Section 007 – how the government authorises criminal activity by its agents, and a telling recent disclosure

16th December 2020

One theme in recent law and policy has been for the government of the United Kingdom to increasingly place itself and its agents above or beyond the law.

There is, of course, a certain hypocrisy in this given how loudly ministers shout about ‘Law and Order!’.

Sometimes this is done subtly, with limits on the scope judicial review, the law of human rights, and the entitlement to legal aid when one is challenging public bodies.

But sometimes it is done quite openly – indeed brazenly.

One example is the current attempt – which I explain in this video for the Financial Times – to make it effectively impossible to prosecute members of the armed forces for war crimes and torture.


Another attempt – though it has just been dropped – was to enable ministers to issue regulations that would break the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

And another attempt is the current Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill before parliament.

The long title of the Bill expressly states that it is 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.’

The Bill provides for ‘criminal conduct authorisations’ which are defined as ‘authorisation[s] for criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of a covert human intelligence source.’

On the face of the Bill there are no exempt criminal offences – and so, in theory, they would include murder, war crimes and torture.


At this point one can imagine senior security officials with kindly faces and reassuring manners telling us that, of course, no such offences would ever be committed.


It is a matter of public record that the United Kingdom state was complicit in the murder of civil rights lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989.

The United Kingdom state has also been complicit in the torture of civilians, in Northern Ireland, Kenya and Iraq.

The sheer volume of accumulated historical evidence is that, yes, we really should be worrying our little heads about what the United Kingdom state and its agents are capable of when they think it can get away with it.


And there is now a more up-to-date reason to be concerned about the lack of effective controls and accountability.

Here the relevant provision is the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

(Ok, it is section 7 – but it amuses me.)

This provides for ministerial authorisations for people to break the law outside the British and Irish isles and then not have any criminal or civil liability for those acts in the United Kingdom.

It is a remarkable and little-known provision, and is worth a good look.

This is the so-called ‘licence to kill’.

And, of course, senior security officials with kindly faces and reassuring manners will tell us that the power would never be abused, and that those granting the authorisations will only do so on the basis of full information.

But as set out in yesterday’s Guardian, there has been a problem.

This was spotted by the fine organisation Reprieve, hidden away on page 59 of a dense 168 page report, in two paragraphs 9.39 and 9.40 (emphasis added):

‘9.39 We reviewed a section 7 submission relating to a high-risk SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] agent case overseas. SIS identified a risk that the agent may be involved in serious criminality overseas. SIS did not encourage, condone or approve any such criminality on the part of their agent. In their submission, SIS set out that they had secured the agent’s cooperation on terms of full transparency about the activities in which the agent was involved. It included some clear ‘red lines’, setting out conduct that was not authorised and would result in the termination of SIS’s relationship with the agent.

‘9.40 On renewal, six months after the original submission, SIS set out a number of indicators that the agent may have been involved in, or have contemplated, the serious criminality referenced above. We concluded that, on the basis of this new information, SIS’s ‘red lines’ had most likely been breached, but the renewal submission failed to make this clear. Whilst the submission referred to SIS’s ‘red lines’ provided information about criminality that may have occurred and noted an increased risk in the case, it did not make expressly clear that SIS’s ‘red lines’ had probably been crossed. We concluded that the renewal did not provide a comprehensive overview of available information which we believe would have provided the Secretary of State with a fuller and more balanced picture. SIS immediately responded to these concerns by updating the FCO.’

Or, as the Guardian rightly put it:

‘MI6 failed to make clear to the foreign secretary that a “high risk agent” operating overseas had probably engaged in “serious criminality” until it was pointed out by an independent regulator last year.’


This means that there is very recent evidence that the United Kingdom security services do not provide appropriate information to those making authorisations in respect of criminal activity.

If this is happening with section 7 authorisations for foreign law-breaking, there is no reason to believe this will not also happen under the current bill providing for authorisations for domestic law-breaking.


The United Kingdom government has recently put forward legislative proposals for limiting torture and war crimes prosecutions, authorising criminal conduct for agents of the security forces, and even for powers to break the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

There has never been a government that has put so much legislative effort into making it possible to break laws rather than into making laws.


Remembering David Cornwell – John le Carré – who would not be surprised at any of this.


This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising a topical law and policy matter – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.


13 thoughts on “Section 007 – how the government authorises criminal activity by its agents, and a telling recent disclosure”

  1. Very alarming. I remember being berated on Twitter, in the summer, by someone who told me to “get a grip” when I suggested that democracy was being eroded and hollowed out by this populist government. I stand by my view.

  2. I hope that the Govt will find the time to clarify that the Cabinet and especially the PM should also be understood to fulfil the role of “agent” in this sense (since they tirelessly labour on behalf of the grateful nation), and also ensure that authorisations can be applied retroactively (since in a time of crisis it would be absurd to restrain necessary actions for want of the niceties of red tape paperwork). Then the UK can truly enjoy a Great Leap Forward, freed at last from activist lawyers, the shackles of the ECJ, and any pretence of a moral lectern.

  3. Very similar to the “Letters of Marque”.
    [A letter of marque and reprisal was a government license that authorised a person to attack and capture vessels of a nation at war with the issuer.]

  4. There has been a creeping tendency for Acts of Parliament to simply empower minsters to do things (small things like close down businesses; require us to say at home; require schools to open or close notwithstanding any particular risks either way; condone criminality) by regulation, order, decree, whatever, usually without adequate prior notice or subsequent parliamentary oversight. The real nuts and bolts are often set out in non-legislative guidance or statements of practice, which may or may not actually reflect what the law says.

    You see this particularly in tax law, where the statue might say something quite unreasonable, and then HMRC issues guidance saying “no, no; we don’t really intend to clobber the sheep, only the goats; we interpret the legislation as meaning just what we choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

    Untaxed by concession, you might call it (see Walton J in Vestey v IRC 1979).

    By small steps, it all tends towards a gradual undermining of the rule of law.

  5. I sort of shuddered when I read this in The Graun. On the one hand, those protecting the nation really should abide by the laws it frames, but on the other, as a fan of John le Carre, I can imagine circumstances when an agent had to engage in serious criminality or be exposed. If we wish our people to infiltrate terrorist or criminal gangs, they can’t risk being unmasked for fear of eventual trial; and indeed, it is possible to imagine that were they not to do so their erstwhile colleagues might kill them to be on the safe side!

    The article was talking mainly about an informer (a double agent, if you will), rather than somebody directly working for SIS as a regular employee. I think that, too, changes matters somewhat from a practical rather than an ethical standpoint.

    Where I think a very clear line can be drawn is an absolute prohibition of our use (or facilitation of) torture by our security services.

    It is a murky area and one that I would much rather a Johnson administration was in no position to be involved with, but alas, in these strange times The Charlatan of 10 Downing St is at the helm – God help us all!

    1. There seem to be at least three linked items here.

      One is the new bill that would grant new latitude to break the law. Do we trust our security services to only use such powers in ways we would approve? How are the existing powers being used? To pick an extreme example, would it allow government ministers to authorise the detention, torture and murder of a opposition politician seen as an enemy of the people or of the state, with no legal repercussions? Why not?

      Second, we hear that such latitude (breaking the law with impunity, in limited and specific ways, no doubt) is already being permitted to and by the security services in the UK and elsewhere.

      Third, it seems “red lines” being set by the security services for the illegal operations of their agents are being broken. And then they are not honest about that when seeking permission to continue the operations, notwithstanding their “red lines” being crossed. More like guidelines.

      It is a nasty mix of illegality, opacity and immunity.

      The UK has a need for the security services. By necessity they have to operate in the shadows. But they must operate within a regimen that sets legal and moral boundaries, and have effective oversight.

      1. Fortunately the security services report directly to The Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, so your concern for the provision of effective oversight with legal and moral boundaries has been amply met.

        Saki’s well-worn squib “We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart.” of course dates from an era when the PM felt a greater need for consistency in both private and public affairs.

  6. I am not a legal expert in such matters, but did have to learn RIPA years ago and have handled Covert Human Intelligence Source(s). So my comments reflect that experience and that of others who are knowledgeable.

    This is an interesting and well written article, however it appears to conflate the Intelligence Services Act powers than enable ‘participation’ with RIPA related issues hence the need for CHIS criminal conduct bill.

    The author is not legally right in terms of torture and Northern Ireland. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) did not find against the U.K. and last year the ECHR again dismissed efforts to bring the case back to the court by the ‘nine hooded men’.

    The CHIS Conduct bill does not permit authorities to be given where they are add odds with human rights i.e. torture. What is does avoid for obvious reasons is giving a check list of what can be or cannot be authorised. This simply would give a terrorist or an organized crime group (OCG) an opportunity to confirm suspicions by setting up tests for possible CHIS.

    The author also highlights The Guardian article which brings up a few really interesting issues, but again makes some basic reporting errors i.e. it incorrectly uses the term ‘Undercover informant‘ which does not legally exist. Secondly, it fails to make sufficiently clear that RIPA does not apply to MI6 in most of its overseas operations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.