The Spycops Bill: A Façade of Public Protection That Threatens Human Rights

The Spycops Bill: A Façade of Public Protection That Threatens Human Rights

[Written by Karolina Omenzetter (she/her)]

[Photo by Jeremiah Wei Ming Sim (they/them)]

Content Warning: Death, Abuse, Child Abuse

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill has recently gone through to the House of Commons. Also known as the Spycops bill, it aims to grant powers to undercover police to disregard the law without a warrant. Various organisations, including Amnesty International, believe the legislation to be a breach of human rights. Keir Starmer effectively facilitated the passing of this bill by whipping the Labour Party to abstain.

The nature of the Spycops bill is not unique; Canada and the United States have comparable legislation. However, their laws feature one imperative difference, serious crimes, such as murder and torture, are explicitly excluded from immunity.1,2 Despite recently passing through its third reading, the law remains vague and allows for undercover police to potentially commit serious criminal activity as long as the officer and their superior believe it necessary to “protect national security, prevent or detect a crime or disorder, or in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”.3

Undercover police have unofficially engaged in criminal conduct for decades.4 The media endorses the idea that this occurs solely in investigations regarding drugs, sexual exploitation of children, firearms, and terrorism. Interestingly, the draft of the Spycops bill began after a narrow win for MI5 when the Investigatory Powers Tribunal scrutinised the practises of their agents.5 Is it possible that the government aims to acquire legal grounds to protect law enforcement from corruption?

The Police Spies Out of Lives campaign has revealed that the police have engaged in unethical practices when investigating many groups and individuals that should not require such a high level of policing. This includes over 30 women who came forward to report that they were targeted and had unknowingly formed intimate sexual and romantic relationships with undercover police. They were not involved in any illegal trades that the undercover police were essentially fighting against, instead, many of these women were involved in environmental activism.

The Spycops bill not only threatens the safety of citizens in the future, but it also jeopardises current legal cases. Its vague terms serve to alleviate potential perpetrators, which includes bodies such as the armed forces, Food Standards Agency and HMRC, from facing justice when exploiting their authority.3 139 police officers were used to spy on thousands of groups and out of the three hundred known groups, only three were right wing.4,6,7 With such a bias towards justice groups and trade unions, it almost seems as though they were used for political control rather than any form of protection over citizens. This directly interferes with freedom of speech and freedom of association. 

This human rights issue is not being taken seriously by the opposition, as Labour Party members were told to abstain by Keir Starmer. Only 18 members, including Jeremy Corbyn, voted against the bill’s first reading.8 The irony of course is that Starmer has previously worked as a human rights lawyer, and when questioned by constituents from Glasgow stated, “There is no more passionate advocate of human rights… than myself”9 . This is a bold statement for a bystander of a law which could grant immunity to police corruption. It gives the impression that Starmer wants Labour to appear ‘tough on crime’ by enabling corrupt conduct. With the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union being ineffective post-Brexit, this is worrying. The charter includes a clause for the rights of victims of crimes, allowing them access to support, protection and information.10 If the perpetrator of the crime is undercover and protected by the Spycops bill, will the victim be granted this, once we leave the EU? Human rights, post-Brexit, hardly seem to be a priority for the Conservative government as they never drafted the British Bill of Rights promised in 2015.11 

In their 2019 manifesto the Conservatives promised to update the Human Rights Act “to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”.12 Can we rely on Starmer to abstain again if the Conservative Government drafts an act which explicitly allows for human rights to be abused by the state for reasons suggested in the Spycops bill? Starmer has promoted the facade that undercover police are employed solely for the fight against major crime. This wholly disregards the police’s known bias towards left wing activists and trade unions which have been essential in the fight for human rights in the first place.

The outcome of the bill is now in the hands of the House of Lords, thanks to the complacency of the opposition. Although the bill is justified as a means of protection for the public, if the police can justify targeting trade unions and activist groups, then surely this is only the beginning of further oppression in a bid to satisfy the elite. Yet again, the government has chosen to empower the state rather than its people.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/11/the-guardian-view-on-covert-human-intelligence-sources-draw-a-line
  2. https://www.thenational.scot/news/18806415.outrageous-spycops-bill-rushed-parliament/
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covert-human-intelligence-sources-draft-code-of-practice/covert-human-intelligence-sources-bill-factsheet-accessible-version
  4. https://www.spycops.co.uk/
  5. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/police-spies-mark-kennedy-undercover-crimes-chis-bill-law-b1047074.html
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/ng-interactive/2018/oct/15/uk-political-groups-spied-on-undercover-police-list
  7. https://privacyinternational.org/examples/2627/uk-undercover-police-infiltrated-124-left-wing-activist-groups-1970-2007
  8. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-10-05/division/B7B87DE4-74BA-4D23-96FA-2ECB111A0FD6/CovertHumanIntelligenceSources(CriminalConduct)Bill?outputType=Party
  9. https://labourlist.org/2020/10/starmer-defends-positions-on-scottish-independence-and-spycops-in-call-keir/?amp
  10. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/our-human-rights-work/what-does-brexit-mean-equality-and-human-rights-uk  
  11. http://ucrel.lancs.ac.uk/wmatrix/ukmanifestos2015/localpdf/Conservatives.pdf
  12. https://assets-global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf

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