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Last updated: 09 July 2021. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Let's all get behind the COPS

No, not those cops. Following a series of shocking revelations, the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance was launched in London at the end of February. Harvey Duke was there.


Over 100 people crammed into a room in the UNITE union HQ in London, on 27th February, 2014. It was the public launch of the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS). True stories told that night, sometimes funny, and often moving, were largely from people targeted by undercover police. A few years ago, the speakers may have been seen by many as 'conspiracy theorists'. Not now.

COPS was pulled together by socialists, trade unionists in the Blacklist Support Group, environmentalists, anti-racists (including the family of murdered youth Stephen Lawrence), and others. All were calling for an independent public inquiry into police spies.

Ten days after the meeting, Home Secretary Theresa May ordered that a public inquiry should take place into the activities of police spies, following the release of the explosive Ellison Review which confirmed that police had spied on Stephen Lawrence's family. At the time of writing, it is unclear what the terms of reference of the inquiry will be.

A central theme at the launch of COPS was to demand that any inquiry is genuinely independent of the police; and that it must investigate fully and openly the many issues raised by the activities of undercover police spies.

Liz Davies, Chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, opened the meeting by explaining how the campaign was formed. It followed revelations about police spies in a Channel 4 documentary and in the book 'Undercover' by Guardian investigative journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Central to their story was evidence from former spy turned whistle-blower Peter Francis (who now suffers from post-traumatic stress). From 1993, as 'Pete Black' he targeted and infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe, and other anti-racist campaigns, and Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party). He was also tasked to spy on the Lawrence family. As the Evans & Lewis exclusive report in the Guardian on 24th June 2013 noted, Francis 'said his superiors wanted him to find "dirt" that could be used against members of the Lawrence family, in the period shortly after (Stephen) Lawrence's racist murder in April 1993.'
Police spies also targeted environmental campaigns, with some spies like Mark Kennedy going undercover for years. Criminal cases against protesters later collapsed when it was revealed that undercover police had falsely testified, using their bogus identities.

Undercover police spies also gave the names of trade union activists to the Consulting Association which then added the names of those workers to an illegal blacklist, widely used by top building firms.

Undercover police officers engaged in intimate relationships with activists, sometimes for years, based on deception.

Undercover police stole the identities of dead children.

The issues sketched in the introduction by Liz Davies were then given colour and depth by the various speakers. Each raised their voice in support of a full public inquiry into a genuine and massive state conspiracy. Undercover police spies from the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) have infiltrated protest movements since 1968.

Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer who has represented the Lawrence family since 1993, read out a message from Doreen Lawrence. "I very much regret not being able to attend the meeting. When the news came out on Channel 4 and in the Guardian that undercover police targeted our family and campaigns, I called on the Home Secretary to have a full public inquiry." Such an inquiry must have "the most authoritative, public, transparent and legally robust framework possible."

Imran Khan explained how the spy allegations arose. On 24th June 2013, Peter Francis appeared on Channel 4 saying that between 1993 and 1997 police were instructed to look for dirt on the Lawrence family, their associates, and others connected to the campaign for justice for murdered youth Stephen. Unknown to family or campaigners, many campaign meetings were attended by undercover police – sent to undermine their calls for justice.

Imran Khan wrote down a list of questions he wanted answers to, following the revelations by police spy Peter Francis. These questions included:

- Are the allegations correct – were family, campaigners, and lawyers targeted by undercover police?
- Who was then in charge of the Special Demonstration Squad?
- What was the chain of command for undercover police officers?
- Was Paul Condon aware of what was happening? (Now Sir Paul Condon, he was Metropolitan Police Commissioner from 1993 to 2000; and is now Deputy Chairman of G4S.)
- Who gave Peter Francis and other undercover officers their instructions?
- What information was gathered?
- Who was that information given to?
- What was done with that information?
- Who made the decision to withhold information from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry? (This was the Inquiry headed by Sir William Macpherson from 1997-'99 which famously branded the Met as 'institutionally racist'.)

The Met admitted that undercover police officers spied on the Lawrence family.

(The Ellison Review later revealed that a police spy, referred to as 'N81' was deployed: 'The reality was that N81 was, at the time, an MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) spy in the Lawrence family camp during the course of judicial proceedings in which the family was the primary party in opposition to the MPS.' Ellison Review, Summary of findings, March 2014.)

There have been 16 'often secret, internal police or prosecutor reviews' into police spies, as the COPS first leaflet commented. It also said that campaigners 'have no faith in 'Operation Herne' or any of the other inquiries. Imran Khan spoke about these reviews. Operation Herne was launched, in October 2011, headed by Chief Constable Mick Creedon of Derbyshire police. It looked at issues of: undercover police and sexual relationships with targets; the fathering of children; the use of IDs of dead children; and possible miscarriages of justice. 50,000 computer records and 6000 paper record were looked at by Operation Herne. Paul Lewis, writing in the Guardian on 7th March 2014, after Creedon's report came out, said it 'had a staff of 30 and a budget of at least £2.8 million' but 'was a whitewash, another historical exhibit explaining why police cannot investigate themselves.'

Imran Khan predicted that there would be a public inquiry into police spies, but said that the key question is how wide it will be. This was shortly before the Ellison Review came out. It was led by Mark Ellison QC – the barrister who prosecuted Gary Dobson and David Norris, who were jailed for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Dave Smith, of the Blacklist Support Group, spoke next. In the 1990s, as a member of building workers union UCATT, he fought for improved health and safety on building sites, and was blacklisted. His 36 page blacklisting file was compiled by the Consulting Association – at one point in his speech, Dave held the report up, saying it lists every place where he worked, asbestos concerns he raised, information on his wife and brother, and even details of when he bought a car. He is now involved in legal action against Carillion about this blacklisting.

Dave explained that employers in the past often argued that blacklisting of trade unionists was just a Left-wing conspiracy theory. Then, in February 2009, 3200 blacklist files were found in the office of the Consulting Association, following a raid by the Information Commissioner. The Consulting Association itself was set up in 1993 to replace the notorious Economic League which had been exposed with lots of bad publicity.

Multinational building companies like Sir Robert McAlpine, Balfour & Beattie, and Skanska financed and used the blacklisting services of the Consulting Association to deprive workers of employment.

The Scottish Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament produced a report into blacklisting, in March 2013. It contained several quotes from the blacklist files. One says: 'Subject is a TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union) steward on the xxx site. He is of Scottish descent but has lived at the above address for 8 years. Holds extremely militant trade union views, is anti-authority and appears to be an agitator.' This would be enough information for a worker to be blacklisted.

Dave also explained that the Information Commissioners office confirmed that some of the information in the Consulting Association files could only have come from the police or Mi5. Undercover police spy Peter Francis has admitted that he gave information which ended up in blacklist files. Another undercover officer – Mark Jenner was on picket lines of building workers and even chaired trade union meetings in 1996. At the same time, building worker Brian Higgins had a 50-page blacklist file, as a result of Mark Jenner's spying.
Dave said: "Special Branch were fully aware of the Consulting Association and every branch of Special Branch in the country provided information. If you read the files, it looks absolutely certain that the police were involved."

Dave Smith said that the kind of undercover policing which COPS is campaigning against is; "A human rights conspiracy between big business, police and security services". GCHQ, Mi5 and Mi6 are not glamorous James Bond- type figures; they are secret police who spy on trade unionists, environmentalists, and other protesters.

Dave has spoken and written widely on the subject of blacklisting, and a book co-authored with investigative journalist Phil Chamberlain will be published in September. It is called: 'Blacklisted – The secret war between big business and union activists'. Phil Chamberlain's 2009 article about the Consulting Association, first published in Lobster, can be downloaded as a free PDF at It names the blacklisting companies. (Note: this is the link for the full magazine.)

One of the most moving speakers at the COPS event was Helen Steel, one of the 8 women who is suing police over a relationship with an undercover officer.

Helen said she knew him as John Barker, but his real name was John Dines. They were together for 2 years and shared a flat. "He met my family." She had been in environmental campaigns since she was 14; and was a member of London Greenpeace, which was targeted by another undercover officer: Bob Lambert. He even wrote one of the campaign leaflets about the multinational Mcdonalds for protesters who would later take part in a long court battle against the company. Helen Steel was one of these protesters, one of the famous McLibel 2.

Helen spoke of the huge psychological damage that undercover officers cause to protesters who falsely believe that they are in a relationship with a genuine person. "John shared lots of sob stories and excuses why nobody was around him and why he didn't have any kind of history you could trace."

In the book 'Undercover', by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, it is noted: 'If there was one tactic that was the signature of the Special Demonstration Squad, it was the use of long term relationships with women activists who could help give undercover operatives the credibility they needed.'

John lied about his past, and his name (it was stolen from a dead child); and he would disappear from Helen's life abruptly in 1992. His last 6 months in a relationship with her were marked by erratic behaviour, as if he was having some kind of breakdown. He would disappear and then reappear, saying that people always left him. Then he vanished. Helen received 2 letters from him, mailed from South Africa. "I was still deeply in love with him" she said, and she was worried about his mental state, so she spent years trying to find him. As she did so, "my concerns grew about who he was and what he had been up to."

One day, she was passing by the Registrar of Births and Deaths, and felt compelled to go in. She looked through records and found a death certificate with the name John Barker and with a date of birth that matched the one he had told her was his. "He was using the identity of a boy who'd died aged 8 years old. It threw my life into disarray. I was deeply in love with him and I didn't even know him."

"It causes serious psychological trauma. It's the result of deliberate action by the state." She had been having a relationship with "a completely false persona. They're there to spy on you and your friends."
"He was seeking to undermine political movements and ultimately undermine change. But I didn't know that. I thought I'd met my soulmate."

"People suggested we were being paranoid. That wouldn't happen in this country."

It took Helen 19 years to find out the truth. The police took active steps to stop her finding out: when she went to New Zealand to try to find John, the police moved him to another location.

When the Mark Kennedy story came out in the Guardian and on Channel 4, the police argued that he was a rogue case. That turned out to be not true. There are 8 cases going to court – they involve 5 police officers, and relationships spanning 25 years. There are dozens of other undercover officers who remain unrecorded: it is therefore not known how much damage they have caused. Helen described it as "institutional sexism" and said: "for us, it's the emotional trust...that's what really messes up your mind."

Harriet Wistrich is the lawyer for the 8 women who launched legal action in December, 2011. She began her contribution by saying: "Police were trained how to gain trust. It's very, very insidious." She spoke about police obstructing the search for truth and justice. "Police have refused, apart from Mark Kennedy, to confirm any of this."

The women have their own campaign: 'Police Spies Out of Lives' with a website at . They are attempting to raise funds to support their legal action and pay for counselling. As their campaign leaflet states:

'The women assert that the actions of the undercover officers breached their rights as protected by the European Convention of Human Rights, including Article 3 (no one shall be subject to inhumane and degrading treatment) and Article 8 (respect for private and family life, including the right to form relationships without unjustified interference by the state.' The women are also bringing claims for deceit, assault, misfeasance in public office and negligence.'

Later in the meeting, the solicitor of former police spy Peter Francis read out a statement from him: he supports the COPS campaign, and said he was keen to assist the 8 women who have raised legal complaints against the Metropolitan Police after being tricked into long-term relationships with undercover officers.

Robbie Gillett was a member of environmental movements, including the Camp for Climate Action, from 2006 to 2011. It organised open protests and a direct action network.
Undercover police infiltrated these movements. The two most well-known spies were Lynn Watson in Leeds, and Mark Kennedy. "Both took active roles and quite importanmt roles in the movements they were involved in. " Lynn Watson was a Treasurer and Director of one community meetings space. Mark Kennedy was a van driver – a tactic used by undercover police officers for decades, to make themselves indispensable to campaigns.

Mark Kennedy, in his undercover identity, drove protesters to one action, where a coal train was blockaded for 15 hours as a protest about climate issues. So, the police facilitated the protest. 22 protesters were subsequently found guilty, in 2009, of obstructing the train, and sentenced to community service with heavy costs.

In January 2014, these convictions were 'overturned after senior judges ruled that crucial evidence gathered by an undercover officer was withheld from their original trial.' (Rob Evans, The Guardian, 21st Jan 2014) The officer was Mark Kennedy.

The Drax case was not the first where charges were dropped because of the involvement of undercover police. The Ratcliffe Power Station protest convictions were also overturned. Six protesters were charged with conspiracy to close the Ratcliffe power station, in Nottingham, also in 2009. The case was dropped when Mark Kennedy said he would be willing to assist the protesters side. (Unlike Peter Francis however, Kennedy had not become a consistent whistleblower – he would go on to advise a private American intelligence agency.)

Robbie Gillett commented: "What that case and our case show, and a third case from 1997 when Jim Boyling (another undercover officer) gave evidence under his alias, it's not individual failings that are involved. We are also calling for an independent public inquiry."

Lois Austin, who now works for the PCS and is a member of the Socialist Party, spoke next. 20 years ago, she was National Chair of Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE). Peter Francis infiltrated the YRE, using the alias Pete Black. There was laughter around the crowded hall when Lois joked that protesters should always be suspicious of van owners! "Peter Francis, who joined Militant (a forerunner of the Socialist Party) and YRE had a van, and we were very poor, and we found him very useful!"

The YRE found that one of their offices was bugged. "We now know that the police were actively trying to subvert our activities. I was never arresred or cautioned but I was being spied upon. Peter Francis's brief was to set up 25 files for Special Branch on YRE activists. There were already 100 files on others."

"There is political policing in this country. Their aim is to prevent political protest...They collude with big business. And there are no boundaries in what they are allowed to do."

The Special Demonstration Squad "was not a rogue unit. It was policy to infiltrate and to subvert political left wing groups."

Lois also called for a full public inquiry. "We want testimony to be taken from everyone who has been affected by undercover police activity. Who spied on the Lawrence family and for what reasons? Who gave the orders? Who funded the SDS?"

"We think it's inconceivable that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (Sir Paul Condon) didn't know what was going on."


Harvey Duke is a welfare rights expert and socialist activist in Tayside. He is currently researching a book on private intelligence services in the UK

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books