Justice Secretary criticises Bill giving undercover agents power to break laws
A controversial UK Government Bill that would allow undercover agents to break the law will not be backed by the Scottish government unless it is “changed substantially”, the Justice Secretary has said.
Humza Yousaf will on Tuesday (December 15) tell MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee that additional safeguards are needed in the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill.
The Bill has already cleared the Commons and completed Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
It 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.
UK 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.
The Scottish government said that as the Bill contains devolved as well as reserved provisions that would apply in Scotland, it has had to lodge a legislative consent memorandum (LCM) at the Scottish Parliament.
LCMs are a political convention rather than legally binding, and are used to indicate that a devolved legislature is content for the UK Parliament to pass a law on a devolved matter.
Mr Yousaf said: “Covert human intelligence sources can be vital to the gathering of sometimes lifesaving intelligence that cannot be gained any other way, or to disrupting serious crime and security threats to the nation.
“However, to legislate to allow someone to break the law is such a serious matter that these measures must be accompanied by appropriate and stringent safeguards, including judicial oversight from the outset, if the power is not to be at risk of being abused.”
He added: “While we seek to maintain a consistent approach to policing and security matters across these islands – and do so for the most part – in this instance I cannot recommend that the Scottish Parliament supports a legislative consent memorandum for this Bill.
“Very serious human rights concerns have been raised from several quarters and across the parties at Westminster during the progress of the Bill. I expect the UK Government to address these, including ensuring appropriate judicial oversight from the outset.
“As I have made clear to the UK Government on a number of occasions, the Bill will need to be changed substantially, with greater independent oversight and additional safeguards, before the Scottish government would reconsider its position and recommend that the Scottish Parliament consents to the Bill.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Undercover agents play a crucial role in protecting the security of our entire nation and safeguarding the public from serious crimes including terrorism and child sexual exploitation.
“It is important that our intelligence and enforcement agencies have the tools they need to keep us safe.
“We will continue to work with the Scottish government to ensure all public authorities operating across the UK can benefit from the clear statutory framework provided by this Bill.”