested and appearing before the courts is one thing, having every aspect of your privacy (and your family and friends privacy) grossly invaded is quite another… all for incredibly low-level protest related offences such as “aggravated trespass”.

    If the consequences were not so serious then this whole affair would really be quite laughable!

  16. David Boothroyd

    I didn’t say ‘duty’. I said that it would be in the interests of campaigners. There are violent protesters out there and if the police don’t know anything about a new group, they are inevitably going to assume that it might be violent. I suggest that a Chief Superintendent knowing of an action in the planning would also have in the back of their mind that if it resulted in violence for which the police were unprepared, saying “we didn’t have any evidence that the group had violent tendencies” would not be an impressive explanation.

  17. Emily

    @ David

    Again, you offer another very dark vision: that the police should be assuming everyone will be violent until they prove themselves otherwise!

  18. David Boothroyd

    Again, that wasn’t what I said. What I did say is that since the Millbank riots et al, the police are in practice bound to err on the side of caution.

    I’m not for one moment comparing situations, and the parallels are not exact anyway, but consider this interesting story. In 1933 Oswald Mosley realised that Bill Allen, the former Ulster Unionist MP who had become one of his supporters and wrote his official biography for the British Union of Fascists, was in fact an MI5 spy. His reaction was to promote Allen into a position where he had access to all of the BUF’s routine internal papers, and then to make sure the few documents which referred to the funding provided by Mussolini were not among them. As a result MI5 was entirely reassured, and the BUF had no difficulty in operating. When Mosley was once charged with public order offences, he was acquitted.

  19. mr. Sensible

    More than anything else, I am slightly confused as to why the Ratcliff Trials weren’t stopped when all this came to light, as this would have made the 20 convictions unsafe, as it brought down the trial of the other 6.

  20. john p Reid

    regarding using sex to gain infomation there was a documentry on about 9 year ago where A member of MI5 went undercover to infultrate Combat 18 and as it was then the NF and they used sex to get infomation, what about when police joined the UDA underover for information ,It could be argued that both the IRA or the UDA were.

    actually gangs who were just as interested in Drug running/Protection rackets,Gun traficking as their politcal views, SO where no one would have any quarms with a Undercover P.C infultrating a Human trafficing Child smuggling group to get inforamtion, there’s not that much difference between the police going under cover into the IRA/UDA or going under cover into a organsied crime gang,

    Don’t see the relevance of the polce forcing active IRA members teh Birmingham 6 (one of who was involved with the bombing) to whether it’s in the police interest to infultrate Poltical groups who want to shut down our power stations that then would prevent hospitals getting power.

    I’m all for those who suffer from miscarrigaes of justice getting their reputations back, like the men falsely accused on wrong evidence of Killing stephen lawrence. and other falsely accused of things who when cleared can be recognised within the law as being innocent,

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