Clause 1 - Authorisation of criminal conduct

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:00 pm, 15th October 2020

Time is short, so I will move on rapidly. Tackling terrorism and ensuring that all our citizens are protected from terrorism is at the core of my being. I was brought up in a family where every day my mum or dad would check under our car for suspect devices and I was prevented from getting in the car until that had happened. I have been the top target on the Fascist website Redwatch, which published my former home address and that of my workplace. Although there were never any physical attacks on me, I was threatened, even in the local newspaper.

More recently, my constituents lost their lives in the Manchester Arena bombing. Intelligence on Salman Abedi came into MI5 for six years, and he was a subject of interest right up to the months before he blew himself up and took so many lives. My constituents’ families and I do not know everything about Abedi; some of the exact detail could not be made public at the inquiry and was heard only by the chair. The security services could have placed an individual in a position to stop that attack. Of course, I would have supported that, as I am sure would everyone here.

The Bill puts the pre-authorisation of covert surveillance on a statutory footing, and that aspect must be welcome. The measures in the Bill are limited, but it is vital that its scope is fit for purpose. We must ensure that that statutory footing is limited to those organisations involved in normal policing and intelligence gathering. The scope of the criminality that is allowed for pre-authorisation must also be more tightly legislated for than in the Bill in its current form. The bar for such contentious work must surely be very high, reaching a level where the work is only to protect human life. There is the possibility, as has happened in the past, of the crimes committed by undercover agents far exceeding any danger posed by the group they are infiltrating.

The Government point to the Human Rights Act to say that actions such as torture and murder cannot be committed, but the duty to adhere to that Act applies only to Government bodies. In the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the Government argued that covert agents were not actually part of the Government. In a 56-page judgment, the IPT declared that the guidelines do not breach human rights, in which case human rights law would not apply.

Without serious amendments to the Bill, we are looking at a toxic combination of a state licence to commit human rights abuses and the shutdown of any recourse to justice through civil or criminal courts. That leaves a complete absence of justice for victims and a drastic reduction in the ability to hold the state to account. That is why the Bill needs to specify what criminal conduct is permitted by arm’s length agents.

Some of the safeguards on activity lie in the “economic wellbeing of the UK” provision in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. However, that is open to interpretation, which leads to perverse authorisations, such as for undercover work against peaceful environmental protests against fossil fuel sites, which in fact are against the long-term economic wellbeing of the planet.

The Minister needs to amend the Bill, as we need a regulatory footing but with a tighter regulatory scope and safeguards. He should do that today by supporting the many great amendments we have heard about, including those tabled by Labour Front Benchers, my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) and others. If the Minister uses the Government’s majority to push the Bill through, however, perhaps he will listen to their lordships in the other place, as these amendments will surely come back.

How to vote on Third Reading is a marginal decision for me. With the correct safeguards, this Bill could be something that the whole House would support. Its passage in such a contentious fashion is entirely the responsibility of the Government. We all abhor terrorism and take seriously our responsibility to protect the public; at the same time, we live in a democracy and must ensure that there are protections for legitimate protest movements.