The ‘Spycops’ Bill highlights the failings of social democracy

By Adam Peggs

The government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, colloquially being referred to as the “Spycops” Bill or the CHIS Bill, has now passed through the House of Commons with relatively little opposition. Having made it through the Commons, the bill will now be debated in the House of Lords, in which opposition parliamentarians will seek to amend the legislation.

The bill would provide a legislative framework for undercover operations by state agents, be they the police, security services, HMRC or even the Foods Standards Agency, to break the law in the course of their operations. This already happens in the United Kingdom and is not uncommon internationally but the bill has garnered opposition due to its lack of limits and the lack of accountability which would likely be left if the law is implemented.

Though theoretically, the bill would not allow crimes to be committed if they violate the Human Rights Act there are questions around this. Firstly, the Human Rights Act is under review with a number of the act’s opponents in positions of power and influence in government. In five years’ time its protections could be either gone or substantially watered down. Secondly, as Garden Court Chambers have highlighted, breaches of the Human Rights Act enabled by the bill would be dealt with in a slow and secretive manner, while there are troubling questions around enforcement of the human rights laws in this context.

As Unite the Union have pointed out, the legislation would allow a “wide range of agencies… to spy on people and commit crimes”, it could threaten legitimate trade union activity as has happened in the past, it does not provide for victims of crimes to receive compensation and it would not take judicial authorisation to commit a crime. Given the history of the “Spycops” scandal, which included the case of Stephen Lawrence’s family being spied on for criticising the police, the legislation looks likely to increase the risk of more prevalent and more radical racial profiling by authorities.

Despite demands for a strong opposition, and the plethora of concerns raised by the labour movement, the opposition frontbench has largely been absent. When it hasn’t been absent it has largely sought to sit on the fence on the issue.

Moreover, the lack of opposition to the bill highlights the longstanding limits of the social democratic tradition. When it comes to upholding social freedoms, opposing arbitrary powers or opposing militarism, unfortunately the social democratic tradition has a record of errors – ranging from remaining neutral to taking the wrong side in pursuit of ‘credibility’ and ‘national unity’. This has been the case for a century, from Clement Attlee’s decision to launch a crackdown in India during his tenure as Deputy Prime Minister to the decision of the post-war government to expel Chinese sailors and their wives from Liverpool. From the Blair government’s attempt to extend detention without trial to 90 days to that government’s involvement in extraordinary rendition.

The decisions of the Labour frontbench not to oppose the bill represents another of these errors, in keeping with the failings of that tradition. By abstaining on the bill at both second and third reading the frontbench has understandably created anger and frustration from the trade union movement and party activists worried about civil liberties. Although the Labour frontbench eventually offered the concession that if elected in 2024 they would amend the legislation, the fact that this took relatively substantial pressure has generated a completely justified sense of frustration and pessimism. This is compounded by the lack of a proper public statement from the leadership or the Shadow Home Secretary honouring the concession. That this is part of a trend, rather than a one-off mistake, should leave us worried.

Though the majority of Labour MPs abstained at the third reading of the bill, a substantial number rebelled to oppose the legislation. This includes Dawn Butler who said in a statement that the legislation gives “unchecked powers away, without strong accountability” and was part of “a very worrying trend”. And it includes Bell Ribeiro-Addy who criticised the bill’s lack of “proper oversight to prevent what are the gravest violations”.

Writing in the Guardian, Shami Chakrabarti described the bill as “abhorrent” and argued that undercover operations can be essential but that the bill would likely lead to “intrusive and dangerous” practices. In her criticism, Amnesty International’s Kate Allen went further, describing the bill as “a license for government agencies to authorise torture and murder”. While Allen’s comments were striking, they were not out of line with the verdict of other human rights, civil liberties and anti-racist organisations, with ReprieveLiberty and NetPol among those strongly condemning the bill.

The decision by the party leadership to abstain appears to have been rooted in prioritising the desire to provide a legal framework for undercover policing over the concerns about civil liberties and democratic rights.

In Beyond Social Democracy, Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman look at the history of social democracy on an international scale and argue that social democracy has lost its capacity to pursue fundamental change. Over the course of their argument, they document a history of failings when it comes to upholding social freedoms and promoting internationalism. The recent debacle over the CHIS Bill (and the Overseas Operations Bill) highlight the enduring relevance of Miliband and Liebman’s analysis.

The bill’s contents should be an open and shut case, undermining civil liberties, endangering legitimate trade union activities, raising significant concerns about racial inequality and posing risks to human rights. Yet, much like in the past, the frontbench failed to stand by those who will be impacted by the bill. In turn, their decision has highlighted the determination and principled campaigning of a number of both new and incumbent MPs, Dawn Butler, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Zarah Sultana among them.

Labour members who are concerned about social freedoms, from exercising trade union rights to organise, rights to campaign freely and the right to privacy, must not take support from the central party for granted. A frank assessment of social democratic parties’ past and present and a willingness to get organised and put on the pressure will be necessary – otherwise, we’ve already lost.

Image: Benches in the Chamber of the House of Lords, extracted from: Take a tour of the House of Lords.webm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sLZBWcPklk. Author: UK Parliament, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.