Labour’s hollow opposition to the spy-cops bill
We need a genuine defence of civil liberty, not party-political posturing
Two Labour MPs, Dan Carden and Margaret Greenwood, have resigned from the Labour front bench. They joined with 32 other Labour MPs to defy the party whip and vote against the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, aka the spy-cops bill. This happened after Labour leader Keir Starmer had ordered MPs to abstain.
The new bill will amend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 (RIPA), which was a major piece of legislation passed by Tony Blair’s New Labour government. At the time, it represented one of the most significant incursions into civil liberties in decades. It provided public bodies with sweeping surveillance powers, and has been widely criticised by civil-liberties groups ever since its passage into law.
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill would permit officers to break the law as part of covert intelligence work. Or, in the words of the bill, ‘criminal conduct authorisations’ would be issued, allowing ‘criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with’ the conduct of covert human intelligence. The authorisations could be granted where the ‘conduct is necessary to protect national security’, ‘detect crime’ or, ominously, where it is in the ‘interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom’. Any conduct which is authorised has to be proportionate to those aims.
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill is undoubtedly an affront to civil liberty. But, as Carden partly acknowledged, it is hardly a revelation that the security services break the law in order to achieve their aims. All this bill seems to do is add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the process of gathering intelligence. You might argue that such bureaucracy is a good thing – after all, the intelligence services should be accountable for the decisions they make. Indeed, many on the Labour benches believed the bill would bring greater transparency to conduct that would otherwise go unmonitored.
But the stink raised by sections of the Labour left about this particular piece of law is meaningless without a broader defence of civil liberties. In fact, serving on Starmer’s frontbench is hardly conducive to taking a principled defence on civil liberty, given Starmer’s own history of attacking the rights of defendants. The fact that Starmer instructed MPs to abstain is hardly surprising given his repeatedly emphasised pro-police credentials.
It is worth remembering that the law-breaking powers this bill authorises are nothing new. The intelligence services have been legally permitted to break the law overseas since 1994, under a power enshrined in Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act. Moreover, the intelligence services have long been heavily implicated in criminal offences in the UK, too. In 2018 Privacy International, alongside several other groups, legally forced the state to reveal that a ‘secret policy governing MI5 involvement in criminality [in the UK] has been in place since the early 1990s’. This revelation put pressure on the Conservative government over the murder of Irish human-rights lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989 by a British army agent.
Much of the unlawful conduct by the intelligence services and police forces is far more mundane. Undercover police officers often engage in organising drug importation or other criminal activity in order to catch the wider network. This is why we have a body of law devoted to ‘entrapment’ – the idea that the state should not prosecute people who have only become involved in crime because of the role of the state in eliciting criminal behaviour.
MPs like Carden know all of this. Indeed, the fact sheet issued by the government acknowledges that criminal activity is an ‘essential part’ of intelligence gathering. If this is a ‘matter of conscience’ for these MPs then they should try to stimulate a far broader debate about civil liberty in the UK. Perhaps they should start with the lockdown – a major civil-liberties issue very few MPs seem to care about.
This new bill is certainly a further attack on civil liberties. But it merely reflects what has been happening for decades, under successive governments. When Carden claims that the bill shows how the Tories are ‘morally bankrupt’, he ignores his own party’s long-standing role in attacking civil liberties. He also ignores the role of his party leader, who has successively cracked down on important freedoms. If this really is a ‘matter of conscience’ for MPs like Carden, then they ought to try to change the culture that underpins this new bill. To do so will take more than a resignation.
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