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MSPs refuse consent for spy cops bill

Ninian Reid via Flickr

MSPs refuse consent for spy cops bill

The Scottish Parliament has refused to give consent to the so-called ‘spy cops’ bill.

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill would authorise undercover police officers to undertake criminal activity as part of intelligence gathering work.

As policing is devolved, the bill requires legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament for it to apply in Scotland.

But MSPs expressed concern the proposed legislation went too far, as it places no limits on the type of crime that could be authorised and activity does not require prior approval.

Parliament voted to support a government motion denying consent to the bill by 92 votes to 27. The Scottish Conservatives dissented.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “I am disappointed to report that, despite very candid engagement with the UK Government, it has not made amendments to the bill that would have addressed my concerns. In my view, which I know many members share, the bill remains deficient.

“There has been no movement towards prior judicial approval by a judicial commissioner at the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office. […] By providing – before any activity takes place – independent judicial scrutiny of the decision that is reached by the authorising officer for criminal conduct authority, prior approval would, in my view, go a long way towards addressing the legitimate concerns that have been expressed in various quarters.”

It is now expected Scotland will be removed from the bill.

However, the Scottish Conservatives warned this meant there was a risk that, should the Court of Appeal rule against the UK Government in a legal challenge around the implied power of police to engage in criminal activity, undercover police work in Scotland will not be able to continue.

Tory justice spokesperson Liam Kerr said: “Every day that would pass without that emergency legislation being in place would be another day on which organised crime, cybercrime and human trafficking could continue unhindered by covert monitoring.

“The bill is vital and provides a clear and consistent statutory basis for activity by public authorities to keep the public safe. Failure to give consent risks leaving Scotland’s people exposed. That would be deeply irresponsible.”

The justice secretary confirmed the Scottish Government may have to bring forward emergency legislation in the “unlikely scenario” the Court of Appeal ruled against current practices in order to preserve undercover operations.

Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who has campaigned for an inquiry into the abuse of undercover police powers in Scotland, called for a public interest defence to be established rather than judicial authorisation of conduct.

He said: “I ask anyone to read the testimonies of victims who have come before the undercover policing inquiry and then ask themselves whether they are doing the right thing […] Prior approval of immunity would not be a safeguard.

“We should introduce not total criminal and civil immunity but a public interest defence that can be considered before any court proceedings – that is the way to go.”

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