The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Stewart of Dirleton) (Con) (Maiden Speech)
My Lords, it is a pleasure to open this debate. I am struck by the importance of the legislation on which I will make my first contribution to the House.
Before commencing, I wish to express my thanks to the House for the warm welcome I have received since taking up my appointment. I owe particular debts to my supporters, my noble friends Lady Goldie and Lord McInnes, for their good humour and encouragement; to Black Rod, Garter and the clerks of Parliament for their patience and tolerance; and to my noble friend Lord Courtown for his wise guidance in the customs and practices of this place. Your Lordships will, I hope, realise that, should I offend against these, the cause lies in my obtuseness rather than in my noble friend’s instruction.
I recognise that I am filling the place of my noble and learned friend Lord Keen of Elie. I am too new in this place to speak of his reputation here, but I can say that his high standing in our profession is a consequence not only of his matchless forensic skills but of the kindness and courtesy that he shows to all and the care with which he led the Scottish Bar as Dean of the Faculty of Advocates.
I hope I will not trespass further on the patience of the House if I take the opportunity given by my maiden speech to make some reference to myself and to the place from which I have taken my title: the village of Dirleton, in East Lothian. It is a place of great beauty. Moreover, there are aspects of its history and geography which may provide your Lordships with matter for reflection.
I know that many of your Lordships are familiar with the area. Some of your Lordships may have tested your skills against the famous golf courses which lie round about. There are other diversions too: yachting and skiff rowing from North Berwick around the islands just off the coast, which fired the imagination of the young Robert Louis Stevenson. The islands may be viewed from the fine beaches, looking across to the Kingdom of Fife at magnificent and ever-changing vistas of sea and sky.
All sorts of sporting clubs and associations of other sorts flourish. At the recreation ground and elsewhere in North Berwick, I played bowls, hockey, football, rugby, highland games, tennis and, not least, cricket—a sport which suffers in East Lothian not so much from want of enthusiasm among its players but from the shortness of the season and the unpredictability of the weather.
Dirleton lies in an area of rich, fertile soil, and we can anticipate that our farmers may soon be able to take advantage of new opportunities arising out of the implementation by this Government of their popular mandate. We can anticipate, too, that more boats may set out along the waters of the Firth of Forth to work fisheries which will be richer, better managed and replenished by the more directed and more sustainable management policies which the policy of this Government will allow to be established.
The village of Dirleton features the castle—set in beautifully landscaped grounds—a village green, a primary school and two hotels, where visitors may regain their strength ahead of more sightseeing. The parish church in Dirleton dates from the 17th century. Inside is a list of the names of those of the parish who fell in two world wars. The church is set in surroundings of especial beauty, north of the village green and north of another smaller green, on which stands the war memorial where, again, the names of those who fell are inscribed.
This 11th day of the 11th month brings to mind those names on the war memorial, so familiar to me from their being called over at Remembrance Sundays. Some are the names of families who flourish in East Lothian to this day. But today calls to mind also those others who lie in the churchyard and the cemetery on the way out of the village—names from the rest of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and allied countries. Those graves remind us of service and sacrifice in a common cause to preserve our institutions and to keep alive our common hope for a brighter future. We will remember that the sacrifice in that common cause continued after those great wars were brought to an end, and continues today—sacrifice of life, of mental health and of emotional well-being.
Watching the business of the House and the range of expertise and experience your Lordships bring to the scrutiny of that business, I am conscious of the honour done to me by admission to your number. I am conscious, too, that I have no family history of service in this place, as do some of your Lordships, and that I have been appointed to my place, whereas many of your Lordships come here after having sought and won popular mandates from electors, whether in local or devolved government or in the other place. But I seek to assure your Lordships that in my role as law officer, I will seek not only to uphold the law but to try to maintain the spirit and traditions of your Lordships’ House.
The legislation we bring forward is a necessary piece of legislation; it will ensure that our intelligence agencies, law enforcement bodies and those public authorities that also have vital investigative functions are able to continue to deploy tools they need to keep us safe from harm and to prevent serious crime. The recent incidents in Nice and Vienna, and the increase in the threat level here in the UK, show that the need for robust tools with which to tackle terrorism remains as important as ever.
Covert human intelligence sources—I will use the convenient, if inelegant, acronym, CHIS—are agents: undercover officers who help to secure prosecutions by infiltrating criminal and terrorist groups. This technique has been used to disrupt terrorist plots, including one by Zakariyah Rahman against the then Prime Minister in 2017; drugs offences, including enabling the largest ever seizure of heroin destined for the United Kingdom in 2019; and child sexual exploitation and abuse, including attempts by individuals to take indecent images of children.
It is appropriate to reflect today on the role that our intelligence agencies play in war and conflict. A notable success of the intelligence agencies was the discovery and arrest of German spies in the United Kingdom at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914—a success built on the effective use of what we now call CHIS, alongside other techniques. The courage and ingenuity of the double-cross network, a CHIS network which did much to protect allied lives in the Second World War, often at grave cost, comes to mind also as we pause to remember today.
In order to build credibility and the trust of those under investigation, there are occasions where CHIS may need to participate in criminality themselves. This is an inescapable feature of CHIS use. Without this, it would not be possible to utilise CHIS as an intelligence tactic. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill seeks to ensure that there is a clear and consistent statutory basis to authorise participation in conduct which could otherwise be criminal, where this is necessary and proportionate to what is sought to be achieved. Let me say at the outset that the purpose of this Bill is not to extend the range of activity which public authorities are able to authorise—the Bill does not do this.
The Bill amends the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to provide an express power to authorise CHIS to participate in conduct that, but for the authorisation, could be criminal. This is known as a criminal conduct authorisation. The effect of an authorisation is to make the conduct lawful for all purposes. I recognise that this is a departure from the existing approach, whereby authorised criminality can still be considered for prosecution by the prosecution services. This approach is a deliberate policy decision. It aligns with other investigatory powers and the approach taken elsewhere in RIPA, including other CHIS authorisations. It also provides greater certainty for CHIS that they will not be prosecuted for activity the state has asked them to commit. We think it is right and fair to provide this certainty, and it may also help to recruit and retain CHIS in the future and maximise the intelligence we can gather through this technique.
Of course, this is not a blanket immunity from any criminal prosecution. Criminal conduct authorisations are tightly bound with strict parameters which are clearly communicated to the CHIS. A CHIS will never be given authority to participate in all or any criminality and were they to engage in criminality beyond their authorisation they could be prosecuted in the usual way.
While it is right to provide this certainty to CHIS and to their handlers, it is of course important—vital—that this is subject to robust and independent safeguards. Let me briefly set out how the Bill ensures this.
All authorisations are granted by an experienced and highly trained authorising officer, who will ensure that the authorisation has strict parameters and is clearly communicated to the CHIS. Authorising officers have clear and detailed guidance that they must follow in deciding whether to grant an authorisation. We have published draft updates to the code of practice alongside this Bill that sets out some of that detail. I encourage all noble Lords to read that. The updates to the code will be subject to a full consultation and debate in both Houses in due course.
Authorisations are then subject to robust, independent oversight by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner—the IPC—who conducts regular and thorough inspections of all public authorities and published an annual report of his findings. The IPC sets the frequency of these inspections himself, and public authorities must provide unfettered access to documents and information. The IPC will report on the use of criminal conduct authorisations in his annual report, and this will identify any errors, provide statistics on the use of the tactic and may identify whether there are any training needs. Public authorities must take steps to implement recommendations given by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office—IPCO—with progress assessed at the next inspection. The IPC also has powers to provide independent remedy; for instance, to inform a person if they have been the subject of a serious error, or to refer a matter to the independent Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
I know that some will think that we need to enhance the role of the IPC in this process. The Government are committed to ensuring that there is robust oversight of criminal conduct authorisations, but that this is not at the expense of ensuring that the tactic remains operationally workable and reflects the live and complex human elements of CHIS, which we do not see in our other investigatory powers. For this reason, we do not think that prior judicial approval is appropriate for this tactic and believe that the authorising role best sits with the highly trained authorising officer within the public authority, as it does at present. The authorising officer will be able to consider the necessity and proportionality of the conduct, but will also consider the safety of the CHIS and the human element of the specific situation. The IPC then provides an important retrospective oversight function, which I have set out.
I want also to draw attention to the additional safeguards in place for vulnerable individuals and juveniles. These safeguards are clearly set out in the CHIS code of practice. It makes clear, for example, that juveniles or those who are vulnerable are authorised as CHIS only in exceptional circumstances. However, there may be occasions when these individuals are able to provide intelligence to disrupt criminal groups. I know that might sound uncomfortable, but it might be necessary to stop criminal groups continuing to exploit those individuals and prevent anyone else being drawn into them. In these instances, significant additional safeguards are in place to ensure that the best interests of the juvenile are a primary consideration in all operations. Those are set out in detail in the code of practice, which has legal force and includes a requirement for an appropriate adult to be present at all meetings where a CHIS is under the age of 16 and to be considered for 16 and 17 year-olds, and the rationale documented if an appropriate adult is not present.
I turn briefly to the upper limits of conduct that can be authorised. These are contained in the Human Rights Act 1998. It is unlawful for any public authority to act in a way incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and the legislation makes clear that nothing in the Bill detracts from a public authority’s obligations under the Human Rights Act. We have not drawn up a list of specific crimes that may be authorised or prohibited as to do so would place into the hands of criminals, terrorists and hostile states a means of identifying a CHIS, creating a checklist for suspected CHIS to be tested against. That would threaten the future of CHIS capability and result in an increased threat to the public. We have taken this approach in response to a detailed assessment of the specific threats we face in this country. No two countries face the same threat picture or, indeed, have identical legal systems. In particular, we must consider the specific counterterrorist effort in Northern Ireland. However, through the safeguards and the independent oversight that sits alongside an authorisation, there are checks in place to ensure that no activity is authorised that is in breach of human rights obligations or, indeed, activity that is not necessary or proportionate.
Let me, finally, just pause on the list public authorities that can authorise this activity. The number of public authorities able to authorise this conduct has been restricted from those that can authorise the use and conduct of CHIS generally. We expect wider public authorities to be low-volume users of this power because an authorisation can be granted only where it is necessary and proportionate to what is sought to be achieved. However, there will be occasions where CHIS play a critical role in providing the intelligence needed for these wider public authorities to identify and prevent criminal activity. These authorisations will be subject to the same safeguards and independent oversight I have already outlined, including by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. We have published case studies that give examples of the use of this tactic by wider public authorities. I give the example of where the Food Standards Agency may authorise a CHIS to participate in criminal conduct. This may relate to the relabelling of produce to misrepresent its quality and fitness for consumption. Those are criminal offences, but by authorising a CHIS to participate in this activity the Food Standards Agency might be able to gather intelligence to seize unfit produce and identify those responsible for the fraudulent activity.
It has been a pleasure to make my maiden remarks on this issue. I am of the strong view that this Bill is both necessary to ensure that our operational agencies are able to keep us safe, and welcome in that it provides legal clarity through an express power and sets out the robust safeguards to ensure that an authorisation is tightly bound, necessary and proportionate. CHIS do a difficult and important job in providing intelligence that other investigatory tools cannot access. This Bill provides certainty that operational agencies can continue to utilise this tactic and that they are able to best ensure that they keep us all safe. I beg to move.