Blacklisting and Undercover Policing

Conrad Landin

In March, Theresa May announced that Christopher Pitchford, a serving lord justice of appeal, would lead an inquiry into undercover policing. It followed a series of revelations about members of the Met’s disbanded Special Demonstration Squad, who infiltrated protest groups and in some cases had long-term sexual relationships with their targets.

Just after Pitchford was appointed, a former SDS officer revealed he had spied on members of four trade unions; another officer posed as a joiner to infiltrate the builders’ union Ucatt. The most prominent trade unionist known to have been targeted by undercover police is Matt Wrack, the leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union.

Earlier this month, the first full session of the Pitchford inquiry was dedicated to determining who would and wouldn’t be a ‘core participant’ (in accordance with the Inquiry Rules 2006). Pitchford said he had doubts about making one applicant, a woman referred to as CMR, a core participant, because her ‘story relates to surveillance but not covert surveillance by an undercover officer’. CMR’s barrister, Jesse Nicholls, gave a ‘very brief’ (and vague) summary of ‘the facts’:

CMR was invited on to the board of directors of a major company. As a result of that, her half brother appears to have procured surveillance by Special Branch through a bribe to a member of the Irish police who used his connection in that role to procure that surveillance, and the reason for that surveillance was in order to discredit CMR in relation to business matters.

Nicholls suggested that Pitchford’s anxiety misunderstood the evidence put before the inquiry, namely a police report of a ‘political justice campaign meeting’ in the UK in 2006. The report, passed on to CMR’s half brother, included her arrival and departure times and ‘the matters that CMR is raising at that meeting’. A uniformed officer couldn’t have got into the meeting, Nicholls said, so any police surveillance would have to have been covert. Nicholls also pointed out that CMR's ‘business interests and involvement were connected to the construction industry at relatively high levels’, which was relevant in the light of ‘the connection between undercover policing operations and the construction industry’.

In 2009, government inspectors raided the offices of the Consulting Association, an organisation funded by the construction industry that maintained a blacklist of more than 3000 workers: some of them had raised safety concerns on building sites; others had worked as union reps. In the words of a House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report, ‘workers were denied employment without explanation, financial hardship was caused, lives were disrupted and sometimes ruined.’ Campaigners have argued that some entries were based on information that could only have been gathered by undercover policemen; the list included people who had never worked in the building trade. The companies implicated in the Consulting Association database – including Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, Skanska and Balfour Beatty – are now being sued by 700 blacklisted workers. In a hearing on 8 October, they admitted they had infringed workers’ rights to confidentiality, privacy and reputation.

The parliamentary committee found that officers from another covert squad, the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, went to meetings and that 'there was a dialogue about exchanging information' with the Consulting Association. But CMR’s case could break new ground, as it alleges not only that police officers performed surveillance services for a fee, but also that they fed back intelligence to the purchaser.

That the alleged exchange took place on foreign soil and involved a foreign police force could be a stumbling block. Setting out the inquiry’s terms of reference in July, Pitchford said it would ‘not examine undercover or covert operations conducted by any body other than an English or Welsh police force’. The Blacklist Support Group, which along with Ucatt has been given core participant status, has raised concerns that it will be difficult for Pitchford to deliver truth and justice within his stated remit, given that so many allegations refer to dealings between the police and private companies. The group’s secretary, Dave Smith, told me he was worried that modern-day police spying might itself fall outside the remit. ‘A lot of the police units implicated in allegations are now dissolved. Our big concern is: are they sub-contracting it out? Have we now got private sector spies? If this is the case, there’s no public oversight, there’s no parliamentary oversight.’