Amidst the ongoing Brexit and Covid mayhem, it has been easy to miss another bizarre example of the Boris Johnson government’s ideas in action. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill is in the late stages of its progress through the Westminster Parliament, having passed its third reading last month.
The broad purpose of this proposed legislation is to exempt from prosecution crimes, such as murder, rape and torture, if they are committed on behalf of the state and “in the interests of national security” or, indeed, in the “interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”.
This exemption is to be enjoyed by the police, MI5 and, er, the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission. And you probably thought the year couldn’t get any stranger.
The following, alarming, article is published today by the Independent:
© Provided by The Independent
A damning report published on Tuesday said the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill should not be introduced in its current form.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said the proposed law “raises the abhorrent possibility of serious crimes such as rape, murder or torture being carried out under an authorisation”.
Harriet Harman, chair of the committee, said: “This bill raises major human rights concerns. It permits officials to secretly authorise crimes on the streets of the UK and abroad.
“There should be added to the bill clear limits on the scale and type of criminality which can be authorised. We cannot pass a law that leaves open the possibility of state-sanctioned rape, murder or torture.”
The bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons last month, when MPs voted against an amendment to limit the crimes that could be authorised, and is currently being scrutinised by the House of Lords.
The report questioned ministers’ claims that excluding certain crimes would create a checklist that gangs could use to blow an agent’s cover.
It said the US and Canada were among countries with specific limits in law, and that the “same approach” should be adopted by the British government.
“There appears to be no good reason why the bill cannot state clearly that certain offences or categories of offences are incapable of authorisation,” the committee said.
It would allow public authorities, ranging from police and MI5 to HMRC and the Food Standards Agency, to authorise agents and informants to commit crimes while undercover.
Their actions would be rendered “lawful for all purposes”, creating immunity from criminal prosecution and from civil liability, limiting the possibility of redress for victims.
“The government must explain why this change from the existing policy is necessary,” the report said.
Authorisations would not only be issued in the interests of national security or preventing and detecting crime, but also preventing “disorder” and in the “interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights questioned the justification for making the scope of proposed “criminal conduct authorisations” so broad.
“The bill risks taking the authorisation of criminal conduct well beyond the fight against serious crime and the protection of national security,” the report said. “The use of criminal conduct authorisations should be confined to these core purposes … it is far from clear how non-criminal activity that poses an economic risk could justify the use of criminality to prevent it.”
Ms Harman added that the power to authorise crime should be restricted to the authorities charged with combating it, such as police and MI5, “and not include bodies such as the Food Standards Agency or the Gambling Commission”.
Amnesty International said the bill created the possibility of a “dystopian future where human rights abuses at home or abroad are given a legal green light”.
The charity’s Northern Ireland programme director, Patrick Corrigan, said: “In Northern Ireland, undercover agents in paramilitary organisations were allowed by their handlers to torture and kill innocent civilians to keep their cover intact.
“That’s the sort of dangerous situation which this bill could introduce to the whole of the UK and overseas.”
The bill was introduced in parliament weeks before the start of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which was commissioned in 2015 but did not begin hearing evidence until this month.
It is examining decades of covert police operations targeting protesters and family justice groups, including campaigns against apartheid and climate change.
The inquiry was sparked by revelations that the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence had been spied on, and outrage over undercover officers deceiving female activists into sexual relationships.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights said the probe serves as a reminder that “the use of informants and undercover agents can lead to appalling human rights violations”.
Its report noted that while the government has claimed that the Human Rights Act would prevent abuses under the new law, it has “not prevented previous violations connected with undercover investigations”.
“Relying on the Human Rights Act to prevent the authorisation of crimes that violate human rights is neither appropriate nor sufficient,” it added.
“The bill is also unclear in respect of who can be authorised to engage in criminal conduct. There is no exclusion for children. If they must be involved in criminal conduct at all it must only be in the most exceptional circumstances.”
The law was drawn up after MI5 narrowly won an Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruling over the lawfulness of agents’ crimes, while a separate challenge had been launched over the use of children as spies.
MPs said moving internal practices into law was welcome, but the proposals could substantially widen the use of exceptional powers without the robust oversight needed.
The committee warned that the proposed threshold of criminal conduct being “necessary and proportionate” was subjective and provided little protection against “overzealous or misguided authorisations”.
A Home Office spokesperson said:“Undercover agents play a crucial role in protecting our national security and safeguarding the public from serious crimes including terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse.
“It is important that our intelligence and enforcement agencies and public bodies have the right tools to keep us safe. This Bill does not provide any new capabilities and authorisations for agents to participate in criminal activity are subject to robust and independent oversight.”
The original article can be read HERE.