The Undercover Policing Inquiry (‘UCPI’) was established in 2015 to inquire into, and report on, undercover police operations conducted by police forces in England and Wales since 1968.The Inquiry was set up in response to an independent review (The Ellison Review) which unearthed ‘appalling practices in undercover policing’. The UCPI published its first interim report (Tranche 1) on 29th June 2023 which is the focus of this article.
The UCPI’s aim is to discover the truth about undercover policing over the past 50 years and to provide recommendations for the future. Some of the key issues identified for investigation were the targeting of political and social justice groups; the use of sexual or intimate relationships within those groups; and the use of identities relating to deceased children. The two main undercover units were the Special Demonstration Squad (‘SDS’) in the Metropolitan Police Service (‘MPS’) between 1968-2008 and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (‘NPOIU’) which operated from about 1999 until 2010, although the UCPI’s work is not restricted to these two units alone.
The UCPI is chaired by former High Court Judge Sir John Mitting and there are currently 247 core participants who are likely to have been significantly involved or affected by undercover policing in England and Wales. Given the broad remit and passage of time, the UCPI has divided its fact-finding work into six “tranches”. Tranche 1 covers the period between 1968-1982, Tranche 2 will deal with 1983-1992, Tranche 3; 1993-2007, Tranche 4 focuses on the NPOIU with Tranches 5 and 6 covering other undercover policing activity.
Tranche 1 interim report: “The majority of groups posed no threat”
The report makes significant findings. Specifically, that the majority of groups infiltrated by the SDS posed no threat at all and yet undercover officers proceeded to position themselves into the private lives of such groups anyway. The report states: “It is a striking feature of the reporting of almost all SDS undercover officers that it contained extensive details about individuals – their political views, personality, working life, relationships with others, and family and private life… and… the long-term view of the Security Service, which continued to hold good in the 1970s, was accurately summarised by the Cabinet Secretary in 1972, Sir Burke Trend:“[I]t comes once again to the conclusion that, troublesome though these groups are, they do not constitute anything in the nature of an organised conspiracy against the State.”
The Chair further points out that only three groups were considered to be a material threat to public order and at various junctures, in the years that followed, there were plenty of opportunities for the MPS and/or Home Office to address the manner in which the SDS conducted its activities but failed to do so. Instead, the Inquiry found that the Home Office continued to fund the SDS and the MPS Special Branch described the work carried out by the SDS as “great”. The Inquiry was clear: the SDS could have employed less intrusive measures to control public order in London and had their conduct been exposed to the public at the time, it would have been rapidly brought to an end.
As stated in the foreword, this interim report is a work in progress and forms only part of a wider investigation into undercover policing at the time. As such, some issues will be better addressed when all the evidence has been received. This includes the impact on women who were deceived into sexual relationships, the families of the officers, surviving relatives of the deceased children whose identities were used and, more broadly, the purpose of gathering intelligence on ‘justice’ campaigners.
Miscarriages of justice
As part of its Terms of Reference, the UCPI also seeks to identify suspected miscarriages of justice that might have occurred due to an undercover policing operation, or as a result of an operation not being disclosed when it should have been. Earlier this month, the UCPI reported that it had referred a second set of suspected miscarriages of justice, identified through its investigations, to a dedicated panel set up by the Home Office.
This report is the first of many to come from the long-running inquiry. It shines a spotlight on the systemic failures on part of the MPS and Home Office which enabled the SDS to continue operating for as long as it did and, as the Chair firmly concludes, the end did not justify the means. The years of missed opportunities to disband the SDS meant that many individuals suffered a severe intrusion of their privacy and such intrusion required cogent justification before it should have been contemplated as a police tactic.
Whilst the findings deal with historic undercover policing, the public may well ask how it can be sure that these unjustified surveillance tactics are not still in operation today, particularly given the accessibility of digital media and personal data? Perhaps some reassurance can be gained from those who are holding such organisations to account. The Inquiry has already insisted that the MPS must reveal whether it is currently deploying the same tactics today and the Chair wants answers. Whether he will get them, remains to be seen…
Shona has a particular interest in Inquests & Inquiries. She is currently assisting HM Senior Coroner with a number of complex inquests at London Inner South Coroner’s Court and is keen to develop her experience across both areas of practice.
 UK Parliament (June 2023) Undercover Policing Inquiry: Tranche 1 Interim Report. Available at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2023-06-29/debates/23062920000013/UndercoverPolicingInquiryTranche1InterimReport (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 UK Government (July 2015) Home Secretary announces terms of reference for undercover policing inquiry. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/home-secretary-announces-terms-of-reference-for-undercover-policing-inquiry (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 Undercover Policing Inquiry, About the Inquiry. Available at: https://www.ucpi.org.uk/about-the-inquiry/#background (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 Undercover Policing Inquiry, Core Participants. Available at: https://www.ucpi.org.uk/who-is-involved/#core-participants (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 Undercover Policing Inquiry (June 2023), Undercover Policing Inquiry Tranche 1 Interim Report: Tranche 1: Special Demonstration Squad officers and managers and those affected by deployments (1968-1982), Paragraph 8, page 91. Available at: https://www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Undercover-Policing-Inquiry-Tranche-1-Interim-Report.pdf (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 Ibid, paragraph 20, page 21.
 Ibid, paragraph 26, page 95.
 Ibid, Foreword.
 Undercover Policing Inquiry (July 2023), Undercover Policing Inquiry refers second set of suspected miscarriages of justice. Available at: https://www.ucpi.org.uk/2023/07/07/undercover-policing-inquiry-refers-second-set-of-suspected-miscarriages-of-justice/ (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 Undercover Policing Inquiry (June 2023), Undercover Policing Inquiry Tranche 1 Interim Report: Tranche 1: Special Demonstration Squad officers and managers and those affected by deployments (1968-1982), Paragraph 21, page 94. Available at: https://www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Undercover-Policing-Inquiry-Tranche-1-Interim-Report.pdf (Accessed: 15 July 2023).
 The Guardian (November 2020), Met police told to reveal if spies still used in political groups. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/nov/03/met-police-told-to-reveal-if-spies-still-used-in-political-groups (Accessed: 15 July 2023).