Labour Research January 2020


Beneath the spycops scandal

Trade unionists and others who were targeted by undercover police officers feel that much is still to be revealed about their activities. But will the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which finally begins hearings in June, provide the answers? 

Since 2010, activists who were spied on by undercover police officers (UCPOs) have unearthed more and more evidence about the spies’ activities. 

Rob Evans, a reporter for The Guardian and co-author of Undercover — the true story of Britain’s secret police, says we now know that for more than four decades “Britain’s police ran a covert operation spying on thousands of citizens”. The police sent 140 undercover officers to spy on more than 1,000 political groups. 

According to information compiled by The Guardian and the Undercover Research Group, they spied on trade unionists, union-backed campaigns, including anti-racist and anti-fascist groups, and the anti-apartheid and anti-war movements. 

They targeted left wing political organisations, animal welfare and environmental campaigns, and family support groups seeking justice following racist murders. 

Former Coventry Labour MP Dave Nellist, a core participant in the inquiry), told a recent conference he was one of 11 Labour MPs the police gathered intelligence on. They include Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman, Peter Hain, the late Tony Benn and Jack Straw. 

According to the spycops website, 21 UCPOs are known to have deceived more than 30 women activists into long-term intimate relationships. Some fathered children before disappearing from their lives — despite already being married with children in a number of cases.

The growing scandal, which included the revelation that UCPOs spied on the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, forced then home secretary Theresa May to announce a public inquiry in 2015. 

The Undercover Policing Inquiry

The Undercover Policing Inquiry was set up in 2015 by then home secretary Theresa May. 

It focuses on two undercover policing units — the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit — although its work is not restricted to these units. The inquiry is investigating 51 years of undercover policing. 

It will examine the contribution undercover policing has made to tackling crime, how it was and is supervised and regulated, and its effect on both officers and others who came into contact with them. 

It will also examine whether people may have been wrongly convicted in cases involving undercover police officers and refer any cases to a separate panel for consideration.

There are 231 core participants, including the FBU firefighters’, Unite general and NUM miners’ unions. Core participants are individuals or organisations that are likely to have been significantly involved with, or affected by, undercover policing, or could be significantly impacted by the work of the inquiry. 

Several high-profile figures, including actor Ricky Tomlinson, have not been given core participant status. Tomlinson was one of 24 building workers — the Shrewsbury 24 — who were unjustly prosecuted following the first-ever national building workers strike in 1972. 

Several, including Tomlinson were jailed. 

The inquiry was initially due to publish its findings in 2018. But campaigners say it has been both slow and disappointing, with the police allowed to set the pace. 

In March 2018, many walked out after the judge, Sir John Mitting, refused to reveal the identities of the majority of undercover police officers (UCPOs). By November 2019, the inquiry had published only 69 SDS officer cover names. 

Unite said the inquiry is being hampered by Mitting’s emphasis on protecting both the real names and, often, the cover names of the UCPOs, meaning many activists are still not aware that they were spied on. 

Mitting has also attempted to resist publication of thousands of files on trade unionists who were spied on by UCPOs. Unite says the General Data Protection Regulation, legislation that gives citizens a measure of control over their personal information and how it is used, “may force his hand”.

But many are sceptical about what this will achieve. For example, blacklisted trade union activist Dave Smith, founder of the Blacklist Support Group (BSG) for those caught up in the UK construction industry blacklisting scandal, described it as “the British state investigating the British state”. 

But at a recent conference on undercover policing and trade unions, he explained why he and other activists “bother going on”. He said: “What we’re trying to do is shake the tree and see what falls out. We won’t get justice, but we will get more information.”

And Rob Evans told the conference: “If we were sitting here in 2009, we would have known little about a police operation that has been running for more than 40 years.”

Since 2010, he said, people who were spied on “have turned the tables on the police” and found out what they are up to, with more and more evidence of the secret operation coming to light.

The inquiry will finally begin hearings in June 2020. In advance of this, campaign groups are mobilising support and calling on unions to support the fight for justice and an end to political policing. 

In November 2019, the BSG, together with the women’s campaign and support group, Police Spies Out Of Lives (PSOOL), and the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) hosted a joint conference on undercover policing and trade unions at London’s University of Greenwich. 

The Unite general union is actively campaigning in this area. The union affiliates to COPS at both national and local level, and provided financial support for the conference. 

“This conference is a call to arms,” said COPS organiser and GMB general union member Lois Austin. She told Labour Research: “We have hundreds of affiliated branches and we need to lever the power of the unions to come in behind us so there is mass pressure around the public inquiry next June.” 

PSOOL also launched a new online “one-stop spycops shop” ( setting out the key issues at the heart of the undercover policing scandal that first hit the news in 2011. The resource is for activists to use in their union branches as well as with friends and family. 

The new website explains that while human interest stories about undercover officers spying on grieving families, stealing dead children’s identities and embarking on long-term, deceptive relationships with activists have hit the headlines, “the political significance of this ongoing scandal struggles to reach the wider public”.

As Smith points out, being a trade union activist is not against the law. Everything he did was perfectly legal, “fighting for better health and safety and equality”. Yet he was spied on while campaigning about deaths on building sites. 

The spycops website sets out statistics showing at least 59 blacklisted workers, unions and political activists have been targeted, and the real figure is likely to be much higher. After the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the offices of the blacklisting organisation, The Consulting Association (TCA), and took away a limited number of files, its chief executive, Ian Kerr, destroyed those files that remained.

UCPO-turned-whistleblower Peter Francis said he had gathered information on the NUS students’, NUT teachers’ (now part of the NEU), CWU communications, FBU firefighters’ and UNISON public services unions. 

The conference heard that UCPO Mark Jenner, using the cover name Mark Cassidy, targeted building workers’ union UCATT, now part of Unite. As part of his undercover operations Jenner worked on a number of activists’ campaigns, including chairing the Brian Higgins defence campaign. 

Smith described Higgins, who died in 2019, as the most blacklisted building worker in the UK. His blacklist file began in 1978 and ran to 49 pages. 

Jenner also infiltrated the Building Workers Safety Campaign and used his position to build up relationships with union branches and organisations including the London Hazards Centre.

Steve Hedley, now assistant general secretary of the RMT rail union, told the conference how Jenner had infiltrated his union. He said he turned up on picket lines, as well as at east London’s Colin Roach centre — an independent group that exposed police corruption and promoted unions and anti-fascist politics. 

“Carlo Neri” — revealed by former BBC journalist Michael Gillard to be UCPO Carlo Soracchi — infiltrated anti-fascist organisations and even stayed in Hedley’s home. Meanwhile, Hedley, a skilled engineer and RMT rep, was blacklisted and unable to find work for over a year. 

Smith said there has always been police surveillance of activists — at demonstrations, for example. But this is different. “This is about giving completely false identities and infiltrating perfectly legal organisations,” he said. 

“They were not just gathering evidence but disrupting what trade unionists were doing. This is the British state interfering with the democracy of trade unions and we shouldn’t accept it.”

Blacklisting, spycops and the security services 

In March 2019, the Unite union renewed its call for a full public inquiry into the blacklisting scandal following new evidence revealing police and security services’ involvement in blacklisting on an “industrial scale”.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry is only looking at the activities of the police, rather than the security services. MI5 claims it has never investigated people simply because they were involved with trade unions. 

It says it “investigated individual members of bona fide organisations where there were grounds to believe that a genuine subversive threat existed”. 

And it says that such investigations were carried out “within the laws and processes that applied at the time”. It adds: “The threat of subversion is now regarded as negligible and we do not currently carry out investigations in this area.” 

Unite pointed to the Creedon Report into Operation Reuben, an internal police investigation into undercover policing. 

It said the report shows police and the security services supplied information to The Consulting Association blacklist that was funded by major construction companies. 

The blacklist contained the names of more than 3,000 trade unionists and other workers who had raised safety concerns, and was used to keep them out of the industry.

In April 2012, the Blacklist Support Group (BSG) submitted a formal complaint to the Metropolitan Police alleging collusion between Special Branch and construction companies, prompting the Operation Reuben investigation. 

Mick Creedon, the then chief constable of Derbyshire police, completed the report in 2014. But it was not released to solicitors representing the BSG until 2018, and then only in a partially redacted form. 

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said the documents “expose that the police were working hand in glove with the blacklisters for decades”. Unite also maintains that police “sharing information with big business and other bodies about prospective employees continues to this day”. 

The BSG, PSOOL and COPS have published a set of demands. This includes the release of the names of all groups suspected to have been spied on as well as all activists’ personal files. It also includes equalising resources between the police and victims. 

There is no official list of the 1,000 plus groups targeted. But research by The Guardian and the Undercover Research Group, has revealed the names of 76 organisations.

And the groups are calling for an urgent and immediate review of convictions where UCPOs were involved in the cases and misled courts — 50 wrongful convictions have already been overturned. They want the scope of the inquiry extended to understand political policing and its impact on democracy, and to include those who instructed the UCPOs to operate in this way. They also want the abolition of political policing and an investigation into collusion between the police and corporate spies. 

PSOOL has published a model motion for union branches which includes calling on the UCPI to recommend legal changes to ensure this type of spying never happens again, and asking unions to profile the campaign group’s work in their publications. 

Among other things, this involves supporting women through several different legal avenues to justice. In November 2015, the Metropolitan Police gave a full apology to the first eight women to bring legal claims, accepting they had abused the women’s human rights. 

However, PSOOL says the police have continued to obstruct other women’s battles for justice.

Activist Helen Steele, one of the women who took this first case, told the conference the abuse was “systematic” and involved repeated patterns of behaviour that could only have come from training. She said despite the apology, a financial settlement and an acknowledgement that these relationships should not have happened and should never happen again, victims still had “no answers about how or why it was allowed to happen”. 

In December 2018, another case backed by PSOOL produced a hugely disappointing outcome. Here, the High Court dismissed a challenge to the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute a former UCPO, Jim Boyling, under the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and for misconduct in public office in respect of a deceitful sexual relationship with an environmental activist known by the pseudonym of “Monica”. 

Lawyer Harriet Wistrich represented the woman. She commented that, as matters stand, undercover officers who construct entirely false personas and enter into long-term, intimate, sexual relationships in order to spy “can continue to do so with impunity”. 

Another woman activist known as “Alison” told the conference: “I consented to a relationship with Mark Cassidy — not Mark Jenner, a married man with children.” 

The police maintain their undercover work is necessary to maintain order. But Steele told the conference that secret political policing is not about maintaining order but about maintaining the interests of those who hold power. 

“Undercover police officers don’t ultimately stop campaigns, but they do delay them,” she said. “Those with power have always tried to prevent movements for social progress, from the suffragettes to the anti-apartheid movement. 

“These previous campaigns ultimately achieved massive successes despite the efforts of the state.” She urged activists to “keep on fighting”.