Home Secretary launches public inquiry into the use of undercover police

Theresa MayThe independent inquiry by Mark Ellison QC, which was established to review the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation, has revealed “wrong-headed and inappropriate” use of undercover policing. The conclusions of the review make it very clear that there was an “extraordinary level of secrecy” at play.

The Home Secretary, who has described the findings of the review as “deeply troubling”, has been a leading force behind the review into the case of Stephen Lawrence and is to be applauded for her efforts. She has now announced that a judge-led inquiry will take place into undercover policing, as she fears that the abuse of powers in this case is not an isolated incident.  The Home Office is also currently holding a public consultation into the use of covert surveillance powers.

The revelations about the potential for there to have been unfairness in some of the Metropolitan Police’s (MPS) proceedings, alongside efforts to discredit the family of Steven Lawrence, quite rightly brought cross-party condemnation. Taken alongside revelations about the scale of internet surveillance, the wider questions about the oversight of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are too important to ignore.

The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), the top secret squad within Special Branch in operation between 1968 and 2006, deployed an undercover officer into one of the activist groups involved in the Lawrence family campaign and as a result sought to influence, and to some extent succeeded in influencing, the Lawrence family campaign. This highlights a fundamental failing in the authorisation process, as surveillance powers are to be used for the gathering of intelligence, not to enable the manipulation of event.

The same officer also liaised with an ex-Special Branch officer who had been seconded to the MPS Lawrence Review Team; the same team responsible drafting the written submissions to be made on behalf of the Met Commissioner to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. The review found that the meeting was arranged “to help inform the MPS submissions to the Public Inquiry” which was “a completely improper use of the knowledge the MPS had gained”.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, authorisation for this investigation will have been granted internally by an Assistant Commissioner. It is certainly questionable whether personnel from within an organisation can make a clear judgement as to whether the investigative methods that are to be used pass the “necessary and proportionate” test required by the under Act. In this case, the methods clearly weren’t proportionate, and in order to protect the public from overzealous surveillance, a judicial process, which is both independent and external, is required.

There also appears to have been very little oversight of the surveillance methods that MPS has been using. The Surveillance Commissioner, who is responsible for oversight of covert surveillance, has failed to properly scrutinise operations at a police force level. This additional check and balance would also help to ensure that the public are not unfairly targeted by intrusive surveillance methods. You can read our submission to the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry into the balance between security and privacy here.

The review is absolutely to right to talk about the “extraordinary level of secrecy” at play in the use of surveillance techniques. Crime enforcement agencies hide behind the argument that releasing details of surveillance methods would undermine on-going and future operations. However in the US, the Department for Justice publishes information provided by federal and state officials on orders authorising or approving interceptions of wire, oral or electronic communications. The detail includes types of offences under investigation, the nature and locations of intercept devices, costs and durations of intercepts, and intercept extensions granted. All of this information is published annually, at no detriment to their investigations.

It is clear that the actions taken in the Stephen Lawrence investigation have undermined public confidence. Reform of surveillance practices is urgently needed so the public can have confidence that the authorisation process and oversight regime promotes a culture of proportionality and transparency. Without these reforms, we cannot safely say that what happened to the Lawrence family won’t happen again.