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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 of the 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 past actions of undercover police officers.

Concerns with past undercovering policing

In the early 2010s a series of revelations about the practices of undercover officers came to light raising serious concerns about undercover policing in England and Wales.

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 Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station collapsed when evidence collected by an undercover officer was mishandled. There have also 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 Ratcliffe power station trial) and Jim Boyling (an officer who had several intimate relationships with those he was tasked to investigate) left the police. Jim Boyling was dismissed for ‘Gross Misconduct’. Mark Kennedy had left before his involvement was exposed. 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 Undercover Policing Inquiry

On 12 March 2015 former Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into undercover policing. This followed several other independent reviews into aspects of undercover policing. The Mitting Inquiry (so named after its current chair Sir John Mitting) has been beset by controversy and delay since it was announced. It began taking oral evidence in November 2020.

Reform of undercover policing

There has been recent reform of the governance of undercover policing and police practice. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 established an independent single oversight body for all investigatory powers.

The Inspectorate of Constabulary reviewed undercover policing in 2014 and recommended that new guidance be drafted for undercover officers. New guidance was published in October 2020.

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