Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Criminal Conduct Authorisations) (Amendment) Order 2021 Debate

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Department: Home Office

Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Criminal Conduct Authorisations) (Amendment) Order 2021

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
Tuesday 12th October 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
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My Lords, it is worth reminding ourselves that the original Bill contained a restriction in relation to the Human Rights Act. The person operating under this Bill with authority will operate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and will therefore be bound by the authority of the Human Rights Act in relation to the activities which they can undertake. That is an important consideration which was raised in the debate on the Bill.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, the CHIS Act was the final Act on which my right honourable friend James Brokenshire and I worked. I know noble Lords will agree on several aspects of how we worked; we engaged extensively across both Houses, and we saw compliance with the Human Rights Act as central to the Bill—as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay just mentioned—and safeguards as incredibly important to it. As an earlier speaker said, it puts beyond legal doubt the deployment of CHIS for criminal activity.

The SI on which the noble Baroness bases her Motion to Regret passed unopposed and, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, is not in scope of this Motion. That aside, noble Lords will recognise some of the points I am about to make from the extensive debates that took place when the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act passed through the House earlier this year.

The passage of the Act provided significant opportunity for noble Lords to discuss and put forward amendments to the oversight regime for this power. Noble Lords will recall the collaborative approach we took in responding to the amendments. That included strengthening the oversight of the activity by accepting the amendment from the noble Lords, Lord Anderson—I join the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in paying tribute to him—Lord Rosser and Lord Butler, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, which provided real-time independent oversight of every authorisation by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. We have a robust oversight regime in place with significant internal and external safeguards to make sure that every authorisation is necessary for and proportionate to the purpose for which it is sought.

The noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Ponsonby, talked about the seniority of authorising agents. They must be appropriately trained, as I said during the passage of the Bill, and of the necessary rank. Public authorities all have their own training processes in place for their authorising officers to reflect the specialist remit in which they operate. IPCO will identify whether any public body is failing to train and assess its officers to the sufficiently high standard necessary for this very specialist type of activity.

The other matter, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, was limits and, following on from that, practices in other countries. We debated this point extensively during the passage of the Act and voted on it but let me again state that the limits on what could be authorised under the Bill are provided by the requirement for all authorisations to be necessary and proportionate and for authorisations to be compliant with the Human Rights Act. Nothing in the Act seeks to undermine these safeguards and every authorisation will be considered by the independent Investigatory Powers Commissioner, who will be able to ensure that this is always the case. However, on numerous occasions we went over the point that to explicitly place limits in the public domain risks creating a checklist for terrorist organisations to test for suspected CHIS and doing so would put not only the safety of the public at risk but the safety of the CHIS.

In response to the concern that the Government are seeking to repeal the Human Rights Act, let me be clear that the Government are committed to human rights and will continue to champion them at home and abroad. The Government remain a signatory to the ECHR, which provides for the right to life and the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The requirement for an authorisation to be necessary and proportionate further limits the activities which can be authorised under this Act.

To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, regarding the comparative position in other jurisdictions, it is unhelpful to compare the UK legislation with that of other countries because each country has its own unique laws, public authorities and, crucially, threat picture. We know that CHIS testing takes place in the UK, particularly in relation to the unique challenges that we face in Northern Ireland, and it is important that we legislate for the particular circumstances in which we need our operational partners to operate in order to keep the public safe. I emphasise that our advice on this issue is based solely on the advice of operational partners, and I hope that noble Lords place the same weight that the Government have on their assessment of this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the undercover policing inquiry and the separate recent ruling of the IPT. I have repeatedly made it clear to this House, as he referenced, that the conduct that is the subject of the inquiry was completely unacceptable and should not have taken place. It is never acceptable for an undercover operative to form an intimate sexual relationship with those whom they are employed to infiltrate and target or may encounter during their deployment. That conduct will never be authorised, nor must it ever be used as a tactic of a deployment. Nothing in this Act changes that. The noble Lord quoted from the IPT’s judgment that the authorisations made under RIPA were fatally flawed, but the court did not find that the entire CHIS regime under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act breached article 8.2 of the ECHR. It invited the UCPI to draw its own conclusions. The tribunal is still to hold a remedies hearing in light of the findings.

There are now much more stringent safeguards in place to guard against these mistakes being repeated. In 2014, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Covert Human Intelligence Sources: Relevant Sources) Order 2013 came into force. The order applies enhanced safeguards to authorisations for long-term undercover operatives from policing or other law enforcement agencies. This includes a higher rank of authorising officer than for other CHIS and greater oversight by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

To answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, all the changes were brought about to address specific concerns that were raised about law enforcement undercover deployments. They have been tested in the operational and judicial environment over the last six years and we think that they are robust and fit for purpose.

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Lord Paddick Portrait Lord Paddick (LD)
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Can the noble Baroness address the question that I raised of whether it would be unlawful for an inspector who was not trained to authorise a CHIS to commit crime? If she is unable to do that this evening from the Dispatch Box, perhaps she could write to me.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con)
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As I said during my response to the debate, the officers who authorise are trained but the noble Lord is now getting into the area of rank and asking whether the authorising officer would have to be an inspector or above as well as trained. Rather than guess what the right answer might be, I shall write to him on that point of clarification.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D’Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister and all those who have contributed to this debate warmly for their response.

I had not expected there to be a Damascene conversion in the past 30 minutes or so. However, I maintain that the SI as it stands is incomplete and find it difficult to understand why it is possible, for example, to talk about sexual abuse but not mention murder or torture. It rather looks as though the Act and the SI exclusively allow murder or torture as crimes that can be committed by covert agents.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the transgressions of policemen and questioned the rank of those who could authorise people to commit crime. That underlines the issue that I have mentioned, which is that sexual transgressions take place in the mood of the moment and are extremely serious. But so are murder and torture. It seems odd that it was difficult to mention that in the Act or the SI. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, reminds us, rightly, that any authorising agent must abide by the Human Rights Act. But there again, if it is a question of abiding by that Act, what is the difficulty in mentioning serious crimes such as torture and murder? It therefore seems that there is reluctance on the Government’s part to circumscribe the kind of crimes that can be committed within the CHIS Act. I wanted to put that on the record because I fear that the matter is unclear and the lack of clarity will have adverse consequences in the long run.

I nevertheless thank the Minister for patiently going over ground that we have covered at length previously, but it is worth taking a stand on this SI. We so rarely get an opportunity to really discuss SIs on the Floor of this House and it is important to do so. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.