The abuse carried out by undercover “spy cops” working in two police units over 40 years took many forms. The deception practised by at least 20 officers who had sexual relationships with their targets – mostly women, at least three of whom had children as a result – was a gross breach of the women’s human rights, as the force acknowledged when it apologised and paid substantial compensation to seven of them. The harm caused to the children of these deceitful unions is still unfolding: last month it was revealed that compensation has also been paid to a man who had his life turned upside down by the discovery in 2012 that the father who abandoned him as a child was a police officer, Bob Lambert.
Others had their trust violated in different ways. The first month of Sir John Mitting’s public inquiry into the work of 139 officers has heard evidence about how they passed details of trade union activists to a blacklisting organisation used by companies to stop them getting work. A leftwing writer, Tariq Ali, was spied on by at least 14 officers, and said he was shocked by their “prurient” reports. For Stephen Lawrence’s family, the discovery that police spied on their justice campaign was a profound insult that has been compounded by the Metropolitan police’s failure over the past six years to release documents about what happened.
The wider, less personal impact of the targeting of more than 1,000 groups must also be taken very seriously. Tales of undercover officers attending protests dressed as clowns might sound like something out of a Chris Morris satire, but the overwhelming bias shown by the Special Demonstration Squad against leftwing, environmental, anti-war and black justice campaign groups could not be less funny. The right to protest and organise politically are vital to democracy.
Nor do the actions being scrutinised belong to the distant past. The most recent known case of a sexual relationship between an officer and an activist was in 2015. A woman known to the inquiry as Maya found out only last year that the former boyfriend who returned to her life in 2014, only to disappear again, was a spy. And while some officers came out of retirement to give evidence, because the inquiry began with the period 1968-72, others may still be employed. Richard Walton, who received intelligence about the Lawrence family during the Macpherson inquiry, remained as head of the counter-terrorism command until 2016, three years after the spying was revealed by the Guardian and two years after the inquiry was ordered by the then home secretary, Theresa May.
So far the Met has declined to clarify whether it is currently spying on any political groups, although an answer to this question is expected. The wives of undercover officers who were left to bring up families alone while their husbands conducted affairs with activists have yet to receive the apology they deserve. The distress caused to the Lawrences by the seemingly limitless disrespect shown to their family is a disgrace.
What has changed since the episodes being investigated? Will those who authorised spying on bereaved families, or decided that spies should form intimate relationships, be held to account? What redress can victims expect, beyond the compensation already paid? As we know from other justice campaigns, people who have suffered due to official failures on this scale rarely rest at having their own injuries acknowledged. They seek assurances that such abuses will never happen again.
Yet confidence in this inquiry is already shaky, with female victims questioning whether a retired, male high court judge who belongs to the all-male Garrick Club is the right person to lead an inquiry into what many regard as institutional sexism. Just last month, a bill that would allow a long list of official bodies to spy on people passed its second reading in the House of Commons, with support from Labour. In spite of this inquiry, there is every chance that the British state is on its way to becoming even more secretive and intrusive, not less.