Undercover Policing Inquiry: the 'Spycops' scandal explained as legal probe continues

The Undercover Policing Inquiry is among the most complicated and controversial in British legal history

Undercover Policing Inquiry: the 'Spycops' scandal explained as legal probe continues (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Undercover Policing Inquiry: the 'Spycops' scandal explained as legal probe continues (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Undercover police officers had intimate relationships and even fathered children with people they were spying on, infiltrated bereaved families, and trained as clowns to spy on protest groups, a public inquiry has heard.

Special undercover police units which were set up to infiltrate and spy on political groups, as well as groups campaigning for environmental or social justice, are being scrutinised in a public inquiry.

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The scope of events covered by the Undercover Policing Inquiry goes back to the 1960s, and is one of the most complicated inquiries in British legal history.

Among the groups to be spied on were the campaigns for justice for Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes, Cherry Groce, Joy Gardner and Michael Mension, all of whom were killed by racists or in incidents involving law enforcement.

What is the ‘spy cops’ inquiry?

A public inquiry which is looking into the tactics and activities of undercover police officers who operated in the UK is hearing evidence publicly, with a number of shocking allegations coming to light.

The inquiry was first called for by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2014, after it came to light that Scotland Yard had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence following his murder.

It is being headed by retired judge Sir John Mitting, and will hear evidence from more than 200 witnesses, including the officers involved as well as people who were spied on. It is expected to run until at least 2023.

The inquiry is examining the activities of over 130 undercover officers, who spied on more than 1,000 mostly left wing political groups over more than 40 years.

It is looking at the activities of two police units, the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad, and the undercover section of the National Public Order Intelligence.

Both of these units are now defunct. However, the head of the inquiry has said the Met will be expected to confirm whether it is currently infiltrating political groups or helping MI5 monitor people it deems to be subversives.

There is evidence to suggest the practice was ongoing as late as 2013, when police infiltrated an anti-racist protest against the English Defence League (EDL) in London.

What has the inquiry revealed about undercover policing?

Deceptive relationships

There are at least 30 women who were in relationships with officers using their false identities, dating back to the 1970s, with the most recent coming forward in 2010.

One officer, Mark Kennedy, had long term relationships with two women while working undercover to infiltrate environmental campaign groups, one for two years, and another for six.

Another officer fathered a child with a woman he had entered into a relationship with under his assumed identity as an animal rights activist. The officer in question, Bob Lambert, suddenly disappeared from the woman’s life after his assignment ended.

One of the women who was engaged to an undercover officer has waived her right to anonymity and spoken publicly about the issue.

Writing in the Telegraph, Donna McLean described how she met undercover officer ‘Carlo Neri’ at a Stop the War demonstration in 2002 and he asked her to marry him a few months later.

They split abruptly after two years, after which Ms McLean has not since heard from the officer, but found out the truth about him in 2015.

She wrote, “I had no inkling that the man I had loved and lived with was in fact a spy, paid to lie by the state, until a group of old activist friends who had suspicions about his sudden disappearance approached me with undeniable proof.

“Seeing his profession - ‘police officer’ - documented on his marriage certificate and his two children’s birth certificates was an enormous shock.

“One would have been three years old when we got together - the other was born shortly after we split up. It made me question everything I thought I knew about those years of my life.”

Rebel Clown Army

The inquiry has also heard how a police officer was trained as a clown at the taxpayer’s expense, in order to infiltrate a street performance campaign group, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (Circa) in 2004.

Video played at the inquiry shows an officer known as EN34, whose undercover name was Lynn Watson, wearing clown make-up and a costume at a demonstration in Leeds.

Peter Weatherby QC, who is representing 18 of the groups and individuals who were spied on, said, “This is what the debacle of the last 50 years of undercover political policing looks like.”

Dead infants’ identities

It was common practice for undercover police officers to assume the identities of dead children, the inquiry was told.

In an attempt to develop convincing cover stories and build up full profiles for their assumed identities, undercover police officers were encouraged to use real details from children who died very young.

Officers would memorise the date and place of birth of the deceased children, as well as the details of their parents.

The families of 19 deceased children whose identities were used have been notified, the inquiry has heard, but a further group of people are waiting to find out.