Why the Lawrence family spying allegations matter


Peter Francis, who says he says he posed as an anti-racism campaigner, served in the Met's now-disbanded Special Demonstration Squad

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Peter Francis's revelations that he was allegedly ordered to spy on the family of Stephen Lawrence are staggering.

The allegation on the Guardian's website that officers at the Metropolitan Police wanted to smear Doreen and Neville Lawrence raises fresh questions about the appallingly botched original investigation.

But it also echoes uncomfortable allegations about the culture of major police forces, the control of undercover operations - and the oversight of both during that era.

The Met's original failings in the Lawrence case are set out in shocking detail in the Macpherson Inquiry.

The inquiry damned the Met as incapable of fulfilling its most basic duties because it was corrupted by institutional racism. Officer after officer, backed up by unquestioned assumptions, failed the Lawrence family because they happened to be black.

Time was wasted investigating the victim. Some officers stereotyped Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks as just another black teenager with a chip on his shoulder. The list goes on.

How high?

Cynical critics have long whispered that the Lawrence family imagined a great deal of the Met's failings. But it looks like they weren't paranoid after all: someone really was out to get them.

The question is who?

Peter Francis says he was part of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). This was a Scotland Yard unit, not an amateurish operation run from a local police station.

So who authorised his mission to gather "dirt" on the Lawrences and their supporters - and who else knew about it? Lord Condon, London's police chief at the time of the Stephen Lawrence investigation, has denied knowledge of any smear campaign

Who exactly was placed under surveillance? What kind of surveillance and why? Did the police try to recruit people to help dig dirt? Did the operation amount to Peter Francis alone or were there others?

If the operation was officially sanctioned, how high up did Francis's reports go?

Lawrence family barrister Matthew Ryder: "The family are shocked"

Matthew Ryder QC, who has represented the Lawrence family, has said the claims are so serious that they cannot be dealt with through an internal police review - there has to be public disclosure.

But it's far from clear how open the current inquiry into the SDS will be.

Scotland Yard set up the SDS after the political fall out of anti-Vietnam War clashes outside the US Embassy in London in 1968.

The SDS was told to gather intelligence about public order problems and, in the words of HM's Inspectorate of Constabulary, "to build knowledge of extremist organisations and individuals".

Its first targets were campaigners linked to anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. It looked at groups linked to the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. It later began infiltrating animal rights campaigns and the environmental protest movement. Officers went in deep - for years at a time.

The politically sensitive nature of its work is clear from the fact that government directly funded its activities - and ministers received an annual update on its activity until 1989. The unit was eventually closed down in 2008.

There are a number of serious allegations which have been made against the SDS.

David Morris and Helen Steel, defendants in the McLibel case One senior undercover officer, Bob Lambert, is alleged to have co-authored the controversial "McLibel" leaflet

The first is that officers adopted the names of dead babies, a spycraft technique best described in Frederick Forsyth's blockbuster, The Day of the Jackal.

The second is that some of these officers then had sexual relationships with women who, to all intents and purposes, were used to provide additional cover. One relationship led to a child.

The most recent allegation is that one of the senior undercover officers, Bob Lambert, co-authored the controversial "McLibel" leaflet. An MP separately used parliamentary privilege to allege that the former officer-turned-academic was involved in a shop firebombing as part of his animal rights cover, something he has denied.

Operation Herne, the internal police investigation into the SDS, began in October 2011, but no-one has so far been arrested and accused of wrongdoing.

Derbyshire Police's chief constable Mick Creedon has taken over the investigation from the Met - and he is facing pressure from MPs to get to the bottom of what was going on. His report on the baby names affair is expected soon.

Home Office minister Damian Green has recently told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that there is a line that must not be crossed by undercover officers - and that police officers should face criminal charges if they broke the law.

More broadly, ministers believe that the modern legislation that now covers covert police work (known as "Ripa") makes that line much clearer than it was 20 years ago.

'Force within a force'

As for the Met itself, its initial statement on the latest allegations was curious. It confessed concern and concluded: "At some point it will fall upon this generation of police leaders to account for the activities of our predecessors, but for the moment we must focus on getting to the truth."

This line has echoes of unrelated alleged wrongdoing levelled against other British police forces.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, albeit in a completely different security context, the then Royal Ulster Constabulary was accused of harbouring "a force within a force" that wasn't accountable to anybody. Some of its own officers accused their colleagues in Special Branch of having lost their way and forgetting who they were there to serve.

In an entirely different situation, there are echoes of the treatment of the Lawrences in the allegation that some South Yorkshire officers smeared the victims of the Hillsborough disaster to cover up their catastrophic mistakes.

The common factors between these three unrelated controversies is that they all happened in an era when independent inspection of the police was less than ideal - and oversight of covert work somewhat random.

They all raise serious questions about whether the officers involved were corrupt, working against the public good.

Jack Straw, the home secretary who ordered the Macpherson report, has demanded to know what was withheld from that public inquiry because the police would have been under a duty to disclose everything relevant.

So who took that decision? Why - and who else knew?

Dominic Casciani Article written by Dominic Casciani Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    You know what's really strange these days, someone makes an allegation and everyone immediately assumes it's true. Lawrence's murder happened many years ago killers caught (eventually) and jailed. Why is all this being dragged up again. Loony liberals have a go at the met reasons. Stephen Lawrence's murder was a vicious unprovoked crime. Is it more important than other murders?

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Could I suggest that people don't just walk over to a teenager (Lawrence) standing at a bus stop and murder him! Most murderers and their victims are known to each other!

    There is something about this never ending Stephen Lawrence thing that is being unstated and it probably begins with the letter "d"!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    cooperman. You weren't there man. I didn't realise we had went all American.So you worked in homicide.I thought our world admired pokice force had murder squads. When i say murder squads I don't mean the police go out killing people or maybe I do.They seem to kill a lot of people in their custody.Remember that cracker when they pulled the journalist from the car and shot him three times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    what a strange world we live in.Who could possibly post comments on this site undermining the enormity of today's revelations that we have an organisation that is totally out of control. An organisation that puts it's own agenda before the duty it is entrusted to carry out. It is supposed to uphold the law.Not break it. The rule of law only works if it applies to all. equally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Isn't it time that all these odd Stephen Lawrence stories, that seem to appear just as some author has a book to release are finally put to bed and to allow the family to finish their grieving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    A word missing from my earlier comment.

    I find the argument that only suspicious individuals data will be spied on using Google etc . FEEBLE

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The BBC censors are removing comments on this subject that don't fit the agenda set by the race industry who continue trying to make a circus out of the Stephen Lawrence murder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Simon BAKER The facts as you call them are all to frequently under public scrutiny, generally for covering their own backsides rather that upholding the law. And these are facts, pick up and quality newspaper on almost a daily basis thet are caught out. You shouting them down does not make them false.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Francis has been co-operating with the Guardian as a confidential source since 2011, using his undercover alias Pete Black.

    Have Rob Evans and Paul Lewis authors of Undercover and Guardian journalists been holding onto this for two years to get their book ready or did Mr Francis only just remember this particular undercover exploit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    36.Simon BAKER

    that list you disparage is not about trivial investigations, they were momentous headline news & legal events in British history. It was certainly significant for Brits who witnessed the initial conviction & the subsequent overturn.

    You obviously deny those events since I'm the one on a trip, making assumptions & being bias by mentioning them.

    You'd fit in well with the police.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The full details of Francis's deployment are charted in Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, which will be published on Tuesday

  • Comment number 40.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I find the argument that only suspicious individuals data will be spied on using Google etc. whilst our police force currently uses undercover actions towards innocent victims and organisations, not to mention selling stories to tabloid papers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    When oh when will the majority of people realise that the British police have pulled the wool over their eyes by creating the impression that somehow they're 'better' than every other police force in the world when the reality as reported every day is that they're just as corrupt, criminal and crooked as anybody who thinks their uniform is a licence to abuse. Wake up Britain, wake up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.


    your experience, knowledge & confidence were precisely the qualities expounded by police against suspects in all previous miscarriage of justice, never mind evidence were falsified or consealed revealed later.

    so police victims, journalists or anyone outside the police fraternity are ignorant keyboard warriors in an unreal world.

    No kickbacks or cover ups ever in UK police then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    25. chinkinthearmour
    So, you consider the investigations you list, amounts to 'history, facts, figures & ground realities' of 'severity, injustice for victims from all sides, police corruption & their immunity from punishment'! Hmm, I didn't see that in your original post. I do see in some instances, assumption, bias, and prejudice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    An inquiry eh? That will mean a lot of very worried high ranking officers then.

    Remind me what they said in the Leveson enquiry. Ah yes thats it, a little bit of collective amnesia sprinkled with Not me gov.

    Sure they will be as worried as bankers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    31 IanS

    Thanks for making it abundantly clear to everyone what your intelligence level is with your well-reasoned and carefully thought-out debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I spent 30 years in the Met Police and the last 5 as a detective on a homicide squad. I cannot believe the anti police comments being made on this forum by the aptly named 'Keyboard warriors'. You all live in another world completely divorced from the reality on the ground. I know, I have investigated it all, black white pink with yellow stripes, war crimes and genocide since I have left, I know..

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    For the Metropolitan Police to attempt to smear Doreen and Neville Lawrence, no surprise there, however I am surprised that it took this long for someone to actually confirm what the Met was really up to.


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