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UK: One-Party Security State?

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Two major pieces of legislation expected to be rubber stamped by parliament in early 2021 give credence to the notion that, on security matters, the United Kingdom is becoming a one-party state.

Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (criminal conduct) Bill has progressed through the House of Commons without serious opposition and will next week be debated in the House of Lords as it makes its way to Royal Assent, to be enshrined in British law.

The law, introduced by Home Secretary Priti Patel in 2020, grants a host of state agencies the power to licence their agents and officers to commit grave crimes. It gives government agents advance approval for the carrying out of certain acts, previously outlawed, even when they are carried out here in the UK.

Amnesty UK has warned: “this bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill” and stressed that it “does not explicitly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorising crimes like torture and killing.”

No explicit prohibitions are provided for crimes that constitute human rights violations, including murder, torture or sexual offences, or for conduct that would interfere with the course of justice.

In the absence of human rights protections contained within, the bill mentions and rests on the Human Rights Act to guard against human rights abuses. Labour’s Yvette Cooper said in the Commons debate that it would be “helpful” to hear more government support for the Act. But the Tories have advocated against the legislation since it was passed in 1998 so any rhetorical support now emanating from the government towards it can be treated with scepticism.

The Conservative party have a parliamentary majority of 80, making it difficult for opponents of their legislation to make any headway. The Labour party is comfortably the second largest party with 200 seats of the 650 available. On the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, only 34 Labour Members of Parliament opposed the government.

Labour whipped its MPs to abstain at this stage of the process. The leadership has declared that it intends to work on a cross-party basis in future stages of the bill to change the proposed legislation.

Overseas Operations Bill

A similar matter of principle came up in another piece of 2020 legislation, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which will make it much harder to prosecute British personnel for serious crimes – including rape and torture – overseas, and will immunise the Ministry of Defence from claims by the very veterans it has allegedly neglected.

The government is in the process of passing the bill, which exempts British troops from prosecution under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Similar laws in other countries – such as Canada and the US – place specific limits on the types of crimes that can be authorised. Such limits are missing in the UK version.

The ongoing Pitchford Inquiry into undercover policing and the infiltration of political groups has also been raised as part of the opposition to the Overseas Operations legislation. The Pitchford Inquiry was originally supposed to report in 2018 but is now expected to conclude its investigations in 2023.

Reprieve, one of the organisations that brought the original legal action leading to the Pitchford Inquiry, has said that the Human Rights Act alone is inadequate as safeguard against the crimes that agents can engage in.

As with the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, Labour introduced minor amendments but essentially stood aside as the legislation eased through the Commons, with MPs who voted against the government being reprimanded by party whips and losing front bench positions.

Labour Shift

The Conservative party under Boris Johnson, with a far bigger majority than his predecessors Teresa May and David Cameron ever enjoyed, has pressed on with right-wing security policies that reflect their view of the UK as a country apart from the rest of Europe, aligned to the United States in foreign policy. This description is simple, and there are divergences with Washington, such as over Iran, but it is broadly true.

Labour under the leadership of human rights lawyer Keir Starmer has aligned itself with the Tories on security matters. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as the party’s continued opposition to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but again the statement is difficult to argue against.

There are arguments made by some within the Labour party that opposing the Conservatives’ major security legislation would be a futile act, given Johnson’s majority. But the 80 majority was borne of Brexit, rather than any popular demand for legislation that allows serious crimes go unpunished. By displaying a determined refusal to oppose such radical legislation, Labour acquiesces and the UK is a more insipid democracy, arguably a one-party state on security matters.