Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill

Nick Thomas-Symonds 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
Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister for his opening speech, and for his briefings and approach to this Bill. He has been generous with his time and I appreciate that.

First, I thank our police and security services, the National Crime Agency and wider law enforcement for the work they do in keeping us safe. Those on the frontline put themselves in danger every day to help others, to protect us and to prevent loss of life. That work is vital and in the national interest, and we thank them for what they do on our behalf. We on the Opposition Benches recognise the importance of that work, and of covert human intelligence sources and the results they achieve. The issue is how we ensure that vital work continues, but on a statutory footing and with the strong safeguards that are also vital.

I have listened carefully to what our law enforcement agencies have said about covert human intelligence sources. The Minister referenced the director general of MI5, who has said that

“Since March 2017, MI5 and Counter Terror Police have together thwarted 27 terror attacks.”

His judgment was that

“Without the contribution of human agents, be in no doubt, many of these attacks would not have been prevented.”

To be clear, that activity is saving lives by stopping terrorist attacks on people.

I have also considered the wider data available, particularly on the National Crime Agency. In 2018, for example, covert human intelligence operations disrupted threats to life, arrested serious criminals, seized thousands of kilograms of class A drugs, safeguarded over 200 vulnerable people, and took firearms and rounds of ammunition off the streets. I also appreciate the role that covert human intelligence sources play in addressing heinous crimes such as child sexual exploitation, and organised crime such as black markets in, among other things, vital medicine. We on the Opposition side of the House recognise the importance of that work.

At the same time, though, that work has not been on a statutory footing. Frankly, it should be, alongside formal safeguards. This activity is not new; it has been going on under existing practices for many years, and it should be on a statutory footing because that will allow for the necessary and robust safeguards that we on the Opposition Benches will be pressing for. It should be on a consistent and clear basis, and a system with clear protections should be in place. As we put this system on to a statutory footing, it is a moment to be clear about what we expect of those engaged in this conduct and the standards we should set; as this Bill passes through the House, it is a moment to detail not just those standards, but how we expect them to be implemented. That is why we in the Opposition will not be voting against this Bill tonight, but feel it should move to Committee for consideration and improvement.

I know that there are deep concerns about the safeguards in this Bill and it is to that crucial issue I now turn. The matters we are dealing with today are difficult for any Parliament; they are deep and serious questions for any democratic society, and raise critical issues that the Government will need to address as the Bill progresses through the House and the other place. It is crucial, too, that there is public confidence in what our security services and other agencies that use covert human intelligence sources actually do with regard to authorised criminal conduct. I entirely accept that an agent embedded in a proscribed organisation is committing an offence every day by virtue of being part of it, but is doing so for the purpose of thwarting plots and stopping greater loss of life. I appreciate that, but it is still vital that the wider framework under which they operate has trust and confidence.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Members of this House, when considering this Bill, should take comfort from the fact that we have one of the most rigorous and toughest oversight regimes in the world for regulating our intelligence services?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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I of course welcome the oversight that has been introduced for our intelligence services; the situation is very different from how it was in decades past. However, that does not detract from the additional safeguards that are needed in this specific Bill.

Under the Bill as it stands—I am quoting, because I want to press the Minister on this point—authorisations for participation in criminal conduct may only be granted

“if it is necessary (a) in the interests of national security; (b) for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder; or (c) in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.”

The Government need to be clear about what is within the scope of that framework. It cannot and should not encompass any lawful activity, nor should we allow mission creep in the years ahead.

I hope the Minister would agree that a Bill such as this one should have no business whatsoever interfering with the legitimate and lawful work of our trade union movement, which is a cornerstone of our democracy and a bastion of rights. I welcome what the Minister said in answer to an intervention—that trade union activity is legitimate and lawful and therefore is not within the ambit of the Bill—but some concerns have been expressed that the words I quoted referring to economic interests could refer to the legitimate work of trade unions. I would welcome it if the Solicitor General, when he responds to the debate, could repeat the Minister’s assurance that trade unions are not meant to come within the ambit of those words.

In addition to the test of necessity, the authorisation may be granted only where it is

“proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by”

the conduct. I welcome and note the test of necessity and proportionality. Nothing should be authorised in contravention of the European convention on human rights, to which I will return in a moment. But first the Government must justify the need for each and every agency and body listed in the Bill—what powers, what purpose. Nobody expects details on ongoing investigations—of course we do not—but a sense of the type of issues expected to arise is crucial to enable the House to consider that list properly and whether the presence of the organisation on the list is necessary.

In answer to an intervention from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is no longer in his place, the Minister mentioned, with regard to the Food Standards Agency, mislabelling and unsafe food. We need more detail on that and the links to organised and serious crime. Similarly, the Gambling Commission is another example, and it is absolutely clear as to why that is on the list. I do not propose to go through the list one by one; suffice it to say that each and every one needs to be justified.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I have seen how the security services conduct these activities in detail in some cases. When I saw the Bill and the list of organisations, I was a bit shocked, to be honest. The Minister made the argument for the inclusion of the Food Standards Agency; from my experience—not personal experience, I hasten to add—of a case that involved waste theft and the Environment Agency, the lead was the police, and the Environment Agency worked across agencies. I want some assurance as to why it is necessary for the Food Standards Agency or the Environment Agency, for that matter, to have a lead in these situations.

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.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith
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In its legal adjudication on the third direction earlier this year, a majority on the Investigatory Powers Tribunal—the special tribunal overseeing the intelligence services—found that the oversight powers currently given to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner provided

“adequate safeguards against the risk of abuse of discretionary power”.

It is important in our debate on the Bill to recognise those comments in that judgment, which is partly the reason that the Government have introduced the Bill.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, an issue to which I will return in a moment, but what he is actually referring to is one of the instances where the Government have tried to argue that the Human Rights Act did not apply. It is precisely for that reason, and because such arguments were raised in the past, that I am raising the point that I am.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I understand that one of the filings that the Government put to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal said that

“the state, in tasking the CHIS…is not the instigator of that activity and cannot be treated as somehow responsible for it…it would be unreal to hold the state responsible.”

Does he share my concern about the various get-out clauses for the Government in these powers, and does he agree that it is better to have a public limit and safeguards, as they do in Canada for example, on a number of such activities?

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.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy Portrait Bell Ribeiro-Addy
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From listening to the arguments that have been made, it strikes me that the Bill is presumably intended to protect undercover officers from facing prosecution in a situation where they should not, because they are doing their work. More experienced Members might be able to give me examples of situations where officers have faced prosecution in those circumstances, but I certainly cannot think of any. A few weeks ago, during our debate on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, we were told about ambulance-chasing lawyers, and I am wondering whether we will now hear about police-chasing prosecution services.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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I certainly would never use divisive rhetoric about those before our courts who are protecting people’s rights; we should be absolutely clear about that. This Bill is on the narrow issue of criminal conduct. It should not and would not have anything to do with trade union and lawful activity, and if it ever did, it would, of course, be strongly opposed. On my hon. Friend’s final point, existing practice versus what happens now is a very important issue. At the moment, this happens in the shadows: it happens where prosecuting authorities are given specific information and the prosecutions simply do not take place. This should be on a proper statutory footing, with the safeguards we are arguing for.

Labour’s commitment is to work in the national interest to keep people, their families, their community and the country safe. That is why I have taken the approach I have with the Bill. We recognise the importance of this activity being on a statutory footing, which is why I will not be opposing the passage of the Bill today. However, in Committee we will look to press the Government on their position. We will hold Ministers to account, seeking to improve the Bill on the vital issue of safeguards, so that the public can have confidence in the process, while law enforcement bodies can carry out the vital work of keeping us all safe.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I am going to start with a time limit of nine minutes, which is advisory. I put on a time limit of nine minutes so that no individual Member is encouraged to take dozens of interventions and therefore take 20 minutes. I hope that that will be roughly about right to ensure that everybody gets a decent chance to speak on this extremely important issue.