We need a public inquiry into undercover policing

Revelations about intimate relationships and alleged criminal activity highlight the need for accountability.

The disturbing increase in state-sanctioned surveillance in recent years has generated much public debate, with many expressing concerns over intrusive tactics like phone-hacking, internet snooping and CCTV cameras on every corner. But in some cases, it can go much further than this. How much more intrusive and intimate would it be, for example, to be spied on by someone who shares your house, your bed, your life – maybe for as long as four or five years? To be secretly monitored by the father of your child?

The murky world of undercover policing has long operated outside the realm of public scrutiny, the nature of the work inevitably requiring a certain degree of secrecy. But a series of cases have recently come to light exposing a shocking absence of transparency and accountability around the practice, which constitute an incredibly strong case for a full, independent public inquiry into the rules governing the behaviour of those who go undercover – and those who give them instructions.

Since the unmasking of Mark Kennedy, aka Mark Stone, in 2011 and nine other undercover officers in the months that followed, worrying revelations have emerged about the apparent free rein given to police infiltrators to form long-term, intimate relationships with women in the groups they were sent to spy on.

Kennedy is one of those implicated in a legal case now being brought by eight women who claim they were duped into intimate relationships with undercover police. Another is Bob Lambert, aka Bob Robinson, who posed as a campaigner in the 1980s in order to infiltrate the Animal Liberation Front, two supporters of which were subsequently jailed for planting incendiary devices in two branches of Debenhams as a protest against the selling of fur. The culprit who planted a device in a third store was never caught.

Jon Murphy, the chief constable of Merseyside and the police chiefs' spokesman on undercover policing claims the forming of intimate relationships is "grossly unprofessional" and "never acceptable". But the women bringing the case have a copy of a letter from a Metropolitan Police solicitor that asserts relationships formed by a “Covert Human Intelligence Source” to obtain information are permitted and lawful under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) – a point reiterated by policing minister Nick Herbert in the recent parliamentary debate I hosted on this subject.

Despite the strength of the allegations against these men – Lambert, for example, reportedly fathered a child with a political campaigner in secret, and has admitted to a long-term relationship with a second woman – there has been virtually no attempt by the authorities to hold them to account. There has been no real debate about the human consequences for those women (or men, though I have yet to see such a case) of being conned into a loving, trusting relationship with someone acting under a false identity. And what of the children fathered by an undercover officer?

If this weren’t serious enough, new evidence about Lambert, which I detailed in my debate, has triggered further alarm about the personal conduct of those undercover – and the degree to which police officers are able to act as agent provocateurs. As is now on the parliamentary record, Lambert is accused by an ALF activist, Geoff Sheppard, who was jailed along with Andrew Clarke for the two Debenhams attacks in Romford and Luton in 1987, of planting the third incendiary device in the Harrow store.  

If the allegations turn out to be true, then we must ask: can it be right that officers who commit a crime undercover should be able to do so with impunity? And to what degree are police spies permitted to cross the line of agent provocateur? The rules governing undercover policing are also worryingly deficient when it comes to giving false evidence in court to protect a secret identity.

Jim Boyling, for example, exposed last year for infiltrating groups such as Reclaim the Streets using the pseudonym Jim Sutton, concealed his true identity when he was prosecuted alongside a group of protesters for occupying a government building. The Met commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has defended the practice of undercover officers using fake identities in court, claiming there is no specific law forbidding it. Lord Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions, on the other hand, has called this position "stunning and worrying".

The public has a right to know why huge amounts of money are being spent on infiltrating campaign groups – with no apparent external oversight of the decision or whether the methods used are proportionate, or in breach of fundamental human rights. So far, the government response on these issues has been muted. The twelve different inquiries into undercover policing since January 2011 - each held in secret and looking at just one small aspect – have been completely lacking in oversight and far too narrow in scope.

Striking the right balance between safeguarding the public from genuine threats and protecting an individual’s right to privacy is one of the most difficult challenges facing any government. But the cases above point to a deeply worrying culture of ‘exceptionalism’ within covert operations – one which must be addressed through an independent and broad-ranging public inquiry into undercover policing. Only then can the government prove that it is committed to holding the police to account for their actions – in the past, present and future.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has defended the practice of undercover officers using fake identities in court. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.