Amendment 22

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour 3:00 pm, 3rd December 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for the care with which they have approached this group, which once more highlights the gravity of the development of this legislation to enable statutory criminal conduct authorisations with total immunity for the first time in our law. I will not rehearse the various arguments, most of which I agree with, but I will respond to the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, a distinguished statesman for whom I have a great deal of respect, and to the Minister. It is their opposition to these amendments and the thinking behind them that I must address, because the issue is so serious.

At various times in the debates on the Bill, some noble Lords have expressed irritation that one should hark back to past abuses including those in the Undercover Policing Inquiry, or the treatment of my noble friends Lord Hain and Lady Lawrence, as if they belong in a bygone era and would never happen again. Other examples include the treatment of the Greenpeace women and so on. One can cast those abuses aside by saying they would never happen again but, of course, we know that as legislators we have the precious duty—the sacred trust of those who have appointed us to this role—to learn from the past and legislate for the future, informed by the dangers that past activities have exposed. It is right that we take some care and employ forensic precision in refining provisions in legislation as serious as this.

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, and the Minister, there has been an element of blurring classes of activity that should not be blurred in legislation of this kind. In particular, there has been blurring, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, highlighted, on authorising undercover operatives, which is perhaps the most serious kind of intrusive surveillance—because humans are human, not machines, to quote the Minister. Yes, they need more protection but we also need more protection from them because they will change our behaviour and not just record it.

Undercover operatives are important but dangerous, even under the present law. There is a new category of authorisation in this legislation, which is about criminal conduct by those agents and criminal conduct with total immunity after the fact. That is completely novel. It is important to understand how we got here, not just regarding the vital need for these operatives or the abuses of the past but the jurisprudential and legislative train that got us to this station.

Article 8 of the convention on human rights guarantees the right to respect for private and family life, stating that:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

But of course there are exceptions. Article 8(2) is crucial in this debate. It states:

“There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

That is a necessarily broad exception. Why? It is because that exception exists in international and human rights law to cover any privacy interference at all. Any camera on a high street or requirement to fill out a tax form is an interference with privacy. It includes any interference on a prisoner’s privacy or the privacy of a schoolchild—any interference at all. Therefore, that category of exception is broad. However, it is too broad for intrusive surveillance, which is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, we start to introduce further restrictions for intrusive surveillance. It is not just about the duty to fill out a tax form any more; we are now talking about much greater intrusions—serious crime rather than just any crime.

Economic well-being is vital, for example, for the tax form; but it is too broad a category for authorising agents of the state to commit crimes against me, my friends or my associates. That is the Article 8 wording, which is too easily copied and pasted. Then we have the slightly tighter definitions in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, on to which today’s scheme is going to be grafted. That, serious though it is, is intrusive surveillance, but this is intrusive surveillance plus criminal activity plus total civil and criminal immunity. That is why the justifications in this Bill need to be tighter still than those in RIPA, not broader, and certainly a great deal tighter than the exceptions to Article 8 of the convention. I hope that I have made that clear, and I hope it rings true with most of your Lordships’ House.

To return to the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, I say that nobody is under any doubt that covert human intelligence sources are absolutely vital tools of public protection. Under the current law, we have no doubt that they have protected many of us and saved many lives. However, that was on the basis of a law where these people acted on the basis of guidance, but without this absolute immunity; but now we are told that they need absolute immunity—not a public interest defence and not what they have had until now. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to at least probe the possibility of, if not to insist on, much tighter regulation and safeguards than are currently provided in the Bill. Having had that discussion, however, for today at least I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 22 withdrawn.

Amendments 23 to 26 not moved.