Clause 1 - Authorisation of criminal conduct

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 2:30 pm, 15th October 2020

The proceedings on this Bill today are an absolute travesty of parliamentary accountability. That a major Bill such as this, with huge implications for civil rights and human rights in our society and for our standing around the world, should be pushed through in a very short time this afternoon is a travesty. I suspect we will not even vote on most of the amendments—they will not have been subject to stand-alone debates. In effect, we are having another Second Reading debate to accommodate those who have tabled amendments. We should reflect on this House’s role in holding this Government to account.

I have added my name to a number of amendments, particularly those drafted by my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy, to whom I pay tribute for her work on the Bill and her contribution this afternoon.

The Mitting inquiry into undercover policing operations, which succeeded the Pitchford inquiry after Pitchford’s death, is still going on. It was due to report in 2018; it has not even got into its second and third stages yet and may well go on for several years more before it reports. It covers undercover policing since 1968, a time which, I reflect, more or less covers my whole political life, so I will read with great interest the Mitting inquiry’s final report.

What has come out so far for those of us who have good friends in environmental groups, human rights groups, trade unions and many other campaigns is the sheer arrogance of police undercover operations that have infiltrated wholly legitimate and legal operations in order to disrupt them, spread negative information and cause problems for them. If we live in a free and democratic society, criminality is obviously not acceptable and policing is obviously required to deal with it, but we do not deal with criminality by authorising criminality through undercover policing operations and investigations into such groups.

There are those of us who have had the honour of meeting people, particularly women, in a number of groups that have been infiltrated by the police and the police have then knowingly formed sexual liaisons with those women. Children have been given birth to a result and then, often years later, the woman concerned finds out that she was completely duped—completely misled—and her life was ruined by an undercover police operation. Imagine what it feels like for someone to have been with what they thought was their life partner for several years, and they discover that that person was put there by the police to seduce them into giving information on, actually, legal activities done by environmental and other groups. Will the Bill protect women from that in future? I think we all know the answer to that.

I hope that, at the very least, the House of Lords is able to make some substantial amendments to the Bill. I am disappointed that the College of Policing advice, which has just come out, is that it is not necessarily wrong for undercover officers to form sexual relations with people to gain information. This is the kind of world that we are about to approve of unless the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy and others are accepted by the Government today.

I will be brief, because there is not much time and 11 more colleagues wish to speak before 3.20 pm. The second matter to which I shall refer relates to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. The Bill says that people cannot do anything to undermine the economic wellbeing of the country. What does that actually mean? Does that mean, for example, that if dock workers decided to take strike action because they had reached the end of the road in negotiations with their employer and therefore wished to withdraw their labour to force a settlement of their grievance, they would be acting against the economic interests of this country, because that would disrupt trade? Or would they be acting in the interests of themselves, their colleagues and other workers by trying to improve their economic wellbeing? There is a big debate about what is economic wellbeing and what is not.

There are those, like me, who have seen the activities of undercover police operations in trade unions and the blacklisting of wholly legitimate trade union representatives, who have spent 20 years and more being unable to work, as electricians, as carpenters or as plumbers, because they have been blacklisted secretly by groups of employers, when the police knew about it all along. These were wholly illegal activities. The police need to recognise that what they have been doing is completely wrong—it is simply unacceptable.

I hope that we will have a thought for the moment for the more than 1,000 groups that have been infiltrated in some way by the police at some point over the past few years. Those of us who have spent our lives campaigning for social justice and environmental sustainability, and against racism in any form, often wonder why there is apparently much less concern about, much less involvement with and much less attention paid to far-right racist organisations than to other people within our society. We need to know the answers to all these questions, but I suspect we will not get them today.

My hon. Friend Chris Bryant has tabled an amendment that proposes that activities should in future be authorised only by the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has also proposed amendments on the issue of accountability, which is the key to this. I wonder whether Ministers actually knew what was going on or know what is going on now. I wonder whether senior police officers always knew what was going on. I wonder how many different quasi-secret operations were being conducted in different police authorities around the country without the relevant police commander even knowing what was happening. Inquiries in South Yorkshire in respect of Orgreave and Hillsborough tend to indicate there is a lack of transparency in the way the police operate.

Mr Davis spoke correctly about the issue of where we are going if we go down a road of ignoring human rights and justice within our society. He and I spent a lot of time campaigning to try to get British nationals and British residents released from Guantanamo Bay. The whole thing is a disgrace. The whole thing is extra-judicial in every conceivable way. Likewise, this country and our Government here were involved in extraordinary rendition in some form. If we are to hold our heads up around the world as being supporters of human rights, and as being a signatory to the universal declaration, the European convention and our own Human Rights Act, we need to look carefully at ourselves and at what this Bill proposes. I hope that at the very least the Minister will make it clear whether the Government are committed to continuing to support, recognise and work within the terms of the historic and important Human Rights Act or whether, once again, he will be appealing to the backwoods people in the Tory party who see human rights as somehow a term of abuse and who want to repeal that Act or reduce its power and importance. These things are very important.

I regret that we have such a short time for this crucial debate today, but I am moved by the hundreds of people who have been in touch with MPs about this, and the dozens of organisations, not necessarily all protest groups or on the left—these groups cover peace, civil liberties and human rights—that are very concerned about this Bill. These are people who think seriously about these matters and we would do well to listen to them, rather than ramming this through in a few hours on a Thursday afternoon and imagining that that will be job done. It will not be, because this will all get back in the courts at some point in the future and the Mitting inquiry report will come out at some point. Many of us will continue our vigilance in order to protect civil liberties and human rights in our society and our country, and to protect the civil liberties and rights of those who work in the police and other security services.