Undercover policing inquiry: Keir Starmer urged to give evidence

Keir Starmer first built his reputation defending progressive activists and trade unionists in the 1980s and 90s when he worked as a barrister
Keir Starmer first built his reputation defending progressive activists and trade unionists in the 1980s and 90s, when he worked as a barrister.

Campaigners are asking whether Labour leader was involved in cover-up when he was in charge of the CPS

A group of environmental campaigners want Keir Starmer to give evidence to the public inquiry into undercover policing amid questions over whether he was involved in a cover-up while he was director of public prosecutions for England and Wales.

They are demanding to know if the Labour leader helped to conceal how the actions of undercover officers caused the wrongful prosecutions of themselves and other campaigners.

Eighteen activists have issued a statement asking Starmer and others to give evidence to the public inquiry to “get to the truth about non-disclosure, prosecutions and miscarriages of justice that involved undercover police officers”.

The inquiry is examining how police had sent at least 139 undercover officers to spy on more than 1,000 political groups since the inception of a secret operation in 1968.

The Labour leader did not comment, but party sources said Starmer has not been called to give evidence so far. It is understood that he considers his response to the case involving the activists to be widely documented and a matter of public record.

But the demand by the environmental campaigners could challenge Starmer’s political credentials as a radical lawyer. Before he became an MP, Starmer first built his reputation defending progressive activists and trade unionists in the 1980s and 90s, when he worked as a barrister.

The lawyer turned politician used this past when he ran to become Labour leader last year. At the launch of his campaign, he promoted a video that described how he had defended striking miners, environmental campaigners and peace protesters in myriad cases.

In the video, he said: “I’ve spent my life fighting for justice, standing up for the powerless and against the powerful.”

Starmer’s role in the undercover policing scandal dates back to an episode where 20 activists were unjustly convicted of plotting in 2009 to occupy the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station.

Prosecutors were forced to abandon the prosecutions of another six activists in January 2011 after it was revealed that the campaigners had been infiltrated by an undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, who spied on leftwing activists for seven years.

The initial convictions were also overturned by judges who ruled that crucial evidence gathered by Kennedy had been unfairly concealed from their original trial.

Starmer then commissioned a retired judge to conduct an inquiry, agreeing, his allies said, its remit with the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The judge, Sir Christopher Rose, primarily blamed a junior, regional prosecutor, while also concluding that other prosecutors and police were responsible for “failures over many months”.

Rose’s report was silent on the exact role played by Starmer during the miscarriage, making no reference to whether, for example, the chief prosecutor knew about Kennedy and the withholding of evidence, or took part in decisions about abandoning what was a major prosecution.

The power station case is a key part of the undercover policing scandal as it triggered a chain of events that exposed the long-running infiltration of political groups by undercover officers. Starmer headed the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in England and Wales between 2008 and 2013.

Political arguments about the role played by undercover police resurfaced during the autumn when Labour split over the handling of the covert human intelligence sources (Chis) bill, regulating the future conduct of secret operatives and whether they are allowed to commit crimes to obtain information.

Starmer led Labour’s frontbench into abstaining on the bill during its passage through the Commons, while the party’s left led by Jeremy Corbyn voted against. Insiders say Starmer was at the heart of decision-making on the bill, arguing existing practices needed to be put into law, while calling for further safeguards. The bill is expected to become law this month.

The campaigners also list a series of unanswered questions, including whether Starmer helped bury evidence of other miscarriages of justice caused by undercover officers.

In June 2011, Starmer commissioned Rose to examine only the case of the activists who planned to occupy the Ratcliffe power station.

But by the time Rose’s report was published in December 2011, there was growing evidence that the concealment of key evidence in trials of campaigners went beyond the case of the Ratcliffe activists, and could have affected a number of other trials.

Rose concluded that the Ratcliffe case was a one-off. Starmer accepted Rose’s conclusion and said there was no need therefore to examine other prosecutions to see if other activists had been wrongly convicted.

Subsequent investigations by campaigners and the media revealed much more widespread wrongdoing by the state, suggesting that many more activists over a number of years had been wrongly convicted.

In 2014, Mark Ellison, a barrister commissioned by the then home secretary, Theresa May, reported that undercover officers who infiltrated political groups routinely concealed their activities in criminal trials.

May commissioned the judge-led public inquiry to examine the activities of undercover officers since 1968. Led by retired judge Sir John Mitting, it started taking public evidence in November and is scheduled to last several years.

source: Rob Evans