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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.