Parliament's MI5 bill represents a worrying trend in UK law

By Beau Farmer

"Giving MI5 agents the ability to commit undisclosed crimes clearly places them above the rule of law - which is supposed to be all-encompassing."

Earlier this month it was reported that Parliament had approved a bill that would grant MI5 agents the ability to commit crimes during undercover work without consequences. The amended bill comes after years of uncertainty over what powers agents would have under the law when working in the field. In fact, this is the first time they have been granted this level of power explicitly in a bill discussed by MPs.

Previously, the Secret Service Act 1989 covered this area of policy, however, it didn’t have any degree of specificity about what informants working for MI5 were actually allowed to do. Understandably, this sparked fear that the ambiguity of the legislation could be mistreated by informants and therefore should be amended. It was also revealed a few years ago that David Cameron had signed an otherwise secret document called the “Third Detective”, which stated MI5 officers could allow their informants to commit crimes without having to disclose their actions to anyone else. This pressure led to a tribunal regarding the policy in 2019, which narrowly ruled that It was lawful on a 3-2 vote. Leading on from this, the government wanted to create legislation that would provide a better standing for these powers to be protected formally by law.

Interestingly, this bill strikes a dichotomy between two of the government’s most important functions: to uphold the rule of law and to protect us from crime.

In the UK the government is split into three distinct branches: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. It is the job of the judiciary to hold those who have broken the law to account, and one of the underpinning principles they use to do this (in theory) is the rule of law. It means, in simple terms, that everyone is equal under the law. It is obvious how this new bill would pose a direct contradiction to the rule of law, by suggesting that MI5 informants are exempt from the principle that underpins the judiciary system.

Add on to this the fact that agents would not be under any obligation to disclose what they have done to their superiors, and it is not surprising that there have been calls from backbenchers to further amend the bill to prevent abuses of power. Although the government has dismantled the claim that the bill could act as a “license to kill” by saying that it is subject to the European Convention on Human Rights, the principle still holds. Giving MI5 agents the ability to commit undisclosed crimes clearly places them above the rule o