The government paid to spy on trade unionists – Sparks protesting at Balfour Beatty against blacklisting in 2021 (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The Undercover policing inquiry has said that a Scotland Yard unit was not justified in intruding into the private lives of campaigners, including their sexual relationships. It found that the managers of the unit frequently approved reports that contained “many examples” of both racism and sexism.

The inquiry suggested that the unit should have been disbanded.  Senior Whitehall officials, some of them in the Cabinet Office, and top police officers knew about the unit. 

The undercover unit was part of a highly covert ­state-funded apparatus that spied on left wing and ­progressive groups, the inquiry concluded. Over the past three years, it has done much of its investigating in secret and only ­sporadically taken evidence in public—hearing from people whose rights were abused.  But it has also heard from some of the surviving ­undercover officers, most of whom have memory loss.

The inquiry has yet to look at abuses in the 80s, 90s and 2000s and what police chiefs and politicians knew about it. The first phase of the inquiry covered up to 1982 and concluded last week. David Barr, the inquiry’s lead barrister, said the unit had essentially achieved nothing of merit in its first 14 years.

Despite officers being sent undercover into protest ­movements, they had not stopped any unrest, or uncovered any major crimes or plots to destabilise the nation. “No one appears to have considered whether the level of intrusion occasioned by SDS long-term undercover police deployments was justified,” added Barr. 

“There is a strong case for concluding that, had they done so, they should have decided to disband the SDS.” Many of the core participants want the inquiry to say now—rather than years from now—that all of what ­happened was unlawful.

Between 1968 and 1982, the period covered by the first tranche of the inquiry, there were at least five undercover officers who had relationships with women.  These women were associated with groups that were being monitored by ­undercover officers.

Charlotte Kilroy KC, the barrister speaking for many of the women, told the inquiry there was not a single law that could justify what had been done. They had used women for sex—but also to gain access to other activists they were determined to target.

The activity, she argued, was underpinned by a culture of misogyny that Scotland Yard knew about from both experience and a ­damning report commissioned in 1983.  This “endemic” culture can still be seen today, she suggested.

“As the crimes of former Met Police officers David Carrick and Wayne Couzens have shown, these attitudes, and the tolerance for them in the Metropolitan Police Service, have horrific consequences for women,” she said.

Tories backed blacklist

An Undercover Policing Inquiry report confirmed governments colluded with the Economic League blacklisting group and an intelligence-gathering agency. In the 1960s, The Industrial Research & Information Service (IRIS) received £40,000 from the Tory government. 

That money helped recruit undercover intelligence gatherers to infiltrate trade unions.  The report says “that subversion in industry was the principal concern of government. There was a wish to ‘close the gap between knowledge about subversion and action to counter it’. 

“In this connection there are references within the documents to IRIS Ltd. and the Economic League.  “It seems from the documents that the government was aware of these entities, used them to further its agenda, encouraged their activities and considered them useful.”

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