What We Learned at the Latest Round of the Spycops Inquiry

The inquiry heard how cops may have helped blacklisting.

by Polly Smythe

28 February 2023

The long-running Spycops inquiry continued last week, hearing rare public closing submissions from the first tranche of evidence, concerning the formation of Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) in 1968 and its covert operations until 1982.

The SDS was a unit within the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, a secretive division of the police. The judge-led inquiry into the four decades spent by undercover officers infiltrating left-wing groups has already established that undercover police officers infiltrated trade unions, had babies with women whose political groups were being investigated and adopted the identities of dead children as false personas.

What precious little media coverage of the submissions there was focussed on how the inquiry heard that the regular deception of women by undercover police was “deeply rooted in two pervasive features of police culture: contempt for women and disregard for the law.”

Here are some of the other things that came to light:

Blacklisting concession.

The inquiry accepted for the first time how the monitoring of trade unionists by undercover officers in the SDS could have been used by employers for blacklisting purposes.

Counsel to the inquiry David Barr admitted, “we cannot rule out that SDS intelligence reports were leaked by Special Branch officers to private sector organisations which then used them for blacklisting purposes.”

In her analysis, barrister Kirsten Heaven, representing non-police and non-state core participants, revealed how state agencies tasked with countering ‘subversion’ would deliberately disseminate intelligence gathered to external agencies.

A “Note on Counter Subversion” supplied by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend in 1971 said “the proposed Coordinating Group… would analyse the problem as a whole and study the range of possible counter-subversion measures, including the dissemination and leakage of information at present practised…”

In 2009, trade union members who had been targeted by employers for dismissal because of their union activities were found to have been the victims of a decades long blacklisting scandal. A raid of The Consulting Association, a secret organisation which operated the blacklist, uncovered thousands of files on construction workers used by major construction firms to “vet” candidates for union membership when hiring.

Barr’s comments mark the first time that the inquiry has conceded that information gathered by undercover officers on trade unionists could have been used for blacklisting purposes.

The Blacklist Support Group said: “A few years ago, we were slated as conspiracy theorists for suggesting that undercover police infiltrated trade unions and blacklisted activists. This week, the spycops public inquiry has acknowledged that it did happen.”

Cops hated the GLC.

There were more details about the police disdain for accountability from civil society, campaigners and politicians.

Jacobs also presented evidence of how a Greater London Council (GLC) campaign for increased accountability of the Metropolitan Police to local communities was subject to attention and derision from undercover officers.

The inquiry heard details of a 44-page Special Branch report from January 1983 about the Labour-controlled GLC, then the local government administrative body responsible for the city.

The GLC sought to support local police accountability groups and establish borough police committees in each London borough. Their campaign was pursued “with democratic legitimacy and was neither subversive nor extremist” said Jacobs.

The Special Branch report described the use of public funds into this campaign by the GLC as an “irresponsible and profligate use of public money.”

The proceedings of the GLC are described in the report as “innocuous meetings with their solemn self-imposed responsibilities and grandiose self-perpetuating designs were merely the external trappings of the Police Committee’s work.”

The report detailed the “various extremist influences operating within the GLC and its two police bodies.” Jacobs said the reference to “extremist influences” were simply references to various left wing campaign groups.

Then Leader of the GLC, John Austin-Walker, was considered extremist by the report as he was affiliated to Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and “extremist-influenced protest groups [such] as Bexley Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, and the Anti-Nazi League.” A member of another branch was described as “being a self-confessed lesbian.”

The report spoke of the “wont” of the Islington Committee “to invite to its meetings representatives of radical groups – homosexuals, feminists and the like – for the purpose of hearing their views and advice.”

The report concludes that “in the short term, [the campaigners] are clearly intent upon causing mischief for the Metropolitan Police Force; in the long term they patently aspire to control it.”

Jacobs said the “misplaced and intense interest, and distrust and fear of police accountability groups, is evident” of SDS “clearly strayed far beyond any proper policing role and into an evaluative assessment of legitimate democratic processes, and the rule of law, largely founded on Special Branch’s own prejudiced view of the political left, its dislike of campaigns around racism and gay rights, and a distaste for accountability.”

Spycop lawyers showed funeral footage without warning.

Oliver Sanders KC, the barrister representing 113 undercover officers, presented to the inquiry footage taken over four decades ago of the funeral procession of Blair Peach, an anti-racist campaigner killed as a result of being struck by a police officer at a demonstration against the National Front in Southall in 1979.

Celia Stubbs, Peach’s partner, who features in the footage, was presented it without warning at the inquiry. Sam Jacobs, the barrister representing Stubbs, “For individuals affected by the subject of this inquiry, closing submissions can be an emotional and distressing time,” Jacobs said. “To be presented without warning with deeply personal footage came as something of a shock to Celia Stubbs, and it is unfortunate it was presented in that way.

“Celia Stubbs lives in the knowledge that officers of the force who killed her partner also secretly attended his funeral, that over a period of two decades they covertly gathered information on her and wrote about her in demeaning and utterly dismissive terms.”

Stubbs “had never seen that footage, and did not know it existed” Jacobs said. He added that he did not “precisely know the provenance of those videos.”

Ministers were worried that spies would be found out.

The inquiry heard that while no consideration was given to the lawfulness of undercover police officers gathering intelligence on trade union activity, or the use of that intelligence for blacklisting purposes, considerable consideration was given to the utmost need for secrecy.

In a 1973 memorandum, senior civil servants in the Home Office said that “ministers should be warned of the importance of maintaining secrecy about this enterprise. Very great political damage could be done if it became known that the government maintained an organisation which could easily be misrepresented as ‘spying’ on good, honest trade unionists and others who claim to defend the liberty of the subject!”.

Perish the thought!

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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