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Police filming Stop Trident demonstration. Photo: David Holt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Police filming Stop Trident demonstration. Photo: David Holt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

As the history of state infiltration of the left is exposed, it is no wonder the government is hurrying through its new SpyCops Bill, argues Terina Hine

That spycops have been infiltrating political organisations, activist groups and trade unions is not news. That these spies have reported on campaigning activities as well as on the personal lives of group members and their contacts has been frequently disclosed. But the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which began on 2 November, is the first full scale review into this opaque world.

Chaired by retired judge Sir John Mitting, the Inquiry has been divided into three chronologically based phases – 1968-82; 1983- 92 and 1993-2008. Phase 1 began with seven days of opening statements and is being followed by seven days of witness hearings.

The Inquiry is set to examine police infiltration into political and activist groups over a period of four decades. It will question why information was gathered and recorded, what it was used for and whether such activities were justifiable.

The Inquiry will bring such activities into the open by scrutinising the deployment of 140 undercover officers who spied on over 1,000 political groups. Upon completion, the Inquiry will report to the Home Secretary with recommendation “as to the future deployment of undercover police officers.”

Although right-wing groups were also infiltrated, most covert activities appear to have involved social campaigns or left leaning organisations. They included those campaigning for racial and sexual equality – such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Women’s Liberation – as well as groups campaigning for individual justice – such as the Stephen Lawrence campaign. They also included the anti-war movement.

For as many years as there have been spycops there have been major concerns about the nature and extent of their operations – such as the blacklisting of workers or the engagement of officers in sexual activities with the activists they were spying on.

It is known that spycops’ activities have led to miscarriages of justice, that they have acted as agent provocateurs, and there are a number of allegations that undercover officers have participated in criminal activities.

This initial phase of the Inquiry is therefore curiously timed to coincide with the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (SpyCops Bill) currently being put before Parliament. A bill which would fully legalise all these activities. No wonder the government are in a hurry to get the bill passed.

On Thursday the first witness, Tariq Ali, took to the stand. Astonishingly he revealed that 14 different officers from the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) had spied on him over a period of eight years – from 1968 to 1976.

He also revealed that nine covert police officers had infiltrated a public meeting planning an historic anti-war demonstration. Not the 2003 Iraq demo, but one held in 1968 against the war in Vietnam.

However, as the day progressed it transpired that police tactics had in fact changed little in the intervening years.

According to submitted evidence, in 2003, when Stop the War Coalition was organising its protests against the Iraq war, spying by the Met Police was once again in full force. The report on the Stop the War Coalition steering committee from March 2003, is thought to have come either from someone who had infiltrated the steering committee or, more likely, from a recording device.

It is puzzling, to say the least, why Stop the War was so spied on when it has always been completely open in what it does, and the membership of its committees are in the public domain. For all the investment in bugging devices and undercover officers, the police appear to have “discovered” what was readily available if they had bothered to look at the Stop the War website.

These nefarious activities however serve more than one purpose, they act to undermine civil liberties and erode trust in public services. Unfortunately, the Inquiry so far appears unlikely to improve matters.

It is notable that Mitting has agreed to the anonymity of a large number of officers taking part in the Inquiry, hardly encouraging the openness hoped for when the Inquiry was initiated back in 2015. The Stephen Lawrence family lawyer, Imran Khan, has accused the retired judge of being “more interested in protecting the alleged perpetrators than the victims,” claiming that the family has serious doubts the inquiry would ever reveal why the family were spied on.

As Tariq Ali said,

“the direction of travel is clear … to dissect the politics of the victims of police spying, and therefore to turn the spotlight away from the actions of the police. This is the politics of ‘blame the victim’. And no doubt I and others will be declared guilty. Even 50 years on, the State is fighting exactly the same battle it was engaged in in 1968.”

Today our government is ushering through a new SpyCops Bill (The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill – CHIS) which if passed will sanction agents to break the law with impunity, including committing murder, sexual violence and torture. The CHIS Bill is set to go to committee stage in the House of Lords on 24 November having already completed its second reading and having passed in the Commons with the help of Labour abstentions.

The Inquiry into Undercover Policing reveals the extent the police and security services are willing to go to undermine our right to protest. It is important to know what has happened in the past and demand the new SpyCops bill is overturned to prevent it happening again.

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