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Controversial ‘spy powers bill’ is not fit for purpose – I’m fighting to change it

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill will give agents a ‘licence to kill’ in the interest of economic wellbeing. The broadly written legislation is dangerous and gives too many people powers to evade the law

Alistair Carmichael
Thursday 15 October 2020 10:40 BST
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Will the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill give too many people powers to break the law?
Will the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill give too many people powers to break the law? (Getty Images)

Today, MPs vote on a bill that would enable the government to authorise undercover agents to commit crimes – up to and including murder, torture and sexual assault – right here, in the UK.

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill gives vast powers not only to the security agencies but also to a questionable collection of public bodies. There are no real limits, weak safeguards and inadequate oversight.

The Bill has no limits on the types of crime that could be authorised. Murder, torture – it is all on the table as written. Nor is there any independent approval of a decision to authorise a crime – or even a requirement for police or prosecutors to be informed about it at all. It is concerning that the Bill allows crimes to be authorised not only in the interests of national security, but also on the disconcertingly vague grounds that they are “in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”.

Perhaps I am just too liberal about these things but I don’t think we should allow this government to authorise acts of torture in the hope an extra fraction of economic growth. What is the value in sterling required for us to crack out the thumbscrews?

Still worse the Bill grants these powers not only to the police and MI5, but also the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission and the Environment Agency, as well as three government departments.

There are times when powers like these are necessary to allow undercover agents to commit crimes as part of protecting our country. An MI5 agent infiltrating a terrorist group would be breaking the law by joining it – and risking their life in the process. We owe them an enormous debt for the work they do to keep us safe. It is right that we give them the tools and support they need to carry it out.

With the greatest respect to the staff of the Food Standards Agency, however, if we are allowing meat inspectors to commit murder than something has gone seriously awry.

This may all seem like a wild exaggeration of the powers held within the Bill. The legislation is written so broadly, however, that there is little way to prevent such extreme abuses once enacted.

The government has brought this Bill not by choice but because it has been breaking the law for years and is now being forced by the courts to put it on a legal basis. It does not speak to good faith on their part.

That is why my party is working with the human rights group Reprieve, as well as MPs from other parties, to cut away the Bill’s excesses.

Conservative MP David Davis and I have tabled an amendment that would limit the powers in the Bill, so they cannot be used to sanction murder, torture or sexual violence by a government agent.

We would require vital independent oversight and ensure that innocent victims can seek civil redress, for example, if they lose out financially as a result of a state-sanctioned crime.

We would place strict safeguards on the use of these powers, and limit their use to the police, the intelligence services, the National Crime Agency and the Serious Fraud Office.

It is essential that there is a clear legal basis for the actions of government agents. It has been lacking for far too long. This Bill, however, is not fit for purpose. Parliament must stand up to this disturbing government overreach, and anyone who cares about the rule of law must oppose this Bill as it stands.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat  home affairs spokesman, its chief whip and the party's MP for Orkney and Shetland

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