CopsLast night, a packed and at times emotional meeting at Unite’s headquarters in London launched a new campaign calling for a public inquiry into undercover police surveillance against political activism.

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) brings together campaigners, trade unionists and lawyers targeted by undercover police operations and speakers yesterday reflected the range of police surveillance targets, including blacklisted construction workers, anti-racist campaigners, environmental activists and, as emerged last year, the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The most powerful testimony of the evening was given by Helen Steel, one of a group of women who have jointly launched legal action against the Metropolitan police after discovering they had unknowingly had long-term relationships with men who were secretly undercover officers. Helen, a London Greenpeace activist and one of the two defendants in the infamous McLibel trial, was targeted in 1990 by undercover officer John Dines, who she knew as John Barker. She described how, when their relationship broke down and Dines suddenly disappeared (the standard exit tactic for officers from the Special Demonstration Squad that targeted activists), she spent many years trying to track him down, worried about about what had happened to him and even whether he was still alive. It was only a chance visit to the Public Records Office that led to the discovery that Dines had stolen the identity of a child who had died aged 8 years.

Helen called her experiences and those of other women who were targeted “a process of manipulation” that had caused “serious psychological harm… based on the deliberate acts of the state”. Whilst there has been considerable focus, since the extent of undercover surveillance was made public, on the ethics of undercover officers having sexual relationships with their targets, she said that in many ways “the emotional intimacy was far more damaging”, as it was used to spy on her and her friends and to find ways to deliberately “undermine political movements I was involved with and, ultimately, seek to prevent change.” To this day, the police continue to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any individual undercover officer, but, as Helen’s lawyer Harriet Wistrich explained, officers from Operation Herne (an internal police investigation led by Derbyshire Chief Constable Mick Creedon) still expect the women to provide the most detailed personal information “on trust”. Unsurprisingly, all have refused to cooperate.

“Do we deserve a public inquiry?” asked Dave Smith, who spoke on behalf of the Blacklist Support Group. “Celebrities got a public inquiry over the tittle tattle on their mobile phones. Of course we deserve a public inquiry!” Dave was one of many trade unionists targeted by the Consulting Association, a private body funded by the construction industry that had close links with Special Branch officers from around the country. Many were blacklisted and prevented from working because of raising concerns about health & safety as shop stewards or because of anti-racist activity, particularly opposition to the far-right.

Doreen Lawrence was unable to attend the launch but her lawyer, Imran Khan, conveyed her complete endorsement of the campaign for an independent public inquiry covering every aspect of undercover police surveillance, not just the targeting of her family. Imran said there have already been up to sixteen secret internal reviews by police or prosecutors and that it is probable that both of the latest, Operation Herne and an examination by Mark Ellison QC into evidence of potential police corruption during the original investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s death, would prove inconclusive. Imran therefore argued that the Home Secretary is more likely to concede to some kind of public inquiry or face legal action, but the scope and independence of any inquiry will depend upon how much pressure campaigners can place on the government in the coming months.

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance is calling for individuals and organisations to affiliate, to donate and to publicise its call for a public inquiry. To sign up, email or visit their website.

Police Spies Out of Lives is a support group for the eight women taking legal action against the Metropolitan Police. They are seeking support and donations to help cover legal and counselling costs – see the group’s website for further details.