Clause 1 - Authorisation of criminal conduct

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 1:15 pm, 15th October 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Mr Carmichael and I very much agree with a great deal of what he has said. I hope the Minister will be able to prove to us why it is not necessary to pursue some of these amendments, but I think the right hon. Gentleman put his case very well and very moderately. I appeal to the Minister, who is himself a moderate and considered man, to think about whether it is not appropriate to look at some of the detail of the Bill rather than the thrust of the objective, which we all absolutely support.

I will, if I may, touch on some of the amendments. The broad principle that I have, again rather like the right hon. Gentleman, is that, of course, there will be certain circumstances when it is necessary in the national interest for the brave operatives of our security services to have the power to take actions that might not otherwise be countenanced in the ordinary run of life. I accept that, sometimes, there are people who have put their lives on the line for the country’s sake and that there are circumstances in which they are entitled to protections. I do not have any problem with that, but it is the broad breadth nature of the Bill that is a concern to many of us. Those of us who have served in Government have come across those tempting occasions when submissions come along, and civil servants say, “It will be useful to draw on this widely, Minister, because x, y or z circumstance may occur at some point in the future, so it is better to have this in reserve—in the back pocket.” When one is dealing with things that touch on the exceptional circumstance of the state or its agents being permitted to break the criminal law, or potentially do harm of one kind or another—perhaps out of necessity, but none the less do harm to others—we should be pretty tight in circumscribing those instances as far as we can. We should ensure that, at the very least, there is proper oversight either beforehand when it is appropriate or thereafter by way of proper parliamentary scrutiny—I will come back to that in a moment.

That is why I do not take the line of the official Opposition’s amendment that there should always be pre-authorisation, but I do think, as a basic principle, that there ought to be pre-authorisation at the appropriate level, be that by the judicial commissioner, a prosecutor or another appropriate authority, wherever possible. That ought to be the starting point unless there is some ground, such as a matter of emergency, perhaps literally of life or death, or of the highest importance, where it is not possible to do that. I would like reassurance from the Minister on the test that will be applied as to when these powers will be used, prior to authorisation by a responsible, vetted and highly dependable individual of the kind that we are talking about. That is the first point on which I would like the Minister’s reassurance, and the point about guidance is well made, as far as that is concerned.

My second point, on amendment 20, which has been referred to, is on the position of the exclusion of civil liability. Again, there may be certain circumstances where it is appropriate for agents of the Government to act in a way that may cause some harm to others. A lot of people might not have too much concern if the target of the operation is an organised criminal or a terrorist, or someone who is a threat to us all, but I am concerned that the way in which that particular clause is drawn would also prevent the innocent victim of what might have been an otherwise necessary action—a person who is the collateral damage—from seeking civil redress. I am talking about somebody who was not the target of the steps that were taken but was caught up, literally, in the incident that occurred. Is it really fair or just to say, “Well, that’s just hard luck,” and exclude them from any liability?

The number of cases that this might engage are probably very limited, but the principle is important—someone who has done no harm to the state should not be the victim by happenstance of something that might necessarily and properly have been done in the state’s interests. If we give the state and its agents that power—perhaps reasonably enough—it is not unfair to say that there should be some safeguard for those who, through no fault of their own, might be damaged by it in some way. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that carefully.

There is also the point in the amendments that touches on the authorisation of certain very grave crimes. I appreciate what the Minister said about the intention that our adherence to the Human Rights Act—which I was glad to see the Lord Chancellor restate the other day—is protected, but if that is the case, and given the importance of the subject, why not put that on the face of the Bill? What is lost by that? Should at any time any future Government—I hope not this one—ever derogate in any way from the Human Rights Act, it would be better to have the protection there. My next point is about the scope of the agencies. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, it is pretty difficult think of what types of extreme violence might be authorised in the national interest by the Food Standards Agency? Some greater particularity around that would not be a bad idea either.

I will touch on the point that arises from amendment 13, which is in the name of my right hon. Friend Mr Davis and others. It is important because, if we are attempting to adopt a similar approach to our important security partners, why not adopt the same approach that is appropriate in the United States or, I would say, perhaps even more persuasively, Canada? It is a Commonwealth and common law jurisdiction country, which has had no difficulty operating a security regime like our own, with operational efficiency but equal concern for protection against abuse. It has found it perfectly possible to work within a statutory parameter of the kind that is suggested. I would like to understand from the Minister a little better why he thinks that that is not appropriate and why that might not be a safeguard to brave operatives under certain circumstances against the bringing of an unjustified complaint or litigation against them.