Imran contributed to the debate on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill.
Imran Ahmad Khan MP: I would like to take a moment to wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) a speedy recovery and thank him for all his hard work in his role as Minister for Security.
This Bill provides our operational agencies with the powers required to enhance our national security, protecting British citizens from those who seek to do them harm. When a story relating to covert intelligence breaks in the news, there follow lazy and ill-informed references to James Bond and a licence to kill. We in Parliament have a duty to keep the discourse on this topic sensible. James Bond is a magnificent manifestation of the United Kingdom’s creative arts. He does not, however, reflect the reality of the serious work that goes on in the intelligence services. Those brave men and women do not have a licence to kill or needlessly commit crimes, but have chosen to put themselves at risk for our common safety. The best way to express our gratitude to those who serve this country is for us to help stop sensationalising this issue. It pollutes the debate and does nothing to help pass effective legislation that simultaneously safeguards security and human rights. I am committed to both, and it is a mistaken belief to maintain that security and human rights are mutually exclusive, for in truth they are mutually reinforcing.
Covert human intelligence sources operations have proven their effectiveness. CHIS-led operations have allowed the National Crime Agency to disrupt over 30 threats to life, safeguard over 200 people and seize 60 firearms from those who may use them to do harm. Between 2017 and 2019, HMRC CHIS have prevented hundreds of millions of pounds in tax loss, including one case that was estimated to have prevented a loss of over £100 million.
I recognise that some of the amendments sent by the Lords wished to safeguard vulnerable and juvenile CHIS and ensure that operatives do not take part in the worst type of crimes, such as rape or murder. Certainly, I understand the thinking behind these amendments, but I do not support them. With regard to juvenile and vulnerable CHIS, Her Majesty’s Government have put forward substantial amendments to the Bill to ensure that robust safeguards are established for the very rare circumstances when juvenile CHIS may be tasked with participating in criminal activities.
The Government amendments leave no doubt that the authorising officer has a duty to safeguard and protect the best interests of the juvenile. This duty is a key factor in any decision for the authorisation of a mission. The amendment proposed by the Lords certainly raises the importance of ensuring that CHIS are adequately protected from harm, but ultimately it would undermine our ability to tackle criminal activities. I have an extract from the report from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner that demonstrates the importance of juvenile CHIS:
“In one such case, a juvenile was carrying out activity on behalf of a ‘county line’ drug supply group. The juvenile owed money to the group and approached the police wishing to provide information. A referral under the Modern Slavery Act was made by the police and a care plan was drawn up with Children’s Services, including relocating the juvenile and finding them a training course. Once this had been done, as an authorised CHIS, the juvenile was able to provide intelligence to the police regarding the ‘county line’ crime group.”
With regard to concerns that the Bill allows operatives to get away with the worst types of crimes, let me say this: the Bill has already outlined that authorisation is only granted by highly trained authorising officers, who work within and maintain strict operating parameters. Crucially, there are clear and regulated limits to the types of criminal activities that may be conducted. As part of our obligations under the European convention on human rights, the prohibition of torture and subjection of individuals to degrading treatment is strictly enforced. Further, all activity is overseen by the independent Investigatory Powers Commissioner, who ensures that accountability is maintained throughout the process of any such operation. It is crucial that the ISC and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner have proper oversight and that such oversight is published.
In ensuring greater accountability, more effective oversight should be promoted. I am not alone in taking that view, but share it with those possessed of particular understanding and expertise in these matters. For example, that view is at the centre of the research by Professor Rory Cormac of the University of Nottingham, who is one of the country’s leading experts on covert intelligence. A number of points that I have made are mentioned in his research, including his book “Disrupt and Deny”, which I recommend to colleagues. One point stressed by Professor Cormac is that CHIS have to be able to commit certain crimes in order to be credible, gain information and/or engage in covert operations.
Regulation is certainly crucial to prevent problems such as the collusion in Northern Ireland from ever arising again. Any co-operation with violent non-state actors must be properly regulated to prevent officers and agents from getting ahead of themselves and interpreting their own parameters too broadly. The Bill would make such activity less likely, while allowing those who take risks with their lives to keep us safe the support that they need to be successful. I do not doubt the well-meaning intentions of the Lords amendments or the concerns surrounding the Bill; however, the Bill will ensure that regulations and processes are effectively enforced, preventing officers from acting autonomously or beyond their remit.
As I have said previously, protocols are already in existence that ensure that the interests and safety of juvenile and vulnerable CHIS are maintained; however, I am gladdened that additional measures are being considered to bolster the existing provision. Without such operatives working within strict parameters and with the necessary oversight, as outlined in the Bill, we, and all that we care about most, would be less secure.