Exclusive: Starmer says Labour should not vote down ‘spycops’ bill – even if unamended

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer has confirmed that he believes the Labour Party should not vote down the so-called ‘spycops’ bill – even if the opposition party’s amendments are not approved during its passage, LabourList can reveal.

The Labour leader also told his MPs tonight that he would take a different tack on the overseas operations bill, however, confirming that he is willing to vote against at third reading if it is not amended.

The covert human intelligence sources bill (criminal conduct) bill proposed by the government is set to be rushed through its committee and third reading stages in the House of Commons on Thursday this week.

20 Labour MPs defied a one-line party whip to abstain on the bill at second reading last week, although MPs approved it by a majority of 162 votes. Concerns about the bill were voiced by MPs from across the House.

At a Parliament Labour Party meeting on Zoom this evening, attended by 180 MPs, Starmer explained that he does not believe they should vote the bill down even if Labour does not succeed in making changes.

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

Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has argued in favour of putting “safeguards” in the bill and more “oversight”, but said Labour supports putting the undercover policing activities on a “statutory footing”.

Affiliated trade union Unite is strongly opposed to the bill, however, with assistant general secretary Howard Beckett writing for LabourList that “it would be a total dereliction of duty” for Labour to “sit on its hands”.

MPs expressing concern over the leadership’s position on the CHIS bill tonight included ‘soft left’ Sarah Owen, Beth Winter and Nadia Whittome who were recently stood down from the Labour frontbench, Sarah Champion, Tony Lloyd and Tahir Ali.

Critics said they had doubts over the argument that the bill would be tempered by the Human Rights Act as the Tories are “reviewing” it, and were worried about sex offences not being specifically prohibited in the bill.

Baroness Chakrabarti was “impressive” when speaking against the leadership position, one source said, and Labour peer John Hendy QC told the meeting: “As a lawyer, I just cannot accept that the state has prior approval to commit crimes.”

Other MPs expressed support for Starmer’s stance, including home affairs committee chair Yvette Cooper, intelligence and security committee (ISC) member Diana Johnson and frontbenchers who were not allowed to speak at the meeting.

Judith Cummins, MP for Bradford South, told LabourList: “Keir demonstrated that he can make really difficult decisions if he were Prime Minister. He was very clear, convincing and really showed his expertise beyond anyone else’s on the call.”

Shadow railways minister and Slough MP Tan Dhesi said he had planned to vote against the bill but was persuaded by Starmer tonight to abstain instead. Dhesi said he was “impressed” by the “detailed response” offered.

“I trust his experience, as well as the integrity with which he put the message across,” Dhesi told LabourList, concluding: “I’d rather have things on statute whereby the police or undercover agencies would be held to account by the ISC and lawmakers.”

LabourList also understands that Sam Tarry asked Starmer about the overseas operations bill, on which Labour MPs were recently whipped to abstain, and the Labour leader confirmed the party would vote against if there are no changes to the bill.

John Healey said the government bill relating to British troops serving overseas “creates the risk that the very gravest crimes including torture and other war crimes go unpunished” – but Labour did not vote against it.

The Shadow Defence Secretary said he was certain the government would be “prepared to rewrite parts of this bill”, which seeks to exempt British armed forces personnel from prosecution under the European Convention on Human Rights.

It has tonight been confirmed that Labour will vote against the overseas operations bill bill if its amendments are not accepted. The opposition party has criticised the legislation for placing “torture and other war crimes on a different level to crimes of sexual violence”.

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