The Story

Journalist and author Rob Evans explains how the story of this political policing scandal has unravelled.

Rob Evans

For more than four decades, Britain’s police ran a covert operation spying on thousands of citizens. The public had no inkling of this secret operation, and only a small number of even the most senior police officers were aware of it. 

The police sent 140 undercover officers to spy on more than 1,000 political groups. They helped to compile confidential files on the political activities of activists within these groups. 

Bob Lambert, one of the key figures in the surveillance, has admitted that “… we were part of a ‘black operation’, that absolutely no one knew about and only the police had actually agreed that this was all okay.” 

The secrecy enveloping this operation has been slowly but steadily crumbling. In recent years, more and more details of the work of the undercover officers have been exposed, thanks mainly to the detective work of activists who were infiltrated and journalists.

Revelations about the conduct of the undercover officers forced Theresa May, while home secretary, to commission a public inquiry. 

This inquiry could potentially reveal a lot more of the covert operation to the public. In particular, it is due to examine how undercover officers deceived women into long-term intimate relationships, some lasting many years, and even had children with them. 

The inquiry – headed by a retired judge, Sir John Mitting – is due to start hearing evidence in the summer of 2020, after a series of delays. 

Police’s covert operation stretched back to 1968 – a tumultuous year of revolt and protest. In Britain, the establishment trembled as government ministers and police chiefs became worried that  protesters had the power to tear down Britain’s political and economic system. Across the world, government convulsed as waves of workers and students took to the streets.

Police realised that they needed better information about what the protesters were planning to do. Revolutionary times called for revolutionary solutions. Police came up with a new, radical plan – they wanted their own officers to adopt a fake identity and transform themselves into protesters. 

Until then, police had relied on a different tactic to gather information about political groups – they had recruited informants from within the ranks of the groups. But the problem with informants, in the eyes of the police, was that the information they passed on was often unreliable. Inserting their own officers into the heart of a group was considered by police to be a more accurate method of collecting information.

The undercover officers took elaborate measures to develop their fake personas. They stole the identities of dead children, after scouring pages of death certificates to find a suitable match. The spies were issued with official documentation such as driving licences and passports in their fake names, so that their disguises appeared credible to the circle of protesters they were infiltrating. 

During deployments that typically lasted four years, the undercover officers pretended to be committed protesters. But throughout that time they fed back to their superiors information about the protesters’ plans and movements. Their reports also included assessments of the key figures within the groups.

The full list of political groups targeted since 1968 has not been published by the public inquiry. However an analysis of the groups that have been published suggests that the police spies overwhelmingly monitored left-wing and progressive groups that challenged the status quo, with only three far-right groups infiltrated – the British National party, Combat 18 and the United British Alliance.

One left-wing group in particular – the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – was heavily infiltrated. Police chiefs sent more than 20 undercover officers to spy on the SWP – far more than any other group. 

As the covert operation began to unravel in recent years, a large number of undercover officers were exposed, revealing how they had behaved while using their fake identities. 

At least 20 of the undercover officers deceived women into intimate, sexual relationships. 

The women had no idea that they were having relationships with men who were police spies. Some of the undercover officers had relationships with more than one woman during their undercover missions.

After the existence of the covert operation began to be exposed in 2010, the women grouped together and successfully took legal action against the police. So far, the police have paid compensation to at least 12 women who were deceived by the undercover officers.

More misconduct has been uncovered. In court cases involving the prosecution of activists, the undercover officers and their supervisors had concealed vital evidence that could have resulted in their acquittals. 

So far it is known that at  least 50 protesters have been wrongly convicted or prosecuted because evidence relating to the activities of the police spies had been unfairly buried in the legal proceedings.  

Only one of the undercover officers has become a whistle-blower. Peter Francis, who was sent to spy on anti-racist protesters for four years in the 1990s, has revealed how his former unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, worked. 

He also disclosed that the squad had collected information about the parents of Stephen Lawrence at a time when they were campaigning to persuade the police to run a proper investigation into the racist killing of their son.

Police were forced to admit that its undercover officers had spied on at least 18 grieving families who were campaigning to get justice from the police. This included families whose relatives had been murdered or had died in police custody.