Qualms about Pitchford’s first ruling

Pitchford Inquiry logoPeter Salmon and Eveline Lubbers / Undercover Research Group
26 October 2015

We looked forward to last Wednesday’s ruling on core participation from the Undercover Policing Public Inquiry for a number of reasons. Partly as we hoped to be hearing if we were granted core participation (we didn’t), but also it gave us an early chance to see how the Inquiry might shape up.

It is clear that the inquiry team has been somewhat overwhelmed by the interest in the inquiry and also the job facing them. It took them two weeks to finish this ruling instead of the promised one. That Lord Justice Pitchford had to issue an emergency restriction order immediately after the ruling as it failed to blind copy (bcc) email notification – thereby revealing details of those who had been granted provisional anonymity – is another sign of a team struggling to stay on top of things. Let’s hope these are just start-up problems rather than indications of lacking resources.

Because we know many of the people and groups who have applied for core participation, it is difficult to understand Pitchford’s ruling. Many have been told they are ‘not close enough to the issues’, yet others in very similar situations have got in. It is very surprising for instance that Pitchford has ruled out Peace News and Freedom. In our view it is a ludicrous position to believe that these two organisations were never infiltrated, the buildings they are based in at the very minimum having been used by wide variety of campaigns for decades. (To his credit, Pitchford insists he is going to investigate all cases that have been brought to his attention and those refused now are allowed to re-apply at a later point.)

It’s tempting to draw conclusions about inconsistencies in granting or refusing. The impression left behind by Pitchford’s first ruling though, is a preference to accept those who have proof over those who just have suspicions.

Such proof has come as the result of painstaking investigations by targeted activists themselves, often years of piecing evidence together. Further acknowledgement came through internal reviews by the police, reviews that would not have taken place without public pressure following the first exposures of undercover policing. In fact, there would not have been a judge-led inquiry without the diligent work of a relative small and loose ensemble of activists, their lawyers, a few investigative reporters and ongoing campaigns for justice.

The many groups and individuals who are not able to identify exactly which undercover officers spied on them cannot do so because the police will not tell them.

Accepting those who have proof as core participants implies that the main focus of the Inquiry – at least for now – will be on the more high-profile cases that have featured in the mainstream media. Focusing on the cases were the cat is out of the bag already while at the same time limiting topics where possible, takes the Inquiry quite close to the danger zone of operating a damage-control exercise only.

Thinking about this, it would make much more sense for the Pitchford Inquiry to prioritise the investigations into suspicions. Operation Herne has a list of 400 groups apparently spied upon. We feel it is a question whether the Inquiry team have this list and are working from it, as in the first instance that would be a useful starting point.

But this could be readily short-circuited by making public a full list of cover names of undercover officers who have infiltrate protest movements. We would not be surprised if there would be at some point in the future a second round of granting core participation.

The Undercover Research Group is also concerned about the issue of ‘provisional anonymity’. This sounds like Pitchford may grant anonymity but could lift it again at his discretion; to date no clarification has been offered as to when and why the Inquiry would take such a step. We are worried that such could happen irrespective of the needs of those who have requested anonymity.
For people who already have had considerable and unwarranted police intrusion into their lives, this is not going to be acceptable. If the Inquiry wants to convince people who have been at the receiving end of intrusive police tactic designed to undermine resistance to come forward, the first thing to do is to take away barriers like this. We will be seeking clarification of this point.

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Ruling on the Undercover Research Group, like with all others, Pitchford focused on the proof of having been spied upon – or the lack thereof:

[T]he Undercover Research Group was formed after the exposure of Mark Kennedy as an undercover officer for the purpose of researching undercover police activity that it was suspected had already taken place, in order to give advice to those campaign groups that had or thought they had been infiltrated.

I do not think that the application reveals that Undercover Research Group had or may have had a direct and significant role in the subject matter of the Inquiry; rather, it had an indirect role as a subsequent researcher about the subject matter of the Inquiry. Nonetheless, Dr O’Driscoll [the representative of the URG] says that the Group is anxious to assist the Inquiry and the Inquiry team will make further contact to take advantage of that offer.

Let’s point out it is a bit more qualified than this. URG is first and foremost serving the interests of those activists (left wing, animal rights, environmentalists, social justice) who have been targeted by the police and who are seeking answers about grave intrusions into their personal and campaigning lives. We are not an abstract group of people with a mild curiosity, but among those people targeted. Some of us have been working these issues since the 1990s.

The whole story of undercover policing is of the police units involved infiltrating and gathering information on everyone and anyone, and on those rare occasions when they are exposed they hide behind ‘Neither Confirm Nor Deny‘, or adopt a policy of refusing data protection requests on protesters. If this Inquiry is to have any credibility, this single direction of flow of information is the first thing that must change.

Yes, we are prepared to help the public inquiry, but all our knowledge and evidence does not magic itself out of the air. Working with the Inquiry is about trust building, it will require time, work and a lot of engagement. Our role is not indirect – it is directly working with those affected in a painstaking manner that has given us considerable insight into the wider stories and an understanding of the bigger narratives that run across the board that has come from within the community’s affected themselves – something that cannot come from anywhere else but talking to a wide cross-section of people within them.

So, we will hold our breath, we will continue to work with those who want to into the public inquiry, and see where this will go.