In the decade since the Spycops scandal came to light, many of the targets of undercover police officers are still searching for answers. From spying on the justice campaign for Stephen Lawrence, to fathering children with their subjects; the details that have been disclosed about the actions of undercover police officers in the UK are as overwhelming in scale as they are horrifying.
In the world of parliamentary reporting however, the “Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill” (aka the Spycops Bill) only became a story in its own right when the Labour leadership announced they planned to abstain on it. In the months since it’s largely been left behind as simply a small part of the Westminster drama that characterised the first year of Keir Starmer’s leadership.
Largely untouched by reports during the passage of the Spycops bill and even less talked about now, though, is the fact that Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions at the time the Spycops scandal came to light.
The Labour leader has been called upon by environmental activists to give evidence to the undercover policing inquiry, to answer questions regarding the complete lack of accountability for these miscarriages of justice. These calls seem to be regarded as minor issues by Starmer, who has not, as of yet, given any kind of public statement on the request. Party sources told The Guardian that “It is understood that he considers his response to the case involving the activists to be widely documented and a matter of public record.“
It’s understandable that Starmer would be reluctant to address this issue head on. His campaign to become leader was launched with a video which played heavily on his reputation as a radical human rights lawyer, citing his work for McLibel defendants, striking workers and poll tax protestors. His refusal to answer questions on the spycops scandal, however, paint his willingness to use his activist lawyer credentials for political advantage in a much more unflattering light.
There are some, though not all, questions that Starmer could answer that would make the processes clearer. One is to do with the remit of the Rose report, considered extremely narrow at time and directly commissioned by Starmer in summer 2011. It only considered the case of the environmental activists who planned to occupy Ratcliffe power station, as well as the role played by undercover police officer Mark Kennedy in that case. The inquiry had no power to look at any of the other cases involving undercover officers. By the time of the report’s release in December later that year, it was already clear that problems went a lot deeper than just the Ratcliffe power station case.
The other question is to do with the report’s conclusion that there was no systematic failure at the CPS. This has since been reasonably shown to be wrong. One of the reasons the Rose report is accused by the activists targeted by undercover police officers of being too weak is because of its contentious conclusions, which stated that the case was a one-off issue and mostly the fault of a junior regional prosecutor.
Starmer seemingly accepted Rose’s judgement at face value and defended it in the media. “Whenever people raise concerns with me I will always look at those cases…”, he said in interview on Channel 4 News, when asked about looking at other prosecutions. “I think it would be a better use of our time and resources to look when an issue is raised rather than look back at everything when Sir Christopher Rose has said there’s no systemic problem.“
It was certainly a curious inversion of responsibilities on display – one that implied that it is the role of activists to tell the CPS whether they’ve been stitched up by undercover police, despite those police by their very nature hiding their activities. This was not an one off, unprepared answer either. On Newsnight, Starmer dodged the question three times when asked whether he was certain there were no other cases where people had been convicted because of the evidence of undisclosed undercover officers.
It might be the case that Starmer as Labour leader simply does deem his response to this case a widely documented matter of public record and thus not worth revisiting. But to the activists who were targeted by undercover police, the effect on their lives from what we do know already has been immeasurable. More than a simple drama about the ins and outs of the Labour party, this is a story about accountability from the powerful, and how those wronged by the establishment are failed by institutions.