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Right to protest threatened by wall of silence on police surveillance

30 October 2017

Helen Mills

Since the exposure of Mark Kennedy as an undercover officer in the climate change movement in 2011, the spotlight should have been on undercover policing and getting to the bottom of its implications for the right to protest in the UK. Revelations in the years since include:

  • A pattern of intimate, long term relationships whilst undercover (including sexual relationships and fathering a child in at least two cases).
  • Police recording information on at least 18 justice campaigns formed in the wake of controversial deaths in custody, racist murders, or allegations of police misconduct.
  • Collecting information on elected members of parliament and journalists.
  • Undercover officers engaging in criminal activity.
  • Police sharing information about trade union activists with private companies to influence recruitment and employment processes (known as blacklisting).

These allegations have formed the backdrop to more than 15 investigations into different aspects of undercover policing that have involved the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. A full public inquiry into undercover policing began over two years ago

Today and six years on from when Mark Kennedy was exposed as a police officer, only 23 police undercover officer cover names are in the public domain. This is the tip of the iceberg, the number of undercover police officers deployed over the last four decades runs into the hundreds. Key questions remain unanswered - Who authorised these operations? Why? With what legal authority? Are these practices still going on? Why has so little come to light about the undercover policing of protest and its impact on democracy? 

An almost impenetrable wall of silence

The almost blanket response of the police has been to neither confirm nor deny the allegations and they will not confirm an undercover officer’s name or deployment. The police have gone to some lengths to maintain this approach including dropping prosecution cases rather than reveal the presence of an undercover officer.
When an alleged former undercover police officer has been confronted by their former partner and they have admitted their surveillance role, the police still haven’t confirmed it officially. 

Those affected by undercover operations have been highly critical about the attitude of the police, they have lso been denied access to police records or the information provided has been heavily redacted, investigations that have taken place have also largely been held in private.  

The public inquiry was announced in 2014 following a damming report about police spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence. It was hoped the inquiry would be an opportunity to understand and assess the extent and impact of undercover policing, yet it has been troubled by delays and lengthy legal arguments.

Even after two years into the process the inquiry has not held the first public evidence hearing. It is unlikely to take place before 2019.

In what has become a familiar scrutiny avoidance dance, the police and the legal team representing them, have been accused of ‘obstructing at every point’ that ‘it is in [police] interest to slow things down, drag things out and obfuscate as much as possible.’

Added to this are concerns about the new Inquiry chair, Sir John Mitting. Mitting is vice-president of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. An organization not renowned for its transparency.

The very partial picture that has emerged about undercover policing is largely thanks to the work of investigative journalists, whistleblowers and research carried out by the activist community themselves. 

The frustration at the lack of ‘finding out’ from the inquiry so far has implications for the right to protest in the UK as well as the individuals who were spied upon. We still do not know the answer to the most basic of questions about what has happened. 

Undercover policing is not about a small group of ‘troublemakers’. It is not simply about one ‘rotten’ unit in the police. It is about the approach to policing in a democracy and the right to peaceful protest without fear of intrusion and interference from the authorities.

Mitting is due to make a statement on the future conduct of the public inquiry in November. Whether or not he will offer transparency and public accountability about the past still remains to be seen.

Helen Mills is a senior associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Tags: , surveillance, investigatory powers act, investigative journalism, police, protest, protests