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Undercover Policing

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House I would like to repeat, as a Statement, an Answer to an Urgent Question given this morning in another place by my right honourable friend Mike Penning, the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. The Statement is as follows.

“Undercover policing is an essential tactic in the fight against crime. However, we have known for some time that there were serious historical failings in undercover policing practices. To improve the public’s confidence in undercover work, we must ensure that there is no repeat of these failings. That is why the Home Secretary established a public inquiry earlier this month to investigate thoroughly undercover policing and the operation of the special demonstration squad, and confirmed the appointment of Lord Justice Pitchford, a highly experienced criminal judge of the Court of Appeal, as its chairman.

The scope of the inquiry, which was announced to Parliament on 12 March, will focus on the deployment of police officers as covert human intelligence sources by the SDS, the national public order intelligence unit and other police forces in England and Wales. The inquiry will review practices in the use of undercover policing, establishing justice for families and victims and making recommendations for the future.

Over the coming months, all interested parties will be consulted on the terms of reference for the inquiry, which will need to be agreed by Lord Justice Pitchford. As the terms of reference are therefore still to be finalised, and given the prospect of criminal proceedings, there is a limit to what I can say at the moment. None the less, given that the inquiry will be looking at a broad range of allegations surrounding undercover policing, I would expect that the allegations relating to Members of Parliament would form part of its work”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer. He will be aware that this is not the first time that we have debated these issues in your Lordships’ House. He may recall the debates about the women who had children in what they believed were genuine, long-term stable relationships, yet had been conned by undercover officers who cast them off at the same time as they cast off their assumed identity. We also recall that my noble friend Lady Lawrence and her family were spied on with no justification whatever.

Today’s allegations are equally shocking, and quite chilling. People have been investigated not for any wrongdoing or alleged crimes but for their political beliefs. I recall taking part in a very peaceful protest. If I tell noble Lords that it was on Boxing Day, they might guess the reason why I was there: it was a protest against the local hunt. I felt a sense of injustice in being followed and filmed with a police camera in my face while those who were abusing and threatening me were just ignored. Clearly, changes must be made.

I welcome the commitment that the Minister has just made regarding Lord Justice Pitchford’s inquiry, which, as I understand what he said, will be wide. Although the terms of reference have not yet been set, it is intended to include the allegations that have been made in the press today. Getting to the bottom of that will be very welcome, and I thank him for that commitment.

I agree about the importance of undercover policing. We all recognise that it is an essential evidence-gathering tool for some of the most serious crimes, and I pay tribute to those officers who, behaving completely appropriately, put themselves in very dangerous situations to protect others from serious and harmful crime. However, it is clear that new safeguards are needed.

The Minister may recall that we proposed, during the passage of a Home Office Bill in this Session of Parliament, that there should be independent pre-authorisation of undercover work, perhaps by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners. Here I am thinking about long-term covert operations; short-term for a couple of hours is a different matter, but for long-term covert operations there has to be some kind of independent prior authorisation. The Government previously rejected that but, in the light of their response on the Lord Justice Pitchford’s inquiry, I hope this is something that they will reconsider

I thank the noble Baroness for her welcome. I totally agree with her in paying tribute to the work of undercover police officers, who by and large do an incredibly important job in keeping us safe from terrorist threats and from serious and organised crime. It is a vital tool in policing, giving us an opportunity to bring forward evidence that can be used in court to ensure that prosecutions are made.

The noble Baroness rightly referred back to some of the cases that we have had in the past of inappropriate relationships during undercover policing. That was of course one of the reasons why the National College of Policing introduced a code of ethics that all undercover police officers must abide by. It is important that the review looks at this. Historically, there have been failings. There have been a number of investigations by the police themselves into a whole series of allegations, but we recognise that there have been failings and that is the reason why we need to go further.

On the specifics about the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, it is a fair point. Sir Christopher Rose is widely respected, and that is something that we could look at. At the moment, deployments lasting longer than 12 months must get prior approval from the Surveillance Commissioner and be authorised by a chief constable or equivalent.

I endorse everything that my noble friend said about the importance of this inquiry, which I, too, welcome. Will the Minister say what consideration the Government have given to contemporaneous reporting of the proceedings of the inquiry and perhaps to making them available on the internet so that those who think they might be affected can have easy access to the way the inquiry unfolds?

That would certainly be something for Lord Justice Pitchford to pick up on when he sets up this inquiry and for its terms and how it operates. The fact that it is set up under the Inquiries Act 2005 means that it has the ability to do that and to extend more widely. That will be welcome. I understand that today the Metropolitan Police have agreed in response to the concern relating to Members of Parliament that they will be contacting individuals directly to make them aware of what information is held about them. I think most of us would recognise that as a good step forward.

My Lords, I endorse everything that has been said in the House today. I certainly endorse the fact that undercover policing is difficult and at times highly dangerous to the point of risk to life. High standards are essential in this area of police work. It is essential that the processes, but not the mechanics, are transparent and that there is strong oversight, without being prescriptive about times—I am not altogether sure that I agree with the noble Baroness about two days or whatever it was—as overprescription might be difficult. Will the Minister press, so far as he is able, for speed in this inquiry to put all these doubts to bed for the first time and put this area of policing on a firm footing as quickly as possible?

I acknowledge the noble Lord’s experience and role in this very important area. One of the changes we introduced was that before there can be deployment there has to be authorisation by an assistant chief constable or above. On the pace of the inquiry, we need to ensure that it does its work thoroughly, but we are mindful of inquiries that are currently under way. At the outset, we are currently thinking of timing in the region of two to three years. I know that seems a long time, but the inquiry has a long historical reach and therefore it needs sufficient time to investigate and to make some robust recommendations for the Government to implement.