Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill

David Davis Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 View all Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I will give way twice more and then get into some of the important details that I know right hon. and hon. Members would like me to address.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point. The issue of specifici—I cannot even say it; I shall settle for saying the specific authorisations that are granted. They are tightly bound and that is important. That is why we published the guidance that sits alongside the operationalisation of the Bill at the same time as the Bill—to give that sense of confirmation and clarity on how it will operate.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the Human Rights Act, but the defence that the Government put up in the legal case that was brought against them said in terms that the state is “not the instigator” of such activity and

“cannot be treated as somehow responsible for it”.

The memorandum to the Bill states that

“it is to be expected that there would not be State responsibility”.

How is that using the Human Rights Act to underpin the rights of our citizens?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I know that my right hon. Friend, rightly, takes these issues incredibly seriously. The issues we are talking about go to the kernel of our national security, and equally, our confidence in our criminal justice system and the way in which our operatives, who are there to protect us, act. I do place weight on what he has said.

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James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I have been pretty clear about the way this Bill operates and the manner in which agencies and the different bodies that can be authorised are able to act. Clearly, I cannot bind this House for the future, but I am very clear that we stand by our ECHR commitments, which is why this has been expressed in the way that it has in the Bill. I hope that is helpful to him.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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What my right hon. Friend has described is, in effect, a wish not to provide a terrorist checklist, as it were, to test a member of such an organisation. Did he read the article in The Times this morning by probably one of the best Directors of Public Prosecutions of modern times, who would probably know more about this than all of us in this House? It was scathing about that analysis and said it simply did not stand up?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am happy to respond to that point specifically. We are not suggesting that there is routine testing of suspected CHIS in all criminal groups, but there is evidence that this does occur more than infrequently, and I say that in clear terms. We are asking CHIS to put themselves in difficult positions to help the state investigate these criminal groups, and it is our judgment that we need to make sure that we can best protect them, and that means avoiding the provision of a checklist of crimes that can be tested against. I note that this risk is not just to CHIS, but to people who are not CHIS but may be suspected of being so.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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I was relieved to have the reassurance that my right hon. Friend’s experience did not involve him personally, but he is entirely right about the reassurances that are necessary in terms of each and every case.

As the Minister has said, there is a section 19 certification from the Home Secretary on the face of the Bill regarding its compatibility with convention rights. In addition to that, I note that in clause 1, what will become the new section 29B(7) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 mentions the Human Rights Act 1998 specifically. There is a real need for reassurance on this issue, so that the public and the House know that the most heinous of crimes will not be carried out in the name of this Government or, indeed, any other future Government. I appreciate that the European convention on human rights protects the right to life and is clear about the prohibition of torture or, indeed, subjecting anyone to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and that is important, but the Government need to be crystal clear about their intention for when the courts come to consider this legislation, as they inevitably will. We cannot have any doubts about the Government’s intention or Parliament’s intention.

I accept that it is important that the Human Rights Act is, unusually, mentioned on the face of the Bill, and I notice that the accompanying memorandum sets out the following:

“Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes it unlawful for public authorities to act in a way which is incompatible with Convention rights. Nothing in this Bill detracts from that fundamental position. Authorising authorities are not permitted by this Bill to authorise conduct which would constitute or entail a breach of those rights.”

What we cannot have is a position, referred to by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in which any argument is put on the Government’s behalf in courts or tribunals that this system is not in place covering the activities of covert human intelligence sources, or that this system is somehow free or exempt from Human Rights Act considerations. Nor could we have a situation where there are deliberate attempts to prevent the Human Rights Act from coming into play. That is why we will be pressing the Government on public limits and on their position regarding those limits on criminal activity to be authorised.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, by not specifying in terms, the Government are inviting a challenge to the whole Bill, not under the Human Rights Act but under the torture convention? The international view of torture is more absolute than the international view of murder. Therefore, I think it highly likely that if the Bill goes through as it stands, the Government will be facing the courts within the next year, losing their case and having to rewrite the Bill.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If the Bill does not have those safeguards on its face as it should, it will simply be successfully challenged in our courts. It is in nobody’s interests for that position to pertain, which is why I am making this point, on which I hope we can work on a cross-party basis.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, both on the Canada model and on the point, which I put to the Government, that we cannot have a situation in future where there is any doubt about what was meant on the face of this Bill. We cannot have the Government having put forward on their behalf the argument that the Human Rights Act somehow does not apply.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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The Government should not rest too hard on an IPT judgment. It is normal in these intelligence oversight commissions to have unanimity from the judges. In this case it was a 3-2 judgment, and the minority in that judgment described the Government’s argument as “fanciful” and “extraordinary” and as setting “dangerous precedents”, so I do not think they should rest on that at all.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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No, and the right hon. Gentleman illustrates precisely the point I am making. That is why the position has to be crystal clear. We cannot have a situation where such arguments are being put in written submissions, or in other ways, before a tribunal or indeed any other court. The public limit—this reassurance—is so important because, as I have said, if the Government do not get it right, and if they are not crystal clear on issues such as murder, torture and sexual violence, they will get into trouble in the courts in any event.

Given the nature of some of the networks that the Bill looks to disrupt, there are also clear concerns about the gendered impact of actions by covert human intelligence sources. The Government must seek to uphold the highest possible standards on gender impact. We will be pushing for such safeguards as the Bill moves forward, particularly in relation to rape and sexual violence. Members have also rightly expressed concerns about the risk of a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities. We will push for safeguards on that, too, as the Bill progresses. When the Solicitor General winds up, I hope he can also provide assurances about the work being undertaken by law enforcement to address that and commit to publishing full and extensive Equality Act 2010 assessments.

On those who make decisions to authorise criminal conduct, the memorandum on the European convention on human rights supplied with the Bill states:

“The Bill strengthens the current legal position by putting the power to authorise criminal conduct by a CHIS on an explicit statutory footing.”

A legal framework is needed—I am clear that this activity should not continue in the shadows without clear accountability—but at present there is self-authorisation in the Bill.

If the police were to enter the property of any Member of this House, they would need a warrant to do so beforehand. I appreciate that things in this sphere move at speed, but in a number of areas of law we have judges available 24 hours a day who can offer services and give judgments on things such as emergency injunctions, so we will press that issue of prior judicial oversight. The more serious the crime authorised, the more senior the level of authorisation necessary—the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) made that point—subject to that oversight, and there needs to be assurance that the standards that this House sets will be adhered to and implemented.

Clause 4(3) amends section 234 of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 to require the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to include information about public authorities’ use of criminal conduct authorisations in its annual report. It is stated that that will include statistics on use of the power, the operation of safeguards, and errors, which I will come back to in a moment.

I appreciate that that requirement is subject to the existing protections in the Investigatory Powers Act for information that relates to national security. I also appreciate that public authorities will have to disclose all documents necessary to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. However, as it stands, the requirement is too vague, as was pointed out by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper).

The requirement must involve more than the inclusion of a section or some sort of confidential annexe in the commissioner’s annual report. There is no reason why, for example, categories of crime cannot be published without compromising operational security. Every single authorisation should be notified to the commissioner, who can then provide ongoing oversight. That seems to me to be a far more effective way of giving reassurance on the operation of safeguards and of ensuring that where there are errors—again, I will return to that—something can be done immediately to ensure that such a mistake does not happen again. It seems to me that if this is looked at only on an annual basis, there is more scope for errors to be built into the system. I do not think it is unduly onerous for each and every authorisation to be notified to the commissioner.

I also see no reason why Members of this House—I mean the Intelligence and Security Committee, which deals with sensitive information all the time—cannot have more detail about the use of this power and in what context. Again, that would give far greater reassurance about the use of the power over time and public confidence in it.

In addition, there is the issue of redress and civil claims for wholly innocent victims. In the memorandum on convention rights, the Government state:

“The individuals who are most likely to be affected by the criminal conduct of a CHIS are those with whom the agent is engaging in order to thwart the criminality.”

That may be, but the key words there are “most likely”. What about a wholly innocent person who ends up with material or other loss as a consequence of the actions of a covert human intelligence source?

The position in the Bill is that a complaint can be made to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner with regard to these powers, which can be independently considered. I appreciate that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal has the jurisdiction to determine complaints against public authorities’ use of investigatory powers, including the use of covert human intelligence sources, but that is not the same as a proper civil claim. What if the authorised criminal act is botched? What if there is mistaken identity? Again, that is something that we will press in Committee.

While there is a narrow but fundamental part of the Bill about authorising criminal conduct, I want to talk about some wider issues. In relation to Northern Ireland, it must be clear that legacy issues are not affected by the Bill in the context of the peace process. On the issue of past injustices, I am grateful to the Minister for setting out again that this is not a retrospective Bill, but it has to be clear that those seeking justice for what happened in the past can still do so. We on the Labour Benches are committed to a full, independent public inquiry into the events at the Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984. It will only be by shining a penetrating light on the events of that day that we can have justice, and I commend those who have been campaigning on it for so long.

There is an ongoing inquiry into undercover policing—the so-called spy cop scandal, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy)—chaired by Sir John Mitting. The evidential hearings open next month, and it has to be clear that recommendations from that inquiry will be implemented and victims will not be denied access to justice. I appreciated the Minister’s reassurance that such appalling behaviour was never lawful in the past and will not be lawful in the future. We must never stand to one side on issues like this. We commit again to pressing for justice for all victims. The delays in the existing inquiry have been unacceptable. Victims have been put through a terrible ordeal, and the least they deserve is access to justice.

I also want to talk about the practice of deceitful and unlawful blacklisting. In doing so, I refer to my entry into the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my union, the Unite union, and its financial support for my election campaign to this House. I appreciate that the Bill is a narrow one on criminal conduct, rather than the wider issue of when an undercover policing operation begins, but since the blacklisting scandal surfaced over a decade ago, it is clear that these are not merely allegations. I appreciate that, in relation to blacklisting in the construction industry, we have seen a substantial out-of-court settlement, and there are ongoing proceedings. However, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin’s findings in the Metropolitan police’s internal investigation stated:

“The report concludes that, on the balance of probabilities, the allegation that the police or special branches supplied information is ‘proven.’ Material revealed a potentially improper flow of information from Special Branch to external organisations, which ultimately appeared on the blacklist.”

That is a hugely serious issue. The Government should be on notice that we will not hesitate to raise this and hold Ministers to account on the involvement of our law enforcement in the disgraceful process of blacklisting.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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I also declare an interest: a member of my family was blacklisted. This concern is not confined to the Labour party. The probable handing on of information from special branch is something that needs to be resolved as part of the honour of our country.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support in that matter, and I am happy that the Minister has made clear that this legislation has no impact on the search for justice in relation to that appalling practice.

The aim of this legislation should be to keep people safe and bring dangerous criminals to justice. I appreciate the assurance that this does not, and is not designed in any way to, disrupt legitimate and lawful trade union activity. Should any Bill do that, it would be opposed by Labour Members.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She makes a number of important points, and we will need assurances on those going forward.

The situation is hugely problematic as it stands, and we do not believe that the Government should attempt to escape their vicarious liability on this issue.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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I am following with interest what the hon. Gentleman has to say, and, unusually, though he is an SNP Member I have a great deal of agreement with him. However, in terms of civil liability, perhaps the simplest test is to look at one of the worst cases in recent times, which is the Finucane murder. Whatever we think of Mr Finucane—I would have different politics from him—he was an innocent party, but even more so were his three children and his wife, who were there when a state-supported group—almost—murdered him with 14 bullets over his Sunday lunch. That is a good demonstration of the point that, if this civil exclusion applies, those innocent parties—the wife and children of Finucane—would have no recourse. That surely cannot be right.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he makes the point very elegantly. If individuals are to be exonerated for actions that have been authorised, where is the redress for the innocent whose lives are impacted? It is right to look at the extremities in terms of where that might lead us.

In giving the state the ability to uphold rights, we accept that we must also give it the ability to have limited powers of coercion to uphold those rights. However, those powers must never be in conflict with the fundamental rights of individuals. In terms of the Bill, the only way we can ensure that is through good governance, effective scrutiny, limited scope and clarity on the limitations; ensuring that there is accountability for the use of the powers; and limiting opportunities for their misuse. I believe those are legitimate concerns, which many will share, both inside and outside this place, and we hope to see them addressed as the Bill continues its passage.