Richard Rosser on ensuring the government’s latest security legislation is fit for purpose
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, which has its Second Reading in the Lords tomorrow, addresses a vital issue – the need to provide a clear, lawful framework for the use of human intelligence sources.
This activity is not a new method of combating serious crime – but so far it has existed outside of a statutory framework. Now is the time to bring it out of the shadows, and to legislate for proper oversight and formal protections.
We recognise the importance of the work undertaken by our police and security services on our behalf, and the impact covert human intelligence can have. The Director General of MI5 has said: “Since March 2017, MI5 and Counter Terror Police have together thwarted 27 terror attacks” and “without the contribution of human agents, be in no doubt, many of these attacks would not have been prevented”.
While these threats to life include both Islamist and far-right terrorism, 2018 data also indicates that covert operations led to the seizure of thousands of kilograms of Class A drugs, rescued over 200 vulnerable people, took firearms and ammunition off the streets, helped prevent child sexual exploitation, and tackle the black market in vital medicine.
It is widely understood that covert sources, in order to infiltrate criminal groups, may need to commit limited criminal conduct. The very act of being embedded in a proscribed group to thwart terrorist activity or serious crime is an offence. This bill brings that process out into the open and puts it on a statutory footing – an aim which Labour strongly supports.
But the bill is far from perfect, and a crucial question is what safeguards and oversight are needed. We will therefore push to introduce increased oversight and scrutiny, and further legal protections, including independent prior judicial oversight before an authorisation can be granted, and requirements on agencies to inform the Investigatory Powers Commissioner within seven days of an authorisation being given.
We recognise that the Human Rights Act 1998 is referenced on the face of the bill but want to push ministers further – with an amendment to refer explicitly to the limits against murder, sexual violence, and other serious crimes. We will also look to ensure there is redress for victims, and the protection of trade union activity from authorisation. In addition, we want assurances on the use and safety of juveniles and vulnerable people as covert sources, and the purposes for which non-security agencies are being given powers.
This bill is not retrospective, and it should be made absolutely clear that those seeking justice for things that have happened in the past can still do so. There is an ongoing inquiry into undercover policing chaired by Sir John Mitting, and the recommendations should be implemented with victims given access to justice. Similarly, Labour are committed to a full independent public inquiry into the events at Orgreave in June 1984, during the Miners’ Strike.
The issues at the heart of this bill are some of the most serious affecting democratic societies. Public confidence must be maintained in how our security services and other agencies exercise powers that authorise criminal conduct. But I and others on the Labour Lords benches will be doing all we can to press for effective oversight to help achieve that objective.
Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords
Published 10th November 2020