Undercover Policing Inquiry: anonymity at the cost of accountability?

The Undercover Policing Inquiry last week gave its decisions in respect of whether a further nine undercover police officers should have their identities revealed.

The Inquiry Chair has the power to grant anonymity to core participants to the Inquiry by way of a 'restriction order'. Since the beginning of the inquiry this has been something of a sticking point for the Police who have continually argued that disclosing the identities of its officers would breach their privacy rights, and potentially put them at risk of harm.

The Chair has been approaching this matter on a case-by-case basis. Last week the Chair Sir Mitting announced his decisions in respect of a further nine officers' applications. Of those nine, three real names will be published, three will have only their cover names published, and three will have neither their real nor cover names published.

From the perspective of the victims it is difficult to understand the rationale behind decisions to withhold both the cover and real names of officers.

Firstly, the Police applications are not disclosed to the victims or their lawyers so the assertions made in them cannot be challenged. Many victims will feel the police's arguments are flimsy, such as exaggerated threats that activist groups will seek out violent revenge against their infiltrators. Such an argument seems particularly weak when considering that a former undercover officer Neil Woods (who has no involvement in the Inquiry) has appeared openly in the media using his real name. Woods infiltrated (in his own words) "people who casually rape, maim and murder people" and has been able to publish a book without coming to any harm. He finds it difficult to understand what kind of threat environmental activists and social justice campaigners could pose to former officers.

Secondly, the Chair's decisions are vaguely worded so as to not give away any identifying information. In some cases this even included the specific names of campaigns that an officer was tasked with infiltrating. An absence of even this basic information begs inevitable questions - how are victims supposed to know if they were spied on? And if they are kept in the dark, how is the inquiry supposed to achieve any kind of accountability?

To many, the police's tactics in these early stages of the inquiry will be seen as nothing more than a cynical attempt to avoid accountability and stop victims getting to the truth. When opening the inquiry in July 2015, former Chairman Sir Pitchford stated in his opening remarks that "the inquiry's priority is to discover the truth". He also stated "I wish to encourage all those with material evidence to give to make themselves known to the inquiry team." If that is to be achieved it is vital that the police and their victims can engage with the inquiry on a level playing field.

The Civil Liberties team at Saunders Law is instructed in the Undercover Policing Inquiry. If you believe you or your group have been subjected to undercover policing and wish to join the public inquiry please contact us today.


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