One of the many problems with losing general elections is that you don’t get the legislation or indeed much else you want. Many bills introduced by this government are nakedly political, divisive and deeply harmful to the national interest. In that bracket you find – amongst many others – the internal market bill, which openly breaks international law; the agriculture bill, which would lower food standards and harm our farming industry; and the immigration bill, which makes it harder to recruit staff for our NHS and care homes.
Some, though, are necessary – particularly when concerning national security. But, of course, under a Tory government these bills will always be imperfect and written with fundamentally different priorities to a Labour government. The covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill, which returns to the Commons this week, is in this latter group.
The CHIS bill addresses a vital issue: the need to provide a clear lawful framework for the use of human intelligence sources, who often help uncover crimes such as far-right terrorism and child sexual exploitation. Any responsible government acting in the national interest would need to legislate to address this. The current status quo is unacceptable, as it means this happens without proper oversight and the formal protections offered by the Human Rights Act.
Since 2017, the security services have thwarted 27 terror attacks and in 2018 alone covert human intelligence sources helped disrupt 30 threats to life. But these sources cannot and should not operate without a clear legal framework that is legally enforceable, and that includes effective and necessary safeguards. That is the point this bill tries to address.
Without the legislation, undercover sources will either be unable to operate – depriving our security services of a vital tool in disrupting terrorism and serious and organised crime – or continue to do so only by operating in the shadows. Neither outcome is in the national interest. Both are worse than this bill passing.
The bill makes clear that any activity carried out by agents must be compliant with the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights – which explicitly outlaws torture, murder and sexual violence. This is a powerful, important and legally enforceable protection. It means agents cannot be authorised to undertake any activity that breaches the HRA or the ECHR – and that this can be upheld in court.
Keir Starmer, who literally wrote the text book on human rights law and has represented those seeking justice in the very highest courts in the land on this issue, made that case incredibly powerfully to Labour MPs this week. However, we recognise the bill is far from perfect.
Our amendments would put in place stronger safeguards and strengthen rights for victims. They would also reinforce the existing legal position that legitimate trade union activity is explicitly excluded from the ambit of investigatory powers. We will also seek to improve the bill in House of Lords and use every opportunity possible to improve it throughout its passage through parliament.
There have been concerns raised about the potential for this bill to interfere with the campaigns against burning injustices, such as the ‘spycops’ scandal, the appalling events at and surrounding Orgreave, the abuse and secrecy around the Cammell Laird shipyard workers and the Shrewsbury 24, and collusion on blacklisting. That is why we have been pressing the government to be explicit in stating that this bill is in no way retrospective and cannot legally impede these campaigns for justice.
On all these issues, the Labour Party led by Keir Starmer remains steadfastly committed to supporting those campaigns – many of which he has fought for throughout his working life. We also pressed and received a firm commitment from the government that this bill will have no business interfering in the lawful activities of our trade union movement, which is a cornerstone of our democracy.
Some people have raised the possible impact on addressing issues relating to the Troubles Northern Ireland and the pursuit of justice and truth, specifically in cases like that of the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane and many others involving state agents. This is something that is deeply personal to me and indeed Keir Starmer, and we place the utmost importance on it.
As I said at the despatch box when this bill received second reading, I do not need to be convinced about the consequences of the state exceeding its power in this arena. I saw the consequences of it, which is why I am acutely aware of the need the greater oversight and human rights protections in this bill. It’s also why I have been dogged in ensuring cast iron guarantees that this bill will not stand in the way of justice for victims.
In short, we must ensure that the security services have the powers they need to keep us safe – and we will also introduce proper oversight, scrutiny and legal safeguards alongside robust protection for victims. Given the opportunity, that is what a Labour government would do: protect national security, strengthen human rights, support victims.
But until then we have to deal with the legislation this government brings forward, and do so in a way that shows we are a responsible government-in-waiting. The covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill is imperfect, but voting it down would weaken national security and lead to weaker legal safeguards. That’s not a choice we will make.