THE government presents its Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill as a tidying-up exercise, standardising rules around the circumstances under which state agents may break the law.
Defence of the Bill, both from ministers and Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, stresses familiar situations in which most of the public accept police may be required to break the law, such as the infiltration of terrorist groups or paedophile rings.
These soothing noises are, in Labour’s case, buttressed by rhetorical genuflections to what passes for patriotism in official circles (support for the policy priorities of the British capitalist state). “Keir Starmer couldn’t have been clearer: security is the top priority for Labour under his leadership.”
If security is the watchword we should not be lulled into a false sense of it by these appeals — even if Labour decorates its basic support for the government with requests that ministers be “far more explicit” about how human rights protections will be “central to the day-to-day operation of the provisions in this Bill” (spoiler alert — they won’t).
Even the equivalent legislation in the United States rules out torture and murder, yet nothing is ruled out in this Bill. We are assured only that law-breaking will be limited to specific, internally approved cases. But nobody on the left should trust such an approval process.
Recent years have repeatedly exposed reasons not to trust the secret state — from police collusion in the illegal blacklisting of thousands of trade unionists in the construction industry to the infiltration of peaceful protest groups by undercover officers whose “cover” entailed beginning long-term sexual relationships with women on false pretences. Some of these relationships resulted in children.
And human rights campaigners are absolutely right to point to the appalling history of British state collaboration with loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, where undercover agents’ crimes included murder.
Rather than respond to these scandals by increasing oversight, the government is issuing blanket legislation which massively extends the scope of potential state lawbreaking, both by declining to include any specific exceptions to the kind of illegal acts which can be committed and by extending the right to break the law to a wide range of government bodies, from the Medicines and Healthcare Regulation Authority to the Food Standards Agency.
It confirms the same cynical disregard for law that Theresa May’s government showed when passing the Investigatory Powers Act, granting British intelligence some of the most sweeping surveillance powers possessed by any government in the world.
That, too, was a response to being caught breaking the law — as the investigatory powers tribunal had confirmed GCHQ and other agencies had been illegally harvesting information on us for 17 years.
Labour has a poor record on holding the security state to account — backing the Investigatory Powers Act even under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Under Tony Blair it waged war on civil liberties through legislation like the Terrorism Act, tearing up such ancient rights as habeas corpus.
Now, it merely asks for the government to issue token reassurances on human rights and that the new law not be applied retrospectively to “legacy issues relating to the Northern Ireland Troubles,” a valid concern but one characteristic of Establishment pretences that abuses of power are always historic while the current behaviour of the state is above reproach.
Socialists must be clearer. This is an authoritarian Bill. It extends the state’s right to break the law in the name of “security.” It does so at a time when the government’s authoritarian instincts are on public display, from the Home Secretary’s brutal approach to refugees to the ongoing show trial of journalist Julian Assange.
The British state does not need more power over us. We need more power over it.
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