20 Days Remaining

Friday 17th
posted by Morning Star in Features

As details of the public inquiry into police surveillance are released, DAVE SMITH and PHIL CHAMBERLAIN wonder whether trade unionists and blacklisted victims can ever trust the official verdict

WHEN Home Secretary Teresa May announced yesterday the scope of the public inquiry into undercover policing, there may have been a hollow laugh from many. That’s because, despite intensive lobbying, spying on trade unions and collusion in blacklisting are not mentioned anywhere in her ministerial statement. That does not mean that this is a lost opportunity — yet. But we will not tolerate another Establishment whitewash.

May’s statement lays out the scope of the inquiry to be led by the High Court judge and Privy Council member Lord Justice Pitchford. Given the mountains of prima-facie evidence of undercover police targeting union activists and exchanging information with big business, the glaring omissions seem extraordinary.

The statement issued by the Home Secretary says that the inquiry will investigate police spying operations in England and Wales from 1968 and the extent to which they targeted “individuals and groups such as political and social justice campaigns.” The inquiry will also investigate the “motivation for and the scope of undercover policing operations in practice and their effects on individuals in particular and the public in general.”

This wording appears to leave the door open for surveillance of trade unions and links with corporate spying to be part of the inquiry. Blacklisted workers and unions will be vigorously pushing its explicit inclusion when Pitchford produces his more detailed proposals later in the year.

May’s terms of reference also direct the inquiry to consider the “state of awareness of undercover policing in HM government” and the adequacy of “oversight and governance.” This won’t get any criticism from this side of the fence.

However, May’s statement also talks about the inquiry investigating the “contribution of undercover policing towards the prevention of crime.” This has led campaigners to question whether Pitchford could become a PR exercise for the police.

The Home Secretary’s comments accompanying the statement about “corrupt” individuals only reinforces the nagging doubts. Covert political policing is not about a “few bad apples:” the entire orchard is diseased.

Many in the movement may remain sceptical about whether Pitchford or any investigation by the British Establishment will expose the full extent of state spying on trade unions. But even to get to this point has been a struggle. The Pitchford inquiry was not granted out of the generosity of May’s heart. Campaigners had to fight for it over many years.

Through a combination of grassroots campaigning and investigative journalism, it is now known that undercover police officers such as Mark Jenner and Peter Francis spied on trade union members in construction and other sectors. Both were part of the Special Demonstration Squad, a unit within Special Branch where police officers went undercover not for the occasional demonstration but for years on end.

Francis, the undercover cop who turned whistleblower to expose the scandal, has publicly admitted spying on Ucatt, FBU, CWU, NUT and Unison members. He released a statement admitting this at the parliamentary launch of Blacklisted, the book which details the secret vetting of construction industry workers and environmental activists. However Francis was unable to appear in person, even in the House of Commons, because he feared prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.

It is vital that Francis is able to give evidence in full to the Pitchford inquiry without fear of prosecution, just as the child sexual abuse inquiry has secured a guarantee from the Attorney General that whistleblowers will be granted immunity from prosecution. The Attorney General needs to give such an assurance to the Pitchford inquiry.

The inquiry must investigate the activities of officers such as Mark Jenner. Under his alias Mark Cassidy, the officer was well known on construction picket lines in London. The police spy was a paid-up member of the construction union Ucatt between 1996-8, infiltrating the union to spy on activists. He chaired meetings for one rank and file campaign.

One of those he spied on was Steve Hedley, currently the RMT assistant general secretary. Hedley said: “The police and big business have spied on me and other union activists for decades for nothing more than standing up for rights of our fellow workers.

“The undercover cop Mark Jenner targeted me for a number of years in the late 1990s and even stayed at my mum’s house. The sooner this anti-democratic scandal at the heart of the British state is exposed, the better.” 

Other “enemies of the state” were targeted by undercover cops such as John Dines, Bob Lambert, Marco Jacobs and Mark Kennedy. Their victims include environmental and anti-racism activists. Many of those subject to state surveillance also had files held by the notorious Consulting Association (CA) blacklist, maintained on behalf of some of the country’s biggest construction firms. Francis says he opened a Special Branch file on one Liverpool bricklayer. That activist has a CA file which says he is “under constant watch officially.”

In 2013 the Blacklist Support Group complained to the IPCC about the role of the police spying on blacklisted trade union activists in the building industry. In an amazingly frank admission, the usually spineless police watchdog admitted that even initial investigations had found that “every Special Branch in the country routinely provides information about prospective employees.”

Documents leaked to John McDonnell MP have now shown that DCI Gordon Mills from another shady police surveillance body, the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU), even attended TCA meetings. A “two-way exchange of information”’ was agreed between TCA and NETCU after the senior officer gave a PowerPoint presentation to the illegal blacklisting body. 

A central question Pitchford needs to answer is why police intelligence was provided to big business. In one sense the answer is obvious: in the struggle between labour and capital, the state is not neutral. But public investigation of why the state spies on unions and what political oversight existed, from Labour as well as Conservative home secretaries, could explode some myths about capitalist liberal democracy.

If the police worked hand in hand with corporate spying organisations, to what extent has the privatisation that has swept across the rest of the public sector leached into the state spying operations? Private security contractors are a new name for mercenaries employed at arm’s length to carry out tasks previously undertaken by the military.

Have the myriad private surveillance companies, many of which were set up by ex-police or security service personnel, been given publicly funded contracts to carry out surveillance previously undertaken by the state? Where is the transparency? Are they even subject to legislative oversight? Where is the political accountability? 

One obvious omission from May’s statement is any mention of the role of the security services. The excuse of national security will be used as a cloak for these undemocratic antics. The actions of Special Branch, the footsoldiers for MI5, cannot be the end of Pitchford’s investigation if it is to have any meaning.

Our hopes are not high on this. The government continues to block the release of official papers relating to the prosecution of pickets at Shrewsbury in 1972. These secret documents would expose the role of undercover state agents in this notorious miscarriage of justice. Grunwick, the miners’ strike, Wapping and blacklisting all need to addressed by Pitchford.

Pitchford may not get the full story of state surveillance on trade unions, but an opportunity to get a glimpse behind the curtain comes only once in a generation. After decades of campaigning, it is our chance to put the secret state machinery on the back foot.

  • Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain are co-authors of Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business And Union Activists, available from online bookshop