MPs must vote against ‘licence to kill’ Bill
Conservative MPs will be whipped to vote in favour of state-sanctioned murder, writes Alistair Carmichael MP | PA Images
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill still gives far too many public bodies sweeping powers to grant total legal immunity for informants to commit crimes.
Should the Gambling Commission be able to hand out a licence to kill? Should the Environment Agency be allowed to commission torture? Should the Home Secretary? Or HMRC?
Those might seem like absurd questions – they certainly do to me. Yet that’s exactly what MPs are being asked to decide when we vote on the Government’s controversial ‘spy cops’ Bill today.
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, to use its official title, would allow government agencies to authorise undercover informants to commit crimes. Not just the police and MI5, mind you, but also the Food Standards Agency, HMRC and, yes, the Gambling Commission. And they wouldn’t just be able to authorise crimes – as the police do now – but to grant total legal immunity to the people committing them.
When the Bill came before the House of Commons in October, the Liberal Democrats voted against it.
We recognise that police officers do need to rely on informants, and sometimes they even need to authorise them to participate in crimes. And when an MI5 agent risks their life by infiltrating a terrorist group, they have no choice but to break the law. They must be allowed to do so, and clearly they shouldn’t face prosecution for it.
That’s how it works at the moment, and if that’s all this new law said, Liberal Democrats would support it. But the government’s Bill goes much further than that – unacceptably far.
There were so many problems with the government’s original text that the House of Lords was never going to fix them all
Thanks in no small part to the hard work of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the House of Lords – especially Lord Paddick and Baroness Hamwee – the Bill coming back to the Commons today is a significant improvement on the one we voted against in October.
Working cross-party, they defeated the government and secured important amendments to strengthen safeguards against the abuse of these powers, protect children and vulnerable adults from being used to commit crimes, and ensure that innocent victims can seek compensation.
Crucially, they also added limits to the Bill, forbidding any government agency from authorising the most serious crimes, such as murder, torture and sexual violence. I had worked with the human rights charity Reprieve and Conservative MP David Davis to table a similar amendment in the Commons, which sadly didn’t pass – so I am very glad the House of Lords has addressed it.
There were so many problems with the government’s original text that the House of Lords was never going to fix them all – and indeed it didn’t. The Bill still gives far too many public bodies sweeping powers to grant total legal immunity for informants to commit crimes.
These amendments are the very minimum safeguards required in this legislation. Today, MPs will be asked to vote on whether or not to overturn them, and shockingly, the government is planning to reject several of them – including the one limiting the types of crime that can be authorised.
In other words, Conservative MPs will be whipped to vote in favour of state-sanctioned murder. To let the Gambling Commission hand out those licences to kill.
The government’s argument is that listing crimes that cannot be authorised in the Bill would give criminal gangs a checklist with which to test undercover informants. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald has said, “Ministers should peel their eyes away from The Sopranos”.
In the US, the FBI has publicly-available guidelines that explicitly do not allow informants to participate in violence, except in self-defence. These limits have actually helped the agency be more effective at preventing crimes. And if it’s good enough for the FBI, I dare say it’s good enough for us – and more than good enough for the Gambling Commission.
I recognise that not everyone shares my views on every issue. But surely we can agree that the state should not be commissioning murder, torture or rape? That’s certainly how the Liberal Democrats will be voting today, and I hope principled Conservative MPs will join us.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Home Affairs.