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We must oppose the government’s slide towards authoritarianism 

That the Tories wish to grant undercover agents more power to infiltrate well-meaning activist groups is an issue of grave importance which should concern us all, says CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

I FEAR that under cover of its catastrophic handing of the coronavirus, our government is embarking on a dangerous slide towards authoritarianism. 

After all, this is a government which openly broke international law by breaking its election promises over Brexit; which recently passed a Bill granting immunity to soldiers who committed crimes over five years ago, and which has embarked on a worrying war of words against “lefty lawyers,” which is nothing more than a coded culture war against those defending our human rights.

Last week I was proud to vote against the government’s latest dangerous piece of legislation which could legalise brutal crimes committed in secret by undercover agents. 

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill gives several state agencies the powers to authorise their covert sources to commit crimes if it is thought to be necessary and proportionate in the circumstances.

Unlike similar formalising legislation in countries including the US and Canada, this Bill does not place any limits whatsoever on the types of crimes that can be committed while undercover. 

There are therefore concerns that it could potentially issue a “licence to kill” for operatives and risks decriminalising murder, torture or sexual assault.

Trade unions, human rights and civil liberties campaigners — including Reprieve, Privacy International and the Joint Committee on Human Rights — have expressed concerns about the worryingly wide scope of the Bill, as well as its limited oversight and the consequences for human rights standards. 

Indeed, I am concerned that these powers will be granted to a sweeping list of government agencies, including the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission and the Financial Conduct Authority — hardly organisations usually associated with life-or-death operations. 

I am especially worried that one of the three conditions guiding covert illegal actions by the British state is whether they are “in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK.” 

Sadly, I do not have faith in this government of the super-rich to fairly determine what is in the economic interest of our country. Not after they have presided over 10 years of brutal austerity, declining living standards and an upwards transfer of wealth to the 1 per cent. 

One need simply to look at the fact that this government recently prohibited schools from using any resources from anti-capitalist groups, to realise that this has all the trappings of yet another authoritarian attempt to silence left-wing critique of our drastically unequal society. 

This is especially alarming when we consider which groups have historically been targeted by undercover agents of the British state. 

According to information disclosed as part of the 2017 undercover policing inquiry, it was revealed that of the more than 1,000 groups targeted by undercover police in the last five decades, just three belonged to the far right. 

The vast majority hailed from the left and included trade unionists, anti-racists and climate activists.

The recent “spycops” scandal revealed harrowing instances of morally indefensible undercover interference in activist groups. 

Peter Francis, formerly an undercover cop in the Met’s Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS), has admitted to infiltrating and spying on five national trade unions, in addition to anti-racist movements, justice campaigns, socialist groups and environmental activists.

Perhaps most shockingly, the Met Police recently apologised for the actions of undercover cop Bob Lambert, who fathered a child with a woman he deceitfully met during a covert mission in the 1980s. 

The police were forced to pay compensation to the son he deserted at two years old. 

Yet the deep trauma of his victim, who declared that she felt as if she had been “raped by the state,” will likely never disappear. 

And what was this woman’s crime, which warranted an undercover policeman infiltrating her life to such a traumatic extent? 

In her own words: “I gave out a few leaflets, went on a few demos, but I wasn’t a bad person.” 

This is hardly a dangerous criminal who deserves such awfully life-altering state surveillance. 

Families seeking justice have also been victims of covert operations, including the Hillsborough families throughout their struggle to reveal the truth of police and government cover-ups. 

Shockingly, the family of Stephen Lawrence were also spied on by undercover officers as they campaigned for the police to properly investigate the racist murder of their son. 

The fact that this hard-right government wishes to grant undercover agents more power to infiltrate well-meaning activist groups is an issue of grave importance which should concern us all. 

This is the second controversial piece of legislation which the government has put through in recent weeks, after the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. 

That legislation ensured that acts of torture committed by British service personnel could not be prosecuted if they took place more than five years ago.

Many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Freedom From Torture, Liberty, and Rights Watch UK, strongly opposed this Bill on the grounds that it contravenes international humanitarian and human rights law.

A worrying pattern is emerging. The Overseas Operations Bill enshrines immunity for horrific crimes abroad while the other provides cover for state crimes committed against UK residents.  

It is alarming that this is the “global Britain” promised in such glowing words by the Prime Minister and his allies over the last few years. 

A Britain which alienates itself on the world stage and which is driven by a tub-thumping form of nationalist authoritarianism that endangers our citizens, our armed forces and civilians around the globe. 

Instead we must strive for a Britain in which none of our citizens go hungry, that is a welcoming place for everyone and a force for good at home and abroad. 

It is up to all of us on the left to continue the struggle to achieve this better world.

Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East.
 

You can follow her at facebook.com/claudiaforLE and twitter.com/ClaudiaWebbe.

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