The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee met yesterday to examine the issue of undercover policing which has been brought to the attention of the government. The Guardian's Paul Lewis recently reported that the Metropolitan Police effectively stole the identities of at least 80 children in order to issue fake passports for officers seeking aliases. Although it has been stressed that this technique was mainly used in the 1980s and is not currently authorised today, Scotland Yard have said they are investigating a formal complaint regarding two police officers from the now disbanded SDS (Special Demonstration Squad), who have provided details of how they and others used the identities of dead children for use by undercover police agents. Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee heard from solicitors Harriet Wistrich, Jules Carey and Marian Ellingworth who represented clients who had been victimised by the techniques of undercover policing. In addition, the Guardian's Paul Lewis and the Metropolitan Police's Patricia Gallon gave evidence.
Jules Carey stated that his client's son, by the family name of Richardson, was born and died in 1973. She believes her child's identity was corruptly used by police officers in 2003. Asked by Keith Vaz, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, what the family's feelings were, Carey commented that his client was "upset and confused" and wants to hear a formal apology.
Asked by Mr Vaz whether the technique of undercover policing could ever be justified, Harriet Wistrich stated that although the tactics of the method could be "debated", the "utterly degrading psychological damage" caused to her client was unacceptable, especially if senior officers were aware of such practices. Mr Vaz further questioned the solicitors as to whether they believed the law should be changed due to the nature of new revelations. Marian Ellingworth stated that it was a "long and complicated" question, but that the sexual relationship used in her client's case should not have been sanctioned. Reluctant to comment, Wistrich stated this "depended on the circumstances", however, Carey emphasised that "fundamental rights cannot be overridden" and that the most intrusive form of policing could only be warranted by the Secretary of State under the "hierarchy of invasion". He believes it is vital to consider the seriousness of a situation before undercover policing could ever be used as a legitimate method of conduct.
Highlighting the potential need for undercover policing given the duty officers have in preventing criminal activity, Michael Ellis asked if the witnesses felt the technique could ever be an acceptable method of practice. Wistrich agreed that the measure could be used in self-defence, however, she stressed there was a "lack of clarity in the law and guidelines" of policing. Carey stated that in a democratic society people would not expect this type of conduct to happen and that the conduct of officers in relation to his client's case was "despicable". Collectively, Wistrich and Ellingworth stated that their clients wanted to know of the justification behind their cases, and intend to prevent such violation from ever happening again. Ellingworth elaborated that her client had emphasised they did not want anyone else to endure the "deception and distress" which themselves had suffered.
Paul Lewis stated how he came across the evidence reported in The Guardian whilst researching for a book he and a colleague were working on. Two officers in particular openly gave evidence of how they and others looked deep into the backgrounds of dead children in order to steal their identities. Having made contact with two families directly affected by undercover policing, Lewis stated that a victim's brother was "distraught and upset" and feels officers should be obliged to inform other families involved. Lewis further commented that eight out of nine officers within his research had engaged in sexual relationships with the individuals they were spying on. This was, he believed, "routine and systematic". Asked by Mr Vaz how the police could restore confidence in the public following these allegations, Lewis stated "openness and transparency" were of fundamental importance.
Patricia Gallon, the Metropolitan Police's Deputy Assistant Commissioner in command of the investigation into the controversy stated that she had been "concerned" to learn of the recent allegations. Gallon stressed that the technique was not currently happening within the police force and believes that only two units were at fault on the issue.
Operation Herne, of which Gallon is overseeing, currently includes 31 staff who are looking into the criminal allegations regarding two officers from the SDS. Gallon stated that no timescale could be put on the operation as there are an excess of 50,000 documents to consider before any conclusions can be made. Asked by Mr Vaz if the Met intend to inform the families of the children involved in the controversy, Gallon stated that no decisions will be made until the case has been conclusively analysed, given that any decisions will need to consider legal and ethical issues and will be subject to scrutiny.
Mr Vaz concluded the committee meeting by stating that he was "disappointed" Ms Gallon had not taken the opportunity to apologise to the families affected, and commented that he was "concerned" Gallon had known of one incident of undercover policing which came to her attention in September 2012, yet the issue remains unresolved. Operation Herne will continue to progress, despite its cost which has exceeded £1.25 million.
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