I have been contacted by many constituents who are concerned about the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. This Bill has been referred to by some as the ‘Spy Cops’ Bill.
The is a lot of misinformation out there, so it is worth stating this Bill is the difference between no safeguards and scrutiny – or a system where there are some controls, safeguards and scrutiny, under the Human Rights Act.
For these reasons I have voted FOR Labour amendments (detailed below) to strengthen the safeguards. Because those amendments did not pass, I abstained on voting on the Bill as a whole. I would have preferred the Bill to have the amendments included and it is possible that they will be added in the Lords. However, it still represents improved and strengthened safeguards and limitations on undercover operatives or agents, also known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources, which is why I did not vote against it.
More safeguards, not fewer
The ‘Spy Cops’ label is the first myth I want to deal with – this Bill is in fact not about police officers or spies. It is about undercover agents – including some kinds of informants – who are NOT police or intelligence officers but are able to infiltrate far right extremist groups, organised crime gangs trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation and terrorists planning deadly attacks. More information on who are covert human intelligence sources can be found here.
Undercover agents (Covert Human Intelligence Sources) may need to commit criminal acts in order to maintain their viable presence in these groups. Some criminal acts must be sanctioned, in order to protect them and our ability to gather the intelligence we need to bring these gangs down. But in my view, such circumstances need tests of appropriateness, scrutiny, and a framework of human rights. This is currently not the case.
At the moment, covert agents can commit criminal acts but without such a safeguarding structure, process of review or any legal requirements for assessment. They do so in a legal grey area, unregulated and outside of the requirements of human rights legislation.
This Bill brings these undercover agents into a legal framework and with safeguards and limits placed clearly and legally on their activities.
More respect for human rights, not less
Contrary to what is being alleged by some, the Bill actually prohibits actions which contravene the Human Rights Act – that means acts of torture, inhumane treatment and sexual violence are prohibited by this Bill. This was achieved by Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary pressuring the government on this point.
Furthermore, if the Bill becomes law, for the first time, there will be oversight of these activities by the democratically elected MPs on the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee.
Tests of necessity, proportionality and reasonableness for the first time
If the Bill becomes law, for the first time, there will be a requirement for each act to be authorised in a structure which requires demonstrable evidence that the criminal act will be necessary and unavoidable in order to continue the covert activity for the greater good, that there is a legitimate purpose and that it is proportionate and that it complies with the Human Rights Act. This has not been required till now.
On the other hand, if the Bill were to be voted down all these safeguards fall away. The existing powers to carry out covert intelligence gathering would still exist but without these safeguards.
On specific claims…
To deal with some of the claims being made:
‘The Bill licenses state actors to commit torture, sexual violence and other serious acts’.
This Bill does the exact opposite. It explicitly prohibits acts which contravene the Human Rights Act including torture, sexual violence and inhumane treatment. Nobody and no organisation has ever successfully claimed in law that torture is legal under the Human Rights Act.
Nonetheless, as an additional safeguard to make this clear, the Leader of the Labour Party and Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary proposed an amendment to specify acts which should never be authorised. They also proposed one to give pre-scrutiny to any decision to authorise criminal activity by a judge. I voted for both these amendments.
‘This Bill will be used against Trade Unions and other campaigning organisations’.
Trade Union surveillance activities were in fact explicitly prohibited by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, after Keir Starmer pushed for these amendments as Shadow Minister. Jeremy Corbyn, as the Labour leader at the time, instructed the Labour Party to vote WITH the government to support this Act on a 3 line whip.
Nonetheless, as an additional safeguard, Labour’s Bell Ribiero-Addy MP put forward amendments making this exemption explicit. I voted for this amendment.
‘This Bill authorises so-called ‘spy cops’ to enter campaigning organisations and conduct relationships with members of those groups under the pretence they are on the same side.’
These activities by undercover police officers are utterly abhorrent. This Bill is not about police activity, it is about undercover intelligence agents, who are not police officers or security agents. It also explicitly prohibits contravening the Human Rights Act.
More scrutiny not less
This is not a perfect system and this Bill does not make it perfect. If Labour were in government, we would have a different Bill with stronger safeguards. But even unamended it introduces more safeguards than we currently have. Voting against this Bill would not deny agents powers, it would simply leave them unregulated and without any legal safeguards and tests.
Nobody, least of all me, is comfortable with legally sanctioning what would otherwise be criminal acts. However, I want to make sure that our intelligence services are able to use covert agents in a carefully structured and regulated way in order to infiltrate and undermine far right extremists, child abusers, people traffickers and terrorists. This Bill provides a legal framework to try to balance the need for this intelligence with a set of tests and safeguards to ensure that in the balance of harm, such acts are used for the greater good and can be justified and scrutinised properly.
What happens next?
Now the Bill has passed its Committee, Report and Third Reading stages in the Commons, it will go to the Lords, where we expect similar amendments will be proposed and probably some will pass. It will then come back to the Commons and the government will try to remove any amendments passed in the Lords but we will do our best to defend them.