The four ways the government of the United Kingdom is abusing and misusing the law – and the reason the government is getting away with it

2nd January 2021

Those with political power tend to want more power, and those who want more power will tend to then abuse it.

This is not a new observation, and it is perhaps one which can be made of most if not all human societies.

The role of law and government is thereby not so often to enable such abuse of power, but to acknowledge the likelihood of abuse and to seek to limit or prevent it.

That is why those with power are often subject to conventions and rules, why there can be checks and balances, and why many political systems avoid giving absolute power to any one person.

That those with power want to use, misuse and abuse that power is not thereby a feature of the current government of the United Kingdom, but a universal (or near-universal) truth of all those who seek and have political power everywhere.

Those with political power will tend to try and get away with misusing or abusing it.


The current government of the United Kingdom, however, is remarkable in just how open it is in its abuse and intended abuse of law, and in at least four ways.

And what is also striking is what has changed politically so as to enable them to be so open.


First, the current government sought to give itself the power to break the law.

This was in respect of the Internal Markets bill, and the ability to break the law was stated as the intention by a cabinet minister in the house of commons.

This proposal led, in turn, to the resignations of the government’s most senior legal official and a law officer in the house of lords.

And then it was even supported by a majority of the house of commons.

The proposal has now been dropped – and some would say that it was only ever a negotiating tactic.

But even with this excuse, it was an abuse of legislation and legislation-making, requiring law-makers to become law-breakers, and signalling to the world that the government of the United Kingdom does not take its legal obligations seriously.

There was no good excuse for this exercise.

Yet the government sought to do it anyway.


Second, the government of the United Kingdom is seeking to place itself, and its agents, beyond the reach of the law.

This can be seen in two bills before parliament: one effectively limiting the liability of service personnel for various criminal offences, including for torture and other war crimes, and the other expressly permitting secret service agents to break the law.


From one perspective, these two proposals simply give formal effect to the practical position.

It has always been difficult to prosecute members of the armed services for war crimes.

And domestic secret service agents have long relied on the ‘public interest’ test for criminal activity (for any criminal prosecution to take place there are two tests: whether there is sufficient evidence, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest, and guess who routinely gets the benefit of the latter).

And secret service agents abroad have long had legal immunity back in the United Kingdom, under the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The primary significance of these two current proposals is that the de facto positions are being made de jure.

The government believes (rightly) that it can legislate to this effect and get away with it.


The third way – when the government cannot legislate to break the law or to make it and its agents beyond the law – is for the government to legislate so as to give itself the widest possible legal powers.

Again, this is not new: governments of all parties have sought wide ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable them to bypass parliament – legislating, and amending and even repealing primary legislation by ministerial decree.

But what is new here is the scale of the use of such legislation – both the pandemic and Brexit have been used as pretexts of the government to use secondary legislation for wide ranging purposes – even to limit fundamental rights without any parliamentary sanction.

And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no absolute barrier under the constitution of the United Kingdom to an ‘enabling act’ allowing ministers to have complete freedom to legislate by decree.


The fourth way is the flip-side of the government seeking more legal power.

The government is seeking ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for it to be challenged in the courts.

This can be done formally: by reducing the scope of judicial review or the reach of the laws of human rights and civil liberties, or by ‘ouster’ clauses, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts.

It can be done practically (and insidiously): by creating procedural impediments and by cutting or eliminating legal aid for such challenges.

It also can be achieved by the government either promoting or not challenging attacks on the judiciary and the role of courts in holding executive power to account.

If the government cannot break the law, or make itself immune to the law, or give itself wide legal powers – it certainly does not want citizens to be able to challenge it.

Of course, this impulse is also not new – and examples can be given of governments of all parties seeking to make it more difficult for legal challenges to be brought.

But again, what is different from before is the openness of these attempts.

There is no self-restraint.

The government is going to get away with as many of these barriers as it can.


The big change is not that those with political power want to abuse it – and to stop those who can check and balance that abuse.

That is a problem no doubt as old as law and government itself.

What is remarkable is how the United Kingdom government is now so brazen about it.

The government just does not care about being seen doing this – and if there is any concern or even outcry – that is regarded as a political advantage.

The ‘libs’ are ‘owned’ and those with grins will clap and cheer.

In this current period of hyper-partisanship there is no legal or constitutional principle that is beyond being weaponised.

What perhaps restrained the United Kingdom government – and other governments – from being so candid in their abuses and misuses of power was once called ‘public opinion’.

People cared about such things – or at least those in government believed people cared.

But, as this blog averred on New Year’s Eve, what happens if a public-spirited donkey does tell the animals on the farm that power is being misused or abused – and the animals still do not care.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘


And this brings us back to the key problem for liberalism – and for the principles of transparency and accountability – in this age of Brexit and Trump.

It is not enough to point out the lies and misinformation – or to show the misuses and abuses of law – if a sufficient number of people do not care that they are being lied to or misinformed and that the law is being misused or abused.

And there is nothing the media or commentators can do about this (though we should still be public-spirited donkeys anyway).

This requires a shift – not in media and communications – but of politics and of political leadership.

Only if enough citizens care about the government abusing or misusing the law will the government stop doing it, at least so openly.

And until then the United Kingdom’s indifference towards the rule of law and other constitutional norms will just be a register of the public’s general indifference about the government getting away with it.


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

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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.