The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill (CHIS) — described by campaigners as the “Spy Cops” Bill — is currently being rushed through Parliament and is due to be put to a vote this evening. I voted against the bill on its last reading and will do so again unless it is substantially amended.
Concerns regarding this bill have been discussed widely in recent days but it is worth restating some of the key reasons why there is such broad, growing, and impressive opposition across civil society. This alliance includes Liberty, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations, trade unions, peace and climate justice campaigners, anti-racist groups, and many others who simply want the right to campaign on important causes without police infiltration.
These concerns include — but are not limited to — the CHIS Bill allowing state agents to commit crimes to stay undercover; no limit being placed on the type of crimes they can commit, which could include murder, torture, or sexual violence; allowing the committing of crimes to “prevent disorder” or maintain “economic well-being”; as well as the lack of a provision for innocent victims to get compensation and a lack of prior judicial authorization to commit a crime.
In other words, this bill could put undercover police officers and security agents above the law, granting a range of state agencies the power to license agents and officers to commit grave crimes.
For this reason, former Labour Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Ken Macdonald is among those to have asked why this bill does not follow the example of similar legislation in Canada in terms of excluding murder, torture, and sexual violence from being legalized.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, have gone as far as to say, “There is a grave danger that this Bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill.”
I am also greatly concerned that, as it stands, this bill risks compromising and undermining legal proceedings through which victims of previous criminal conduct by undercover agents are seeking justice.
Furthermore, the bill risks preempting the findings of the Mitting (formerly Pitchford) Inquiry into undercover policing, which was set up in 2015 to get to the truth about undercover policing across England and Wales since 1968, and to provide recommendations for the future.
It came after a range of revelations and reports concerning how, over forty years, undercover police had infiltrated more than one thousand political groups. These groups included trade unions, environmental campaigns, animal rights organizations, and family justice campaigns, including the Stephen Lawrence campaign.
The CHIS Bill came to Parliament hot on the heels of discussion over the Overseas Operations Bill. The latter is also being rushed through Parliament, and it is an insult that more time has not been given to scrutinize, amend, and discuss such important pieces of legislation.
Myself and a number of Labour colleagues also voted against this bill, due to concerns that it both violates the rule of law and fails to protect the safety, well-being, and rights of our military personnel.
As Shami Chakrabarti has made clear, it will “immunise the Ministry of Defence from claims by the very veterans it has neglected” and claims to want to protect.
Of particular concern is the fact that there would be a presumption against any criminal prosecutions of soldiers five years after an incident took place — including with regard to war crimes, even though these often take far longer than five years to be discovered.
The bill also denies public transparency and accountability for military interventions, which is a serious matter, considering the UK’s record in this area over recent decades. Liberty have therefore argued that, if the Overseas Operations bill becomes law, it will result in the effective decriminalization of torture and many other breaches of the Geneva Convention.
These two bills come within a context of a potentially massive rolling back of our human rights under the Tories. In 2018, Tory MPs voted down including the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in UK law after Brexit. Then their 2019 manifesto argued for “updating” the Human Rights Act, which is cited in many judicial review cases brought by charities and NGOs against government policies, and also ensures that the European Convention on Human Rights is part of UK law.
There have been reports this year of a growing mood within the Conservative Party to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Court of Human Rights as a follow-up to Brexit, and it is well known that Dominic Cummings and other prominent Tories have called for a referendum on this issue. It is clear from recent developments around Brexit that this government is prepared to break international law if it fits with its political priorities.
All of this will also damage our reputation on a global scale — meaning that our condemnation of human rights abuse elsewhere will inevitably stand for very little. It will line Britain up with extreme right-wing administrations that show little regard for human rights, following in the footsteps of Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
It is a threat to us all when our rights are curtailed. Now is the time to stand up for our core Labour values of human rights and civil liberties and against this government’s divisive, dangerous, reactionary political agenda and attempts to follow Trump in stoking up a “culture war.”