Scottish parliament rejects Westminster's 'spy cops' bill

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
·2 min read

The Scottish parliament has rejected a controversial bill from Westminster that potentially allows undercover agents to commit crimes, after Labour MSPs again ignored Keir Starmer’s policies.

Scottish Labour’s MSPs voted alongside the Scottish National party, Scottish Greens and the Lib Dems to refuse legislative consent by Holyrood for the so-called “spy cops” bill after a short debate on Tuesday afternoon.

Holyrood’s rejection of the bill means it will not cover Scotland once it comes into law, potentially leaving Scottish police and intelligence agents unable to mount covert operations that could involve them committing criminal offences to protect their cover.

Related: Lords inflict two defeats on government over 'spy cops' bill

The covert human intelligence sources (Chis) bill has been introduced at Westminster because criminal activity by police or spies in the UK is currently unregulated. A forthcoming case at the court of appeal in London will rule later this year on whether the current rules regardingundercover agents are lawful.

Humza Yousaf, the Scottish justice secretary, told MSPs that if the appeal court ruled they were unlawful, that could force Holyrood to introduce emergency legislation to authorise criminal activity by police or spies in Scotland.

Hinting this raised fresh questions about the remit of UK ministers to influence Scotland’s independent criminal justice system, Yousaf said the UK government had rejected his attempts to reach a consensus.

Starmer has told Labour MPs and peers to abstain on the bill, despite widespread anxieties that it gives undercover police, intelligence agents and soldiers immunity from prosecution for any criminal offence, without prior approval from a judge.

Labour has already split over the bill at Westminster: two frontbenchers resigned in October after 34 Labour MPs rebelled, and Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general under Jeremy Corbyn, tabled amendments which were rejected by Labour peers on Starmer’s orders.

Related: Secrets and lies: untangling the UK 'spy cops' scandal

Starmer argues that Labour would need to introduce similar legislation if it was in power. Neil Findlay, a Corbynite Labour MSP who campaigned for a Scottish public inquiry into the undercover police officers who infiltrated protest groups, said the UK government’s proposals were “a human rights scandal waiting to happen”.

Speaking in favour of a Scottish government motion to reject the bill, Findlay indicated Labour at Holyrood were opposed to the legislation on principle. “[We] should be rejecting this because it is an affront to our democracy and an affront to our legal system,” he said.

Yousaf said the SNP was opposed to the bill chiefly because it failed to include pre-authorisation for any criminal acts from a judge, despite repeated Scottish government appeals for it do so.

In a vote, only the Scottish Conservatives voted to support the UK bill, arguing that rejecting it could leave police and the intelligence services unable to use any covert informants or undercover agents.