Met officers did not examine if spying was justified, inquiry finds

None of the senior police officers in charge of long-term operations to infiltrate leftwing groups in the 1960s and 1970s examined whether the intrusive surveillance was justified, a public inquiry has found.

The inquiry – headed by a retired judge – added that there was a strong case for concluding that a covert Metropolitan police unit that sent long-term undercover officers to infiltrate political groups should have been disbanded decades before it was.

The covert operations failed to comply with the state’s own justification for spying on political activists, the inquiry also found in a new analysis.

The undercover officers were sent on deployments – typically lasting four years – to spy on leftwing and progressive groups including campaigns against violent racist assaults, fascism, South Africa’s apartheid regime, wars and nuclear weapons. The unit infiltrated a small women’s rights group that lawfully campaigned for equal pay, free contraception and better nursery provision.

The officers helped to compile huge secret files on activists including personal details such as physical appearances, holiday plans, weddings, sexuality and childcare arrangements.

The unit spied on children, recording how a 17-year-old was said to spend “a lot of his spare time” at his girlfriend’s home and a 15-year-old boy regularly bought a socialist newspaper.

Sir John Mitting is leading the inquiry that is scrutinising the conduct of 139 undercover officers who spied on more than 1,000 political groups in covert operations between 1968 and at least 2010.

So far the inquiry has heard evidence about the covert operations run by the unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), between 1968 and 1982. Senior Scotland Yard officers supervised the unit, which gathered information about the activities of political activists.

The reports of the unit, which was funded by the Home Office, were frequently sent to MI5, the Security Service, which monitored political groups.

In the analysis of the operations before 1982, David Barr KC, the inquiry’s most senior barrister, said the Home Office had had the opportunity to consider whether or not to permit the continued existence of the SDS every time it was asked for funding.

“Senior police officers visited the SDS, were aware of its existence and, at least in broad terms, how it operated,” he said. “However, no one appears to have considered whether the level of intrusion occasioned by SDS long-term undercover police deployments was justified. No one appears to have addressed their mind specifically to the legality of the SDS’ operations.”

He added: “Had they done so, there is a strong case for concluding that they should have decided to disband the SDS.”

The unit was eventually wound up in 2008 after Scotland Yard recognised that it operated without tight controls, ignored ethical issues and gathered information that had no use in fighting crime.

In the analysis, Barr added that it was “hard to see” how the undercover unit had complied with the official justification for monitoring political activists, which stipulated that the state was supposed to spy only on individuals who intended to overthrow Britain’s parliamentary democracy and threaten the safety of the nation.

Barr’s analysis has been published before a short series of hearings that will look at the supervision of the SDS between 1968 and 1982. Next year, Mitting is due to hold hearings on more recent surveillance operations.

The much-delayed inquiry was launched in 2014 after revelations of widespread misconduct including deceiving women into intimate relationships and monitoring grieving relatives such as the family of Stephen Lawrence.

The inquiry is not expected to end before 2026. The long delays have been criticised by those who were spied on.