Keir Starmer is facing his first major rebellion as Labour leader after revealing that he does not want the party to oppose a widely-criticised and extremely controversial piece of Tory legislation, even if it remains unamended at third reading.
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (CHIS) – otherwise known as the ‘Licence to Kill’ or ‘Spycops’ bill – would hand sweeping powers to the government and other state actors to use criminal offences, including rape and murder, against their political opponents.
As Evolve reported last week:
The official description of the bill is to “authorise conduct by officials and agents of the security and intelligence services, law enforcement, and certain other public authorities, which would otherwise constitute criminality.”
The government say that the bill is to put into formal legislation a previously secret power known as the “Third Direction” – an unofficial directive which allows covert state actors, such as MI5 operatives or undercover police officers, to break the law if they believe their actions will prevent a threat to national security or stop another serious crime from happening.
However, critics of the bill – including human rights organisations, opposition MPs, and even a number of Tory MPs themselves – have claimed the legislation is “rushed“, “ill-thought through“, and effectively hands the government a “licence to kill” whoever they want for any reason they see fit.
Whilst similar laws exist in both Canada and the USA to allow state actors to commit crimes in order to maintain national security, the legislation in both of these countries explicitly excludes certain serious crimes such as murder and torture.
However, the Tories’ Covert Human Intelligence Bill makes no such stipulations – placing “no specific limitations on the type of criminal activity that may be authorised”.
Extraordinarily, the bill also extends these authoritarian powers to numerous ostensibly unrelated government agencies – such as The Competition and Markets Authority, The Environment Agency, The Financial Conduct Authority, The Food Standards Agency and even The Gambling Commission.
In addition, the Tory bill allows state actors to commit crimes against its citizens in three extremely ambiguous, and effectively all-encompassing, scenarios:
- In the interests of national security.
- For the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder.
- In the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.
Whilst it is widely accepted that the Third Direction directive allowed state actors to commit crimes specifically in order to protect national security, it is not believed there were any provisions regarding protecting the “economic well-being of the United Kingdom” or to “prevent disorder” – ambiguities which, if the new legislation passes, could easily be interpreted in whatever way a government wishes, including using them to suppress political opponents.
Labour initially allowed the CHIS bill to pass its second reading last week after Keir Starmer whipped his MPs to abstain.
At the time, it was argued that Labour’s abstention was in order to allow the bill to pass to Committee Stage, where the opposition would supposedly have a better chance of passing amendments to curb the glaring problems with the legislation.
If no suitable amendments could be agreed upon by a majority of MPs, it was widely believed that Starmer would then instruct his his party to oppose the bill.
However, according to LabourList, Starmer said during a party Zoom meeting last night that he believes Labour should not oppose the bill even if they fail in their attempts to amend it.
Starmer – a former human rights lawyer – is said to have convinced some Labour MPs by claiming that the Human Rights Act would mitigate the worst aspects of the bill.
However, as Evolve reported last week:
“it was only 11 months ago that the government categorically stated to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the Human Rights Act does not apply to crimes committed by covert agents because, as the state “is not the instigator” of the crimes, it “cannot be treated as responsible for it” – an admission which even Tory MP David Davis called his own party’s leadership out on in yesterday’s debate.”
A total of 20 Labour MPs – all of whom belong to the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group – ignored Starmer’s abstention plan and broke the party whip to oppose the bill at second reading.
Many Labour MPs from the party’s other wings were also said to be extremely concerned about details of the legislation, but were happy to go along with the Labour leader’s wishes to abstain as long as they could oppose the bill should it remain unamended after Committee Stage.
However, given the Tories’ previous statement about the Human Rights Act supposedly not applying to crimes committed by covert state agents, a number of these Labour MPs were left unconvinced by Starmer’s argument – with LabourList claiming that an even bigger rebellion may now be on the cards when the bill returns to the House of Commons for third reading on Thursday.
Despite drawing level with the Tories in the polls, Starmer has encountered widespread criticism for his curiously supportive attitude towards the government and their unquestionable failings.
Furthermore, the Labour leader faced a similar rebellion last month when it whipped MPs to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill (OOB) – a piece of legislation which effectively allows British troops to commit war crimes.
Following the OOB vote, three frontbenchers – Nadia Whittome, Sarah Owen and Beth Winter – were relieved of their duties after breaking the party whip to oppose it.
However, whilst it was confirmed yesterday that Labour will now oppose the OOB at third reading if its amendments were not accepted, the party looks set to allow the arguably even more controversial CHIS bill to pass into law unopposed – a decision which has the potential to spark the first major multifactional rebellion against Starmer’s leadership.