The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill allowing authorisation by M15 and other agencies for undercover operatives to break the law passed its third reading in the House of Commons on Thursday after challenges from the Labour Party.
Before the bill was passed Labour proposed an amendment for the legislation to state exactly what undercover agents would be permitted to do under it.
The proposed amendment was defeated by 313 votes to 98.
Labour leader Kier Starmer, it was reported, also received a swathe of resignations from Labour MP’s after 34 of them voted against the bill despite his telling them to abstain.
Among those who resigned were five parliamentary secretaries, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and shadow minister Dan Carden who said “the bill paves the way for gross abuses of state power against citizens.”
As a matter of conscience, I must vote against the #CHISBill tonight.
— Dan Carden MP (@DanCardenMP) October 15, 2020
Home Secretary Priti Patel, in response to Starmer’s decision to direct Labour MP’s to abstain, reportedly said Labour “Once again … refused to stand up for those who protect our country and keep us all safe.”
“Their leader may have changed, but Labour still can’t be trusted on national security,” she said.
“Only the Conservatives will give our security services the power and support they need to keep our country safe.”
The CHIS bill is to confirm a set of safeguards, including human rights compliance, creating a statutory basis for the serious crime-fighting tactic of allowing undercover agents to engage in criminality to secure the trust of those they are investigating.
The tactic has already been in use for some time, according to a government statement.
However, prior to legal proceedings brought against the government by rights groups in 2017, it was not publicly known that MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, had been authorising informants to commit crimes under a secret policy that was not subject to meaningful oversight.
That’s according to a rights watchdog Privacy International (PI) in a statement last year.
Last month PI and other rights groups welcomed the proposed CHIS bill because it will create a legal basis for undercover informants to break the law but said it doesn’t go far enough in specifying which crimes could be authorised.
“We are seriously concerned that the Bill fails to expressly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorizing crimes like torture, murder, and sexual violence,” Maya Foa, director of justice organization Reprieve, said at the time in a joint statement with PI, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, and the Pat Finucane Centre.
According to the joint statement, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in December 2019 narrowly ruled 3–2 in favour of the government (pdf) that MI5’s powers to authorise informants to break the law were “implicit,” but “one dissenting judge warned that the government’s claimed basis for the policy amounts to a ‘dangerous precedent.’”
PI, Reprieve, and co-complainants the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre are continuing their litigation and have been granted permission to appeal, with a likely date of January 2021 for the hearing.
Other agencies that are covered under the CHIS bill to authorise law breaking by undercover operatives include the seven agencies and departments of the UK Intelligence Community (UKIC), the police, the Home Office immigration and border forces, the military, the Ministry of Justice, the Food Standards Agency, and the Environment Agency, and others.
The CHIS Bill must now pass through the House of Lords then be given royal assent before becoming law.