MPs reject attempts to specify in law limits on undercover agents

The Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament - (Copyright PA Archive)
18:12pm, Thu 15 Oct 2020
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Attempts to explicitly ban undercover agents from being authorised to kill, torture or rape have been defeated by the Government.

MPs voted 256 votes to 316, majority 60, against Labour’s proposal to specify in the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill the limits on what such agents could be allowed to do.

Under the Opposition amendment, the limits would have included causing death or bodily harm, violating the “sexual integrity” of a person, and subjecting someone to “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

The Bill aims to protect undercover operatives from prosecution if they are forced to break the law on operations, and also seeks to define circumstances in which operatives can commit crime – replacing various pieces of overlapping legislation.

America and Canada learnt the hard way that we need to include specific limits in the crimes that agents can commit

It will cover 13 law enforcement and government agencies, including the police, the National Crime Agency, the armed forces and the Prison Service.

Ministers have previously denied the Bill gives undercover agents a “licence to kill” and insisted the upper limits on what operatives can be authorised to do already exist.

They say they are contained in the Human Rights Act, which includes the right to life, prohibition of torture, and prohibition of subjecting someone to inhuman or degrading treatment.

The Bill later cleared the Commons receiving a third reading by 313 votes to 98, majority 215, and will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords.

Thirty-four Labour MPs rebelled to oppose the Bill, thereby ignoring orders to abstain.

Speaking during the committee stage debate, Tory former minister David Davis said the US and Canada have “specific limits” on the crimes their agents can commit.

Mr Davis, who rebelled to support Labour’s amendment, told the Commons: “The trouble is, others do it better. America and Canada learnt the hard way that we need to include specific limits in the crimes that agents can commit.

“In these countries, both informants and their handlers were involved in carrying out numerous cases of racketeering and murder and they were found out, and since, both countries have set clear limits.”

He had proposed his own amendments to give the intelligence services the protections they need but stop short of giving them “carte blanche authorisation to carry out the heinous crimes in the name of the state that have happened too often in the past”.

Jeremy Corbyn - (Copyright PA Wire)

Labour former leader Jeremy Corbyn warned it was “an absolute travesty of parliamentary accountability” for the Bill to be rushed through the Commons, with consideration of amendments squeezed into a three-hour debate.

He told MPs: “What has come out from those of us who have good friends in environmental groups, in human rights groups, in trade unions and many other campaigns is the sheer arrogance of police undercover operations that have infiltrated wholly legitimate and legal operations in order to disrupt them, spread negative information and cause problems for them.

“If we live in a free and democratic society, obviously criminality is not acceptable, obviously policing is required to deal with criminality, but you don’t deal with criminality by authorising criminality through undercover policing operations into those groups.”

Labour’s Dan Carden, who resigned from the Opposition front bench on Thursday morning over the Bill, warned the powers in the legislation “can be misused”.

He said: “The Bill is written so badly and broadly that it is effectively a licence to criminally disrupt working people taking action to support themselves, their co-workers, their families, and we have seen this all too often in the past.

“The Bill paves the way for gross abuses of state power against citizens and in Liverpool we have a healthy suspicion of state power because we’ve felt its damaging force too often in the past.”

Labour MP Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) also sought changes to better protect vulnerable child agents.

I am giving careful consideration to how this retrospective oversight could be strengthened further and how this might be addressed further in the Bill’s passage in the other place

Replying for the Government, Home Office minister James Brokenshire said he is “giving careful consideration” to how oversight of the security forces could be enhanced as the Bill undergoes further scrutiny in the Lords.

He said the Government believes “deep and retrospective oversight” is the best method to hold the security services accountable with “regular and thorough inspections”.

Mr Brokenshire told the Commons: “I am giving careful consideration to how this retrospective oversight could be strengthened further and how this might be addressed further in the Bill’s passage in the other place.”

Independent MP Julian Lewis, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, sought reassurances over the reporting of the number of criminal conduct authorisations and to ensure his committee could be kept informed of their use.

Mr Brokenshire said it is “firmly my intent that information will be provided” to the committee.

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