Issue of the day: Should spies have a ‘licence to kill’?

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JAMES Bond famously has a ‘licence to kill’ on his missions as British Secret Service agent 007. Now, for the first time, spies working on behalf of the UK government will be given legal protection to break the law.

Legislation is going through Parliament to allow organisations, such as MI5, to authorise agents to carry out “necessary and proportionate” offences, essentially creating a legal framework to rubber-stamp crimes by operatives on undercover missions.

What kind of crimes?


The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill, introduced in Parliament this week, does not contain an exhaustive list of what an operative would be allowed to do and MI5 has not commented on what crimes could be committed, saying to do so could mean covert missions were “seriously frustrated”.

Why now?

The Bill aims to provide “clear and consistent statutory basis” outlining circumstances where operatives can commit crimes, in place of various pieces of legislation currently in use. It will cover 13 Government and law enforcement bodies, including Government agencies, armed forces and the National Crime Agency.

The policy has been ruled lawful already?

The legislation was delayed by the pandemic, having been ruled as lawful last year under the Security Service Act, although members at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal –  a judicial body, independent of the British government, which hears complaints about surveillance by public bodies – were split on the decision.

What has MI5 said?

Ken McCallum, the director general of MI5, told the Daily Telegraph that “In some situations, it is both necessary and proportionate to authorise agents to be involved in some managed level of criminal activity, in order to win or maintain the trust of those intent on harming the UK and gain the critical information needed to save lives”, adding: “This power, carefully used and independently overseen, is vital so we can continue to meet our duty to keep the public safe.”

But there are concerns?

Human rights groups say the Bill could give operatives leeway to carry out human rights abuses with little oversight. Reprieve, a nonprofit organisation that campaigns for human rights,  said they are “seriously concerned that the Bill fails to expressly prohibit MI5 and other agencies from authorising crimes like torture, murder and sexual violence”.

Licence to kill?

It says that the Bill does not offer a “licence to kill” because it will be compliant with the European convention on human rights, which safeguards the right to life and prohibits torture.


The Home Office has revealed details of a foiled plot to kill former Prime Minister Theresa May that they say spotlights the importance of the new law. In 2017, undercover agents infiltrated Islamic State and trapped 21-year-old Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman

Rahman, who planned to detonate a bomb at the gates of Downing Street, before storming the building to murder Mrs May. He was caught out online after undercover agents posed as an ISIS leader online to find out his plans, arresting him after he went to collect an explosives-packed jacket from an undercover officer he believed to be an IS handler.

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