Clause 1 - Authorisation of criminal conduct

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire The Minister of State, Home Department 3:30 pm, 15th October 2020

This has been a very informed, considered and thoughtful debate on the various amendments to the Bill that have been tabled for consideration. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, covert human intelligence sources play a crucial part in preventing, and safeguarding the public from, many very serious crimes, including terrorism, drugs and firearms offences, and child sexual exploitation and abuse. In performing that role, it is essential that they can build credibility and gain the trust of those under investigation. At times, that may mean they have to commit criminality in order to maintain that cover.

I hear very clearly the points that have been made about needing to see those powers put on an express legal basis. Indeed, that is the essence of what this Bill is all about. It puts that on a clear statutory footing, putting beyond doubt Parliament’s intentions on the matter. From the contributions we have heard on all sides of the House, I think that that point is recognised—the seriousness of that and its implications for our own security in ensuring that the capability is maintained in order to keep us safe in the future, as it has done in the past, but also recognising the need for confidence in and assurance about how those agencies that act to protect us do so in an appropriate way.

Let me deal with the various amendments, because I do want to make as much progress on that as possible, and where I can I will give way to right hon. and hon. Members in doing so. First, in that context, there is the issue of oversight. The Government’s priority is to provide these public authorities with the powers they need to keep the public safe, while also ensuring that there are appropriate safeguards. This is the balance that the Bill seeks to provide. We do not believe that prior judicial approval, as proposed in amendment 7 and new clause 7, strikes that balance, as it risks the effective operation of the capability. This is a point we discussed at length on Second Reading. There are ways in which we can provide that safeguard and assurance, and prior judicial approval is not the only way to provide effective oversight of investigatory powers.

Members may find it helpful if I set out in more detail why this capability is different from other powers, such as interception or equipment interference. Put simply, human beings are more complex. Any decision on how to use a CHIS has immediate real-world consequences for that covert human intelligence source and the people around them. This requires deep expertise and close consideration of the personal strengths and weaknesses of the individual, which then enables very precise and safe tasking. These are not decisions that have the luxury of being remade. It is even more critical than for other powers that these decisions are right and are made at the right time.