Winding through the Royal Courts of Justice, we find Court 76 tucked into a lofty corner of this labyrinthine complex. As we take our seats a clerk intones, “Please all rise”, and in walks Sir John Mitting.
Mitting is the new chair of the Undercover Policing Public Inquiry and today sees his first public utterances since taking over from former chair Lord Justice Pitchford, who died this autumn. All eyes are on him as he promises “a statement on the future conduct of the inquiry”.
Pitchford, while attracting both criticism and praise, was widely viewed as disposed generally towards transparency and truth. More trepidation surrounds Mitting. A former chair of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission – whose secretive approach to evidence has been described as “Kafkaesque” - he is a current vice president of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). The IPT addresses grievances against the intelligence services. It is known for secret hearings and failure to uphold complaints.
The hearing takes place two years to the day since the historic apology by the Metropolitan Police to eight women deceived into relationships by undercover officers. The women were targeted to provide cover for officers infiltrating activist networks. The officers were usually already married, often with families.
When the Met finally admitted responsibility, they did not defend their actions. On 20th November 2015 Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt stated those relationships were, “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong… [they] were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma. I unreservedly apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan police service…relationships like these should never have happened.”
Tying the inquiry in procedural knots
That apology suggests a force that will strive to right its wrongs. But it hasn’t quite gone that way. As Alison, one of the women affected, says, “After the apology, they should have cooperated fully with the Public Inquiry. Instead they have intentionally dragged their feet throughout the process”. Announced by Theresa May in spring 2015, the inquiry was originally scheduled to publish its final report a few months from now. Instead it has yet to begin; today’s hearing is purely preliminary.
Persistent obstruction by the police - missing deadlines, demanding extensions, tying the inquiry in procedural knots – has ground the inquiry’s progress to a near-halt. It is anticipated that the inquiry will not now even begin to hear evidence until the second half of 2019.
“[An inquiry] is a technique that has stood the test of time,” write Rob Evans and Paul Lewis in their book Undercover, “allowing those in power to duck responsibility and silence critics with one fell swoop and kick a controversy into a field of long grass, where they hope it will be forgotten”.
Back in Court 76, meanwhile, Mitting is making a statement. He makes some of the right noises, echoing his predecessor’s stated determination “to discover the truth”.
But then he sails into the eye of a storm by invoking the human rights of undercover police officers. That is too much for one core participant, who springs to his feet and interrupts. He says he cannot hold his silence when Mitting commits himself to protecting the human rights of undercover officers with no mention of the rights of those with lives blighted by the same police. He cites those present in the court who have been deceived into relationships by undercover police; been blacklisted; or had the identities of their dead children stolen to provide cover for officers.
The police have 8 barristers – those they spied on, just one between them
Other voices are raised from the public gallery. They rail loudly against the unfairness on show in the courtroom. Here the police are represented by 8 barristers and ranks of lawyers, all at public expense. Across the court more than 200 non-state core participants (those spied upon) make do with a solitary barrister between them; the inquiry will not fund more.
The room bristles with anger. The public gallery applauds each declamation. A chant of “No justice! No peace!” briefly breaks out. From the chair, Mitting tries to quell the uprising. He says he appreciates the strength of feeling but will have security remove anyone who interrupts further. How would it play in the media if victims of police abuse are dragged forcibly from his court? Perhaps fortunately for him, then, the rumpus eventually dies down. Uneasily, the hearing continues.
There will be many more hearings before this inquiry is done. Non-state core participants demand the inquiry release real names and cover names of undercover officers; that it release police files held on those spied upon; that it recommend legislative change to outlaw such abuses. For all its faults and flaws, the inquiry potentially offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate the past and set things up differently for the future.
But success will not come easily. The delays sap energy and interest from the process. For some measure of justice to be served requires all those who care about the right of everyone to work for social, environmental or economic justice, to remain vigilant and engaged.
This inquiry is not relevant only for past victims. It is important for anyone who wants to see a future in which progressive political engagement is possible without fear of state abuse. It is going to be a long haul, but acting together we may yet burrow down to (at least some of) the truth.