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 of law - which is supposed to be all-encompassing.
"Without serious restrictions, this bill would be in danger of exempting MI5 agents from their responsibilities in the social contract."
The government states that this bill works in the public interest, allowing informants to work more effectively undercover to prevent serious crimes such as terrorism. This goes back to the concept of a ‘social contract’ – the idea that people in society are willing to give up certain freedoms in order to receive protection from an entity such as the government, against crime. Despite being published in the 17th century, this concept has never been more relevant than now in the information age. In this case, it is not necessarily our freedoms being taken away but additional freedoms being granted by law to those in a particular line of work.
Without serious restrictions, this bill would be in danger of exempting MI5 agents from their responsibilities in the social contract. Further, it raises important questions about what exactly we are willing to give up in terms of individual liberties.
This is by no means the first time an issue like this has arisen in UK politics. As a recent example, there was the Investigatory Powers Act passed by Theresa May’s government in 2016 which attracted controversy for similar reasons. It gave authorities unprecedented surveillance powers in terms of our digital communications. The nickname ‘Snooper’s Charter’ encapsulates the public’s general opposition to having their internet records subject to increased scrutiny at the time.
And it’s also common knowledge that in some parts of the UK, including London, there is around 1 CCTV camera for every 14 people. This statistic becomes increasingly significant when compared to the rest of the world, where the UK is only second to China in terms of the amount of CCTV cameras per capita. While they may be useful in producing evidence, there is evidence that the impact security cameras have had on crime levels since numbers increased in the 90s has only been “moderate”. So is this moderate social benefit worth the almost world-leading levels of surveillance?
Without being alarmist, it is important to recognise that the government have been slowly implementing more and more authoritarian policies which affect all of us on a daily basis. It would be reasonable to argue that these measures are in the name of national security, however, we must be aware of our right to a balance between crime prevention and personal freedom.
While this new bill has the potential to do a lot of good, it also presents opportunities for abuses of power and sets a precedent for a society that sacrifices increasing amounts of its liberty in order to gain protection from the state. This may be valuable, but we must be aware of the extent to which it is happening and ensure that those in power do not use their positions to take advantage of us before we realise.
Beau Farmer is a criminology undergraduate at the University of Surrey. He is interested in politics, sociology, crime, and exploring how policy can affect those on either side of the law.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.