The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, otherwise known as the Spycops Bill, is advancing full steam ahead after the law passed its third reading in the House of Commons (HoC) on Thursday 16 October.
The legislation, which legalises criminal activities committed by Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS), sets dangerous new precedents, and has been said to fundamentally undermine the rule of law.
Many human rights groups, and some rebel Labour MPs have voiced their outrage at the bill, stating that not only is this bill essentially a “licence to kill,” but that it also prevents victims from attaining justice. Among the Labour MPs standing against the bill, is Dan Carden, who resigned from his position as Shadow Financial Secretary as a result of his opposition to the bill.
So far, the bill has received insufficient scrutiny, and poses a serious threat to both justice and freedom in the UK. The House of Lords (HoL) is the last bastion of hope which could potentially block the bill. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are now appealing to the chamber to introduce “urgent” amendments.
The Conservative government has said that the new CHIS Bill is a piece of legislation that will protect the “national security capability to fight serious crime”. However, the reality is far darker and deeply concerning.
Clause 5 of the new bill, which is likely to become law, authorises criminal conduct to be committed by law enforcement and government agencies if it is perceived to be:
Although the Intelligence Services Act 1994 also authorises criminal conduct to be committed by law enforcement and agencies, this applies only to foreign operations. Contrastingly, this bill permits criminal conduct to be committed against citizens of the UK, be that torture, murder or rape. There are no limitations. On top of this, no judicial approval will be required for these horrific acts to be authorised.
While this legislation applies to the military, police, intelligence services, Home Office, and Ministry of Justice (MoJ), it also extends to include some rather unexpected agencies. This includes the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission, the Environment Agency and the Competition and Markets agency, as well as a whole host of government agencies and departments. Further to this, the legislation allows the Home Secretary to add further agencies, without any parliamentary oversight.
According to the government the legislation will provide “sound legal footing” for those who work to “protect the public” and “keep our country safe”. However, the reality appears to be far more sinister.
Fearing the deeply concerning consequences of this piece of legislation, a number of MPs tabled a series of amendments to the bill. It was hoped that these amendments would help to protect the public, and put up parameters to safeguard both freedom and the rule of law. This included an amendment which would have required authorities to apply for judicial warrants to authorise actions of criminal conduct. Another amendment would have placed limitations on the kinds of crimes undercover agents and informants were authorised to commit. Unfortunately, all of these amendments were rejected.
On 15 October, the CHIS Bill passed its third reading by 313 votes to 98. All but one Conservative MP voted in its favour. Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, who claims there is “no bigger advocate for human rights” than him, whipped Labour MPs into abstaining from the vote.
That being said, the vote wasn’t completely without resistance. A total of 20 Labour MPs voted against the bill in its final stage. This rebellion included former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbot MP and frontbencher Dan Carden MP who resigned from his position as Shadow Financial Secretary as a result.
Speaking about his decision to rebel against abstaining from the vote, in his letter of resignation, the MP for Liverpool Walton, said: “As a matter of conscience I must use my voice and my vote on behalf of my constituents to object to legislation that sets dangerous new precedents on the rule of law and civil liberties”.
Back in 2011, it came to light that since 1968, some 140 undercover police had been infiltrating thousands of political groups in covert operations. Some of the groups targeted included socialist groups, animal rights groups, and environmental groups.
While working undercover, using the names of dead children, some of the spies entered into fake relationships with unassuming women. A number of these relationships produced children, creating a legacy of pain and trauma.
On top of this, it was also discovered that over the years, undercover police had deliberately concealed evidence that could have resulted in the acquittal of activists that had been prosecuted. In 2011, the Court of Appeal ruled that the convictions of 20 environmental protesters would be quashed due to police spies’ failure to disclose evidence.
Some have argued that this new bill will help to regulate covert operations, and the activities of undercover police, to prevent a repeat of the misconduct outlined above. However, it is apparent that this bill would instead legalise the criminal activities of CHIS.
Groups such as trade union Unite the Union, have outlined a number of concerns about the bill. The union highlighted that as the bill stands there is no restriction placed on the crimes undercover police can commit, and no provision for innocent victims to seek justice or compensation. The union also argues that the legislation threatens the activity of both trade union activity and justice campaigns.
In joint criticism of the bill, Reprieve, the Pat Finucane Centre, Privacy International, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, and Rights and Security International, also explained the fundamental flaws of the bill.
They stated: “There is no express prohibition on authorising crimes that would constitute human rights violations, including murder, torture (e.g. punishment shootings), kidnap, or sexual offences, or on conduct that would interfere with the course of justice”.
“The Bill relies on the Human Rights Act as a safeguard, despite the Government making clear that it does not believe that the Human Rights Act applies to abuses committed by its agents, even torture”. Moreover, the Conservative government pledged in their 2017 manifesto to “update” the current Human Rights Act after Brexit. While there is little expansion on what “update” may actually mean, the party is not known for being the Act’s biggest fan, to say the very least.
Elsewhere, MPs commented on the preposterous nature of such a wide range of agencies being included within the legislation. Alister Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, who himself had tabled an amendment to the bill, said: “With the greatest respect to the staff of the Food Standards Agency, however, if we are allowing meat inspectors to commit murder than something has gone seriously awry”.
In a parliamentary debate on the bill, Carmichael also reflected on the implications of the powers awarded to CHIS to commit crimes if they are “in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”. He said: “If it is decided that we need a different Governor of the Bank of England, can we authorise a CHIS to wipe him out? Could we use this if we decided that a no-deal Brexit was not in the UK’s economic interests?”
Meanwhile, Green Peer Jenny Jones, called the bill: “One of the most dangerous pieces of legislation any government has ever proposed”. She also argued that the creation of the bill was the government’s response to the spycops scandal, and a way of ensuring that innocent victims affected can “never take legal action to get justice”.
Now that the bill has passed through the HoC, a number of human rights groups are appealing to the HoL to block the “deeply dangerous” bill.
Maya Foa Reprieve director warned of the potentially devastating consequences if the bill passes through the HoL unchecked and unamended. She said: “Without limits on the crimes agents can commit, this Bill is wide open to abuse — and history suggests this will result in terrible harm. We are hopeful the House of Lords will amend this legislation to make clear MI5 cannot say what is and isn’t lawful, nor authorise torture, murder or sexual violence”.
Kate Allen Amnesty international director also commented on the disturbing and insidious nature of the legislation: “It’s hugely worrying that we’re a step closer to seeing this deeply dangerous Bill become law”. She added: “MPs are signing off on a licence for government agencies to authorise torture and murder. Giving such disturbing powers to bodies including MI5 and the police could have devastating impacts”.
Some have also suspected that the bill is being rushed through before the first evidence hearing of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in November. If passed, the bill would significantly undermine the inquiry and render it’s findings largely useless.
The bill’s second reading in the HoL is yet to be announced.