MP claims that undercover police officer may have ‘crossed the line’ during animal rights activists’ bombing of department store
Ministers have been asked to investigate the police infiltration of a cell of animal rights activists responsible for a firebombing campaign after questions were raised about the ethics of an operation that, it was alleged, may have involved an undercover spy planting an incendiary device in a department store.
The MP who raised the case, which dates back to the 1980s but surfaced only after recent disclosures about the clandestine unit of police spies, suggested it may constitute a case in which “a police officer crossed the line into acting as an agent provocateur”.
Caroline Lucas, parliament’s only Green MP, used a Westminster Hall debate on the rules governing undercover policing to raise the case under parliamentary privilege, and add to calls for a public inquiry into the use of police spies.
Only limited details are known about the mysterious police operation to infiltrate a group of hardcore anti-fur protesters, and Lucas admitted no one could be sure about the precise role played by the undercover police officer, Bob Lambert, who spent years living among the activists having adopted a new identity.
Lambert infiltrated a cell of activists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), who detonated three incendiary devices at three Debenhams branches in London in July 1987 as part of a campaign against the sale of fur.
Two activists, Geoff Sheppard and Andrew Clarke, were caught red-handed months later as they prepared for a second wave of arson attacks. They were convicted over the attacks on the stores.
“Sheppard and Clarke were tried and found guilty – but the culprit who planted the incendiary device in the Harrow store was never caught,” Lucas said. “Bob Lambert’s exposure as an undercover police officer has prompted Geoff Sheppard to speak out about that Harrow attack. Sheppard alleges that Lambert was the one who planted the third device and was involved in the ALF’s co-ordinated campaign.”
The MP relayed comments from Sheppard in which the convicted activist said: “Obviously I was not there when he targeted that store because we all headed off in our separate directions but I was lying in bed that night, and the news came over on the World Service that three Debenhams stores had had arson attacks on them and that included the Harrow store as well.
“So obviously I straight away knew that Bob had carried out his part of the plan. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Bob Lambert placed the incendiary device at the Debenhams store in Harrow. I specifically remember him giving an explanation to me about how he had been able to place one of the devices in that store, but how he had not been able to place the second device. So it would seem that planting the third incendiary device was perhaps a move designed to bolster Lambert’s credibility and reinforce the impression of a genuine and dedicated activist. He did go on to successfully gain the precise intelligence that led to the arrest of Sheppard and Clarke – and without anybody suspecting that the tipoff came from him. But is that really the way we want our police officers to behave?”
Lambert, who has admitted having sexual relations with women while operating undercover, has previously spoken about his role in the police investigation of the ALF and his specific role in the operation against Sheppard and Clarke.
However, he firmly denies planting the incendiary device. He told the Guardian: “It was necessary to create the false impression that I was a committed animal rights extremist to gain intelligence so as to disrupt serious criminal conspiracies. However, I did not commit serious crime such as ‘planting an incendiary device at the [Debenhams] Harrow store’.”
Lucas admitted “we just don’t know” exactly how far Lambert may have taken his operation, but said: “Yet, if Sheppard’s allegations are true, someone must have authorised Lambert to plant incendiary devices at the Harrow store. Presumably that same someone may also have given the officer guidance on just how far he needed to go to establish his credibility with the ALF.”
She added: “There is no doubt in my mind that anyone planting an incendiary device in a department store is guilty of a very serious crime and should have charges brought against them. That means absolutely anyone – including, if the evidence is there, Bob Lambert or indeed the people who were supervising him.”
Lucas raised the case of Mark Kennedy, who was revealed last year to have spent seven years living undercover among environmental activists. He also had sexual relations with female activists. Kennedy’s exposure led the court of appeal to quash the convictions of 20 environmental campaigners wrongly convicted of conspiring to break into a power station. The three judges said they had seen evidence that appeared to show Kennedy had been “arguably, a provocateur”.
Lucas said: “The latest allegations concerning Bob Lambert and the planting of incendiary devices would beg the question: has another undercover police officer crossed the line into acting as an agent provocateur? And how many other police spies have been encouraging protesters to commit crimes?”
The MP voiced concerns about other aspects of a longstanding operation to plant spies in protest groups, including the evidence that most of those unmasked in public are suspected of having engaged in sexual relationships with activists. She raised the case of eight women who say they were duped into forming relationships with undercover officers, and who have begun a legal case against police.
She said senior police chiefs had said it was “never acceptable” for their spies to have sexual relations with activists, but the Met had told the women’s lawyers that “forming of personal and other relationships” is permitted under Ripa, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
“So either rogue undercover officers have been breaking the rules set by senior officers, or senior officers have misled the public by saying that such relationships are forbidden,” Lucas said.
The policing minister, Nick Herbert, acknowledged there were questions about the accountability of long-term spies and said the Home Office was considering how better to regulate the area.
He said ministers were considering proposals from a review of the Kennedy case by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which recommended that future deployments of undercover police officers should be “pre-authorised” by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.
Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 June 2012 13.29 BST
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