Clause 1 - Authorisation of criminal conduct

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 1:45 pm, 15th October 2020

It is an honour to follow Mr Davis, and I agree with much of what he has said. I think there is agreement in this Chamber that we need this legislation, because the hallmark of a grown-up democracy is that it does not shy away from taking the necessary actions to keep a country safe, and nor does it say, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This legislation puts on a statutory footing those practices that are part and parcel of security in this country. The question for all of us is whether it also provides the necessary accountability and oversight to ensure that they are just. I recognise that covid and the speed with which this legislation has been brought through militate against our doing our job properly on this, because we are doing it so quickly, but today I want to flag up one particular issue of concern. I suspect that it will be in the other place that we will see progress on these issues.

We know that this is a narrow Bill with a specific role around criminal conduct. I also recognise and understand the concerns that my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy raised—I am sorry that she is no longer in her place—about the ongoing inquiries and the timing of this legislation. I hope the Minister will address those points in his comments and tell us what the Government would do, should those inquiries come back with further requirements for support. I also want to put on record my support for amendment 13 and for the Front-Bench amendments from my own party.

We recognise that there are genuine concerns about the Human Rights Act. In other debates in this place, people have talked about rewriting the Act, and I hope the Minister will deal with that issue. Also, it is a circular argument to suggest that the practices set out in amendment 13 and the amendments from my own Front Bench are already covered, if the Government will not accept amendments to ensure that they are part of how this legislation is dealt with.

I also hope that the Minister will talk about the equalities impact of the legislation. I represent a community that has, at best, a tangled relationship with many of the agencies that will have these powers. We are in a position of privilege in this House, so it is right and proper that we have oversight of those who do not share those same benefits.

I rise to speak in particular to new clause 8—especially the issue at the heart of this legislation, which for me is about the people who can consent to be a covert human intelligence source. It is worth looking at the definition:

“Someone who maintains a relationship for the covert purpose of providing information to another person”— that is, not just someone who has a one-off conversation with our security services or police about something, but someone who is asked to maintain what is potentially a position of harm to support an investigation.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden talked about the James Bond code. In most of our discussions about CHIS, we have envisaged those James Bond figures—the people from our security services or police conducting covert investigations. But I want to talk about those who are not the James Bonds: the children and vulnerable people who become covert human intelligence sources and who need us to make sure in this legislation that they are properly protected.

For the last year, there has been a legal challenge to the Government about how children have been used as covert human intelligence sources. It was settled last week in the High Court, when the Government agreed to update their guidance and code of practice on how children could be involved in this legislation. It is worth taking a step back at this point to reflect on that: we are talking about young people—children being asked to do what we previously envisaged James Bond doing. I hope that I am pushing at an open door with the Minister with the new clause because that code of practice and the recognition at the High Court that there was a case to answer reflect the fact that we need to get this right.

Our first instinct may be that no child should ever be involved in intelligence work in this way, and I sympathise with that. But when we look into the cases where it has happened, we see that there may be exceptional circumstances in which a child may become an informant. It is right, therefore, that we should have incredibly strict guidelines that have the interests of that child at heart when that happens. I am open to the idea that understanding what constitutes those exceptional circumstances is very difficult, but the new clause comes from the belief that the child’s primary interests should be, as a matter of fact, at the heart of any engagement with state services.

Let us talk for a minute about the children we are discussing. For many of us who represent communities where issues such as county lines are a real problem, they are the children in the gangs and those who have been part of child sexual exploitation, who may know valuable information and have relationships with those exploiting them. For the police and the security services, they become incredibly valuable sources of information.

Those are important investigations—nobody is suggesting otherwise. But the new clause recognises that there may be a conflict of interest between the investigation and the best interests of an incredibly vulnerable person. A young child drawn into county lines who knows the people organising things and has been given a gun—I can think of such cases—is still a child. We have a duty to that child to ensure that they are not exploited, even if people feel that the investigation is merited.

The Minister will say that that happens very rarely. The Government’s own figures show that 17 children in 11 jurisdictions were used in this way in the past couple of years. One of them was just 15—a 15-year-old child being asked to continue a relationship that puts them at harm because that helps an investigation. What troubled me was that one of the other Ministers told the court that we should actually make more use of children in such circumstances—that they could be valuable because they were getting involved in criminal activity themselves.

Again, take a step back and think that through. In other parts of our legislation, we recognise that when children engage in harmful practices it is our duty to stop that. Yet in that court case and this process with CHIS, Ministers are saying, “Actually, we might want to maintain that because it will help with an investigation”—the children would have “unique access” as “juvenile undercover agents”. They are children, Minister, and it is absolutely right that we act to protect them and see them as children first. That is what new clause 8 seeks to do.