Today in policing history: #spycop Bob Lambert sets fire to Debenhams Store, Harrow, 1987.

A few short years ago, Bob Lambert’s star was rising high. Having retired from the Metropolitan Police in 2008, he had built on his reputation as a Special Branch Detective Inspector, an expert on terrorism and how to combat it. He had moved effortlessly into academia and was a hit on the conference circuit, lauded as a mover and shaker in a number of projects both state-funded and grassroots-based, aimed at opposing Islamic jihadism. A darling of liberal opinion.

How the mighty have fallen.

Since 2011, Bob’s reputation has been somewhat on the slide: exposed as a former police spy, an agent provocateur, who had used relationships with several women he met while undercover to beef up his cover story… Later, a head of the same undercover police unit he had served, supervising other spies infiltrating social movements and grieving families. His liberal aura has lost its gloss; he has had to give up some lucrative and prestigious academic positions; he faces serious questions about his past.

Lambert is described as having joined the Metropolitan Police in 1977. He is said to have joined Metropolitan Police Special Branch in 1980, before being recruited to its secretive Special Demonstration Squad sometime between then and 1983.

Set up in 1968 in response to mass protests against the Vietnam War, and funded directly by the Home Office, the purpose of the SDS was to place long term spies in political movements in the UK, to gather ‘intelligence’ which was used to undermine those movements. The SDS spied on several hundred anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-war, environmental and social justice groups, and many more, over 40 years. The work of uncovering the more than 140 former police spies is ongoing.

As part of these undercover operations, agents, including Bob Lambert, had long term intimate and sexual relationships with campaigners and their friends, in the most abusive breach of trust imaginable. This abuse has had a severe and lasting emotional impact on those affected. Lambert has admitted he had four sexual relationships while undercover and even fathered a child before disappearing without trace from their lives.

Bob Lambert was deployed undercover using the alias ‘Bob Robinson’ from at least early 1984 until late 1988. For about 5 years up to 1988, Bob infiltrated meetings and events of London Greenpeace, an organisation which campaigned against nuclear power and war, and on other environmental and social justice issues. He was also actively involved with peace campaigns and animal rights activities and was even prosecuted for distributing ‘insulting’ leaflets outside a butchers shop. ‘Bob Robinson’ first appeared in the animal rights and environmental milieu in north London late 1983 or early 1984. His deployment followed that of the first known SDS officer sent to live amongst animal rights activists, Mike Chitty, who appeared in South London in early 1983.

His infiltration into animal rights circles began with regular attendance at demonstrations, where he made the acquaintance of genuine activists. He soon became a familiar face at protests, and offered to drive people to and from events. He took part in hunt sabotage, protests against businesses associated with animal products, and joined London Greenpeace, an anarchist-leaning group involved in environmental and social issues.

Having established himself on the scene, he took on more responsibilities and a more active role in various campaigns and groups, and “set about befriending campaigners suspected of being in the ALF” [Animal Liberation Front]. He wrote or co-wrote a number of activist documents, including London Greenpeace’s What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? factsheet – which was later subject to a notorious libel suit issued by McDonald’s. Throughout his undercover tour as ‘Robinson’, Lambert implied to activists that he was interested in or already involved in more clandestine forms of political activity, such as that associated with the cells of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

As an activist in an ALF cell, he took part in a co-ordinated clandestine action on the night of 12th July 1987, which saw the burning down of the Harrow branch of the Debenhams department store, using an incendiary device designed to set off sprinklers and destroy fur stocks. Two more branches of Debenhams, in Luton and Romford, were targeted at the same time on the same night. The 1987 attacks, which caused an estimated £340,000 worth of damage on the Harrow branch alone, with £4 million in fire damage and £4.5 million in trading losses across all three, was credited with precipitating the ending of Debenhams’ involvement in the fur trade.

In fact, Bob was acting as an agent-provocateur, encouraging and taking part in the action to ensure the arrests of ALF activists. The other two members of ‘Robinson’’s cell, Geoff Sheppard and Andrew Clarke, were both arrested and subsequently imprisoned. A 2015 “forensic external examination” of SDS-related documents undertaken by Stephen Taylor for the Home Office obliquely references Lambert’s involvement in securing the arrests of Sheppard and Clarke, and indicates that the then-Home Secretary Douglas Hurd complimented the unit on its operation.

Lambert remained deployed in the field as ‘Robinson’ until late 1988. Using the pretext of being under investigation by police for his involvement in the 1987 Harrow Debenhams’ arson – which included a Special Branch raid on the home of his then ‘partner’ Belinda Harvey “to add credibility to Lambert’s cover story” – ‘Robinson’ told Harvey and other friends, including his son’s mother, Jacqui, that he needed to go ‘on the run’ to avoid capture; to some he said that he planned to move to Spain until things quietened down. He then “abandoned his flat and stayed for a couple of weeks in what he called a ‘safe house’”, before spending a farewell week with Belinda at a friend’s house in Dorset in December 1988. With this, he disappeared out of their lives, with a few postcards postmarked Spain and sent in January 1989 the only indication that he still existed.

In reality, he continued to work within the police, rising to become a Detective Inspector in Special Branch, and to head the Special Demonstration Squad. He supervised other SDS agents who spied and lied while infiltrating groups such as London Greenpeace, Reclaim the Streets, anti fascist groups and campaigners against genetically modified crops. His experience in penetrating London Greenpeace and the ALF was used as a model for other agents. He is also directly implicated in police attempts to spy on, smear and discredit Stephen Lawrence’s family’s campaign against the police failures to investigate Stephen’s racist murder in 1993; and implicated in the scandal of SDS surveillance-derived intelligence being passed to private firms organizing blacklist against trade unionists.

After Lambert’s SDS past was exposed publicly by former activists in London Greenpeace in 2011, Lambert eventually ‘apologised’ for his sexual exploitation of women while undercover; but his is not an isolated case. Of some 15 other undercover police agents now identified as spying on activist groups in the last 20 years have, almost all have had deceitful and exploitative relationships with women. Top cops claim these spies were ordered not to form sexual relationships; but in reality supervisors turned a blind eye to what comes very close to rape. Ten women used in this way by police spies have won damages and an apology from the Metropolitan Police as the institution ultimately responsible for this; one is still suing the Met. More cases will surely result as further individual police spies are exposed.

Lambert continues to deny setting fire to the Debenhams Store in Harrow in July 1987. However Andrew Clarke and Geoff Shepherd have launched an appeal against their convictions, on the grounds that the failure to reveal the involvement of a police agent provocateur as central to the ‘plot’ constitutes a miscarriage of justice. Look forward to seeing Bob have his day in court THIS time around. And now the Met’s Professional Standards Department is investigating the 1987 attack. It’s fair to say that while the police top brass will enable some very dodgy practices and cover for you, it will only go so far – if you start looking like a liability, they will hang you out to dry. Sorry Bob. 

These undercover police were not involved in ‘anti terrorist’ operations, they were spying to disrupt and weaken the growing opposition to the domination of our society by the interests of multinational corporations, and attacking community campaigns dealing with police corruption, racist or state violence. Several official inquiries and investigations have been launched into undercover policing, because of the huge public outcry the exposures have created. But its worth stressing that Lambert’s activities – both in terms of spying and of exploiting women for cover and for sex – fit into a pattern, sponsored by the highest levels of the police and the state behind it. He was not a bad apple – the whole barrel stinks.

However, Bob’s exposure has dimmed his post-police career. His part-time posts at London Metropolitan and St Andrews Universities were called into question in the light of his past being brought to light, and in late 2015 he resigned both positions after protests inside and outside both institutions. Tragic.

The upcoming Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing may well also lift some lids off many practices top cops would rather stay hidden…

Much more on Bob’s career can be found here

(from which some of this post was brazenly lifted).

And for more on the fight to expose undercover police in the UK (and beyond):

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Spies Out Of Lives: The campaign supporting women exploited and deceived by spycops

The Undercover Research Group: uncovering undercover police agents, the units they worked for, and the police structures that backed them.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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