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Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland

Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

July 3, 2017
10 min read

My name is Tilly Gifford. At the time of the events I am about to describe, I was 24 and had been involved in Plane Stupid, a campaign group whose main goal was resisting airport expansion. It was around the time when the concept of climate change was first becoming an accepted and terrifying reality, international environmental protocols were trending but lacking teeth, and Climate Camps were targeting the unperturbed benefactors of the booming carbon industries.

I had been arrested at a peaceful direct action at Aberdeen airport, an intervention into the aviation industry that was very much in the spirit of the time and that employed non-violent tactics that are enshrined in a long history of peaceful, effective and celebrated campaigns in Scotland. In short, both my motivations and methods in my work with Plane Stupid contained nothing that would have me labelled as an ‘extremist’, the terminology invoked by the state to perpetuate the collective fear required to legitimise extreme state spying powers. Or so I thought.

Soon after my action at Aberdeen airport, I was approached by the police to become a paid informer. It started when, in 2009, I was looking around derelict spaces for a potential art exhibition venue with some friends in Glasgow. We were approached by police and, after a name search, I was unexpectedly arrested. All of my personal property was removed and I was placed in the cells for the weekend. I had no idea what was going on (those ideas of getting one phone call to a would-be-saviour on the outside are a mere myth perpetuated by police dramas). After a full weekend in the cells, I was being released with the charges dropped and no explanation. When I was given back my property, my house keys were missing from the sealed pouch where your possessions are taken from you and kept when you are held in custody. When I inquired where they were, I was told with a shrug of the shoulders that ‘another force’ had been through my things.

Hidden recording

A day later, I received a phone call from a man via a withheld number asking me if I would like my keys back. In the meantime, I had gained access to my flat and felt sure that someone had been there. I began to feel uneasy. I agreed to meet and was warned to come alone. So I equipped myself with a hidden recording device.

I met with two men. They thanked me for meeting them and requested a ‘chat’. They lead me to a small room in Partick police station, returned my keys, and over the course of 30 minutes of talking asked me to be a paid informer. Though this request to betray my friends, my beliefs and the communities in Scotland we were supporting disgusted me to the core, I wanted to know more about these elusive characters, so I continued to meet with them and to record the meetings.

In subsequent meetings they referred to our potential to ‘work together’ as a “business arrangement”. Their offers and general demeanour were kept affable, but there was a palpable underlying sense of the threatening or sinister. For example, they would make reference to powers they had to get me in trouble as well as save me from it, the implication being that, if I co-operated, they would be helping me with my legal case, and if I didn’t – well.

In one meeting in the afternoon they said ‘Where’s your hat Tilly?’ I had been wearing a hat earlier that morning. ‘Have you been following me?’ I asked. ‘No, we just saw you by chance, when you were on your bike. You’re a bad cyclist, we could have knocked you over you know.’ A lot of this material, involving such threats and intimidation, was not captured and therefore was never shared with the general public. It was also omitted from the mainstream media coverage in 2009.

In short, I was being intimidated and threatened. These were men who were refusing to tell me who they worked for, had had my house keys for a period of 36 hours when I was incarcerated (had they accessed my home?), had been through my phone and who were now letting me know they had been following me and it would be better for me, for my future, to co-operate.

Menacing tone

At the final meeting, they demanded I meet them on a street corner behind the Mitchell Library. This time, without telling them, I brought a lawyer. I wanted the lawyer to be a witness to my telling these men I wanted nothing more to do with them, that I would never meet them again – and that they were never to contact me again. I wanted to disengage from it all – and I was scared.

The two men did not show up. After 45 minutes of us waiting, I walked the lawyer back to his car, and said goodbye. Now alone, I was walking home, and suddenly one of the men was right behind me, walking as fast as I was. The other one was driving alongside us in a car. The one on foot said ‘We’re very disappointed in you Tilly’ and that they’d see me in jail. The last words they said to me were ‘You should not have done that Tilly. You were right, we are very interested in Plane Stupid, and if it’s not us it will be somebody else.’

Later in the day I got a phone call from them, from an unrecognised number. In a serious and menacing tone, they told me ‘You’d better tell your friends to stop impersonating lawyers.’ The week before, my lawyers, when pushing Strathclyde Police for confirmation, had been told that these two men are not on any of their databases.

I never heard from them again. I was totally terrified – until the story broke in the news, a week later. Thereafter, public attention and support made me feel safer.

Over the years that followed, my friends and I went to great lengths to establish the identities of these men and who they were working for. We had strong reasons to suspect that the people who targeted me were not Strathclyde Police as they claimed. We began a long trail of paperwork and Freedom of Information Act requests, which all lead to bureaucratic dead-ends.

The undercover policing inquiry

When we had the idea to secretly record these events, we were simply acting out of self-defence and thirst for state accountability.

At this time, I was pretty naïve about the depth and depravity of state surveillance of social change campaigns. This was one year before the revelations of 2010, which outed police undercover units for using the names of dead children to create undercover identities and using sexual relationships (primarily with women) and friendships with activists as a tactic to gain fast credibility within groups. Under their aliases, sometimes lasting years, they had long term, intimate relationships with women, fathered children, and in some cases acted as agent provocateurs.

These shocking revelations have triggered the undercover policing inquiry, aka the Pitchford Inquiry.

On 16 July 2015 then home secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into undercover policing. The Pitchford Inquiry is our main hope to get clarity. People need to know who among us was an undercover cop. How long had they been following us? Which official decided that we should be targeted? And on what basis?

But despite dozens of activists having been verified as being spied upon in Scotland, the public inquiry into these violations has been limited only to England and Wales. To make matters worse, the Scottish Government has also failed to order its own public inquiry into these issues.

Through the Pitchford Inquiry, communities in Wales and England who have suffered extreme abuses have the potential to have light shed on these sexual, emotional and physical violations carried out by the state. Yet, as it stands now, people in Scotland have no such recourse to truth or accountability. There are women who know they were targeted for sexual relationships by undercover operatives in Scotland, and we believe that what is already known is merely the tip of the iceberg.

It is for these reasons that I have decided to bring a legal action. I am bringing a judicial review against the failure of the Home Office to extend the undercover policing inquiry to Scotland, as well as challenging the Scottish Government for its failure to order its own public inquiry into undercover policing of trade unionists, people defending workers’ rights, people working on equality issues, campaigners and campaign groups.

This court case is not just to highlight one person who was spied on, but to open the investigation to the cases of hundreds of people in Scotland affected by this disgusting abuse of state surveillance police power.

I, and an as yet unknown number of people like me, deserve answers. We deserve the same opportunities for truth, justice, and resultant safeguards that it is not allowed to happen again.

Legal aid refused

The application seeking permission for a Judicial Review has been filed. However, the Scottish Legal Aid Board has refused to grant legal aid, stating that the case has no merit. This is an astonishing decision, and it has been argued that the decision has very little to do with merits of the case and a lot to do with politics. So the last resort to run this important public interest case is to fundraise for the initial phases of the court case by a fully public crowdfund.

Undeniably, it’s very intimidating to go public like this. It’s unsettling to have your name and face out there, requesting support. You can’t help but feel exposed.

However, there has been a huge wave of responses since early April. Indeed maybe it’s not surprising, considering we now know that undercover political policing is targeting trade unionists, socialist parties, justice campaigners, people working on anti-racism, and environmentalists – thus destroying campaign groups, livelihoods and deeply and irreversibly affecting personal lives.

Our initial target of £5,000 has now been reached – but we need to reach £8,000. We ask all those who believe in justice and state accountability to donate – even just a small sum. Alternatively spread the word amongst your networks on social media.

The police in the UK seem to maintain this image of being uniformed guardians of the people, to serve and protect. However, they are clearly part of an industry of information-gathering and spying, and need to be seen and understood as such.

The Pitchford Inquiry either needs to be extended to Scotland, or the Scottish Government needs to call its own independent inquiry into political policing so that we can shed light on these sinister operations, put safeguards in place for the future and begin to obtain truth and justice on these issues. It seems odd that after all this time, those DIY recordings from 2009 are now the grounds for this challenge – but truth and justice is never given, it has to be fought for.

See more and support the case at Crowdjustice.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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