Image: Police spies out of lives
“No justice, no peace” and “sack Mitting now” were the cries from campaigners and victims of political policing as they blocked the main entrance of the Royal Courts of Justice, after storming out of the latest hearing of the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI).
Campaigners held aloft a large banner with the words "Tear Down the #Spycops Inquiry's Brick Wall of Silence".
The frustrated group of men and women left Court Room 73 – where the latest Inquiry hearing was held - in protest at Sir Mitting's decision to keep most undercover police officers' identities a secret. They were unhappy, too, at his perplexing insistence on accepting at face value claims that police have been acting in good faith and that undercover names need to remain concealed. Calling himself an "old fashioned man", Mitting apparently considers it highly improbable those officers who were married would have engaged in any improper behaviour while undercover. A proposition that is difficult to challenge so long as Mitting insists on keeping the cover names of those very officers secret.
“There are three major problems with the Inquiry,” Suresh Grover of the Monitoring Group (the support group for victims of race-based hate crimes) commented outside the Royal Courts. “The first is the delay. The Inquiry was set up four years ago and as yet hasn’t even started hearing evidence from police officers and from those directly affected by spying...principally because of police obstructions within the Inquiry using all sorts of legal loopholes to delay naming either the undercover or real names of police officers”.
“All the names that have come out have really come out because of the way campaigners have put the information in the public themselves.”
Grover went on, “The second is that we have had no disclosure of our files. We don’t know what is in our [police files] that has made us ‘core participants’, although a huge amount of money has been spent on this inquiry”. As we talked, two core participants played a modified version of “Another Brick in the Wall” behind us.
“The third thing,” Grover commented, “is Mitting himself. Mitting’s attitude is really to believe the police” and “create all kinds of reasons about security and danger to [the police] when there is no evidence of it. Most of the campaigners involved in the Inquiry have never used violence in their campaigning. In fact we have a [former police spy] whistle-blower Peter Francis who was an ex SDS officer, he is amongst us and he has never been threatened for what he did”
Former undercover officer Neil Woods recently authored an article calling anonymity for the police a “privilege” that is being “abused in the spycops inquiry”.
In his article for the Guardian, Woods scoffs at the idea that police anonymity is about safety:
“I was undercover for many years, and the jail time of all the people I put in prison adds up to about a thousand years. During the last hearing, Peter Francis, that spycop turned whistle-blower, pointed out that this was greater than the total prison time meted out by the [Special Demonstration Squad] in its 40-year history. Clearly, the SDS was not investigating dangerous people; there’s certainly no evidence to suggest they were dangerous.”
Phillippa Kaufman QC called Mitting “the usual white, upper middle class, elderly gentleman” whose life experience was not suited for him to direct the Undercover Policing Inquiry on his own.
After the non-state core participants walked out of court, en masse, Kaufman explained her clients’ position further to the few members of the press core outside the Courthouse steps.
She explained, the Inquiry Judge Sir John Mitting “was asked to do what happened with the Lawrence Inquiry, to sit with a panel of individuals who have direct experience of the matters that go into the heart of this inquiry, because race discrimination and sex discrimination lie at the heart of what happened with undercover policing - the infiltration into the Lawrence campaign [and] into the other justice campaigns which are about the deaths of the young black men in police custody and all of the relationships that women had with undercover officers”.
In a written statement to the House of Commons on 12 March 2015 the then Home Secretary Theresa May, announced a public inquiry that would “review practices in the use of undercover policing, establishing justice for the families and victims and making recommendations for future operations and police practice”.
Three years later, however, the UCPI, headed now by Sir John Mitting, has yet to hear one piece of evidence. Mitting took over the UCPI in July 2017 after Court of Appeal Justice Sir Christopher Pitchford, stepped down from his role due to ill health. He passed away soon thereafter.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd appointed Mitting as Pitchford’s replacement.
The problem with Mitting is not simply that he is an upper-middle class white man who views the national security state with sympathetic eyes. Mitting himself is a long standing participant of the secret state, having served as the Chairman of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) from 2007 to 2012. The SIAC is a system in which secret evidence, that is withheld from non-state participants, is the norm. In 2007 the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights called the SIAC "Kafkaesque" and “like the Star Chamber”. The report explicitly concluded that
“the public should be left in absolutely no doubt that what is happening… has absolutely nothing to do with the traditions of adversarial justice as we have come to understand them in the British legal system."
A 2012 report from Amnesty International describes a frightening “creeping spread of secrecy in the UK” epitomised by the SIAC.
This is the Commission that Mitting happily chaired for 5 years.
His decision to chair SIAC can reasonably be interpreted to mean Mitting approved of this system and does not see something fundamentally wrong with secret courts, secret evidence and accepting the word of the national security state on a regular basis.
There should therefore be no doubt, that when Mitting was appointed by Home Secretary Rudd to replace Pitchford, he was chosen with the understanding that he would be a “safe pair of hands”. It was therefore because of, not in spite of, his deep professional connections to the National Security State that he was selected for the job of UCPI chair.
It is within this context that the demands of the non-state core participants must be understood. And why they have declared that without a panel of experts to join him on the Inquiry, Mitting must be “sacked”.