A public inquiry into police wrongdoing continues, but the term ‘public’ has turned out to be a misnomer
On 2 November 2020, the Undercover Policing Inquiry had its first public hearing, over five years after it was first established by Theresa May and almost exactly ten years after Mark Stone, a climate change activist was exposed as Mark Kennedy, an undercover police officer. Kennedy’s deceit was discovered by ‘Lisa’ his long-term lover and one of the women whose story is featured in the Telegraph podcast, Bed of Lies (listen to the latest episode on the audio player above or listen from the beginning here). She, together with fellow activists, first publicly exposed what was to become a national scandal, the unraveling of one of the British police’s best-kept secrets, that beneath a public perception of policing by consent, lay a highly secretive spy unit whose practices were barely distinguishable from the East German Stasi police.
I had followed the unfolding news stories in early 2011 with growing disbelief and when my firm, Birnberg Peirce, was approached by a former client, Helen Steel, one of the defendants in the David and Goliath libel trial known as ‘McLibel’. Helen introduced ‘Lisa’ but also disclosed that she too was a victim of similar deceit by her former boyfriend and fellow activist, John Barker, real name John Dines, an undercover police officer. Helen had, through meticulous detective work following John’s sudden disappearance from her life, discovered his true identity and occupation, but whenever she tried to raise the issue with friends, was told not to be so paranoid and ridiculous, British police would not do such things. It was only after she was contacted in 2010 by ‘Rosa’ another woman deceived in a relationship by an undercover police officer, Jim Boyling, that she was certain that her worst fears were true.
After I agreed to take on Helen, Lisa, and Rosa’s case, more women came forward, including ‘Alison’ who had a five-year relationship with ‘Mark Cassidy’, an activist involved in a range of political activities including anti-fascism and trade union politics, but whose real identity was undercover officer, Mark Jenner. Within six months I was acting for eight women who had all been in long-term intimate sexual relationships with five different police officers.
It was clear that all the women had been significantly emotionally and psychologically impacted by the discovery of deceit and personal violation. In particular, their feeling of security in the world they inhabited, and the ability to trust others was severely damaged. Whilst the experience of being fundamentally deceived by a man in a relationship was not unknown, the added impact of this being at the behest of the state, added an additional layer undermining their trust not just in men, but in a liberal democracy.
As the women began to provide their accounts and share their stories, it became clear that the behavior of the men in the relationships, their backstories, and methods of discretely disappearing had marked similarities that suggested systematic methods of infiltration and the sexist targeting of women in sexual relationships to help establish their legend within activist networks.
My role as the women’s lawyer was to identify their objectives and find routes through a far from the perfect legal system to hold the police accountable for their serious wrongdoing. We explored options– should we follow some sort of complaints process, should we seek a public inquiry or criminal investigation into wrongdoing? Ultimately, we decided that bringing a civil action for damages offered us a route where we would have some control over how the case was brought.
There was no funding for the case but my expectation at the start was that the police would wish to settle a claim quickly given the huge embarrassment these revelations had caused them. However, the Metropolitan police fought the proceedings fiercely applying to strike out the claim and to assert their policy of ‘Neither Confirm Nor Deny’ to support their argument that the case could not proceed as they needed to protect their important undercover work from the public gaze.
Our strategy to counter the attempts by police to draw a veil over their operations was to reach out to the public in whatever way we could including participating in a Home Affairs Select Committee consultation, public demonstrations outside the court, and for the women to tell their stories to the media – not an easy task given the deeply intimate and violating nature of their experiences. Gradually the shame of the police approach and scandal of their abuse reached a wider audience.
Eventually, the police agreed to a settlement of the civil claims which incorporated the delivery of a very fulsome public apology by Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt. However, despite this victory, the one thing the women have failed so far to achieve was the disclosure of information so they can understand why they were targeted, who knew about the relationships within the police, how much was recorded about their most intimate moments and how far up the ranks was this practice known about and approved.
Since the settlement of the claims back in November 2015 and the announcement of the public inquiry, many more women have come forward having discovered that they too were the victims of a relationship fraud by the police. The original eight are still waiting for the disclosure they have been seeking from the outset. They have been told that the public inquiry will deliver this, but to date, five years on, nothing has been provided and the first hearings dealing with the very early days, have only just started. The term ‘public inquiry’ has turned out to be a bit of a misnomer, as many of the activities of the undercover police are to be hidden from public view, through closed hearings, the granting of restriction orders over the identity of many officers, and the heavy redaction of documentary evidence ordered by Sir John Mitting, the Inquiry chair. Even the long-awaited first public hearing has turned out to be seriously inaccessible, with the refusal of Sir John to allow live streaming of evidence, permitting only a rolling transcript that had to be read in real-time. The women, in response, organized their own verbatim recording of the rolling transcript on YouTube and were joined by actor, Maxine Peake, attracting more than triple the number of listeners than views of the Inquiry’s rolling transcript.
What is needed now is for a transformation of approach to the conduct of the public inquiry to enable meaningful participation from those who were victims of undercover police misconduct. That would mean full disclosure of all relevant evidence provided with sufficient time so that those affected can process it and prepare their evidence to ensure that the Inquiry can be a necessary interrogation of past misdeeds, an expose of all those responsible from top-down, and a vehicle for recommending fundamental change so that these sort of abuses can never be repeated. In particular, the criminal law should be amended so that sexual relationships based on deceit by an undercover officer would become a criminal offense. There would be no better way of ensuring that any public statement or guidance is fully adhered to in the future.