20 Labour MPs defy party whip to vote against ‘licence to kill’ bill

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

20 Labour MPs have defied the party whip to vote against the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill at second reading in the House of Commons tonight as MPs approved it by a majority of 162 votes.

Keir Starmer’s Labour set a one-line whip to abstain at this stage of the process. The leadership has declared that it intends to work on a cross-party basis in future stages of the bill to change the proposed legislation.

The Labour MPs who voted against, including two tellers, were Diane Abbott, Paula Barker, Apsana Begum, Olivia Blake, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler, Ian Byrne, Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Lavery, John McDonnell, Grahame Morris, Kate Osamor, Kate Osborne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Zarah Sultana, Mick Whitley, Nadia Whittome and Beth Winter.

Update: Jon Trickett also voted against the bill, but this was not recorded by the House of Commons due to an admin error.

LabourList understands that concerns about the bill were voiced by MPs from across the party, from Stella Creasy and Steve McCabe to frontbenchers Emma Hardy and Dan Carden, in a Zoom meeting with Nick Thomas-Symonds.

Unite the Union sent out a briefing on reasons to oppose the bill, saying it “poses a grave threat to freedom and justice in the UK, and allows infiltration of trade unions and protest organisations”.

The latest rebellion is slightly bigger than the overseas operations bill one last month, in which 18 Labour MPs – including three frontbenchers, who were stood down – defied the whip and voted against the legislation.

The CHIS (criminal conduct) bill aims to give legal protection for a previously secret power – “the third direction” – allowing MI5, police forces and other specified public bodies to authorise agents and informants to commit criminal offences.

Amnesty UK has warned that “this bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill” and stressed that it “does not explicitly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorising crimes like torture and killing.”

Reacting to the Commons vote and Labour’s whipping decision, Momentum co-chair Andrew Scattergood commented: “By abstaining on this bill, the Labour leadership have failed to stand up for the values of our party.

“We don’t remain neutral in the face of abuses of power like Hillsborough and Orgreave – we oppose them, and we organise to make sure that anyone who has used their power to harm the people they are meant to protect is held accountable. Momentum supports the MPs that vote against the bill.”

Addressing the Commons debate on the bill, Nick Thomas-Symonds argued that Labour would not be voting against the bill because the party supports putting activities carried out through undercover policing on a “statutory footing”.

He said: “The activity here is not new activity. It has been going on under existing practices and has been for many years. It should be on a statutory footing, which allows for necessary and robust safeguards, which we on these benches will be pressing for.”

Thomas-Symonds highlighted the need for “safeguards” in the bill and more “oversight”, specifically that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner should be notified whenever there is a self-authorisation of criminal conduct and that MPs should be able to access details.

Critics of the legislation have pointed out that there are no explicit prohibitions on crimes that constitute human rights violations, including murder, torture or sexual offences, or on conduct that would interfere with the course of justice.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper stressed the importance of the Human Rights Act, which this bill mentions and rests on as a guard against human rights abuses, but said it would be “helpful” to hear more government support for the Act.

The Tories have repeatedly advocated against the legislation passed in 1998. The government is in the process of passing the overseas operations bill, which exempts British troops from prosecution under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Tory MP David Davis was vocal in his criticisms of the bill, and several MPs called attention to the fact that similar laws in other countries – such as Canada and the US – place specific limits on the types of crimes that can be authorised.

Others highlighted the ongoing Pitchford Inquiry into undercover policing and the infiltration of political groups, which was originally supposed to report in 2018 but is not set to conclude its investigations now until 2023.

Labour backbencher Bell Ribeiro-Addy argued that there was a need to question existing powers, saying: “There are many, many questions about those practices that are already committed, which is why there has been the Pitchford Inquiry.”

The Undercover Policing Inquiry was established after allegations were made about the activities of undercover units, including the disclosure that Scotland Yard spied on the group campaigning on the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

The inquiry has also been investigating how police operatives deceived women into entering into intimate relationships, stole the names of deceased children to create fake identities and concealed evidence in court cases.

On the long-awaited report, Thomas-Symonds told the Commons: “The delays in the existing inquiry have already been unacceptable. Victims have been put through a terrible ordeal and the least they deserve is access to justice.”

MPs concerned about the bill debated this evening also raised the murder of lawyer Pat Finucaine, who was shot 14 times at his family home in front of his wife and children in an attack found to have involved British state collusion.

Undercover policing activities came to light after legal action forced the government to acknowledge the existence of the secret directive. Lawyers for a group of civil liberty organisations argued that the “third direction” powers were illegal.

But the Investigatory Powers Tribunal issued a 56-page judgement declaring that guidance from MI5 does not breach human rights or grant absolute immunity to those who commit offences such as murder or torture.

Reprieve, one of the organisations that brought the original legal action, has said that the Human Rights Act alone does not provide an adequate safeguard on the nature of the crimes that agents can engage in.

The human rights group has pointed out that government lawyers have argued that the piece of legislation does not apply in acts that are being authorised by the state, rather than explicitly initiated by it.

Reprieve deputy director Dan Dolan told LabourList: “Are we seriously suggesting the government can’t place any limits at all on the crimes MI5 agents can commit – not even murder, torture or sexual violence?”

The Undercover Policing Inquiry also heard an acknowledgement from the Metropolitan Police Service in 2018 that the force infiltrated trade unions and passed information to the construction industry about blacklisted workers.

Trade unions and campaign groups have highlighted that the grounds for authorising criminal activity include not only national security but also “preventing disorder”, and that the current guidelines allow the infiltration of unions.

Minister James Brokenshire claimed in response to criticisms that the bill is “not about providing agents with an unfettered ability to break the law and commit any crime” and that there are “strict requirements that must be satisfied”.

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