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ISBN 978-1-5286-4212-5

E02786195    06/2023

HC 1539

Home/UCPI Interim Report for Tranche 1/Chapter 6: Analysis and conclusions

Chapter 6: Analysis and Conclusions

  1. As set out in Chapters 1 to 5, the SDS was formed to gather intelligence about a demonstration of particular concern to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and the Home Secretary. When that operation succeeded, its then head, HN325 Detective Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon, proposed that it should be continued along the lines proposed in his study paper of 26 November 1968.1 It was continued, but along the lines, and for the purposes, proposed by HN2857 Chief Superintendent Arthur Cunningham in his memorandum dated 20 May 1969.2 From then on, it served two principal purposes: gathering intelligence which would assist uniformed police to handle events at which there was a risk of public disorder; and gathering intelligence about numerous individuals and the groups to which many belonged.
  2. The first purpose was a constant throughout. The annual reports invariably contained summary descriptions of the contribution made to public order policing by intelligence gathered by the SDS, typically in relation to the major events of the year. All of the surviving operational managers of the SDS have provided or given evidence about the contribution made by the SDS to such policing. HN218 (“Barry Morris”) Barry Moss explained how this was done from the point of view of both the providing and receiving units.3 Written SDS reports would be collated with information gathered from other sources by an officer within Special Branch into a threat assessment, which would be given to the uniformed unit responsible for public order policing. In cases of emergency, intelligence could be communicated by other means, including, exceptionally, by telephone. Until the headquarters of the SDS was moved to Vincent Square in 1980, communication was easy between senior officers working in nearby rooms in New Scotland Yard.
  3. John Cracknell and HN1742 Anthony Speed, both of whom went on to have full and distinguished careers as senior police officers, explained how operational plans were made for forthcoming demonstrations during the 1970s, when they served in A8, the small MPS unit responsible for them.4 The plans were usually based in significant part on assessments provided to the unit by Special Branch. There can be no doubt, as both stated,5 that such assessments were of great value in enabling operational plans to be made. Neither John Cracknell nor Anthony Speed, however, was aware of the existence of the SDS and so cannot assist in estimating the value of reporting by its officers in the preparation of the plans or to the maintenance of public order in London during their time in A8.6
  4. Contemporaneous documents would have provided a reliable base on which to found an estimate of the value of its reporting for that purpose. However, the retrieved contemporaneous documentation is sparse. Only a handful of Special Branch threat assessments have been found: those produced before the “Battle of Lewisham” on 13 August 1977,7 before the picketing outside the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in November 19778 and Southall Town Hall in April 1979,9 before the first anniversary of the death of Blair Peach on 27 April 198010 and the non-event on 30 August 1981;11 as well as one dated 14 April 1982 to the effect that the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) had booked a hall at Friends House, Euston, to express their support for Argentina in the Falkland Islands (the product of the reporting of HN106 (“Barry Tompkins”));12 and reporting about an event at Upper Heyford, which will be dealt with in Tranche 2. The only other contemporaneous documented analysis of the contribution made by SDS reporting to a major public order event is that set out briefly in the SDS and Special Branch annual reports.
  5. SDS reporting undoubtedly assisted uniformed police to prepare for events which might disturb public order; but the few documented examples considered show that its contribution should not be overstated. Some of the events referred to in the previous paragraph provide instructive examples. Before the “Battle of Lewisham”, the National Front (NF) made their plan to march through the streets of Lewisham known to the police well in advance.13 The attitude of Trotskyist and Maoist groups to NF marches was well known: they would do their best to stop them.14 Lindsey German, then a member of the SWP national executive committee, readily conceded that this was the intention of the International Socialists (IS)/Socialist Workers Party (SWP).15 The march was to be through an area in which there had already been racial tension in 1977 following the arrest of a number of young Black men for robbery. The tension was exacerbated by NF activity on 2 July 1977 at New Cross. Film footage shows that local shopkeepers and residents took steps to protect their property on 12 August 1977.16 What the police were confronted with at Lewisham was the near certainty of serious disorder if right- and left-wing factions were not separated by police. A large police presence would have been deployed in any event. SDS reporting confirmed what was already obvious; but it did assist the tactical deployment of uniformed officers. The contribution of SDS reporting to the policing of Southall on 23 April 1979 and to the anniversary march on 27 April 1980 was minimal, both at the strategic and tactical level. Reporting by HN126 (“Paul Gray”) about Anti-Nazi League (ANL) plans for 30 August 1981 gave uniformed police advance notice of what would in any event have occurred: a non-event.17 A report by HN106 (“Barry Tompkins”) of April 1982 gave advance notice of an event which could not have given rise to disorder.18
  6. In the years 1975 to 1980, 13 incidents have been identified which were successfully policed because of the provision of reliable advance intelligence.19 In three instances (25 March 1975,20 11 October 197521 and 23 June 197922), the intelligence comprised or included one report by an SDS undercover officer, and in two (2 March 198023 and 23 November 198024), three such reports. In one further instance, there is an express reference to oral reports made 24 hours before the event in the SDS annual report for 1978.25 All but one of these six events are noted in the SDS annual reports.26 In the remaining seven cases, there is no surviving evidence of any reporting by an SDS undercover officer and, with the possible exception of the incident in April 1980, no reference to them in the annual reports. This is consistent with one or both of two possibilities: there was advance SDS reporting which has not survived; or there were other sources of intelligence, both overt and covert, which informed arrangements for the policing of the events. The latter must have been the case at New Cross on 2 July 1977, when NF supporters were arrested at an event at which left-wing attendance was modest.27 It is likely that any significant event in this era involving the NF was the subject of non-SDS intelligence.
  7. SDS reporting assisted senior officers to avoid the deployment of large numbers of police officers when they were not required, as on 30 August 1981. Both accurate warning of impending disorder and its likely absence assisted the MPS to cope with the management of public order within existing resources of finance and personnel and without a dedicated riot squad.
  8. It is a striking feature of the reporting of almost all SDS undercover officers that it contained extensive details about individuals – their political views, personality, working life, relationships with others, and family and private life. HN307 former Detective Chief Inspector Trevor Butler explained why: comprehensive reporting on the lives of individuals was standard practice in Special Branch.28 All who were asked about this issue said that it was for the recipients of the intelligence – or “customers” – to decide whether or not it was useful and, if so, what to do with it. This was not an accidental by-product of reporting on public order issues. Dated between 1 April 1975 and 31 May 1978, in rounded figures, 2,600 reports have been retrieved, of which 1,400 concerned the identity and lives of individuals. Of the remainder, 1,200 dealt with the meetings and activities of infiltrated groups. Of that number, 200 contained reports on plans for forthcoming events which might have had an impact on public order in London and elsewhere.
  9. In the case of two undercover officers deployed in this period, HN297 (“Rick Gibson”) Richard Clark and a closed officer, reports attributable to them have been retrieved from MPS records as well as those held by the Security Service. HN297 was deployed between November 1974 and September 1976. From the time of his deployment, 115 intelligence reports attributable to him were published, of which 65 were contained in MPS files. Of those, 11 relate to events which might have had an impact on public order, of which only two – reporting on preparations for the “Bloody Sunday” rally on 1 February 1976 – concern an event which could have required significant police attendance. The figures for the closed officer, whose deployment lasted three and a half years, are broadly comparable. Among his reports, 211 have been retrieved, 49 of them from MPS records. Of those, 25 concern forthcoming events, of which 16 relate to events which might have required a significant police presence. Of these, 14 relate to events which featured in the SDS annual reports for the period. This comparison, together with that referred to in paragraph 5 of Chapter 3, suggests that the reports retrieved from the Security Service modestly understate the extent of written reporting on public order issues.
  10. By contrast, a remarkable quantity of reports have survived concerning the political activities of groups with no bearing on the threat, if any, which they posed to public order, and on the identity, personal lives and views of individuals. Given the long-settled practice of Special Branch record-keepers opening a Registry File (RF) on persons named more than a few times in Special Branch reports,29 one of the consequences has been that most of those named in SDS reporting more than a handful of times who were not already the subject of an RF ended up with one. An unknown proportion of them appear to have been kept until the present day.
  11. The principal explanation for the reporting and retention of this information cannot be that it provided material assistance to those responsible for maintaining public order in London. It has to be sought elsewhere.
  12. The “Terms of Reference for a Special Branch”, dated 8 April 1970, agreed by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and circulated on 15 June 1970, with Home Office approval, to all chief constables, set out the functions of a Special Branch.30 The second function was: “acquiring security intelligence, both secret and overt … to assist the Security Service in its task of defending the realm … from actions of persons and organisations which may be judged to be subversive of the security of the State”.31 They were defined in the following terms: “Broadly speaking these are any organisation or individual whose purpose is the undermining or overthrow of the established democratic order.”32 One of the tasks of a Special Branch was: “In consultation with the Security Service to collect, process and record information about subversive or potentially subversive organisations and individuals.”33
  13. Not all of the SDS operational managers who have provided or given evidence about this issue were aware of this guidance. Barry Moss’s oral evidence is representative of them: if the Security Service said something was subversive, you took their word for it.34 All rightly regarded it as part of the task of the SDS to gather intelligence on individuals and groups thought to be “subversive”.
  14. One of the principal tasks of the Security Service was to monitor and, when appropriate, counter subversive activity. It produced assessments of the threat of subversion in the UK for central government in 1972,35 197636 and 1979.37 The first and third were read and annotated by the Prime Minister of the day, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Each contains a summary of the views and activities of the groups identified as subversive. In each, the principal subversive group, backed by the Soviet Union, was identified as the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Of the groups infiltrated by the SDS, Trotskyists, Maoists and anarchists were considered. The principal topics were subversion in industry, the communications media and education.
  15.  In the 1972 threat assessment, members of Trotskyist groups were thought to number about 4,000.38 They believed that a decaying capitalist system would lead to a pre-revolutionary situation in which the working class would be induced to accept Trotskyist leadership to confront the forces of authority. They hoped to use groups alienated from society to hasten the spread of disillusionment with capitalism. Maoists numbered fewer than 500 and were fragmented into splinter groups.39 Traditional anarchists avoided organisation. Their press suggested that there were about 100 small groups, often numbering fewer than 10, few of which were prepared to carry their beliefs beyond the bounds of lawful protest. It was also assessed that there might still be violent activity by neo-anarchists, following the arrests of members of the Angry Brigade.
  16. The Trotskyist focus in the 1976 threat assessment was on entryism into the Labour Party by the Revolutionary Socialist League (later Militant Tendency), which was not infiltrated by the SDS until 1993–1994.40
  17. In the 1979 assessment, the combined membership of Trotskyist and Maoist groups was stated to be rather more than half of that of the CPGB and to be roughly static.41 The largest group, the SWP, had 4,500 members and was the only group capable of influencing the conduct of industrial disputes at a local level, and was more successful than its rivals in mobilising support on the streets.42 The International Marxist Group (IMG) had 700 members, but had never captured the prominence it enjoyed in the late 1960s under the leadership of Tariq Ali. (The remaining Trotskyist groups considered, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and Militant Tendency, were not then infiltrated by the SDS.) Anarchist groups were ill-defined and temporary in nature and lacked the numbers or organisation to take important initiatives of their own.
  18. As The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 makes clear, the principal interest of the Heath Government in subversion was industrial unrest;43 and of the Callaghan Government, the infiltration of trade union bodies by the CPGB and of the Labour Party by Militant Tendency.44
  19. The long-term view of the Security Service, which continued to hold good in the 1970s, was accurately summarised by the Cabinet Secretary in 1972, Sir Burke Trend: “[I]t comes once again to the conclusion that, troublesome though these groups are, they do not constitute anything in the nature of an organised conspiracy against the State.”45
  20. Against this background, a high-level review of the “Terms of Reference for a Special Branch” was conducted in 1980. It reached no conclusion. One of the participants, David Heaton, was the signatory of the Home Office letters authorising the continued existence of the SDS in 1979,46 198047 and 1981.48 He raised an interesting question: “[H]ow can the work of police officers (which all members of Special Branches are) in investigating subversion, as currently defined, be justified given that the definition covers some activities which are not, as such, unlawful?”49 His question was not answered until 19 December 1984, when a confidential letter was sent to chief constables by the Home Office.50 It referred to “subversive or potentially subversive organisations or individuals”51 and included organisations operating within the law because their long-term aims satisfied the definition. Even if that questionable answer had been given unequivocally before the end of 1984, a further question would still have had to have been addressed: was the gathering of intelligence about subversive organisations or individuals so defined, by the means adopted by the SDS, a legitimate exercise of police functions? This would have required a number of questions about the manner in which the SDS conducted its activities to have been addressed.
  21. The first was that long-term deployments into political groups inevitably required the undercover officer, male or female, to befriend members of the target groups and to enter into their personal and political lives. Putting to one side the risk that sexual relationships might develop, this intrusion into the lives of many hundreds of people in this era required cogent justification before it should have been contemplated as a police tactic.
  22. The second was the fact that most deployments would require the undercover officer to gain entry to the homes of members of infiltrated groups by deceiving them as to his or her identity and purpose. This would generally vitiate the consent which the officer had been given and so might make him or her a trespasser, following Smith, Hogan and Ormerod’s Criminal Law, 14th edition.52 At the very least, the particular defences open to a police officer on public interest grounds would have had to have been considered.
  23. The third was that many undercover officers accepted positions of responsibility within an infiltrated group. As Trevor Butler stated, they were encouraged to take positions, such as branch treasurer or membership secretary, that improved the quality of the information they could obtain, but not those which involved “direction setting and incitement”.53 Even the former routinely involved the gathering and distribution of intelligence about facts, such as bank details, protected by the law relating to confidential information. When undercover officers achieved positions in the central office of the SWP and “direction setting” positions, in its Right to Work marches or equivalent roles at branch level, they were helping to organise political activity which was either lawful or was unlawful because it posed a threat to public order.
  24. The fourth was the use of deceased children’s identities. Public revelation of the use by police officers of the technique would have been bound to have given rise to legitimate public concern and to embarrassment to the Commissioner and to his police authority – the Home Secretary. If only for that reason, the use of this operational procedure should have been referred to senior officers within the MPS and to Home Office officials. The belief held by those responsible for its use that it would never be disclosed was at best debatable. It was, in any event, to the knowledge of those responsible for the unit, belied by what occurred to HN297.
  25. None of these issues appears to have been addressed by senior officers within the MPS or by Home Office officials during this period.
  26. At the suggestion of HN585 Commander Matthew Rodger, a working party was set up to consider the current situation of the SDS in early 1976. Its members were Chief Superintendents HN1254 Rollo Watts, HN318 Raymond Wilson and HN332 Cameron Sinclair, and HN819 Detective Chief Inspector Derek Kneale and HN34 Detective Inspector Geoffrey Craft.54 They reported that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Wilford Gibson and Commander Fleming, operational commander of “A” department (responsible for public order policing), described Special Branch information and assessments to be of “extreme importance” to the uniformed branch in the discharge of its public order functions.55 The chief superintendents of all operational squads in Special Branch spoke highly of the assistance rendered by the SDS. The conclusion of the working party, expressed on 15 March 1976, was that violence associated with demonstrations had declined, but that a minimum of 12 undercover officers was required to cope with extreme left-wing manipulation of emotive issues and with splinter groups that did not liaise with the police. They also concluded that the contribution made by the SDS to the Security Service was great. Their overall conclusion was that there was every justification for continuing the SDS with a complement of 12 field officers. Their report did not address the issues raised above at paragraphs 21 to 24, which fell outside their terms of reference.
  27. They should have been addressed at the highest level within the MPS and within the Home Office. The SDS required annual authorisation and funding by the Home Office. It was, at the least, a potential source of embarrassment to both, as was recognised in letters approving the continued funding of the unit on 6 June 1969,56 23 January 1970,57 21 December 197058 and 21 December 197159 and in the 1975,60 1977,61 198062 and 198163 SDS annual reports. If these issues had been addressed, it is hard to see how any conclusion could legitimately have been reached which would not have resulted in the closure of the SDS. The long-term infiltration of political or single-issue groups by a unit of a police force could readily have been justified if its purpose was to prevent or investigate serious crime, including terrorism and activities akin to it. In the era of the Cold War and the “Troubles”, applying the standards of the time, the infiltration of groups which in fact threatened the safety or well-being of the state (or in the 1952 formulation, gave rise to an internal danger to it) could also have been justified. In the period covered by Tranche 1, only three groups penetrated by the SDS satisfied either of these criteria – (Provisional) Sinn Fein and two groups identified in the closed interim report. The great majority of deployments by the SDS in this period did not satisfy either criterion.
  28. The principal, stated purpose of the SDS was to assist uniformed police to control public order in London. Long-term deployments into left-wing and anarchist groups did make a real contribution to achieving this end, even though this was or could have been achieved to a significant extent by other, less intrusive, means. The question is whether or not the end justified the means set out above. I have come to the firm conclusion that, for a unit of a police force, it did not; and that had the use of these means been publicly known at the time, the SDS would have been brought to a rapid end.
  29. This part of the report should not be concluded without two further observations. First, the great majority of deployed undercover officers and their operational managers performed their duties conscientiously and in the belief that what they were doing was lawful and in the interests of the public. A handful of them undertook tasks which required great skill and courage, inevitably covered mostly in closed evidence. Second, the fact that in this period no decision was made to infiltrate right-wing groups did not result from political bias on the part of those responsible for targeting, but from the belief that existing coverage sufficed and through concern about the risk of violence which such a deployment might pose.
Chapter 5
Appendix 1


  1. MPS-0724119
  2. MPS-0728973
  3. HN218 Transcript of Oral Evidence pp41–9
  4. Witness Statement of John Cracknell pp7–12, Witness Statement of Anthony Speed pp12–26
  5. Witness Statement of John Cracknell para 30, Witness Statement of Anthony Speed para 42
  6. Witness Statement of John Cracknell paras 44–5, Witness Statement of Anthony Speed paras 77–8
  7. MPS-0748279MPS-0748286MPS-0748277
  8. UCPI0000035336UCPI0000035337
  9. MPS-0748288MPS-0748293MPS-0748289
  10. MPS-0733126
  11. UCPI0000035302
  12. MPS-0731468
  13. MPS-0748487
  14. MPS-0748210
  15. Lindsey German Transcript of Oral Evidence p70
  16. DOC042, DOC043
  17. UCPI0000015541
  18. MPS-0731468
  19. Islington on 25 March 1975, Chelsea Town Hall on 11 October 1975, New Cross on 2 July 1977, Ilford on 25 February 1978, Brixton on 15 April 1978, Great Eastern Street on 24 September 1978, Whitehall on 12 November 1978, East Ham on 25 April 1979, various marches on 23 June 1979, Whitehall on 11 November 1979, Southwark on 2 March 1980, Lewisham on 20 April 1980 and Paddington on 23 November 1980. See para 2.3.10 (p48) of the written Closing statement on behalf of the Designated Lawyer Core Participant Group, dated 10 February 2023
  20. UCPI0000006931
  21. UCPI0000007643
  22. UCPI0000020984
  23. UCPI0000013786UCPI0000013798 and a further (unpublished) report
  24. UCPI0000015146UCPI0000015166UCPI0000015187
  25. Concerning Whitehall on 12 November 1978 (MPS-0728964 p8)
  26. There is no reference to events on 23 June 1979 in the relevant annual report
  27. See UCPI0000017537 and MPS-0748282
  28. HN307 Transcript of Oral Evidence pp72–3
  29. Witness Statement of Alastair PocockWitness Statement of HN350 p7, Witness Statement of HN126 p20, Witness Statement of HN2152 pp13–14
  30. UCPI0000004459
  31. Ibid. p2
  32. Ibid. p4
  33. Ibid. p2
  34. HN218 Transcript of Oral Evidence p98
  35. UCPI0000035255
  36. UCPI0000035247
  37. UCPI0000035314
  38. UCPI0000035255 pp7–8
  39. Ibid. pp8–9
  40. UCPI0000035247 pp9–10
  41. UCPI0000035314 pp16–17
  42. Ibid. pp10–13
  43. Andrew, Christopher , The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 (London: Penguin, 2012), pp587–99
  44. Ibid. pp656–82
  45. UCPI0000035255 p1
  46. MPS-0728964
  47. MPS-0728963
  48. MPS-0731871
  49. UCPI0000004715 p4
  50. UCPI0000004584
  51. Ibid. p1
  52. Smith, Hogan and Ormerod, Criminal Law, 14th edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p1050. This reiterates in modern terms the statement made about constructive breaking under the Larceny Act 1916 in the first edition (1965, p398).
  53. Witness Statement of HN307 p26
  54. MPS-0730658
  55. MPS-0730745
  56. MPS-0724109
  57. MPS-0724100
  58. MPS-0724130
  59. MPS-0724177
  60. MPS-0730099 p3
  61. MPS-0728981 p7
  62. MPS-0728962 p6
  63. MPS-0728985 p7