House of Commons Library

Undercover policing in England and Wales

Published Friday, September 13, 2019

This paper explains the regulatory framework that governs undercover policing operations in England and Wales and the oversight mechanisms intended to ensure compliance with that framework. It also looks at the 'undercover policing scandal' which followed revelations that undercover officers had in the past engaged in intimate relationships with surveillance subjects and used the identities of dead children for cover. It explains the resultant litigation and the forthcoming public Inquiry into undercover policing

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Police forces use undercover police officers in a variety of operational deployments. The use of undercover police officers is governed by Part II Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). RIPA sets out the legal framework for the use of ‘covert human intelligence sources’ by public authorities, including the police, the security and intelligence services, and customs officials.

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 created a new single oversight body for all investigatory powers, the Investigatory Powers Commissioners Office (IPCO). IPCO regularly inspects and monitors the use of undercover policing and has raised several concerns about the authorisation and oversight of undercover policing. In its first annual report (published January 2019) IPCO acknowledged that there had been “significant public disquiet” about the actions of undercover police officers.

Undercover policing scandal

In the early 2010s a series of revelations about the practices of undercover officers came to light in what was to become known as the ‘undercover policing scandal’.

The scandal raised serious concerns about the conduct of individual officers and the culture of undercover policing units. Several undercover officers were found to have had multiple intimate relationships with those they were investigating. Some of these officers fathered children in these relationships. Historic undercover policing units were found to have routinely used the identities of dead children to construct undercover personas for officers.

There have also been questions about the effectiveness of undercover policing and the appropriateness of its use against certain protest movements. A major trial against climate protestors who attempted to occupy a Ratcliff power station collapsed when evidence collected by an undercover officer was mishandled. There have been serious concerns about the use of undercover officers to monitor those associated with the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence.

Proceedings against the police

Two high profile officers, Mark Kennedy (who was the officer involved in the collapse of the Ratcliff power station trial) and Jim Boyling (an officer who had several intimate relationships with those he was tasked to investigate) have been dismissed from the police for ‘Gross Misconduct’. The police have also come to financial settlements with several women who had intimate sexual relationships with undercover officers. The police have issued a public apology to these women in which they described the intimate sexual relationships as “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong” and “a gross violation” of personal privacy.

However, attempts to bring criminal charges against individual officers have failed. The CPS have decided not to prosecute officers for sexual offences and this decision was upheld after judicial review.

One of the women who had a relationship with Mark Kennedy has bought a human rights claim against the police. The police have admitted that her human rights were violated, but the legal proceedings are ongoing.

The Mitting Inquiry

Former Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into undercover policing on 12 March 2015. This followed several other independent reviews into aspects of the undercover policing scandal. The Mitting Inquiry (so named after its current chair Sir John Mitting) has been surrounded by controversy since it was announced and has yet to begin taking oral evidence.

New guidance to undercover police officers?

As a result of the scandal the Inspectorate of Constabulary was asked to review undercover policing. The review was critical of guidance to undercover police officers and recommended that new guidance be drafted. A new draft guidance document was published in 2016. However, the formal guidance to undercover police officers remains “under development”. A date for finalising the draft guidance has not been set.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8660

Authors: Joanna Dawson; Jennifer Brown

Topics: Crime, Criminal law, Human rights, Privacy, Terrorism

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