The Spycops Bill
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Keir Starmer’s (latest) Shame
On Thursday last week, the UK parliament voted through the 'Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill' (CHIS), with 313 votes in favour to 98 against. The CHIS Bill, also known as the Spycops Bill, will authorise undercover state agents to commit crimes as part of their work. It does not rule out murder, torture or sexual violence. It is no surprise that the Tories would introduce this sort of vile authoritarian legislation. But to its absolute shame, the Labour Party failed to oppose it.
Labour leader (and former human rights lawyer) Sir Keir Starmer whipped his MPs to abstain on the vote. 'Whipping' in the English Parliament means to compel members of a party to vote as the leaders of a party wish. This was a not-so-subtle nod to MI5 and the establishment that he is keen to reassure of his loyalty. Perhaps it is also a bid to appear ‘tough on law and order’, although abstaining is hardly going to give the intended impression to those who like that sort of thing. Perhaps he’s a robot stuck on ‘abstain mode’, and he needs a hard kick in the shiny metal shins. Who knows? Just 34 Labour MPs, mostly from the 'Socialist Campaign Group' of Labour MPs, rebelled to vote against this appalling piece of legislation, several resigning their front-bench positions to do so.
A few so-called 'socialist' Labour MPs disgracefully followed the whip and abstained, claiming that they need to keep their minor front-bench positions in order to somehow exert influence on Starmer. What a bunch of amoral careerist shits. The other “No” votes came from the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and a solitary Tory.
The Spycops Scandal
In 2011, a scandal hit the UK press. It was revealed that for over 4 decades the UK police had run a covert spying operation, which had spied on thousands of UK citizens. 1 Beginning in 1968, undercover police spies infiltrated over 1,000 political groups and compiled files on the activists within them. The activists targeted include environmentalists, socialists, anarchists, animal rights activists, anti-apartheid, anti-war and anti-racism campaigners. Six national trade unions were targeted, and information about trade union activists was passed on to blacklisting organisations.
Of over 1,000 political groups infiltrated, just 3 were from the far right. 2 Grieving relatives seeking justice for murdered loved ones, such as the family of Stephen Lawrence, were also targeted by police spies. Activists and socialists generally understand that there may be police infiltrators in your campaign or organisation. But the sheer scale and abusive nature of this infiltration was astonishing.
Whilst under cover, a number of these police spies deceived women into having sexual relationships with them, and in some cases having children with them. This is a step beyond the phone tapping or recording of meetings that - while still wrong and unpleasant - we have come to expect. Police spies were given fake identities, sometimes using the names of dead children without the knowledge of their parents, and often spent years embedded in political organisations. Campaigners fighting for justice in light of these revelations have unsurprisingly been met with resistance from the police.
A public inquiry was established in 2015 to investigate the unacceptable practices of undercover policing that had become public knowledge, thanks to campaigners and investigative journalists. The police argued that the proceedings should be held in private in order to protect the identities of their spies. A “large number” of documents was shredded by one of the secret intelligence units when the inquiry was announced. 3 The 'Undercover Policing Inquiry' is ongoing, it is due to deliver its findings in 2023.
The British state also has a shameful history of undercover policing in Northern Ireland. The murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane in front of his wife and three children in 1989 by agents of the state, was a particularly heinous example. Pat Finucane’s family are opposed to the CHIS Bill as they believe it would be used to cover up similar crimes.
The 2011 revelations showed that the UK has a big problem with undercover agents operating without much scrutiny, interfering in and devastating the lives of innocent people. The CHIS Bill has been sold by some, as providing statutory legislation to better regulate these activities. But instead it takes them a step further in the wrong direction. It has been described by Amnesty International as “providing informers and agents with a licence to kill”. 4 From a human rights point of view this is extremely concerning.
Those advocating for this Bill from within the Labour Party argued that “we must ensure that the security services have the powers they need to keep us safe”. 5 I would argue that authorising the state to murder us is not the best way to keep us safe. They point to the fact that other countries such as Canada have such legislation in place, however there are explicit prohibitions against murder, sexual violence and other serious crimes in Canada’s legislation.
The UK CHIS legislation contains no such prohibitions, and the Labour Party attempts to add them via amendments to the Bill were unsuccessful. “But the Human Rights Act will protect us!” the advocates squeal. Ah - the Human Rights Act that the Tories have been keen to get rid of for the last 10 years? And now with Tory Party having the numbers in parliament to do so? Righto.
In light of the already dodgy and abusive undercover policing practices described above, socialists, activists, trade unionists and anyone who supports the rights of people to campaign on important causes without police infiltration, should be worried about the implications of the CHIS Bill, with its lack of prohibition of torture, murder and sexual violence.
Undercover agents under this legislation are authorised to commit crimes “to prevent disorder” and “maintain economic wellbeing”. There is no provision in the Bill for innocent victims of criminal conduct to pursue compensation. The Bill allows a wide range of agencies, including the Food Standards Agency 6, to commit crimes. It threatens the legitimate activities of campaign groups and trade unionists. If being an environmental activist, trade unionist or social justice campaigner can get you "lawfully" killed by the state, I’d suggest that things aren’t going too well in your country. If the supposed party of organised labour, the Labour Party, will not oppose the legal murder, rape and torture of trade unionists, one has to wonder, what is the point of the Labour Party?
The Fight Goes on
The CHIS Bill now passes to the House of Lords, the second chamber of the UK Parliament; the chamber filled with hereditary peers and appointed cronies. What happens to it there remains to be seen. The Undercover Policing Inquiry is ongoing, we must support those abused by police spies to be heard and get justice. The CHIS Bill must not be allowed to undermine their long-fought campaign. There exists a broad alliance of organisations and campaigners who remain opposed to this dangerous legislation, including Amnesty, Liberty, trade unions, environmental campaigners and anti-racism campaigners. The 'Police Spies Out of Lives' group continues to campaign on this issue. 7 They will fight to keep the issue of Spycops in the public domain and keep on making their voices heard. We should join them too. If we care about social justice and human rights, this is too important to ignore.