20 Oct 2021

Q&A: Southwark overcrowding case

2021-10-21T09:59:17+01:0020th October 2021|

At the beginning of October PILC issued a claim for permission to apply for judicial review of Southwark council’s housing allocations policy.

In the first in a new series of Q&As on PILC legal cases, we outline the basis for the challenge as well as exploring the wider implications of our client’s case.

What’s the issue?

Our client, Milton, lives with his wife, son and daughter in a privately rented studio apartment in Southwark. They are severely overcrowded and have endured extremely cramped housing conditions for almost five years.

The family applied to join Southwark’s housing register in April 2018. However, Southwark has refused to prioritise the family’s application for housing. The council claims that the family’s overcrowding is the result of a ‘deliberate act’.

Why is this a problem?

Priority on the housing register is determined by band. Southwark’s housing allocation policy awards the highest band (Band 1) to applicants who, like Milton and his family, are statutorily overcrowded.

This policy is in line with the council’s obligations under Part VI of the Housing Act 1996, which states that ‘reasonable preference’ must be given to people living in overcrowded housing.

However, there is an exception in Southwark’s housing allocation policy for people who have caused their overcrowding by a ‘deliberate act’, who are to be deprioritised.

Southwark accept that Milton and his family are statutorily overcrowded. But they claim this is the result of a ‘deliberate act’ on their part. In making this decision they have relied on an unpublished policy which appears to state that anyone who moves into accommodation that becomes overcrowded at the point at which they move in should be considered to have caused that overcrowding by a ‘deliberate act’.

However, Milton and his family had no choice but to move into their current accommodation.  As Milton explains with the help of his daughter Rebecca: ‘I had to move to this flat. When we looked at other places the agencies asked us for many months’ rent in advance. I couldn’t rent a bigger house because it was too expensive.’

How has overcrowding affected Milton and his family?

Being overcrowded is affecting the whole family’s mental health, as well as making it difficult for the children to study.

As Milton explains: ‘My children cannot study in this environment. During the pandemic they had to take classes online at the same time. They found it difficult to listen and concentrate in class because they were in the same room.’

‘We do not have any privacy, either: we have to go to the bathroom to change.’

What are the grounds for our legal challenge?

PILC is arguing that Milton and his family had no choice but to move into their current accommodation and therefore should not be penalised and deprioritised.

The legal grounds for our challenge are that:

  • It was irrational for Southwark to conclude that the family’s statutory overcrowding was caused by a ‘deliberate act’ (and, in particular, it was irrational to conclude that at the time Milton moved into the current accommodation he had the option of instead moving into suitable alternative accommodation which was not statutorily overcrowded)
  • Given that Milton was not able to afford alternative accommodation that was not statutorily overcrowded, his decision to move into statutorily overcrowded accommodation was not a “deliberate act” within the meaning of paragraph 6.2 of Southwark’s Housing Allocation Scheme
  • Southwark’s Housing Allocations Scheme does not explain the criteria used when considering whether an applicant has committed a ‘deliberate act’
  • Southwark’s treatment of Milton and his family breaches Article 14 taken with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights

What wider issues does this challenge raise?

This is not the first time Southwark has blamed low-income families for their overcrowding. In December 2020, another family successfully challenged a ‘deliberate act’ decision.

Such cases raise broader issues relating to the chronic shortage of decent housing for low-income families in London, and the ‘social cleansing’ of migrant communities and communities of colour from central areas of the city.

It is now incredibly difficult for low-income Londoners to access secure, long term social housing.  Families find themselves stuck for years in temporary accommodation that is either too small for their needs or miles away from children’s schools or parent’s workplaces. In the private rented sector levels of overcrowding have almost doubled in the last ten years due to a combination of rent rises and benefit cuts.

As Sam Tippet, a PILC paralegal working on the case, explains: ‘This case is a clear example of how Southwark continues to penalise working-class families. Milton’s family have spent almost five years living in accommodation so severely overcrowded they are legally homeless. Like so many others, they are being punished for earning too little money to live safely in London.’

‘Southwark continues to have too little housing stock for social tenants. This is the result of the longstanding failure of local and national government to resource adequate accommodation for people on low incomes. Even if successful, our legal challenge will not resolve this problem. There is an urgent need both to increase the provision of social housing and introduce rent controls to ensure private tenants can afford a decent home.’

Councils are also using ‘gatekeeping’ tactics to deter low-income and homeless households from accessing support to which they are legally entitled. There is an established culture of disbelief in housing offices, with families routinely being accused of fraud or of causing their own housing problems. Such issues disproportionately affect migrant communities and communities of colour, who are more likely than other groups to be homeless and live in poor housing.

As Izzy Koksal from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL)—the local housing campaign group that Milton is part of—puts it: ‘We are all too familiar with these cruel and insulting decisions from the council, which blame migrant families and families of colour for living in overcrowded housing. We have successfully overturned many of them with the help of PILC. Our members will continue to campaign for an end to the use of ‘deliberate act’ and this culture of blame and refusal.’



14 Sep 2021

Spycops in CND: help us fill in the gaps!

2021-09-14T13:51:06+01:0014th September 2021|

In July 2021 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was granted Core Participant status in the ongoing Under Cover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). PILC’s Paul Heron has been appointed by the Inquiry as registered legal representative for CND.

In our latest blog, Saskia O’Hara looks at the campaigning history of CND and appeals for information about the officers who spied on the organisation.

CND is a mass peaceful democratic movement which has weaved itself into public consciousness and become part of the fabric of UK society. From the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War to the surge in re-armament under Ronald Reagan and beyond, it has consistently opposed the use of nuclear weapons over more than fifty years. CND’s iconic symbol is recognised across the globe.

CND’s political importance is reflected in the group having been a prominent target of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) of the Metropolitan Police during the 1980s. Next year, Tranche 2 of the Under Cover Policing Inquiry will look at SDS deployments in the years 1983-1992, when CND was at the height of its campaigning influence.

Initial disclosure shows the extent to which CND was infiltrated to be far greater than previously thought. CND will also feature in Tranche 6 of the Inquiry, which covers spying by the security services. Much about the activities of the undercover officers who infiltrated CND is still not unknown.

Fighting for unilateral nuclear disarmament

CND was born out of an article in the New Statesman which called for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The article provoked such a positive response that the magazine’s editor suggested the need for a mass movement against nuclear weapons.  This call was heeded and CND was born in February 1958.  A meeting attended by 5000 people resolved that Britain must:

a) Renounce unconditionally the use or production of nuclear weapons and refuse to allow their use by others in her defence.

b) Use her utmost endeavour to bring about negotiations at all levels for agreement to end the armaments race and to lead to a general disarmament convention.

c) Invite the co-operation of other nations, particularly non-nuclear powers, in her renunciation of nuclear weapons.

(CND policy statement, February 1958)

In the 1980s—the period which the UCPI will focus on—CND held some of the biggest demonstrations in British history.  In 1983 it organised an anti-nuclear protest in London that was attended by over 200,000 people.  As Joan Ruddock, then-chair of the CND, put it:  “The demonstration put paid to the notion that the peace movement is on its last legs.” 

In the same year CND mobilised an estimated 80,000 people to form a human chain stretching 14 miles (22.5 kilometres) across Berkshire’s ‘nuclear valley’.

Despite the large numbers involved, Special Branch reports on these demonstrations repeatedly emphasise the low risk of public disorder.  Of the protest against nuclear missiles in London, police files state that “the vast majority of the 200,000 or so persons attending this event were pacifists with no overt leanings to extremist, subversive or political groups [sic].” 

If Special Branch recognised the majority of CND’s members as ‘pacifists’, on what grounds was the organisation infiltrated?  This is the first of many questions the Inquiry will need to answer.

Did you know ‘Timothy Spence’ or ‘John Kerry’?

In granting Core Participant status to CND, the UCPI has identified two undercover police officers who targeted the group. Between 1981 and 1984, ‘Timothy Spence’ (HN88) is understood to have infiltrated CND in east London. (This officer is also believed to have infiltrated the Stoke Newington and Hackney Defence Campaign and the Hackney Campaign against the Police Bill)

Undercover officer ‘John Kerry’ (HN65) also infiltrated CND between 1980 to 1984—we suspect in the national office.

Little is publicly known about these officers as we await further disclosure from the Inquiry.

We would therefore urgently like to hear from CND members from that period who may have been in contact withor indeed who know anything about—‘Timothy Spence’ or ‘John Kerry’.

In addition to these two officers, we believe a number of other police spies attended meetings and involved themselves in CND as part of their overall cover. It would appear that multiple officers used CND to ‘build up their profile’ as they sought to target other progressive campaigning organisations.

If you have any information relating to the activities of ‘Timothy Spence’ or ‘John Kerry’, please contact paul.heron@pilc.org.uk so that this information can be brought before the Inquiry.

9 Sep 2021

Liverpool says no to AOC Europe arms fair

2021-09-09T12:41:57+01:009th September 2021|

This Saturday there will be a major anti arms-fair demo in Liverpool. In our latest blog PILC solicitor Paul Heron explains why opposing AOC Europe 2021 matters.

We’re proud to have been instructed by a social justice campaigner who, as part of Liverpool Against the Arms Fair, is fighting to prevent the city’s ACC exhibition centre playing host to a major weapons showcase next month.

Arms fairs are central to the operation of the weapons industry. They provide dealers with the opportunity to network and do business with military procurers and government officials. Crucially, they allow weapons sales to be carried out in an atmosphere which normalises the existence of the arms trade.

According to one of the organisers of AOC Europe 2021, due to take place from 11 – 13 October 2021, “[g]lobal military expenditure is expected to reach the $2 trillion mark by the end of 2021. The opportunities available for companies are at its [sic] highest for decades.”

Today the world is watching human misery and chaos unfold in Afghanistan. Allowing AOC Europe the use of the council-owned ACC venue will lend a veneer of respectability to a deadly trade. An arms fair may look like any other conference. But the hardware on sale is designed to kill and injure. Weapons on display are likely to breach international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

At the time of writing, the event has attracted over 85 exhibitors and is expecting over 1250 industry attendees. It will bring together government and the defence industry, connecting sellers with purchasers to facilitate major arms sales for the battlefield. It will also consider the latest advances in weaponry.

We understand that among the arms manufacturers set to exhibit at the fair are the Israeli companies Elbit Systems, Rafael and Elta Systems. These companies advertise weapons as ‘battle tested’—meaning they have been used in Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinian people. Other attendees are likely to include MDBA and Raytheon, which have provided Saudi Arabia with weapons to carry out its murderous offensive in Yemen.

On behalf of our client we have written a pre-action letter to the Mayor of Liverpool asking her to cancel the arms fair. If she refuses, we will consider legal options including a judicial review of that decision. Meanwhile, a demonstration against AOC Europe 2021 will take place in the city this coming Saturday.

In 2020, the same arms fair was scheduled to take place at this same venue. The people of Liverpool campaigned and stopped it from happening. Once again, the local community is saying no—they don’t want war profiteers to gather in their city, let alone in a council-owned building.

19 Jul 2021

The Covid-19 inquiry must hear marginalised voices

2021-07-20T09:36:20+01:0019th July 2021|

On 12 May 2021 Boris Johnson acceded to mounting pressure by announcing a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid–19 pandemic by the UK government and other statutory bodies.

In the first in a series of blogs, PILC legal caseworkers Izzy Mulholland and Saskia O’Hara consider what the public inquiry should aim to achieve in terms of justice, accountability and representation.

Most remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England are being lifted today despite concerns about the spread of the Delta variant of the virus.

The current estimated UK death toll resulting from Covid-19 is 152,397. While larger countries such as China, Brazil and Russia have experienced higher overall death rates, Britain has one of the highest excess death rates in Europe, and indeed the world.

The impact of Covid-19 in terms of social and economic justice is less straightforward to measure. But it is clear that certain groups—including precarious workers, undocumented migrants and those living in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation—have been disproportionately affected both by the pandemic and the government’s inadequate response to the crisis.

On 12 May 2021, under pressure from campaigning groups such as the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Movement, Boris Johnson announced an independent public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The terms of reference for the inquiry will be published in Spring 2022. The prime minister has said the inquiry will examine decisions made by the government ‘in the cold light of day’ and ‘identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future.’

Are these empty words, or can the government’s public inquiry deliver justice and accountability for those worst affected by the pandemic?

Why a public inquiry?

According to the Inquiries Act 2005 a public inquiry can be called when ‘particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern, or… there is public concern that particular events may have occurred.’

The handling of the pandemic is clearly a matter of significant public interest and concern. This public inquiry must not only provide an opportunity for people in power to ‘learn lessons’: it must also allow those most seriously impacted by Covid-19 to hold the government to account for its role in exacerbating the crisis.

The public inquiry must be fully independent and chaired by a panel with a wide range of experiences and specialisms. It must be given sufficiently broad terms of reference to enable it to consider the full range of decisions taken.

The inquiry must be public with maximum disclosure of documents to core participants. Only through a fully independent investigation into the decisions and actions of the UK government during the pandemic can the executive be held accountable.

PILC and the inquiry

PILC has been active in calling for a public inquiry since the end of the first wave. In July 2020 we sent a detailed letter to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary on behalf of the Law Centres Network. The letter, signed by over 70 civil society organisations, community campaigns and trade unions, demanded an independent, properly resourced and rigorous public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

We called on the government to use its powers under s1 Inquiries Act 2005 to announce an immediate inquiry prior to the second wave as well as a longer-term in-depth inquiry.  We called for both the immediate and long-term inquiries to be chaired by a panel representing a wide range of experiences.

At the same time we launched an email campaign urging the government to agree to a public inquiry. Over 600 emails making this demand were sent to Boris Johson and Priti Patel.

On 29 July 2020 we sent a Pre-Action Protocol letter (a first step before legal proceedings are issued) to the UK government, again demanding a public inquiry. On 12 August 2020 we received a response stating that a public inquiry would be announced in due course.

Shaping the inquiry

Now that Boris Johnson has announced a public inquiry, legal and social-justice campaigners must turn our collective attention to shaping its terms of reference.

The pandemic has seen a litany of failures on the part of government, with economically and socially marginalised groups disproportionately impacted.

Among other questions, the public inquiry must ascertain the extent to which the government failed to:

  1. Impose stringent infection control measures (e.g. why were there delays in imposing a lockdown?)
  2. Provide adequate personal protective equipment (had PPE been available, how many deaths could have been avoided?)
  3. Protect frontline workers from the virus (why were industries such as construction forced to continue, and did this place workers at high risk of catching Covid-19?)
  4. Protect care homes from the virus (why did UK care homes suffer such high death tolls compared to other European countries?)
  5. Test, trace and isolate (why did it take so long for the UK to introduce a robust testing system?)
  6. Mitigate the disproportionate impact on BAME communities, non-UK nationals with limited or no eligibility for welfare assistance, homeless people and those in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation (why were BAME communities at greater risk of catching Covid-19?)
  7. Mitigate the disproportionate impact on disabled people (why was there such a disparity between the death rate for people with disabilities compared to those without?)
  8. Protect the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) (why was there a lack of clear guidance to schools regarding the implementation of safety and infection-control measures, and what was the impact of this on vulnerable families of the mandatory return to school for all children?)
  9. Protect survivors of domestic abuse (why did it take so long to introduce specific funding for this group)
  10. Protect private renters (why did half a million renters fall into rent arrears in the first 3 months of the pandemic, and what measures were taken to protect them?)

The public inquiry must ask all of these questions. Only an independent investigation that amplifies the voices of those worst affected by the government’s actions and omissions will have the potential to offer justice to the many thousands of unnecessary victims of this pandemic.

We will continue to be active in supporting an independent, properly resourced and rigorous public inquiry. Please check back over the coming months for more blog posts, including testimony from precarious workers and others affected by Covid-19 and the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.

For more information please contact office@pilc.org.uk or 0203 877 0867

2 Jun 2021

Fighting for social housing at the Elephant

2021-06-02T15:21:30+01:002nd June 2021|

In our latest guest blog Jerry Flynn, a social-justice campaigner from South London, reflects on the campaign against the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Through the 35% Campaign Jerry has sought to hold Southwark Council accountable for promises the local authority has made about the provision of social housing in new developments. PILC acted for Jerry in a recent case against Southwark.

The Elephant and Castle in south London is a key regeneration site in Southwark, a borough in acute need of social housing.  For a third of households, socially rented housing represents the only hope of a decent, affordable home. According to a 2019 report Southwark has 12,000 families waiting for new council homes.  Southwark council has promised to build 11,000 new council homes—but only over a thirty-year period.

Given these circumstances Southwark’s priority for the regeneration of the Elephant should have been simple: to build more socially rented housing now. In fact, Southwark only requires a small proportion—17.5%—of new Elephant developments to be social-rent housing units. This is less than the 25% required in most of the rest of the borough.

These percentages are supposed to be minimum requirements. In reality, more social units are built only in exceptional cases.  Developers often claim that they cannot provide even this modest amount, citing weak financial viability—which simply means they will not be making as much profit as they think they deserve.

Such was the position taken by Delancey, a big property developer active in the borough and the owner of the much-derided (but also much-loved) Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. In 2016 Delancey, in partnership with Dutch pension fund, APG and the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, proposed demolishing the shopping centre and building a mixed residential development consisting of nearly a thousand homes for rent and about as much retail floor space as was in the shopping centre (dispersed across two sites)  There would be 35% ‘affordable housing’, but only 33 ‘social rent equivalent’ homes – ‘viability’ would not allow for any more.

By omitting a provision for affordable retail units which would have allowed for modest reductions in market rents, Delancey also made it clear that there would be no room in the new Elephant & Castle for local traders, most of whom are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, with many coming from London’s Latin American community.

Mounting the campaign

Our Up the Elephant campaign drew together all those who opposed Delancey’s proposals, which was just about everyone apart from Southwark council’s Labour leadership.  Campaign groups included: Southwark Defend Council Housing; Latin Elephant, a local charity that advocates for all local traders; the Elephant Traders Association; the Green Party; the 56a Infoshop, a radical social centre;  the anti- gentrification website Southwark Notes; and  Southwark Law Centre. The campaign also drew in local Labour and Lib Dem councillors, including those who had hitherto been supportive of the Elephant’s regeneration. It won notable support from Sian Berry, co-leader of the Green Party.

Students and trade-union support from the London College of Communication (LCC) was another important element in the campaign.  The LCC is gaining a new campus from the redevelopment after agreeing to give Delancey an extra piece of land in exchange. Yet the college was happy enough to mount an exhibition bewailing the iniquities of regeneration in other parts of the world—much to the disgust of many of its students and staff. Social media and communications work by activists and sympathetic artists was vital for campaign fundraising.

The Up the Elephant campaign orientated itself around the progress of Delancey’s planning application, but did not confine itself to simply generating objections: it protested, demonstrated and made sure that decision-makers were fully aware of the strength of feeling against Delancey’s proposals.  As a consequence, Delancey made a number of concessions for fear of not gaining planning permission.  They promised 116 social rented units and affordable retail units, built some relocation space for traders and funded relocation costs.  Southwark also found some funding to help traders and provided more relocation space on more generous leasing terms, courtesy of an intervention by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.  Delancey duly got its planning permission, but only just—by one vote and after three committee meetings.

The legal challenge

But Delancey’s proposal remained a bad one.  The shopping centre may have been shabby, but it housed one of the largest bingo halls in Britain, much used by older people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The bowling alley next door was equally popular with younger people. Along with Ward’s Corner in Seven Sisters, the shopping centre had over decades become one of two social hubs for Latin Americans living in London.  Its other independent traders came from all over the world and had built successful businesses for themselves and their families.  All of this would be lost.  And while the affordable housing ‘offer’ was improved, it still did not meet Southwark’s minimum policy requirements.

After discussions with Southwark Law Centre, who put us in touch with PILC and barrister Sarah Sackman of the Francis Taylor Building,  a decision was made to challenge the planning permission by judicial review. Sarah enlisted David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers.  All worked ‘pro-bono’ and an Aarhuus convention cost cap limited our adverse cost exposure.

The main ground of our challenge was that the planning committee had been misled about the status of the funding for the social housing.  Delancey claimed it had a grant from the Mayor for this, while also committing to building the social housing without a grant.  We argued that if a grant was indeed in place, this gave scope for the committee to have sought more socially rented housing,  The judge found, however, that while there was ambiguity in reports to the planning committee, the committee was nonetheless sufficiently aware of the full funding situation and had therefore not been misled.

The judge also found that the reports only amounted to guidance and allowed council officers discretion in how the committee’s decision was put into effect in practice.  This had consequences.  Delancey’s simple undertaking—to either build the social housing or to give Southwark Council or housing association the ‘the land and sum of money sufficient for construction and completion of the social rented units’ to do so itself—became a more complicated arrangement, with three options inserted into the legal agreement for the development, two of which involved Southwark meeting upfront costs.  The judge ruled, against our arguments, that this was a fair rendering of the committee’s decision.

We also challenged Southwark and Delancey’s assertion that ‘social rent equivalent’ (with 3-year assured shorthold tenancies) and ‘social rent’ (usually with lifetime tenancies) were effectively the same. Once more, the judge disagreed and could not see any significant difference.

The court decision and lessons learned

The outcome of our appeal against the High Court decision was unfortunately no better.  The Court of Appeal found that while the funding position was ‘overstated’, it was not misleading, and that, in any event, no additional socially rented housing could have been sought by the committee because the scheme was not sufficiently viable (a routine, but effective, argument  against social housing provision) .  It also confirmed the High Court decision that the ‘instrument of delegation’—a very short document—rather than the committee report constituted the ‘resolution to approve’.

We are disappointed by this outcome, naturally, but not disheartened.  The legal challenge was an important part of our campaign, but not the whole campaign. The practical improvements described above would not have been gained if we had not demonstrated a willingness to overturn the whole scheme. We have also shown that, with will and determination, a broad-based local campaign can win concessions, even if not outright victory.

Our campaign will continue, because the regeneration of the Elephant is far from finished.  In particular, we will continue to support the many traders who did not get relocated and who are now negotiating for new market space at the Elephant.

The court’s decision raises the serious question of who is going to pay for the socially rented housing that our campaign’s hard work has secured.  Whatever the courts may have decided, we are pretty sure that the planning committee did not have it in mind that Southwark should meet this cost. Such an interpretation of the development’s legal agreement is one that Delancey may now seek to take advantage of.

More generally, the court’s decision demonstrates that not everything a planning committee thinks it might be approving gets into the finalised agreement—at least not in the way that it should.  If a planning committee wants to be certain that any particular measure or amendment is adopted and effected in a given way, it must be specified in the ‘resolution to approve’. This is a lesson both for campaigners and councillors who sit on planning committees.


11 May 2021

UCPI: Spy Cops in the Anti-Fascist Movement

2021-05-11T17:55:05+01:0011th May 2021|

On 12 May former undercover officer ‘Paul Gray’ is due to give evidence to the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). Our latest blog from the inquiry tells the story of the Anti-Nazi League, which galvanised opposition to fascism in the late 1970s – only to be targeted by police spies.

In the mid to late 1970s the fascist National Front (NF) was a significant force in the UK. With tens of thousands of members, the NF was a serious threat to migrant communities, people of colour, trade unionists and socialists.

Although it stood in elections and occasionally obtained a sizeable vote, the NF was a street force rather than a major electoral presence. Its members terrorised minority groups and attacked socialist and trade-union meetings.

A major role in mobilising mass opposition to the NF was played by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a broad-based anti-fascist movement formed in late 1977.

Building the movement against fascism

The ANL was founded in the wake of the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977, in which anti-fascists disrupted plans by an insurgent NF to march through Clifton Rise, southeast London, which had a large black population. The counter-demonstration united trade unionists with the black community—and marked the beginning of a generalised campaign against the NF.

The ANL grew rapidly to become the NF’s most significant opponent. In its first year it recruited between 40,000 and 50,000 members, distributed over five million leaflets and sold around one million anti-NF badges and stickers. Such was the level of its popular support that the ANL was widely regarded as the largest extra-parliamentary movement since the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

As the ANL grew, trade unions began to develop anti-fascist workplace groups—Civil Servants Against the Nazis, Teachers Against the Nazis, and the like. On one occasion, thanks to the support of the National Union of Mineworker, some 60,000 Yorkshire miners went to work wearing ANL stickers on their helmets.

In April 1978, the ANL and Rock Against Racism organised a huge carnival in Victoria Park, east London. The festival, which attracted approximately 80,000 people, mixed political messages with music.

Mass events like these grabbed the imagination of many young people and increased their confidence to confront racist and fascist ideas. One result was School Kids against the Nazis (SKAN), a pupil-organised anti-fascist movement.

Resisting the NF as a street force

Many ‘official’ leaders of the labour and trade union movement preferred not to confront the NF. The work of the ANL was vital in challenging this passivity, and in galvanising people who saw the need to oppose fascists but had previously been uncertain about physically confronting them.

The late 1970s saw major flashpoints as the NF responded to its flagging electoral fortunes by taking to the streets to intimidate and attack black and Asian communities. The ANL came out in Leicester, where the NF had previously done well in local elections, to resist plans for a fascist march. Meanwhile, in Southall, the local council permitted the NF to use the town hall for a public meeting in the run-up to the 1979 general election. Thousands of anti-fascists poured into Southall to help the local community demonstrate its opposition to the NF.

On the day of the meeting, the police’s Special Patrol Group ran riot, injuring many people and killing teacher and ANL member Blair Peach.

Undercover police in the anti-fascist movement

During the late 1970s undercover officers from the Special Demonstration Squad infiltrated and monitored the ANL and SKAN.

PILC represents former leading members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who were central to the development of the ANL. In our submission to the UCPI we sum up the work of spy cops in the anti-fascist movement as follows:

“The closest ‘[Paul] Gray’ ever comes to reporting on violence is his note that a school-boy had a fight with his brother.

These children were either the children of Socialist Workers Party members or children who were engaged enough with their society to be part of the School Kids Against the Nazis […]

 In the course of ‘Paul Gray’s’ deployment, Column 88 [another fascist group] were threatening to burn down the homes of SWP members. The National Front were attacking Bengalis in Brick Lane, smashing up reggae record shops and graffitiing mosques. They were burning down Indian restaurants and murdering young men like Altab Ali and Ishaque Ali in Whitechapel and Hackney. Whilst they were doing that, Gray and his […] “exemplary” SDS colleagues were writing about what they refer to as [the] “jewish” finance of the Anti-Nazi League, a “negress” activist, an activist with a “large jewish nose”, and “coloured hooligans” […]

 Instead of investigating the racist firebombing that killed 13 young black people in New Cross, the Special Demonstration Squad were reporting on school children and providing MI5 with copies of Socialist Workers Party baby-sitting rotas.”

The above account illustrates something of the nature of undercover political policing in the late 1970s. As our clients testify, spy cops pored over the minutiae of the political activities of SKAN, ANL and the SWP—but were rather less interested in the racism and violence of the National Front.

The inquiry continues.





4 May 2021

Spy cops in the Troops Out Movement

2021-05-06T09:56:11+01:004th May 2021|

Our latest blog from the Undercover Policing Inquiry looks back at the infiltration of the Troops Out Movement, a campaigning organisation committed to bringing an end to British rule in the north of Ireland.

On 5 May 2021 our client Richard Chessum is due to give witness evidence to the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). Richard was an activist in the Troops Out Movement who was befriended and reported on by Rick Gibson (real name Richard Clark), a police officer sent to spy on the organisation.

The Troops Out Movement was formed in West London in September 1973 by Irish solidarity activists, trade unionists, socialists and Irish people living in Britain. It was a campaigning organisation committed to bringing an end to British rule in the north of Ireland.

The movement had two stated aims. First, it campaigned for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. Second, it campaigned for self-determination for the Irish people. The movement also campaigned around related issued including justice, policing, equality, demilitarisation, employment discrimination, cultural rights and the Irish language.

Those who gathered at the founding meeting of the Troops Out Movement were appalled at the effects of British rule in the north of Ireland. They wanted to show their solidarity with the Irish people and their  opposition to the occupation. Within a year the movement had branches all over Britain.

The movement was not implicated in any public disorder. It was a democratic campaigning organisation, based in Britain and dedicated to raising concerns about human-rights abuses in the north of Ireland.

Opposing the occupation of Ireland

For people living in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s without family or cultural ties to Ireland, making the leap from vague disquiet about the British army’s actions in Ireland to committed activism was no easy step. As is often the case with the media and government today, the full picture of events in Ireland was not always given. Where political events in Ireland were not ignored, they were often seriously misrepresented.

There is nonetheless a long tradition in Britain of opposition to the occupation of Ireland. The Troops Out Movement could trace its roots back as far as 1647, when the radical group the Levellers published The English Soldiers’ Standard, in which they set out their belief that Ireland should be free.

In 1649, inspired by the Levellers, a group of English soldiers mutinied rather than go with Oliver Cromwell and his army to take part in the slaughter of Irish people. The soldiers published a pamphlet setting out their demands. They asked: ‘What have we to do in Ireland, to fight and murder a people and a nation… which have done us no harm? We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent and Christian blood.’

Over the centuries various campaigns demanded independence for Ireland. The Fenian movement was strong in parts of northern England in the 1860s. There was support for a Home Rule Movement in the 1870s. The failure of the Easter Uprising in 1916 led to the development of the Irish Self Determination League, and later, in the 1960s, the Anti-Internment League.

Spy cops in the movement

Shortly after its formation, the Troops Out Movement was infiltrated by officers of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which dedicated significant resources to infiltrating mainly progressive and left-wing organisations. Officers using assumed names reported on local, regional and national meetings. One officer, Rick Gibson, took a leading position in the Troops Out Movement.

Like other activists involved in opposition to the British state, members of the Troops Out Movement have faced their fair share of police harassment, including when travelling to and from Ireland. In some cases—usually in the wake of IRA activity in England—members of the movement had their houses raided by the police. Police would comb through books, photographs and personal paperwork in an attempt to gather intelligence.

Despite the best efforts of political policing to derail the Troops Out Movement,  evidence suggests its campaigning was effective. Opinion polls taken in Britain have consistently shown a majority of the public in favour of British military withdrawal from the north of Ireland.

An opening statement to the UCPI on the activities of the officer who infiltrated the Troops Out movement can be viewed here.


29 Apr 2021

On May Day, we remember the dead and fight for the living

2021-04-29T16:57:43+01:0029th April 2021|

May Day is celebrated internationally on 1 May. It is a day to commemorate the struggles of working-class and marginalised communities against oppression.

In this special May Day guest blog John Bryan—retired building worker and blacklisted trade unionist—shares his personal recollections of battles over safety at work.

On this day I always bring to mind those workers physically and emotionally damaged by their work conditions—and by the stress of ‘blacklisting’.

When I started working in construction in the 1970s you always knew who the foreman and chargehands were—they were the ones with hard hats! Changing rooms were a wooden shed with a bench with six-inch nails knocked into the wall to hang your jacket and personal stuff. You had to hide your tools as best you could as there were hardly any lockups. Toilet facilities were large buckets on each floor or out on the scaffold. A labourer got 50p a day extra ‘dirty’ money to clean the buckets every day and disinfect them.

The only women on site were employed as secretaries. They had their own portaloos. You had to ask at the stores for safety gloves and a hard hat, which the storemen (company men) were always reluctant to give you. They acted as if the equipment was theirs.

On average, six building workers were killed on site every month. Others suffered injuries—many of them life-changing. The canteens were usually run by the partners or families of the site foremen, so if you weren’t hit on the head by a falling brick or a piece of wood they got you with norovirus! If you raised any of these issues with the trades’ foreman, they would come out with the old macho nonsense: “We are building workers, not office workers”. Even factory conditions were better.

I always tried to work directly for the company, but there were other ways of working, like the  self-employed ‘lump’. You could be ‘working direct’ for the main contractor at one end of the site. At the other end another gang would be doing similar work ‘on the lump’. The foreman would often try to stir it up between the gangs for fun and divide-and-rule.

Sometimes I had to work ‘on the lump’. I had a family and needed the money. To get paid I had to go to the pub of a sub-contractor’s mate and wait for him to turn up with my wages. I was spending money I did not have waiting for wages I might not get!

I would say to the other men, ‘We shouldn’t have to work like this’, and they would reply, ‘What can we do about it?’ When I suggested the construction workers union, UCATT, they would laugh, saying: ‘They are all bent!’

The construction industry was the original gig economy. The 1972 national building strike won a significant pay rise but did not deal with bogus self-employment or the blacklisting of trade unionists for fighting against poor conditions on site. The conspiracy trial of 24 building workers in Shrewsbury and Birmingham led to some being imprisoned. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson spent thirty-one days on hunger strike protesting that they were political prisoners. Only recently, after forty-eight years, were they finally acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Fighting and winning

In 1978 I was working on a large government refurbishment job for Taylor Woodrow. who were a large construction company at the time. Two Northern Irish lads came up to me and said they were trying to organise a union shop on site. We talked about the issues on site, mainly the lack of safety, and I joined.

When I spoke to the older men on site, they said they liked what I was doing but that I would end up being blacklisted. I had heard of the Hollywood blacklist, but in my naivety I thought that the worst that would happen was that I would not work for Taylor Woodrow again. I did not realise that there was an industry-wide blacklist.

One of the main issues on the site was the large fixed crane on the seventh floor of the building. Siting the crane there meant that the driver in the cab could not see what was happening below on the site and on the street where deliveries were made. This resulted in several accidents, including one worker losing his finger.

In the end, we had to take strike action over the crane issue. We were on strike for ten days with full support of those on site, but Taylor Woodrow called the police alleging intimidation and threats. Despite this, we won the dispute: the crane was repositioned; a shop steward did inspections and checks; all workers had hard hats and safety gloves; and there was no ‘lump’ labour on site. We had the help and support of a decent regional union official, which was a rare occurrence in those days.

The mental toll of blacklisting

In construction you work yourself out of a job from the day you start on site. Eighteen months later the job was finished, and I was out of work. From then on, I struggled to get work from the big construction companies and only got short term work with smallish sub-contractors.

The toll on my mental health was considerable. I often went to large sites for work, was accepted by the foreman or site agent—only to be told to leave half an hour later as my name ‘didn’t check out’ with the company’s head office.

I was in and out of work for over twelve years. Friends and relations couldn’t understand why I couldn’t secure regular work as they could see tower cranes all over London. When I told them about the blacklist, I could see they didn’t believe me.

In 2009 the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided a nondescript office in Nuneaton after a tip off. They found 3,200 blacklist files in and around the main desks, with many thousands of others in the filing cabinets. The ICO took the files that were in and around the desks, but left those in the filing cabinets as they thought they had enough to justify the raid. One of the files taken was mine. The thousands of files left in those cabinets were sadly destroyed after the raid.

I subsequently got involved with the Blacklist Support Group. We fought a six-year court case against the big multinational building companies. They claimed my experiences and those of other trade unionists were down to an ‘over-zealous HR department’ rather than a national criminal conspiracy to blacklist activists who fought for better pay and conditions.

We secured compensation and an apology (for getting caught)—but no real justice. No-one appeared in court and no big company director was prosecuted.

Parallels with today

During the pandemic construction sites have remained open. Building workers have gone into work throughout Covid-19, nearly all using public transport. They have put themselves, their families and other people at risk. You cannot construct buildings working from home or in isolation: construction is a physical and team effort. There have been at least two thousand coronavirus-related deaths in the industry.

Of course, the directors of the companies live in their multimillion-pound houses in splendid isolation. Building workers’ lives have always been cheap.

There are construction sites all over London. With a mayor friendly to big business and multinational developers, who are these opportunities for? Not the local communities whose needs are being overridden for the sake of the greed and the social-engineering ideals of planners.

On May Day I like to think of the good union activists who are no longer with us. We need to think of the past and learn from it, but also fight for the present and the future. This means supporting young organisers like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union in what is now the ‘new’ gig economy.

This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared on the website Left Horizons. It is reproduced here by permission of the author.

3 Mar 2021

Stop the War granted CP status in spycops inquiry

2021-03-03T14:53:20+00:003rd March 2021|

On 2nd March 2021 Sir John Mitting, Chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), granted core-participant status to the Stop the War Coalition (StW).

StW was founded in September 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It has campaigned to prevent and end wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. StW opposes the British establishment’s disastrous addiction to war and the squandering of public resources on militarism. It is committed to supporting Palestinian rights, opposing racism and Islamophobia and defending civil liberties.

StW is a peaceful mass-democratic organisation. It has organised dozens of national demonstrations, most memorably on 15 February 2003, when up to two million people marched in London to oppose the Iraq War in the largest demo in British history.

Earlier this year PILC was instructed to apply for core-participant status on behalf of StW and some of its elected officials. It had become clear that StW was targeted for surveillance, monitoring and infiltration by the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police. We know of several officers who infiltrated the organisation.

In response to the decision, Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, said:

‘Stop the War, which has always been an open and democratic organisation, has engaged in mass mobilisation against Britain’s wars, particularly the war in Iraq. It is shocking that undercover spy cops were used against the biggest mass movement this country has seen.’

PILC senior solicitor Paul Heron said:

‘We welcome the decision of the UCPI to grant core-participant status to the Stop the War Coalition. StW led opposition to the Iraq War in the UK and has consistently opposed further intervention in the Middle East, including the disastrous ongoing war in Yemen. Its infiltration by undercover political police raises very serious questions.  Why was a mass democratic organisation infiltrated? Why does the state want to spy on and organise against those campaigning against war? Who gave the order to infiltrate the Stop the War Coalition? These issues must be addressed and those responsible held to account.’

17 Dec 2020

School attendance for C(E)V households in Covid-19

2020-12-17T12:29:08+00:0017th December 2020|

After requests from parents and campaigners, we are publishing the government’s response to our pre-action letter.

We have had a brilliant response to the briefing note on school attendance for vulnerable households during Covid-19, which we published on Tuesday.

The response makes clear that many parents, schools and local authorities were unaware that there was any local discretion in these sorts of cases.

We have therefore decided to publish the government’s response to our pre-action letter. We hope this will help vulnerable households when liaising with schools and local authorities.

The full response can be read and downloaded here. Parts have been redacted for confidentiality reasons.

What does the government’s response mean?

There are two parts to the letter.

Part 1: The government justifies the current guidance

Pages 2-3 of the letter restate the government’s guidance on infection control (i.e. the steps that schools should be taking) and school attendance during Covid-19. The Secretary of State restates his expectation that children should attend school even if parents are shielding/vulnerable.

The response seeks to justify that view by reference to medical evidence and guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England.

Part 2: The Government makes clear that, contrary to the published guidance, authorising absence during Covid-19 is a matter of local discretion

This is a really important concession. Previously it was believed there was no flexibility or room for local discretion in this area.

Pages 4-5 of the letter make clear that:

  • Whether leave of absence should be granted is determined by each individual school headteacher or local education authority. This is a matter of local decision-making and is made on a discretionary basis.
  • A child’s absence can be authorised beyond the examples set out in the government’s guidance. The categories of authorised absence contained in the Government’s guidance are therefore not ‘closed’. They are non-exhaustive examples.
  • None of the national guidance from government overrides local discretion and flexibility. Schools have the final say.

This applies to cases involving both clinically vulnerable (CV) & clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) parents. (The response refers to ‘the situation of [our] client’. One of our clients who received this response was a CV parent. The other, who received the same response, was a CEV parent.)

 What can CV and CEV parents do?

  • You can write to your child’s school and/or your local education authority requesting that they exercise discretion and authorise your child’s absence. Ask them to take into account any vulnerabilities and the impact school attendance is having/would have on your family. If possible, you should include supporting evidence, e.g. GP letter
  • You should make clear in your letter that the question of whether leave of absence should be granted is ultimately determined by each individual school head teacher and not central government. Authorising absence is a matter of local decision-making
  • You should also make clear that the government’s guidance does not override the existing school attendance provisions. Absence can be authorised beyond the examples noted in the guidance and can cover your situation (as a CV or CEV parent). You can cite the information outlined here, our briefing note and/or the government’s response to our letter.

The headteacher or local authority may, of course, decide not to exercise discretion in your case and may refuse to authorise your child’s absence. If that happens, their decision may be open to legal challenge.

What are we doing now?

The government is continuing to defending its current guidance, which states that vulnerable parents should still send their children to school. It has failed to make clear that schools and local authorities have discretion.

We will now be pushing the government to:

  • Amend its published guidance to reflect its official position on local discretion in such cases, so that schools can be made aware that their hands are not tied.
  • Change its guidance on school attendance and vulnerable family members. In our view the guidance is irrational and in  breach of our clients’ basic rights.

We will continue to provide updates about our legal challenge.

Thank you very much for all your support!