The public inquiry into the actions of police spies over several decades got underway on Monday and is expected to last for three years.
Members of trade unions were blacklisted from work after the groups were infiltrated by police, and family justice campaigns, including that for murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, were also spied upon.
The inquiry will examine the monitoring of more than a thousand groups stretching back to 1968.
It will hear from women who were deceived into relationships with undercover officers including Mark Kennedy, who targeted environmental movements.
In his opening statement delivered via a live video stream on Monday, counsel to the inquiry David Barr QC set out the background to the investigation and why it was established in 2015.
He said: ‘This inquiry has been set up as a result of profound and wide-ranging concerns arising from the activities of two undercover police units.
‘First, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which existed between 1968 and 2008, second, the undercover element of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which existed between 1999 and 2010.
‘It has emerged that for decades undercover police officers infiltrated a significant number of political and other activist groups, in deployments which typically lasted for years.
‘The information reported by these undercover police officers was extensive. It covered the activities of the groups in question, and their members. It also extended to the groups and individuals with whom they came into contact, including elected representatives.
‘Reporting covered not only the political or campaigning activities of those concerned but other aspects of their personal lives.
‘Groups mainly on the far left but also the far right of the political spectrum were infiltrated, as well as groups campaigning for social, environmental or other change.’
Then-home secretary Theresa May set up the inquiry in 2015 after condemnation of the tactics used by the two secret units.
‘The inquiry will be seeking out the truth,’ Barr said. ‘Publicly wherever that is possible, so that the full facts become known and appropriate recommendations can be made for the future conduct of undercover policing.’
Methods employed by the police spies included using the names of dead children as cover identities without their families’ consent.
A number of women, including at least one who had a child with an undercover officer, were deceived into sexual relationships.
Barr said: ‘We will be receiving evidence that a number of the undercover officers who served with the SDS and the NPOIU engaged in sexual activity in their cover identities.
‘Several formed long-term sexual relationships; in some cases the officer did eventually reveal their cover identity, in other cases they did not do so.
‘At least one fathered a child with a woman who did not know that her partner was an undercover police officer. In many cases, deception has had devastating consequences.”
Long-term deception also took its toll on the officers, Barr said.
‘The impact of conducting long-term undercover operations of the sort conducted by the SDS and the NPOIU on the mental health of some undercover officers appears to have been considerable.
‘In some cases, particularly those in which the undercover officer has been involved in a long-term deceitful sexual relationship, the officer’s family has also suffered.’
There were also miscarriages of justice when undercover officers failed to reveal their true identities in criminal court proceedings, the inquiry was told.
The mammoth investigation is being heard in tranches by date.
The hearings planned for November will include opening statements by core participants, followed by evidence on the activities of the SDS between 1968 and 1972.
Campaigners who were spied on by undercover police officers called for an ‘end to political policing’ in Britain as the inquiry started.
Other groups infiltrated by the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit include anti-war organisations, trade unionists and anti-racism groups.
A previous probe found that undercover officers had also spied on the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence as they campaigned for justice.
The inquiry was announced in 2015, amid public outrage over accusations that officers took fake identities from dead children, but was delayed by anonymity battles and legal arguments.
Lydia Dagostino, a lawyer representing several core participants, hailed the start as a ‘momentous occasion’.
‘We’re about to open the door and get an eye on 50 years of political and secret policing,’ she told a press conference on Friday.
‘And it is not out of date, the government is about to pass a law in parliament allowing undercover officers to commit crimes. This is not just about 50 years ago, it is something happening now.’
Campaigners want the inquiry to make public the full list of groups that were targeted, as well as the cover names and photos of all police officers involved, to enable affected people to know they were involved in operations.
They are also demanding the exposure of potential miscarriages of justice, where protesters were allegedly convicted of crimes aided or incited by undercover police officers.
People who were spied on, including the Labour PM Diane Abbott, are demanding access to files that were compiled about them.
They are also seeking information on whether senior politicians had approved operations and how involved the security services became.
The inquiry will examine how undercover operations were planned, supervised and regulated, as well as what contribution they made to tackling crime and the effect on individuals involved.
A woman known as Lisa, who was in a relationship with Kennedy for six years, described her despair when she discovered the man she was planning a future with was a ‘fictional character’.
‘He was put in my life deliberately to deceive me,’ she said.
‘At the time I felt so alone, I thought this kind of thing couldn’t possibly be happening to other people. But over 30 women have found they were also in relationships with people who didn’t exist.’
Lisa, who later sued the Metropolitan Police alongside other affected women, said the discovery had affected her ability to trust people and form relationships.
‘It’s turned my life completely upside down,’ she added. ‘It has left me questioning who I am and whether my life has turned out in a way of my design, or whether it was controlled by people whose faces I will never see.’
Zoe Young, a freelance journalist who was spied on while involved with environmental campaigns and protests against the Iraq War, described the units involved as a ‘secret political police force’.
She said: ‘If there had not been this particular approach, might we not have the government we have now, might we have tackled climate change, might we not have invaded Iraq? We don’t know.’
The vast majority of groups and individuals known to have been targeted were politically left-wing, including politicians.
Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP who was expelled for his support for the Militant tendency, said: ‘We don’t want a damage limitation exercise, we want the actual ending of this systemic abuse that has gone on for the best part of half a century.
‘We want transparency, want openness, want everyone to know what went wrong.’
The participants said they do not believe the intrusion they suffered was the result of ‘rogue officers’, but had been part of a wider strategy.
Kate Wilson spent two years in a relationship with an officer who had a parallel real life elsewhere.
Campaigners have identified at least 30 women who were in relationships with officers.
Another officer, Bob Lambert, fathered a child with his partner, an animal rights campaigner, before disappearing from her life when his deployment ended. She has since received £425,000 in damages from Scotland Yard.
Soon, another former officer, Peter Francis, revealed himself. Francis had not been in any relationships – but he’d been deployed against justice campaigns.
He revealed that the Metropolitan Police had gathered intelligence on the family of Stephen Lawrence who, at the time, were campaigning for redress for the botched investigation into the racist murder.
Some officers appear to have gathered intelligence on Labour MPs including Peter Hain, once a leader of the UK’s anti-apartheid movement, and Jack Straw, who went on to become the home secretary.
Many officers deployed by the SDS created their undercover personas after being instructed to research records of real children who had died young – and then ‘resurrect’ that identity for their own use.
There are 200 ‘core participants’ in the inquiry. They include:
- Women who had relationships;
- Justice campaigns – including families of victims of racist murders;
- Political activists in left-wing groups and anti-capitalist movements;
- Labour politicians;
- Environmental protesters and organisations;
- Animal rights activists;
- Trade unionists who were blacklisted from taking work, based on their political views.
It’s been suggested that the undercover units gathered information on up to 1,000 different groups over 40 years – there are millions of pages in the undercover archives.
Some 69 fake names used by officers have been published – but many more remain unknown.
Francis, the former officer who accused his bosses of running an operation against the Lawrence family, also wants recognition for the mental scarring that many officers live with – and transparency about who at the top of policing knew what was happening.
In 2015 the Metropolitan Police made an ‘unreserved apology’ to women whom it admitted had been deceived into relationships that should never had happened – and paid out compensation.
An enormous team of lawyers has spent five years working out how it can actually hear evidence because of the complicated and often competing issues relating to secrecy.
To date, it has cost almost £30m just to get to the starting point of hearing evidence.
After the November 2020 opening, it will run for at least three years as it works its way chronologically through the operations that took place.