James Sunderland backs the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill ​

James Sunderland supports the Bill as it empowers covert operators to exercise discretion and judgment when operational circumstances necessitate or when there is no other way to avoid compromise and he rejects calls for a list of specific crimes as it would create a potential checklist for suspected operators to be tested against.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

I am grateful to be called so early in this key debate, having been unable to speak on Second Reading. I therefore wish, if I may, to speak in general terms.

The first duty of any Government is to protect their people from harm. It is called defence of the realm. Given that that overrides all other considerations, we need to see the Bill in the context of the many existential threats that we face on a daily basis, many of which are hidden in the shadows and may never reveal themselves until it is too late. We also need to consider those we trust to keep us safe by empowering, not inhibiting, what they do. Our security services are only ever as good as the tools that their operators are given and the legal framework in which they work. Not only is the Bill a necessary piece of legislation in its own right; it provides a further insurance policy against those who seek to destroy the freedoms and the democracy that we take for granted.

Having personally served in uniform, I am comfortable that the Government continue to do what they must to give our intelligence services what they need to do their job. By allowing criminal conduct authorisations in the pursuit of covert human intelligence sources, the Bill rightly maintains the services’ operating freedoms, allowing them to close on those who threaten us and bring them to justice. But let us be clear: these powers are to be used only in extremis, when the operational circumstances necessitate, when quick decisions are needed or when there is no other way to avoid compromise.

To think that our operators are naturally predisposed to committing murder, torture or sex crimes, or that the Bill somehow encourages them to do so, is just wrong. The need to exercise discretion and judgment lies at the heart of what we ask our services to perform. Not only are these people good at what they do, they intuitively know the difference between right and wrong, so it is right that a CCA may be granted where necessary for one of three purposes: national security, the prevention or detection of crime, and in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the UK. I am happy, too, that under clause 2 only responsible bodies, such as the police, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office or the ​security services, will be entrusted to do so, albeit with further work needed beyond the scope of the Bill on appropriate operating procedures.

I also agree with my friends on the Opposition Benches that, for example, rules of engagement might be provided in each particular case, and that there is further work to do. Under clause 4, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner will exercise oversight of all authorising bodies, not least to ensure that unlimited powers to commit any crimes are never granted and to rightly prosecute where criminality occurs.

I noted on Second Reading that the Secretary of State was continually pressed on which practices might be exempt or otherwise. His stance that it would not be appropriate to draw up a list of specific crimes is right, for to do so would place in the hands of criminals, terrorists and hostile states a means of identifying our agents and sources, creating a potential checklist for suspected operators to be tested against. The Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee also recognised how easy it would be for groups to flush out agents if they were aware of human intelligence being prohibited from certain acts, calling it “ dangerously counterproductive”. Although my own knowledge of covert operations is limited, I can tell Members that the work is difficult and dangerous.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)

On people trying to flush out covert agents by getting them to do things that are on this supposed list, is the hon. Member therefore saying that the Human Rights Act 1998 does not prevent people from being able to do things, or does it potentially prevent certain actions and is therefore already a list? I am confused which it is.

James Sunderland

My key point is that the Human Rights Act does provide those protections, but in the context of operational service at the point at which decisions have to be taken I believe that those protections are needed.

Unlike most of our conventional forces, operators often work isolated and alone, making snap decisions that allow them to maintain trust and avoid detection. Rather than isolate them further—this goes back to my previous point—they need to know that their decisions and actions, when made in good faith and often under extreme stress, will be supported when the time comes. It is that discretion that lies at the heart of what they do, and more fool us in this place should we choose to undermine them or hang them out to dry from the sanctity of our courtrooms.

The recent evidence on why the Bill is necessary speaks for itself. Since March 2017, MI5 and counter-terrorism police have thwarted at least 27 terror attacks on home soil. In 2017, covert operations infiltrated a criminal organisation to stop a planned attack on Downing Street. In 2018, the National Crime Agency disrupted more than 30 threats to life, seized over 3,000 kg of class A drugs, safeguarded more than 200 people, and removed almost 100 firearms and 4,000 rounds of ammunition off the streets. Between 2017 and 2019, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has prevented hundreds of millions of pounds of tax loss, with one case alone estimated to have saved the Treasury over £100 million. Such is the wider utility and benefit of our intelligence sources across a range of authorised bodies, what else do we not know?​

I am sympathetic to new clause 3 about oversight of the ISC, but I am not convinced that the equality impact assessment cited in new clause 2 or the blacklisting cited in amendment 6 and new clause 5 would be feasible. I am sympathetic to new clause 8 in respect of CCAs being granted to under-18s and vulnerable people, but I think it would be difficult to implement in the field.

It is not always ours to reason why from the privilege of this place, nor to cast judgment on those who face more danger on a daily basis than we can imagine. I cannot agree with those who insist via amendment 7 that a criminal conduct authorisation should only be provided once a warrant has been issued by a judge or that a time limit be given. Similarly, for those who seek to balance the size and scope of the proposed activity against the gravity or the extent of the perceived crime, I regret that our operators will rarely have the luxury of doing so when danger is upon them. Given that our primary responsibility in this place is to keep our people safe and to allow those entrusted to do so to operate as they must, I will vote today for the passage of this Bill.