UK agents should not have immunity for serious crimes, peers urge
Members of the House of Lords and former ministers have written to the UK home secretary urging her to exclude murder, torture and rape from a draft law granting government agents and informants immunity for crimes committed while undercover.
Alf Dubs, a Labour peer, will on Monday bring an amendment to the Home Office’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill seeking strict limits on the types of crimes that are sanctioned under the legislation. The bill will for the first time ensure legal protection for agents and informants working for police and UK intelligence agencies to break the law if this would prevent a more serious crime or threat to national security.
Ahead of the amendment, Lord Dubs, former attorney-general Dominic Grieve and Scotland’s former advocate general Jim Wallace, have warned home secretary Priti Patel that, while they recognise covert agents might need to break the law, immunity should not extend to the gravest offences of murder, torture and rape.
“We have real concern that the current bill does not have express limits to rule out the worst crimes, such as murder or torture, which leaves too great a scope for abuses,” their letter to Ms Patel reads.
Crimes committed while working undercover might typically include joining a proscribed terrorist organisation. Ministers and security officials have said they do not want to define “permissible” crimes in the legislation in case criminal or terrorist groups seek to test undercover agents by asking them to commit banned offences.
However, the letter argues that fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, such as the US, Canada, and Australia, have similar legislation, which does rule out the most serious crimes.
“We have seen no evidence that placing limits on crimes such as murder and torture leave these agencies less able to thwart terrorism and protect the public,” the letter reads, adding that the FBI in the US runs more than 15,000 covert agents every year.
Lord Dubs, who previously served as a minister in the Northern Ireland Office under the last Labour government, told the Financial Times he believed he had “crossbench support” for his amendment.
Mr Grieve said he was “very sympathetic to the government’s dilemma”, having spent four years as chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which oversees the security services.
“Putting a series of previously unwritten rules into statutory form creates some very particular problems about how you protect agents and informants whose lives may be on the line,” he said. “But murder, rape and torture are such clear breaches of the Human Rights Act that they should never be in scope and it’s an important statement about the rule of law that they should be excluded.”
The difficulties of managing crimes committed by informants came under new scrutiny last month, when it emerged that MI6, the UK’s overseas intelligence service, had failed to warn ministers that a “high risk agent” working overseas was likely to have engaged in serious criminality.
The shortcoming only came to light in a report from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, which provides independent oversight of the intelligence agencies and the police. It expressed concern that MI6 had asked the foreign secretary to reauthorise the agent’s operations without making clear that “red lines” set by the intelligence service about criminality had probably been crossed.
The CHIS bill relates to crimes committed by informants and agents on UK soil. It is most relevant to the security agencies but also covers people working undercover for organisations including HM Revenue & Customs and the Gambling Commission.
James Brokenshire, security minister, emphasised that the bill only authorised crimes that are compliant with the Human Rights Act, which includes the right to life.
“The bill does not list specific crimes that may be authorised, as to do so would place into the hands of criminals, terrorists and hostile states a means of testing CHIS, resulting in an increased threat to the public,” he added.