Why I opposed the Covert Human Intelligence Services Bill

Apsana Begum on dangerous government incursions on human rights

This October, I voted against the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill at its third reading, after it passed through the House of Commons unamended.

Just before the summer, the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill passed through Parliament, introducing significant curtailments of civil liberties which will disadvantage ethnic minorities. It also will delay the long-awaited review of Prevent, which fosters discrimination against Muslims in particular.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 was debated in September, about which human rights and anti-racist campaigners have raised ​concerns that powers are being used in discriminatory ways – particularly against black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

The CHIS Bill gives authorisation for criminality by undercover government agents. I believe that the vagueness of this authorisation is extremely dangerous, and does not protect against those who are vulnerable and most likely to suffer forms of state violence. Some have suggested that protections with the Human Rights Act (HRA) would counter this. However, the Conservative Government has in the past stated that the HRA simply does not apply to covert agents.

Ex-shadow Attorney General Baroness Shami Chakrabarti wrote in The Guardian that the bill “gives the green light to serious crimes”. In the same article, she imagines a world in which our government is able to incite criminal activity within any political organisation that they disagree with. The lack of regulations in the CHIS Bill would allow our incredibly reactionary government to do just that.

The Bill also contains within it worrying clauses that might affect trade union activity and political protests, both of which fall within the wordings of examples given in the Bill of instances in which criminality would be legal. The Government has proven time and time again that they see both political protests and trade unionism as nuisances.

Throughout the debate earlier this year surrounding the reopening of schools, the Government took no notice of demands made by education unions for a safe workplace. At the Conservative Party Conference, Priti Patel referred to Black Lives Matter protests as “thuggery and hooliganism”. We cannot trust this Government to deal with trade unionism and political activism with any kind of respect, and this Bill is indicative of such motivations.

Furthermore, the Bill offers no protections to Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, who still face persecution on a regular basis, and are statistically more likely to suffer from forms of state violence. Unfortunately, such a lack of protection is in step with a Prime Minister who throughout his career as a journalist and politician has used inflammatory language to describe minority groups across our society.

The Overseas Operations Bill is soon returning to Parliament for a third reading. Just as with the CHIS Bill, the Overseas Operations Bill essentially legalises a variety of criminal acts in the UK’s overseas operations, including torture and sexual violence. Under the Bill, offenders of such crimes would not be prosecuted if their case was not settled within five years. Taking into account the length of time usually taken by such cases, many offenders would end up without charges.

Without sufficient safeguards and protections for human rights and civil liberties, I will not be able to support the Overseas Operations Bill at its third reading, in the same spirit in which I voted against the CHIS. Together, these Bills undermine the basic human rights and civil liberties of citizens in the UK and abroad.

I stand against both, as a representative for the community that I grew up in: Poplar and Limehouse. I do not feel that I could stand up for my constituents whilst supporting Bills which have had devastating consequences for communities here.

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