We pay police to uphold the law, not break it

“The police are paid to uphold the law; this Bill allows officers to either act illegally, or to pay others to break it.” Following the passing of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill on 5 October, Green peer Jenny Jones fears that the Bill will legitimise state actors harming others.

Police at a protest

Jonathan Harrison

Jenny Jones

One of the most dangerous pieces of legislation any government has ever proposed has sailed through its second reading in the Commons with Labour abstaining. As much as I admire the Labour rebels who stood firm, I find it infuriating that there are so few of them.  

The government has learnt a major lesson from the spycops scandal and are passing legislation to ensure that innocent people, who become victims of devastating state intrusion in their personal lives, can never take legal action to get justice. That is the real purpose of this legislation and why Labour should reject it in principle.

The Covert Human Resources Bill appears to legitimise state actors who will kill, injure and destroy the lives of others. Unlike laws in the USA, this proposal places no specific limits on the type of criminal activity, which in the words of Amnesty means there is a “grave danger that this bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill.” If undercover police can manage within written constraints in the USA, why not here?

Don’t let the government fool you that this approach to covert activity is putting the status quo onto the statue book. Yes, it reflects the current guidance that authorisations have to be specific, proportionate and necessary and for the majority of operations that can be fine. It’s when special units are created, like the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which for many years worked outside the normal channels and reported directly to the Home Office. 

The usual deployment strategy used by the likes of the drug squad with time limited undercover deployments aimed at specific targets, was abandoned in favour of the long term trawls for ‘intelligence’ favoured by the SDS. When our economic system goes into crisis and vested interests are threatened, then it’s easy for Ministers to justify the creation of special units targeting the ‘enemy within’, yet spy on legitimate and legal entities.

Court cases have collapsed in recent years as it emerged that police officers broke the law and acted as agents provocateurs when undercover. Yet, any blank cheque to commit crimes will also apply to informers – often minor criminals themselves – and others who are useful sources of information, such as those paid to burgle, or to hack into data sources by the police. One of my police whistleblowers provided a list of personal phone numbers belonging to environmental campaigners who had been hacked by someone in India who was paid illicitly to get information on green groups. All this would become legitimate.

No approval from a judge is necessary for any deployment, as internal authorisations are seen as sufficient. These are the same kind of processes that authorised spying on trade unionists and the Justice for Stephen Lawrence campaign. The same processes that enabled police officers in the SDS to systematically trick women into long term relationships for the sole purpose of gaining access to campaign networks. As much as Ministers will talk about drug gangs when pushing this legislation, the draft Bill also includes stopping ‘preventing disorder’, which the police can then define as almost anything. Strike action, or blockading a fracking site, or organising a march for justice on a local police station, might justify deployment of ‘no limit’ officers or agents.

I find it shocking that Keir Starmer would not oppose legislation that is counter to the rule of law. This legislation is dangerous because it allows the police to operate at their own discretion outside of the law. We can’t accept a situation where it is impossible to prosecute the police, or police agents, where they commit serious crimes. Where does it end, when senior officers are able to tell their juniors, or informers on their payroll, that it is okay to ignore a law in advance of a crime? 

The police are paid to uphold the law; this Bill allows officers to either act illegally, or to pay others to break it.