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In context: Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill

In context: Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill

The House of Commons voted in October to pass a bill that critics say could give undercover agents a license to kill, torture or rape while on the job. That has proved controversial.

Right, explain this one

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill seeks to create a legal pathway to permit authorities in the UK to commit certain criminal acts. 

It will do this by inserting a new section into existing law, creating something called a ‘Criminal Conduct Authorisation’. In essence, it creates a licence - or strictly speaking an "authorisation" - for undercover agents and informants to commit crimes as part of their work.


Agents are not exactly spies as depicted in films. Government intelligence agencies around the world work with people to gather information on how dangerous groups operate and to do so often involves recruiting people who may have previous criminal experience, or putting people in situations where avoiding participating in criminal activity is impossible. 

Imagine an undercover agent working inside a terrorist cell or an organised crime syndicate. An agent may be breaking the law simply by joining a proscribed organisation, or may be asked to take on a role in a drugs or weapons supply chain. 

This bill would protect agents from being prosecuted at a later date for actions they may have felt they had to do as part of their intelligence gathering job. 

What the bill proposes is a formal mechanism whereby agents can get authorisations from their superiors to carry out unlawful acts as part of their role. 

The bill says authorisation of this sort will only be given out “where necessary for a specified purpose”.

The UK Government points out that agents in situations like these do an incredibly important and high stakes job - we may not know exactly how many terrorist attacks have been foiled by these types of covert operations, for example.

Okay. But why is this bill happening now? 

These practices clearly aren’t new - protocols have existed in various government organisations for this type of thing for decades. This bill would put them on a statutory footing, which people from across the political spectrum have welcomed. 

But the timing of this bill’s arrival has raised eyebrows. The bill appears to have come up as a response to some legal challenges the government faced in relation to the behaviour of MI5 officers and undercover police. 

Critics say the bill could prevent rogue or irresponsible agents from being held to account, or even help cover up government involvement in atrocities. 

One example often cited is the 1989 shooting of Pat Finucane, a Northern Irish man, killed by gunmen who had “shocking levels of collusion” with British intelligence assets, as former Prime Minister David Cameron admitted. 

Would it really allow someone to get away with rape, torture or murder?

This is contentious. The bill does not rule out anything - not rape, murder or torture. But the UK Government says agents would have to “take into account” the human rights act. 

Amnesty International has called the bill “deeply dangerous” while Reprive, a charity that has previously taken MI5 to court, has said: “Without limits on the crimes agents can commit, this Bill is wide open to abuse — and history suggests this will result in terrible harm.”

Why not just rule out the worst crimes?

That’s what campaigners and opposition parties and several Tory rebels are calling for. 

States like Canada and the US have included a list of crimes in their legislation that agents are definitely not ever allowed to do. Sir Bob Neill, a former Conservative minister and chair of the Justice Committee, told the Commons that this would be the best thing to do. 

But the government says such a list would in-effect tie agents’ hands and make it easier for their cover to be blown. The argument is that criminals would then be able to test those they suspect to be agents with a “checklist” of crimes they know aren’t permitted. 

An amendment tabled by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer would have stopped the authorisation of serious offences including causing death or bodily harm, torture, violating the sexual integrity of a person and detention. It was defeated by 317 votes to 256.

What happens next?

The bill is soon to have its second reading in the hands of the House of Lords, where it could be amended. The large government majority in the Commons, however, means the bill is highly likely to become law as it currently stands. 

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