Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021

The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 (c. 4) is an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The act makes provision for the use of undercover law enforcement agents and covert sources and the committing of crimes in the undertaking of their duty.[4][5] It was also referred to as the "Spy Cops Bill" – a reference to the UK undercover policing relationships scandal.[6]

Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021
Long titleAn Act to make provision for, and in connection with, the authorisation of criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of covert human intelligence sources.[1]
Citation2021 c.4
Introduced byPriti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Department (Commons)
Susan Williams, Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister of State for Home Affairs (Lords)
Territorial extentEngland and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland[2]
Royal assent1 March 2021[1]
Other legislation
Status: Current legislation
History of passage through Parliament
Text of statute as originally enacted
Revised text of statute as amended


The government stated that the act was drafted in response to a court ruling in December 2019 which permitted, in a marginal decision, MI5 and other agencies to commit crimes in order to prevent more serious crimes from occurring.[7]

As a bill, the act was opposed by a number of political organisations and NGOs, including the international human rights advocacy organisation Amnesty International, the Green Party, Scottish National Party, Sinn Féin, and some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs.[8][9] In a statement, Amnesty International said:[10]

It's hugely worrying that we’re a step closer to seeing this deeply dangerous bill become law. MPs are signing off on a licence for government agencies to authorise torture and murder.

Giving such disturbing powers to bodies including MI5 and the police could have devastating impacts.

We are now urging peers who care about the rule of law to introduce urgent amendments before the bill progresses further through Parliament.

The Guardian ran an editorial against the bill, saying it was "unfit for purpose".[11] The Morning Star also ran an editorial against the Bill, noting that "even the equivalent legislation in the United States rules out torture and murder, yet nothing is ruled out in this Bill."[12] Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, who served as director of public prosecutions from 2003 to 2008, called for explicit limits on the crimes covered by the Bill.[13] Reprieve's director Maya Foa said that although "our intelligence agencies do a vital job in keeping the country safe, ... there must be common sense limits to their agents' activities".[14] Privacy International director and legal office Ilia Siatitsa added that "the public has a right to know what type of criminal acts MI5's policy authorises in the UK. That's why we're fighting them in court. The new Bill does not alleviate these concerns."[14]

The general secretaries of 14 trade unions and a number of campaign groups, including Reprieve, the Pat Finucane Centre, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and Justice 4 Grenfell, released a joint statement in October 2020 expressing their concerns over the bill.[15]


The provisions of the act include:

Passage through ParliamentEdit

Rather than opposing the government, the Labour Party ordered its MPs to abstain on the vote. Labour's Shadow Security Minister Conor McGinn said that the Bill "addresses a vital issue" of "provid[ing] a clear lawful framework for the use of human intelligence sources", however also highlighted Labour's concerns of potential of the powers in the Bill to be misused.[24] However, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs rebelled and voted against the Bill on its second reading.[25] The Bill passed a vote on its second reading in the House of Commons on 5 October 2020 by 182 votes to 20.[26] Of the 20 votes against the bill, 17 were Labour MPs, 2 were Plaid Cymru MPs and one was SDLP MP Colum Eastwood.[26]

On the third reading of the Bill, on 15 October 2020, 34 Labour MPs rebelled against the order to abstain, including Shadow Ministers Dan Carden and Margaret Greenwood,[27] as well as five parliamentary private secretaries, who all resigned from their frontbench roles.[28] An amendment to prevent authorisation of serious offences was tabled by Labour leader Keir Starmer, but was defeated by 317 votes to 256.[29] The Bill's third reading passed by 313 votes to 98.[28]

When the Bill reached the House of Lords in January 2021, peers defeated the government in passing two amendments to curtail use of children, and to stop informants participating in the most serious crimes such as murder, torture, and rape.[30] A third amendment by Shami Chakrabarti seeking to prevent immunity for undercover agents was defeated after the Labour leadership chose to abstain.[31] The government argued in response that once a particular crime is explicitly outside the limit of the act, then that crime will be used as a way to "unmask infiltrators" in criminal organisations.[31] Shami Chakrabarti, a member of the House of Lords and the former director of Liberty, pointed out that as under UK law prosecution must be in the public interest, a prosecutor wouldn't charge an agent who was breaking the law in the course of their duty.[32]

Upon the return of the bill to the Commons, the amendments preventing the use of minors and vulnerable people and the participation in serious crimes were defeated in a 363 to 267 vote.[33] An amendment tabled by the Labour frontbench was not put to a vote.[34]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Harm here means both physical injury and psychological distress.


  1. ^ a b "Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  2. ^ "10 - Extent and short title". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  3. ^ "9 - Commencement and transitional provision". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  4. ^ Home Office (11 January 2021). "Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill Factsheet (accessible version)". GOV.UK. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  5. ^ Marc D'Arcy (5 February 2021). "The week ahead in Parliament". BBC. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  6. ^ Francesca Newton (5 October 2020). "Labour Must Vote Against the Spy Cops Bill". Tribune. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  7. ^ Bowcott, Oliver (20 December 2019). "MI5 policy allowing informants to commit serious crimes ruled lawful". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 October 2020.
  8. ^ Jones, Jenny. "We pay police to uphold the law, not break it". Green World. Green Party. Retrieved 19 October 2020.
  9. ^ "Undercover police and MI5 agents to be permitted to commit crimes". Scottish Legal News. 25 September 2020. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  10. ^ Allen, Kate (15 October 2020). "UK: MPs vote through 'deeply dangerous' Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill" (Press release). London: Amnesty International UK. Archived from the original on 22 October 2020. Retrieved 22 October 2020.
  11. ^ "The Guardian view on covert human intelligence sources: draw a line". The Guardian. London. 11 October 2020. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
  12. ^ "Editorial: The Covert Intelligence Sources Bill is an authoritarian power-grab". Morning Star. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  13. ^ Hamilton, Fiona (5 October 2020). "Call to rein in law that lets MI5 informants commit crimes". The Times. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  14. ^ a b Cowburn, Ashley (24 September 2020). "Boris Johnson to unveil legal protections for intelligence agents committing crimes while undercover". The Independent. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  15. ^ "Unions, MPs and campaigners release joint statement on CHIS 'spycops' bill". Labour List. 13 October 2020.
  16. ^ "1 – Authorisation of criminal conduct". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  17. ^ "2 – Criminal conduct authorisations: safeguards for juveniles". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  18. ^ "3 - Criminal conduct authorisations: safeguards for vulnerable adults". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  19. ^ "4 - Authorities to be capable of authorising criminal conduct". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  20. ^ "5 – Criminal injuries compensation". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  21. ^ "6 – Notification to a Judicial Commissioner". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  22. ^ "7 – Oversight by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  23. ^ "Part 2 – Other Enactments". Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  24. ^ McGinn, Conor. "Voting down the CHIS bill would weaken national security and human rights". LabourList. Retrieved 30 October 2020.
  25. ^ Waugh, Paul (5 October 2020). "Has Keir Starmer's 'Strong On Security' Stance Found Its Limits On The Covert Sources Bill?". Huffington Post. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  26. ^ a b "Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill". Hansard. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  27. ^ Dan Lomas (3 February 2021). "The idea that the UK's intelligence agencies have an anti-Labour bias runs deep – but it is false". London School of Economics. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  28. ^ a b Heffer, Greg (16 October 2020). "Sir Keir Starmer hit by series of Labour resignations over Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill". Sky News. Retrieved 16 October 2020.
  29. ^ Lizzie Dearden (15 October 2020). "MPs vote against attempt to ban undercover agents from committing murder, torture and rape". The Independent. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  30. ^ Lizzie Dearden (13 January 2021). "Peers vote to ban spies from committing murder, rape and torture under new law". The Independent. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  31. ^ a b Sabbagh, Dan (13 January 2021). "Lords inflict two defeats on government over 'spy cops' bill". The Guardian.
  32. ^ Shami Chakrabarti (14 October 2020). "The 'Spycops' bill undermines the rule of law and gives a green light to serious crimes". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  33. ^ Conrad Duncan (28 January 2021). "Government reverses attempt to explicitly ban spies from committing murder, torture or rape". The Independent. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  34. ^ "Supplement to the Votes and Proceedings - Wednesday 27 January 2021 - PROCEEDINGS ON CONSIDERATION OF LORDS AMENDMENTS - Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill" (PDF). 27 January 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2021.