There was “no legal justification” for the information gathering and sharing practices of undercover police officers during the 1970s, which became more extensive and intrusive as the decade went on, a public inquiry into the police infiltration of more than 1,000 political groups has heard.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry also shows there was a close and prolific working relationship between Special Branch and the British security service MI5, which routinely shared information and coordinated surveillance efforts on primarily left-wing activists.
Previously undisclosed documents show that senior managers at Special Branch also had an awareness at the time that what they were doing was difficult to justify, even as they were forming a “data entry team” to computerise more than 20,000 records.
Established in 2015 to investigate the practices of undercover policing units – including the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was created in 1968 to infiltrate British protest groups as part of the Met Police’s Special Branch – the Under Cover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) began its third phase on 9 May 2022.
The inquiry is looking at whether the intelligence-gathering practices of undercover officers were justified, and is expected to reveal details of how data protection issues were neglected at a time when laws were being introduced to govern the use of personal information.
Whereas the previous phase of the inquiry heard evidence from undercover officers and non-state witnesses (victims of police spying) about the SDS’s operational activity, the third phase will look more closely at its supervisory chain of command, from its formation up until December 1983.
In his opening statement on behalf of Socialist Workers’ Party member Lindsey German, James Scobie QC said that although the SDS was originally created to deal with the potential public order threat of a single demonstration in 1968, “it quickly became an intelligence trawl of left-wing political groups, growing ever more indiscriminate and ever more intrusive”.
Scobie said that as time went on, the SDS’s “focus shifted away from anything that could genuinely be described as police work”, instead becoming a “political and economic police, with echoes of the Stasi”, throughout the 1970s.
He noted, for example, that despite the clearly dwindling threat of “public disorder” by the mid-1970s – which was even apparent to Special Branch commanders – the extent of data collection “increased exponentially, from 200 information reports in 1969, to almost 10,000 by November 1971, with thousands being produced on an annual basis thereafter”.
At the same time, said Scobie, SDS intelligence was increasingly being supplied to new “customers”, including those “with little or no involvement in public order issues”. This included other Special Branch departments and MI5, as well as the Home Office and other unnamed government departments, he said.
“By the end of the 1970s, the SDS management were having regular face-to-face meetings with MI5, including over games of sport, which are redacted for some reason,” he said. “They were also having monthly meetings over lunch, with the Home Office – although the name and specific role of the Home Office representative in question appear to have been forgotten.
“Other un-named government bodies were not liaised with directly. It was considered more appropriate to keep them at ‘arm’s length’. By April 1980, SDS and MI5 were meeting for ‘drinks’ every fortnight. By August 1980, meetings were described as ‘routine’.”
On the previous day of phase three of the inquiry, counsel to the inquiry David Barr QC said in his opening statement that the information collected by the SDS and disseminated to MI5 included material about industrial disputes between private companies and their employees, which fuelled employment blacklists, and “extensive reporting” on children involved in activism.
“Many of the reports produced by the SDS, including those sent to the security service, were reports about individuals, including identifying information and information about their membership of various left-wing organisations,” said Barr.
The reporting on children’s activism, he said, was also done at the direct behest of MI5, which urged the SDS in a December 1975 letter not to make direct inquiries with schools on its behalf, but to find sources “which you can use without risk of embarrassment”.
Barr also noted the scale of information gathering, citing a newly disclosed Special Branch report which shows that 5,268 files were opened, mainly on individuals, and more than 1.1 million entries were made in its files in 1979 alone. The document also shows that, by the end of December 1979, 20,000-plus SDS records had been “computerised”.
“A substantial increase in civil staff and the formation of a data entry team ensured significant progress in the computerisation of those selected Special Branch records concerned with terrorism and public disorder. I am aware of its political sensitivity,” said the report, which was signed by a Deputy Assistant Commissioner Bryan.
“Training courses were arranged for record keepers and searchers to enable the system to go ‘live’ on 10 December. Almost immediately, the retrieval facilities enabled new lines of enquiry to be pursued,” it added.
Barr said that information supplied to the security service by Special Branch was also passed on to employers, which included various government departments, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Bank of England, the British Airports Authority, British Airways, the Post Office and the BBC.
MI5 – which justified this practice on the basis that it “has a duty to establish whether or not he [the employee] has access to classified information…and to offer an assessment of the risk which the continuation of any such access might entail” – recognised at the time that this could “have serious consequences for the person concerned”, including being purged from the civil service or held back in their career.
Barr noted an “awareness of the political sensitivity” associated with the SDS’s practices was also present among senior managers and high-ranking Home Office officials at the time, including two successive permanent under secretaries of state, Sir Robert Armstrong and Sir Brian Cubbon.
Citing a Home Office letter dated 2 April 1979, Barr said that HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary was of the view that “the security service sought more information from Special Branches than they really needed”.
Despite the concerns raised by officials in these previously undisclosed documents, it is still unclear whether any of those involved acted on their concerns.
Barr said the questions that UCPI chair Sir John Mitting must ask “are not so very different from those being asked in the Home Office in 1980. Should all of this information have been recorded? Should it have been kept for so long?”
However, Oliver Sanders QC, the designated lawyer for the undercover officers, contended in his opening statement that “many of those involved in the processing and consumption of SDS intelligence”, including MI5 staff, did not necessarily know about the existence of the unit or the origins of the information they received.
“The unconscious consumption of so much SDS intelligence…means evidence as to its use and value will be difficult to trace, particularly in surviving documentary records,” he said. “It is submitted that further MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] and MI5 evidence as to the above is vital to an understanding of key inquiry issues as to the targeting and authorisation of the SDS, the dissemination of its intelligence, its interactions with MI5 and the justification for its operation.”
The inquiry will hear from managers of the SDS over the next two weeks, who will answer questions about their authorisation and supervision of undercover operations from 1968 to 1983.
The next set of hearings on the activity of undercover officers from 1983 to 1992 will be held in spring 2024.