A secretive Scotland Yard intelligence unit shredded a large number of documents after a public inquiry into the undercover infiltration of political groups was set up, a watchdog has found.
On Wednesday, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) announced it had found the documents had been destroyed despite an instruction that the files had to be preserved.
The watchdog found an unnamed officer would have faced a disciplinary hearing on a charge of gross misconduct if he or she had not already retired from the Metropolitan police. An officer found guilty of gross misconduct is likely to be sacked.
The watchdog said a number of former managers had refused to cooperate with its inquiry, adding that its investigation had uncovered serious failings within the intelligence unit.
The findings heap further criticism on the police, who have been accused of obstructing a much-delayed inquiry that will examine misconduct by undercover officers.
The inquiry, which will scrutinise how undercover officers spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968, has yet to hear any evidence in public.
It was set up in March 2014 by Theresa May, the then home secretary, after a cascade of revelations about the undercover officers.
The IOPC found the Met police intelligence unit had destroyed the documents over a number of days in May 2014 after an instruction to retain files was circulated to staff in the force. The documents were shredded by the national domestic extremism and disorder intelligence unit (NDEDIU), a little-known squad that monitored political activists between May 2013 and November 2015.
On Wednesday, Sarah Green, an IOPC regional director, said: “This investigation has uncovered serious failings in the national domestic extremism and disorder intelligence unit and how it handled materials relevant to the undercover policing inquiry.
“Managers of NDEDIU should have done more to be clear about what material should be retained, and ensure they had an auditable process for destroying any material believed to be duplicates or not relevant to the inquiry.
“Our investigation also found that one former officer would have had a case to answer for gross misconduct if still serving, in relation to their failure to take the proper action when the shredding allegation was first reported.
“It is extremely unfortunate that a number of former police managers have refused to engage with this investigation to provide evidence about what steps, if any, were taken to ensure the documents were preserved for the undercover policing inquiry. The investigation had no power to compel them to do so although the inquiry may do if it considers their evidence on these issues may be relevant.”
The watchdog has previously said that the Met had been alerted to the shredding allegations by a member of its staff in December 2014. However, the force did not draw the allegations to the attention of the watchdog until May 2016.
The public inquiry, led by the retired judge Sir John Mitting, had been due to start hearing evidence in public on 1 June. On Tuesday, Mitting said the scheduled hearings had been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
After the inquiry was set up, the police submitted a large number of legal applications to keep secret the identities of individual undercover officers. The inquiry had to decide whether each application was justified.
This is a key reason why the inquiry has not started hearing evidence earlier. Victims of the surveillance have criticised both the police and the inquiry for the delays.