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Spy cops were ‘utterly out of control’, inquiry reveals

Mundane details in undercover police officers' reports on activists leads to widespread criticism of questionable operation

20 November, 2020 — By Tom Foot

US helicopters in Vietnam in 1966 – undercover police spied on meetings of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square

A SOHO cartoonist and women’s rights campaigners from across Westminster were among hundreds of activists spied upon by secret detectives, the Undercover Policing Inquiry has revealed.

Dozens of reports from the Special Demonstration Squad relating to Westminster and Kensington left wing political meetings have been published for the first time.

It is part of a delayed inquiry triggered by the “spy cops” scandal that undercover detectives had fathered children with activists in groups they had been sent to infiltrate.

But the often low-level targets and mundane detail of the reports revealed now have led to widespread criticism that the questionable operation was wasting resources and had spun “utterly out of control”.

One report shows how one spy cop focused on a sub-editor who worked out of 53-55 Frith Street, Soho, on the magazine Engineering Today.

The report tells how Phil Evans was not considered to be an active campaigner but was a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and regularly supplied cartoons to left wing publications.

“He has recently completed a series of cartoons to be included in a book written by Tariq Ali, entitled Trotsky for Beginners”, the police cable said. A file was also set up on Mr Evans’s girlfriend, a primary school teacher.

Tariq Ali

The stated aim of the SDS was to stop forthcoming violent and revolutionary protests.

Tariq Ali, a prominent left wing activist and target of the SDS in the late 1960s and early 1970s, told the inquiry that the spy report on Mr Evans was “grotesque”, adding: “What use is made of this prurient intelligence?”

He said the evidence showed “how utterly out of control the British spying network was” adding that the Met’s Superintendent Conrad Dixon, who was in charge, had clearly over-egged “the threat of violence to give credence to the idea that his secret unit was valuable to the British state”.

Left wing activists had long suspected, and often joked about, the presence of police spies sitting in political meetings. But the excruciating minutiae of the SDS cables has surprised many of even the most hardened revolutionaries.

In one unusually long report from a meeting of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, officers reported how: “Most of the time was spent discussing what form the October demonstration leaflets should take. The meeting was evenly divided, one half felt that the leaflets should relate only to Vietnam, and the other half thought the wide issues, such as conditions in the UK, should be used. No decision was reached.”

In one report of the Notting Hill VSC in Essex Church Hall, Kensington, undercover officers reported a “very long rambling account of racial discrimination in this country” while another reported International Socialists plans to protest at a screening of a John Wayne war film, The Green Berets, in the old Warner Cinema, Leicester Square.

Another report said how one IS meeting “came to no conclusion and several people walked out”.

The reports do document highly controversial police tactics including recording car registration plates and names of those attending a Women’s Liberation Front campaign meeting, which included members of the Pimlico Womens’ Liberation and St Marylebone Liberation groups.

One of the former SDS officers, who used the fake name Sandra and spied on Women’s Liberation meetings between 1971 and 1973, told the inquiry her deployment failed to uncover any useful intelligence. One of the meetings she spied on was only attended by two activists. Now retired, she said: “I could have been doing much more worthwhile things with my time.”

The SDS was set up by Superintendent Dixon following historic protests against the Vietnam war in Grosvenor Square.

One undercover officer, who went by the code name Dick Epps, said in his statement: “Those riots had caused enormous damage to property and a huge number of police officers were injured but the Met had no intelligence on where and when such riots might happen.

“I believe that society has a duty to protect mainstream views and if change is to happen as those views evolve it must happen through the ballot box rather than violent revolution.”

Secret cables and reports made public – but names of officers are withheld

THE Undercover Policing Inquiry is said to be the most complicated, delayed and expensive in British history.

Former home secretary Theresa May announced in 2015 there would be an inquiry led by Sir John Mitting following an independent review that found “appalling practices in undercover policing”. Newspapers revealed that police had sexual relationships and even fathered children with left wing activists over decades of surveillance.

Dozens of cables and reports from the officers in the Special Demonstration Squad, originally set up to help stop revolutionary groups organising violent protests, have this week been made public for the first time. The reports detailing activist meetings between 1968 and 1972 were published on the inquiry website as part of a first “tranche” of evidence focusing on the campaigns against the Vietnam war.

The inquiry has been strongly criticised as a closed shop by women targeted by the “spy cops” and also parents of Stephen Lawrence, who were monitored by the Met police during their campaign for justice.

The cover-names of 51 of the 250 police witnesses have been kept secret, along with 119 real names of officers and staff.

Hearings are each day taking place at a hotel in Marble Arch.

In April the inquiry a second “tranche” of evidence will be published about special branch operations that took place between 1973-1982.

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