‘Mitting should be uncovering a path to the truth. Instead, he is an obstacle’
The public inquiry into political undercover policing is in crisis before it’s properly begun. More than seven years since officer Mark Kennedy was unmasked by suspicious activists he’d infiltrated, we now know that around 150 undercover officers have been deployed since the Special Demonstration Squad was founded in 1968. The overwhelming majority of exposed officers had sexual relationships with women they spied on, a practice the Met now condemns as ‘an abuse of police power and a violation of human rights’.
Announced by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2015, the Undercover Policing Inquiry has proceeded at a glacial pace due to police intransigence. The release of officers’ cover names is the essential prerequisite to the inquiry. When a name is published, those who were spied on know which of their comrades was a cop and can come forward with details of what they did undercover. Only 29 spycops have been exposed so far, of which the Inquiry has only acknowledged 17.
There was disquiet last year when the Inquiry’s Chair, Lord Pitchford, retired for health reasons and was replaced by Sir John Mitting. Mitting’s background is in the secret courts of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which has heard thousands of cases but only ruled against the government once. Mitting’s membership of the men-only Garrick Club alarmed those who see institutional sexism as the core of the spycops scandal.
Nonetheless, Mitting has made a special case of the women deceived into relationships by spycops. He says they are entitled to know the real and cover names of the officer who abused them. He effectively dismisses victims of other abuses. There are numerous forms of spycops’ misconduct. Many were involved in court cases under their false identity, breaching lawyer-client confidentiality, committing perjury and orchestrating miscarriages of justice. Many committed identity theft, burglary, assault and other crimes.
Mitting has started making rulings on anonymity for undercover officers. He is granting a degree of anonymity to almost all officers on human rights grounds – the possibility of a breach of the officer’s Article 8 right to a private life. This is shocking, given that the Met have already conceded the officers breached their victims’ Article 8 rights, as well as Article 3 (freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment).
Mitting seems blind to the fact that officers might be applying for anonymity because they have something to hide. He is taking most of their claims of peril, or of simply wanting to avoid publicity, at face value and acting as if that should be the paramount concern. No other criminals get to withhold the truth because it would upset their family to see them named. It is an insult to victims who will never get answers because their abusers fear embarrassment.
With a number of officers, Mitting is aping the Met’s stonewalling tactic of ‘neither confirm nor deny’. Not only will we be denied any information about the officers, but we won’t even be told why we can’t know. The issue came to a head at last month’s preliminary hearing of the Inquiry. The drama centred on an officer known as HN58, who was the head of the Special Demonstration Squad when it was spying on Stephen Lawrence’s family during the 1998 Macpherson inquiry, five years after the teenager’s murder.
As with most spycops managers, HN58 had previously been an undercover officer himself. As he was so morally bankrupt when a manager, it stands to reason that he would have acted unethically whilst undercover. Mitting coyly told the hearing that HN58 was nothing to worry about. He had to be pressed on his reasons for saying this, and eventually made it plain:
‘We have had examples of undercover male officers who have gone through more than one long-term permanent relationship, sometimes simultaneously. There are also officers who have reached a ripe old age who are still married to the same woman that they were married to as a very young man. The experience of life tells one that the latter person is less likely to have engaged in extra-marital affairs than the former.’
The court was awash with confusion and amazement. Had we really heard that right? Mitting thinks if an officer is still married to the person they were with before deployment then he can safely assume they are incapable of having had sexual relationships with women they spied on, and indeed any other form of serious misconduct. Mitting says that, on this basis, he will deny victims the chance to examine any evidence about those officers.
The spycops scandal began with the exposure of Mark Kennedy in 2010. The Met have reached settlements with four different women Kennedy had significant long-term relationships with, and activists say there were a number of others he had more brief sexual encounters with. He had been married for nine years before his deployment in 2003, and remained married until the public revelations let his family know the truth about him.
Had it been some other officer exposed instead, Kennedy would now be in HN58’s position of asking for anonymity and being granted it because Mitting feels that, due to his enduring marriage, Kennedy cannot have committed his slew of sexual abuses, nor been instrumental in 49 wrongful convictions.
Mitting was clearly unsettled by the vocal response to his reasoning and said: ‘I may be old-fashioned.’ That doesn’t begin to cover it. There has never been a time without men having extramarital affairs and lying about it. And that’s before we consider the special abilities of these particular men. What’s to stop trained manipulators and abusers using their skills on their wives as well as their targets?
With such a ridiculous declaration, the last dribble of hope for the Inquiry dried up. There is clearly no way Mitting can carry on at the helm if it is to have any hope of fulfilling its purpose. Without people at the top who understand the concerns of victims, these processes can only ever betray those they exist to serve.
For the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, Sir William Macpherson had a panel of advisors. The Hillsborough Independent Panel went further, dispensing with the judge-led format and thereby succeeding where the Taylor inquiry had failed. Mitting seems unable to grasp that the Undercover Policing Inquiry exists to expose police wrongdoing. It can’t go on like this. Under him, it is starting to feel a lot like the deceived women’s gruelling civil cases where police used the most contorted reasoning to avoid accountability. The Inquiry is straying far from its remit. Mitting should be uncovering a path to the truth. Instead, he is an obstacle.
This article was first published on March 5, 2018