UK officials in line for ‘impunity’ in assisting crimes overseas, say critics

Ministers and spies would be given immunity from accusations of assisting crimes overseas under a new national security law to be debated by MPs next week, a human rights charity and former Tory cabinet minister have warned.

The Home Office was told that the powers being proposed were “far too slack” and would diminish the UK’s moral authority to condemn atrocities such as the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The concerns centre on a change to the Serious Crime Act, which was passed in 2007 and made it an offence to do anything in the UK to encourage or assist a crime overseas – such as aiding an unlawful assassination or sending information to be used in a torture interrogation.

Under a clause in the national security bill, which is having its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday, this would be disapplied where “necessary for the proper exercise of any function” of MI5, MI6, GCHQ or the armed forces.

Reprieve, an international human rights charity, said it would effectively grant immunity to ministers or officials who provide information to foreign partners that leads to someone being tortured or unlawfully killed in a drone strike.

Concerns were also raised that the move would restrict victims’ ability to seek civil damages in the courts.

Maya Foa, joint executive director of Reprieve, said it was an unthinkable power to grant ministers and officials that would “risk putting them above the ordinary criminal law” and could even embolden leaders to “commit serious crimes thinking they can do so with effective impunity”.

Foa said that enacting clause 23 of the national security bill would “destroy the UK’s moral legitimacy to condemn similar atrocities by autocratic states” after the murder of Khashoggi, a journalist whom US intelligence agencies believe was killed on the orders of the Saudi ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.

The campaign against the move was also supported by the former cabinet minister and civil liberties campaigner David Davis.

Davis said clause 23 was “far too slack in the powers it gives ministers” and was not about granting less contentious national security powers to spy agencies, such as allowing them to place bugs in foreign embassies.

He added: “This bill is drafted so loosely that it could let ministers off the hook if they authorised crimes like murder and torture from the safety of their desks in Whitehall.

“I urge colleagues to constrain it to actions appropriate to our aims and civilised standards.”

The national security bill was announced in last month’s Queen’s speech, with the intention to support Britain’s spy agencies and “help them protect the United Kingdom”. It will be debated when MPs return from recess next Monday.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The amendment to the Serious Crime Act will only remove the risk of individuals facing criminal liability where they are carrying out authorised lawful activities deemed necessary, in good faith and following proper procedure.

“Put simply, the government believes it is not fair to expect the liability for this action to sit with an individual UK intelligence officer or member of the armed forces who is acting with wholly legitimate intentions.”