CONSIDERATION OF LORDS AMENDMENTS
Dr Julian Lewis: On behalf of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I entirely endorse the tributes and good wishes paid by the Solicitor General and the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). His professionalism, calmness and dedication as Security Minister and in other roles are a model for us all. We admire him greatly and wish him the best of health.
Despite extraordinary technical advances in surveillance and espionage methods, human sources in intelligence operations remain indispensable, especially in the counter-terrorist work of our Security Service. Going undercover to join terrorist groups or remaining in a terrorist group, having become disillusioned with its objectives, in order to frustrate them, calls for courage of the highest order. The Intelligence and Security Committee has been briefed by MI5 on specific instances of this, and we accept that, without the use of covert human intelligence sources, many of the attacks foiled in recent years would have succeeded in their horrific aims. That is what justifies the authorisation of specified criminal acts, on occasion, in order to maintain an agent’s cover and in proportion to the potential harm that he or she is working to prevent.
As pointed out on Second Reading on 5 October, the report on Northern Ireland-related terrorism compiled by our predecessor Committee and presented to Parliament that same day firmly concluded at paragraph 39:
“While there are, rightly, concerns that criminal activity may somehow be being legitimised, the need for such authorisations is clear. What is key is that authorisations are properly circumscribed, used only when necessary and proportionate, and subject to proper scrutiny.”
Precisely because covert human intelligence sources are so effective, ruthless terrorist organisations have no qualms in devising tests of the utmost depravity to flush out agents infiltrating their ranks. That is why the provisions of Lords amendment 2 to prohibit the granting of criminal conduct authorisations, or CCAs, are certain to be as counterproductive as they are well-intentioned.
What the amendment proposes, if enacted, would soon come to constitute a checklist of atrocities that could be used to expose undercover agents known to be forbidden from carrying them out. As sure as night follows day, it would also increase the number of such atrocities committed. In order to flush out MI5 agents by putting suspects to the test, paranoid extremists would resort to testing more and more of their group members, if they felt that their organisation was coming under pressure and suffering setbacks.
Mr David Davis: My right hon. Friend does great service to this House and the Committee. Given what he has just said, does he believe that these terrorists are unable to read the Human Rights Act?
Dr Lewis: I have the advantage of having been present when my right hon. Friend made that very point on Second Reading, and therefore I was entirely prepared for that intervention. I will give a response that is perhaps slightly unorthodox, despite the emphasis put on the Human Rights Act by my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General.
In my previous role as Chair of the Defence Committee, it became more and more obvious that the Human Rights Act, and the European convention on human rights, had had serious, and perhaps largely unanticipated, adverse consequences for the operations of our military. I suspect that if applied too literally, they would have equally adverse effects on the operations of our security and intelligence services. As the years go by, and as experience shows, I fully expect that there will have to be amendments to the Human Rights Act. I believe that although terrorists could indeed read it, they would take rather more seriously a categoric list of forbidden offences in the Bill than they would the rather generalised content of the Human Rights Act. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to be wholly satisfied with that, but it is my honest opinion.
Consequently, terrorist groups whose operations might have been compromised by technical means, rather than by human infiltration, would be likely to ask their genuine members to commit more and more forbidden offences, simply to prove their loyalty. The outcome would inevitably be an increase in murders and other serious offences on their lordships’ list, which would not have happened but for the incorporation in statute of such a collection of prohibited crimes.
As I said earlier, the ISC has had a comprehensive briefing from MI5, explaining how those authorisations are used in practice. We are convinced that the Security Service uses them appropriately and proportionately. We are also reassured that the measures in the Bill legalise only what is specified in each criminal conduct authorisation. That means that any other criminal behaviour not covered by the terms of a CCA may be subject to prosecution – a safeguard that will hopefully encourage the House to reject Lords amendment 2.
This is one of those occasions when it is necessary – really necessary – to keep our enemies guessing.