15/10/2020 19:09 BST | Updated 15/10/2020 19:14 BST

Labour Split Over Bill That Allows Intelligence Agents To Break The Law

Shadow ministers resign and Jeremy Corbyn was among the 34 Labour rebels to defy Keir Starmer.

Labour party leader Keir Starmer in the House of Commons 

Labour leader Keir Starmer was hit with three resignations as his backbenchers staged a Commons rebellion over the government’s new so-called spy powers legislation. 

Margaret Greenwood quit as shadow schools minister and Dan Carden resigned as shadow Treasury minister so they could vote against the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, which passed its third reading on Thursday. 

Navendu Mishra resigned from his role as aide to deputy leader Angela Rayner over the bill, which 34 Labour MPs in total voted against. 

Starmer had ordered his MPs to abstain, but Liverpool Walton’s Carden said it was a “matter of conscience” and that he felt the legislation sets “dangerous new precedents” on the rule of law and civil liberties.

Greenwood echoed those sentiments and Mishra said he believed voting against the Bill “sends a clearer message about the strength of our concerns”.

Sarah Owen, who was promoted just days earlier to serve as shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves’ parliamentary aide, also quit to join the rebels. 

The bill is aimed at allowing confidential informants working for MI5 or the police to break the law in certain circumstances. 

But opponents say the bill remains dangerously vague as it fails to explicitly ban agents from being authorised to kill, torture or rape. 

Former leader Jeremy Corbyn, ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell and former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott were among the 34 Labour rebels to vote against the bill. 

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

It came after MPs rejected a Labour amendment, which would have prohibited undercover agents from causing death or bodily harm, violating the “sexual integrity” of a person, and subjecting someone to “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Corbyn warned it was “an absolute travesty of parliamentary accountability” for the bill to be rushed through the Commons, with consideration of amendments squeezed into a three-hour debate.

He told MPs: “What has come out from those of us who have good friends in environmental groups, in human rights groups, in trade unions and many other campaigns is the sheer arrogance of police undercover operations that have infiltrated wholly legitimate and legal operations in order to disrupt them, spread negative information and cause problems for them.

“If we live in a free and democratic society, obviously criminality is not acceptable, obviously policing is required to deal with criminality, but you don’t deal with criminality by authorising criminality through undercover policing operations into those groups.”

The Bill aims to protect undercover operatives from prosecution if they are forced to break the law on operations, and also seeks to define circumstances in which operatives can commit crime – replacing various pieces of overlapping legislation.

It will cover 13 law enforcement and government agencies, including the police, the National Crime Agency, the armed forces and the Prison Service.

Ministers have previously denied the bill gives undercover agents a “licence to kill” and insisted the upper limits on what operatives can be authorised to do already exist.

They say they are contained in the Human Rights Act, which includes the right to life, prohibition of torture, and prohibition of subjecting someone to inhuman or degrading treatment.

The series of attempts to amend the bill also saw some Tories defy Boris Johnson. 

Speaking during the committee stage debate, Tory former minister David Davis, who rebelled to vote for the Labour amendment, said the US and Canada have “specific limits” on the crimes their agents can commit.

He said: “The trouble is, others do it better. America and Canada learnt the hard way that we need to include specific limits in the crimes that agents can commit.

“In these countries, both informants and their handlers were involved in carrying out numerous cases of racketeering and murder and they were found out, and since, both countries have set clear limits.”

Labour backbencher MP Stella Creasy also failed to secure changes to better protect vulnerable child agents.

Replying for the government, Home Office minister James Brokenshire said he is “giving careful consideration” to how oversight of the security forces could be enhanced as the bill undergoes further scrutiny in the Lords.

He said the government believes “deep and retrospective oversight” is the best method to hold the security services accountable with “regular and thorough inspections”.

Brokenshire told the Commons: “I am giving careful consideration to how this retrospective oversight could be strengthened further and how this might be addressed further in the Bill’s passage in the other place.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel, meanwhile, accused Labour of failing to stand up for police forces. 

She said in a statement: “Once again, Labour has refused to stand up for those who protect our country and keep us all safe.

“Their leader may have changed, but Labour still can’t be trusted on national security.”