Boris Johnson’s government is to unveil new legal protection proposals for the UK’s intelligence and law enforcement agents who commit crimes while working undercover.
According to ministers, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill – to be introduced to parliament today – will enable operatives to tackle terrorism and serious crime with an “express legal basis”.
Limits on the types of crimes that can be committed by agents, however, are not expected to be published on the face of the Bill. The Home Office insisted activities will remain subject to “a set of safeguards which they are bound by, including compliance" with the Human Rights Act.
The department pointed to an attempted terrorist attack by a UK-based Isis supporter on Downing Street and the former prime minister Theresa May in 2018 as an instance where public authorities have been authorised CHIS to participate in criminal activity.
Last year, Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman was sentenced to a minimum term of 30 years for the planned atrocity, after unwittingly disclosing the details of his plot to intelligence officers.
However, human rights organisation Reprieve and other bodies have raised alarm over the proposed legislation, calling on the government to introduce an explicit prohibition on the authorisation of crimes such as torture, murder and sexual violence.
Reprieve’s director Maya Foa said: “Our intelligence agencies do a vital job in keeping the country safe, but there must be common sense limits to their agents’ activities, and we hope MPs will ensure these limits are written into the legislation.”
Privacy International director and legal office Ilia Siatitsa added: “The public has a right to know what type of criminal acts MI5’s policy authorises in the UK. That’s why we’re fighting them in court. The new Bill does not alleviate these concerns.
“Our democracy and our most fundamental rights are at risk if the government permits MI5 to commit crimes with impunity.”
The Home Office argues the legislation will provide public bodies, which have long authorised officers to participate in criminal activity to gain the trust of those under investigation, with a “sound legal footing” after a court battle over the issue.
Public authorities that will be authorised to use the powers under the proposed Bill include the UK’s intelligence community agencies, police, the Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Home Office itself for immigration and border functions.
Ahead of the new legislation being introduced to Parliament on Thursday, the security minister James Brokenshire, said: “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the men and women who put themselves in often dangerous situations in order to protect our national security and keep the public safe.
“In the course of this vital work, it may be necessary for agents to participate in criminal activity in order to gain the trust of those under investigation. This is a critical capability and is subject to robust, independent oversight. It is important that those with a responsibility to protect the public can continue this work, knowing that they are on a sound legal footing.”
Ken McCallum, the director general of MI5, added: “Throughout MI5’s history, human agents have played a critical role in helping protect the UK from terrorist threats and hostile activity by states. Since March 2017, MI5 and Counter Terrorism Police have together thwarted 27 terror attacks.
“Without the contribution of human agents, be in no doubt, many of these attacks would not have been prevented. In some situations, it is both necessary and proportionate to authorise agents to be involved in some managed level of criminal activity, in order to win or maintain the trust of those intent on harming the UK and gain the critical information needed to save lives.”
Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “National security is the top priority for Labour and that means ensuring our security services are able to keep us safe, whilst operating within robust safeguards. We will look closely at these proposals in that spirit.”