When public inquiries fail to represent those affected, they fail to hold the establishment to account

Those women affected fear the inquiry they fought for will protect, rather than uncover, the state’s secrets. John Stillwell/PA

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, a UK public inquiry investigating the actions of undercover police officers spying on political campaigners, is in a state of crisis. For the last three years, it has been marred by delays and legal arguments in its consideration of even preliminary matters. It has yet to hold any evidence hearings.

But it has handed an unexpected small victory to another group of campaigners, the family of Stephen Lawrence, the teenager who was murdered by racist thugs in April 1993, 25 years ago. The inquiry revealed the cover name of an undercover police officer who infiltrated the Lawrence family and their long-running campaign against the Metropolitan police for its failure to properly investigate their son’s murder. The undercover officer living as “David Hagan”, previously known only to proceedings as officer HN81, had applied for an anonymity order, but the inquiry published his fake identity along with others, confirming the actions of undercover police to spy on justice, anti-racist and socialist campaigns between 1996 and 2001.

The 25th anniversary memorial service for Stephen Lawrence was held at St Martins in the Fields, London. Victoria Jones/PA

However, this reveals merely a small detail of the actions of undercover police operatives over several decades, into which the inquiry is struggling to made any headway. Following the appointment of a new chair, Sir John Mitting, his decision to allow former undercover police to remain anonymous led 13 women who had been deceived into intimate relationships with male undercover officers, ostensibly to monitor their political activity, to write to Home Secretary Amber Rudd to raise their concerns. The women wrote that Mitting’s appointment showed “a significant shift towards greater secrecy” and his failure to acknowledge the culture of sexism that ran through the policing units in question further de-legitimated the process.

At the most recent preliminary hearing in March 2018, at least 60 campaigners who had been subject to police infiltration walked out of the courtroom. In a dramatic turn of events, Phillippa Kaufmann QC, the barrister representing the group, criticised Mitting as “the usual white, upper middle-class, elderly gentleman whose life experiences are a million miles away from those who were spied upon”. Calls for his resignation followed. Without these victims’ participation, the inquiry has little chance of success.

This is not the first inquiry to experience such problems. There has been lately a growing interest in public inquiries and their ability or not to bring uncomfortable facts to light, and at what cost. The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War, for example, published its report in 2016 after seven years and £13m spent, and was dogged by criticism throughout and after its completion.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, announced in 2014, has had to deal with the resignations of three chairs and a number of senior lawyers. Now the current chair, Professor Alexis Jay, finally seems to be moving the process forward, but faces considerable suspicion from the victims.

Frustration is often directed at the highly contested figure of an inquiry’s chair. After an inquiry was announced following the Grenfell Tower fire in June last year, there was plenty of hostility directed towards the panel. At one meeting with survivors and families, a resident stood up and said to the chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick: “Look at the people in this room, and then look at the panel. I have no faith in the justice system.”

The people vs the establishment

And this is the point – many victims and communities have an interest in seeing information brought to light, while public authorities are often keen to keep their secrets. What should be an inquisitive instrument to establish the truthful sequence of events is all too often an adversarial process from the start, pitting calls for transparency against legalistic arguments against disclosure.

While the victims of undercover policing abuses have maintained from the beginning that the inquiry has to be open and transparent, the judge has frequently found in support of police applications to keep the crucial information about their infiltration of protest groups secret.

At a hearing closed to the public, Mitting ruled that Hagan’s real name could not be published. But the fact that his role has been revealed is symbolically important. A 2014 report commissioned by the Home Secretary revealed that undercover police officers had been deployed in the Lawrence case, and that information gained from these deployments may have been withheld from the subsequent Macpherson inquiry into the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. It was this fact, together with the outrage of the women whose lives had been affected, that triggered the current undercover policing inquiry.

When the Macpherson inquiry finally reported on the Stephen Lawrence case in 1999, it declared the Metropolitan Police “institutionally racist”. During the inquiry, Sir William Macpherson was at first also treated with suspicion by the Lawrence family and their supporters, but when it arrived his report was seen as an important step in the process of reforming the force.

It might be too late for Mitting to gain the trust of many core participants in the undercover policing inquiry. But the appointment of a panel of advisers, as Macpherson had, that better reflects the backgrounds of those targeted for surveillance would be a step towards ensuring the inquiry can be seen as a legitimate attempt to hold the police to account.