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Keir Starmer, 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings, Bristol. Photo: Rwendland/cropped from original/licensed under CC4.0, linked at bottom of article

Keir Starmer, 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings, Bristol. Photo: Rwendland/cropped from original/licensed under CC4.0, linked at bottom of article

The Spy Cops bill gives security forces a green light to act with impunity. It should be opposed, argues Terina Hine

The Spy Cops bill which will provide undercover agents immunity from breaking the law has been making its way through parliament.

Otherwise known by its snappy title The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) bill this piece of legislation is a major attack on civil liberties.

The bill allows public bodies, ranging from MI5, the police and armed forces, to HMRC and the Food Standards Agency to authorise agents to commit criminal acts while working undercover - acts which prior to last week’s Lords amendments, included murder and rape.

The Lords inflicted two defeats on the government on Wednesday - first to to ban the most serious of criminal acts from inclusion - murder, torture, rape or other sexual offences - and second by placing limits on the use of child spies.

The defeats mean the bill will return to the Commons, but, while it is thought the restrictions on child spies will be retained, the amendment prohibiting murder, rape and other serious crimes is unlikely to be accepted.

Shami Chakrabarti, former Shadow attorney general under Jeremy Corbyn, proposed amendments to remove the immunity from prosecution the bill provides for undercover agents. This would have enabled some semblance of legal oversight and acted as a disincentive for some criminal activities. Disgracefully the amendments did not pass, failing to gain the support from Chakrabarti’s own party.

The bill allows agents to commit criminal acts not only on national security grounds, but also for the purpose of preventing disorder” and ensuring the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.

It is widely acknowledged that the activities of undercover agents have led to miscarriages of justice, that state agents have acted as agent provocateurs, and have committed serious criminal acts including those of a sexual nature.

The long-running scandal of at least 30 women who were deceived into having relationships with undercover officers working for London's Metropolitan Police Service has been widely reported. The women, who successfully sued after being tricked into “abusive and manipulative” relationships with undercover officers still bare the scars, as do the children conceived in deceit. But the prosecution which revealed the abuse and provided some semblance of justice would not have been possible had the CHIS bill been in place at the time.

The extent the state is prepared to go to infiltrate perfectly legal protest groups has not only been exposed in court by victims but also by revelations in the ongoing Inquiry into Undercover Policing.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry has revealed that 140 officers of the Special Demonstration Squad were deployed to spy on over a thousand political groups - the vast majority left leaning. We know that police spies were not confined to criminal gangs or terrorist cells but embedded in the anti-war movement, women’s rights groups and environmental campaigns. Political activists were placed under surveillance, Stop the War meetings and activists spied on, and female campaigners abused.

Through the Inquiry we recently learned that anti-war campaigner, Tariq Ali, was spied on by 14 different officers from the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) over a period of eight years – from 1968 to 1976. It was also revealed that covert police officers infiltrated public meetings planning anti-war demonstrations - both the 1968 demo against the war in Vietnam and the 2003 Iraq demo.

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland spokesperson, Grainne Teggart commented that the bill effectively hands a licence to kill over to the British state, saying, “It is deeply alarming that the proposed law does not explicitly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorising crimes like torture and killing. It must be amended to do so."

This is what Chakrabarti’s amendment was seeking to ameliorate - by removing immunity from prosecution the possibility for redress would exist. According to Chakrabarti, without amendment the bill provides “blanket licence for crime without limit”.

Defenders of the bill claim that human rights are protected by international human rights law, but as there would be no scope for investigation if breaches were to occur such reassurances provide little comfort. A cursory look at recent history makes clear our police and armed services pay scant regard to human rights.

From its treatment of XR activists to its attempts to prevent Black Lives Matter protestors in the summer, we know the government is keen to suppress public demonstrations. The government, the security services and the police have shown they cannot be trusted.

Yet the Labour Party whipped its peers to abstain when Chakrabarti’s amendments were put to the vote.

Briefed against by her own party, Chakrabarti has been accused of deliberately attempting to split Labour by proposing her amendments, her accusers viewing her more as a political opponent - having been appointed by Jeremy Corbyn - than an expert in Human Rights law regardless of her 13 years as the director of Liberty. 

Although Chakrabarti’s amendments were supported by the Lib Dems, they had no hope of passing without Labour peers onside. To remove all checks and balances from covert operatives is deeply alarming indeed. For the Labour Party to support this bill is a betrayal of what it should stand for.

It is not the first time the bill’s passage has caused conflict within the Labour ranks. In October last year 34 Labour MPs, including seven front benchers, defied the whip by voting against the bill at its third reading in the House of Commons.

Dan Carden, Liverpool Walton MP, resigned from the shadow Treasury team over the vote, describing his decision as a matter of conscience: “The bill paves the way for gross abuse of state power against its citizens. And in Liverpool, we have a healthy suspicion of state power because weve felt its damaging force too often in the past.”

Given the British state’s long history of undermining the activities of legitimate trade unions, environmental organisations and anti-war campaigners and given the history of abuses of power by covert agents, the danger of removing all accountability is all too apparent.

It is time the bill itself was fully exposed - if our representatives in parliament are failing to do so it is up to us to step up and campaign against this erosion of our rights.

An earlier version of this article was published on Stop the War

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