Q – What is the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Criminal Conduct Bill all about?
A – The Bill introduces specific legal powers whereby one of a wide number of agencies (not just the police and security services but also HMRC, the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission and many others) can authorise an embedded agent (Covert Human Intelligence Source or CHIS) on an undercover mission to take criminal actions as long as this is in pursuit of investigating criminal activity and “proportionate” to the threat being fought.
Q – What crimes would be off-limits to a CHIS?
The Bill sets no limits to the nature of the criminality which can be authorised whatsoever – so measures including torture, rape and murder could potentially be given the green light. The Government claims that all UK legislation, as per the Human Rights Act, needs to be consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights – which protects the right to life and freedom from torture. However, UK Government lawyers have already sought to argue that forms of torture are consistent with ECHR obligations. In any case, many Tory MPs have already indicated they would like the UK Government to be able to derogate from the ECHR when they consider it necessary, so this “protection” might evoporate.
Q- Why on earth would Labour whip MPs to Abstain on the Bill?
A – The argument seems to be that the State runs agents who act unlawfully now anyway, but they can’t be criminally prosecuted as their is no statutory basis for determining when it might be considered necessary for a CHIS to be so authorised. Putting onto a statutory footing at least makes it clear in what circumstances these decisions might be considered legitmate, and so enable criminal sanctions to be brought against those who operate outside of any such framework. However, the Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has recognised the need for very substantial amendments to the Bill and much stronger safeguards to be introduced.
Q – Who is concerned about the Bill?
There’s a long list of people, communities and organisations who have experienced, or have very good reason to fear, being targeted by people in the pay of the British State acting outside the law. Even some Tory MPs like David Davis are expected to voice concerns over the civil liberties implications. Those raising concern include trade unions (whose members have been spied upon by undercover agents working in league with criminal blacklisting outlets), anti-racist campaigns like those seeking justice for Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel, lawyers, left wing MPs, and female activists who were deceived into the most intimate of relationships with secret “spycops”. This is not even to mention the many instances of State collusion into killings in Northern Ireland.
Q- What about the “Spycops” inquiry?
Good question. Even as the Public Inquiry now being led by Sir John Mitting (formerly the Pitchford Inquiry) hears evidence, the Government is moving to introduce a procedure which would deny future victims any civil redress, and which would allow agencies of the State to license criminal behaviour in future. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t undermine the Inquiry, and open up a new generation of trade unionist and activists to similar forms of abusive treatment.
Q – Where can I read more about the detailed concerns over the Bill?
A briefing has been put together by the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) together with Reprieve, the Pat Finucane Centre, Privacy International, and Rights and Security International.
Q- What happens after Second Reading?
The Bill can still be amended in Committee and at Report Stage in the Commons, and will then go into the House of Lords where further amendments are possible.