National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:52 pm on 7th July 2022.
Last but not least, we will now hear from Dr Nicholas Hoggard, lead lawyer for—I am so sorry; it is that time of day and the lack of coffee. [Laughter.] I should have confiscated my colleague’s coffee and had it for myself! Apologies; we are going to hear from Dan Dolan, the director of policy and advocacy at Reprieve. We have until 4.40 pm for the session. Could you introduce yourself for the record, Mr Dolan?
Thank you very much. My name is Dan Dolan, and I am the director of policy and advocacy at Reprieve, a legal action charity that seeks to uphold the rule of law and human rights around the word. Over the past 20 years, Reprieve has provided legal and investigative support to hundreds of prisoners on death row, the families of innocents killed in drone strikes, victims of torture and extraordinary rendition, and scores of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence.
Q Thank you for your written evidence. We have heard from the security services that they deem elements of clause 23 necessary to protect some of their staff from possible prosecution. I note that you say in your written evidence that those changes protect Ministers. Can you take us through that in more detail?
Absolutely. I should start by saying that we absolutely recognise that the country’s intelligence agencies do a difficult and often dangerous job to keep us safe, and we give our evidence in recognition of that. We think clause 23 is much more likely to protect Ministers and senior officials from criminal liability than anyone in the midst of an operation overseas.
The reason why we say that is because there is already a regime, under the Intelligence Services Act 1994, under which acts that could constitute a criminal offence overseas would be authorised by a Minister if they are in the furtherance of the agencies’ duties. That is well recognised. The Minister who took that Act through described offences such as bugging, bribery and burglary, which you can imagine an officer of the intelligence agencies may need to do overseas to keep the UK safe. That regime already exists in law, and it allows for authorisation of potentially criminal acts overseas.
Clause 23 disapplies provisions of the separate Serious Crime Act 2007 relating to encouraging or assisting the commission of a crime—specifically, schedule 4, which relates to extra-territoriality, meaning crimes that would be encouraged in the UK but committed overseas. There is already a regime that protects officers of the UK who are involved in operations overseas and do things that may be criminal by giving them insulation from criminal liability.
Clause 23 insulates people from criminal liability for acts undertaken in the UK to encourage or assist offences overseas. Realistically, we are talking about conduct that might take place, for example, behind a desk in Whitehall, but would ultimately result in what would be a criminal offence overseas. There is an existing legal regime to cover offences of those who undertake them outside the country; this is about actions taken within the country, if that makes sense.
Q The framework of checks-and-balances scrutiny that oversees existing legislation would be weakened by adopting clause 23. Would that be your assessment?
Yes, it would be. Effectively, clause 23 looks a lot like an effort to protect Ministers from criminal liability for actions that they encourage or assist in the UK that could constitute a crime overseas. This is not a hypothetical idea. There have been instances that were extensively documented in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s detainee report, where UK Ministers and officials authorised intelligence sharing that led to appalling torture and mistreatment of people overseas. The ISC has documented that extensively.
A good example is the case of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar, who in 2004 were rendered to Libya where they faced appalling mistreatment, both in Libya and in the course of their rendition by the US CIA. Subsequently, it emerged that the UK Government had provided the tip-off to enable that extraordinary rendition. The couple ultimately received an apology from Theresa May’s Government, recognising that the UK had shared intelligence that had contributed to the couple’s absolutely appalling mistreatment.
That is not an isolated case. During the war on terror era, there were many instances where the UK shared intelligence that contributed to torture. That has been recognised. The then Prime Minister recognised that in her response to the ISC’s report, and pledged never to do that again. What this clause would do is effectively to insulate Ministers from criminal responsibility for those kinds of offences.
Q Further to that, we have heard today, and I have heard from the intelligence services before today, this sense that, while hypothetical, the fear of prosecution of individuals acting under orders is having a chilling effect on the work that they need to undertake. On occasion, it has meant that they have had to pause and cease some of the operations that they feel are quite routine or essential as part of defending the UK’s national security interest. With that in mind, is there an alternative way through this? Could the provision be amended or alternative safeguards added to arrive at those individuals having the protection that they need, while having some of the safeguards and checks and balances that we are concerned might be missing at this time in clause 23?
That touches, importantly, on the point about whether clause 23 would protect officers acting overseas in the UK’s national interest, or whether it would protect politicians and officials taking actions in Whitehall, like sharing intelligence. In response to your question, I want to read a quote given by MI6 to the ISC’s detainee inquiry—quoted in the report—with respect to section 7 authorisations under the 1994 Act. The Secret Intelligence Service said that, in the cases they were talking about,
“we are … always going to go for a section 7 authorisation. Because, you know, why should my officers carry the risks on behalf of the Government personally? Why should they? So, you know, as we have already discussed, serious risk is…a subjective judgement. So we will go for belt and braces on this.”
I think that “belt and braces” is the important phrase to think about, because that is MI6 describing the separate 1994 section 7 authorisations as a belt-and-braces approach to protecting officers from criminal liability. That regime exists already, under the Intelligence Services Act 1994, so why do we need clause 23? It relates to actions taking place here in the UK—not people operating abroad on operations, but people acting in the UK—so what kind of actions are we talking about? The area that is not covered under existing legislation is the authorisation of acts or the sharing of intelligence that happens here in England or Wales.
We are therefore not of the opinion that the clause would offer additional protection over and above the 1994 Act. The clause covers a different category of offence, and that would be the encouragement or assistance of a crime from within the United Kingdom. We are talking about Ministers and officials approving things here, not people on operations overseas.
My final point—I know this was made on Second Reading—is that the Serious Crime Act 2015, sections of which would be disapplied by clause 23, already includes, in section 50, a reasonableness defence. Even if you imagine a case in which the Government argue that a Minister needs to order something that might be a crime overseas in the national interest—they would have to make a strong case for that—they would have a legal defence under reasonableness to say that their action was reasonable under section 50 of the Serious Crime Act. What we are talking about here is clause 23 disapplying legislation that would hold Ministers to account were they to encourage or assist a crime overseas.
Q On whistleblowing, which I was speaking to the prior witness about, do you think the Bill does enough to protect people who act against the UK Government, such as whistleblowers?
Q That is absolutely fine. I can speak to you about part 3 of the Bill and the legal aid regime if you want. What is your view on the legal aid regime—the absence of legal aid—and how it is taken in the Bill? Specifically, I am interested in the offences that now come into that, with regard to accessing legal aid in the future.
Part 3 of the Bill—clauses 57 to 61—is in some ways the other side of the coin to clause 23. Clause 23 significantly hampers criminal accountability for ministerial or official involvement in crimes overseas, but there is also a very important civil avenue by which we might get accountability were the UK to get mixed up in torture or unlawful killing.
The Britons who were detained in Guantanamo Bay unlawfully without charge for many years and Abdel Hakim Belhaj, to whom the Government apologised, got accountability for the UK’s involvement in their appalling abuse through civil cases. They fought very hard, multi-year legal battles in the civil courts to win recognition from the Government that they had been involved in their mistreatment. Clauses 57 to 60 effectively introduce a range of so-called national security factors that would allow the Government to request a reduction of damages, potentially to nil, if those factors are present.
Say you are Mr Belhaj, who sued the Government and ultimately exposed their involvement in his torture, a national security factor that could have been applied in his case, were it in the form in the Bill, is that the UK, when it undertook the action that enabled his abuse, was acting to avert a real risk of harm. That obviously sounds convincing, but it is difficult to imagine an instance where the intelligence agencies would say they were not acting to avert a risk of harm—that is their core purpose.
The Bill also has national security factors that include the involvement of a third party. Say the UK Government passed on intelligence that led to someone’s torture by Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, historically. Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya is a third party and its involvement would mean that UK did not need to pay damages on that front. The action happening overseas is another national security factor. If there were any wrongdoing by the UK intelligence agencies that led to torture or abuse overseas, the person would not be able to seek damages because of that factor. Effectively, what we are seeing in clauses 57 to 60 is a really sweeping effort on the part of the Government to get out of paying any damages to anyone who suffers due to Government wrongdoing overseas.
Clause 61 is really interesting, because it effectively relates to all civil cases. It allows for the freezing of damages in all civil cases, not just cases in which the Government are accused of wrongdoing. We just have not seen any basis that there is an issue with global terrorist groups receiving financing from damages in personal injury or medical negligence cases. It seems an incredibly, sweepingly broad curtailment of one’s right to receive damages—one that likely duplicates existing provisions for asset freezing and terrorist financing.
Q It worries me because there are lots of civil remedies in cases of abuse and violence. We made the law protect people who were victims of that so that they were able to access legal aid in a regime where most people cannot access legal aid any more. Victims of domestic abuse, for example, have an exemption. Is your reading of the Bill that you would not be able to get a non-molestation order, for example, which is a civil remedy where you seek legal aid through your exemption?
I would say that our evidence to the Committee covers clauses 57 to 60 and does not look in detail at the legal aid provisions, but my understanding of those provisions from the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s notes on those is that these are extremely broad provisions, and I would note that—
There are a number of people every year—teenagers—who receive non-custodial sentences under terrorism legislation. That might be someone who shares something online at the age of 16, and my understanding is that the Bill would have an incredibly sweeping impact on their ability to receive those kinds of orders, and, equally, on their rights to access the civil courts for the rest of their lives, which is a fairly dramatic constitutional action.
It does not stop them accessing the civil courts. To be fair, it stops them accessing legal aid to the civil courts.
Just on a point of fact, it stops them from accessing legal aid.
Q We heard from a Law Society witness earlier that the provisions relating to arrest without warrant—in clause 21 and schedule 3—that include the ability to delay access to a lawyer and delay notifying a person’s family of their detention are proportionate and necessary. Do you regard it as proportionate and necessary?
I am afraid I might have to give the frustrating answer that our evidence does not cover clause 20. There is clearly a concern there, but I am probably best leaving that to more expert witnesses to answer.
Any other questions? Thank you all very much. That brings us to the end of this session. I thank our witness on behalf of the Committee for taking the time to give evidence today.