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Why I Voted Against the Spy Cops Bill

As an Opposition, Labour must not allow the Tories get away with attacking civil liberties and democratic rights – that's why I voted against the Spy Cops Bill.

Last night I voted against the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill.

As the Labour member of parliament for the Jarrow constituency, I do not take breaking the party whip lightly. Before entering parliament, I was a trade union activist and fully understand the need for discipline and collective responsibility.

On this occasion, and with a heavy heart, I could not with any moral conviction sit idle and abstain on a bill that places no express limits on intelligence agents to commit crimes that constitute human rights violations. The bill essentially gives free rein for torture, murder, and sexual violence. The bill is inherently anti-democratic, deeply flawed throughout, and it should not have come to parliament in its current state.

The bill is an attempt by this government to remove scrutiny from the judiciary and parliament in relation to the British constitution. Former MI5 boss Lord Evans has stated that there are “no limits” as to which crimes a CHIS – who can be officers of the law or members of the public – can commit.

As a trade unionist, I have seen the devastating impact of political policing on trade unions and social movements. Since 1968, over three thousand trade unionists have been blacklisted, over one thousand organisations have been spied on by undercover police, and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens have had files held on them by Special Branch. As my colleague, Zarah Sultana, pointed out in her speech during the debate on the bill: a disproportionate amount of the organisations spied on were from legitimate left wing and anti-racist movements.

The spy cops scandal has revealed that every constabulary’s Special Branch supplied the blacklisters with information on trade unionists and political activists. The police officers did not do this through legal obligations; the police officers broke the law to maximise corporate profits.

The Government has not learnt from this dark episode in our history. If anything, by going forward with this bill, it gives power to unnecessarily and unlawfully interfere with the legitimate activities of trade unions and any other protest organisations. In fact, it encourages the infiltration of trade unions.

It also has disproportional gendered impact: we know from the still unresolved spy cops scandal that the state could allow an undercover officer to have in some cases long-term sexual relationships in order to facilitate the gathering of intelligence. This bill goes further in that it does nothing to block sexual violence being committed by UK state agents. It also bars survivors of abuse from seeking redress through the courts, by protecting those who commit authorised crimes from civil liability forever.

What does this say to the women who were effectively the victims of a conspiracy to rape at the hands of undercover agents? I could not sit and abstain on a bill that would potentially allow intelligence agents to commit rape in the pursuit of solving crime; I feel it would send the message that I have no concern for the safeguarding of women.

It is argued that the bill is all about preventing terror atrocities, but we know that such powers will also be used on low-level criminality and will disproportionally affect BAME communities. In the post-911 context we have seen the abuse of police power where young Muslim men have been blackmailed into becoming police informers. We also saw this abuse of police power to gain intelligence on activists involved in the Stephen Lawrence Justice Campaign; an officer was even put undercover within the campaign to dig for dirt.

Some argue that the bill relies on the Human Rights Act as a safeguard against abuses of power, yet the Prime Minister has recently made it clear that he is considering ways to prevent the legislation being used to stop deportations of asylum seekers and the prosecutions of British soldiers. Recent years have seen the spread of a culture war and the encroachment of the far-right, and this bill only seeks to progress that agenda.

We as a party need to be bolder; as an opposition we should not be letting Tories get away with subverting democracy and making this country a less safe place to live. We cannot let them portray opposition of this bill as an attack on the police and national security, when the opposite is true.

The point of national security is to maintain our civil liberties and rights. Any such legislation should give real-time, effective authorisation and oversight mechanisms to ensure that permissions to commit crimes have at least as robust authorisation and oversight as search warrants or phone tapping, and effective arrangements for post-operational accountability.

I hope that we as a party make these arguments loud and clear when the bill returns to the House of Commons for its third reading next week.