Sarah Everard’s death was a tragedy that impacted everyone that loved her and every woman that heard her story. Sarah’s death was a reminder that women aren’t safe on the streets, even from the people who are there to protect us. Yet, the Government is seeking to pass the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) or the ‘Spy Cops’ bill. This law would enable undercover operatives to commit crimes without any form of prosecution including murder, rape, and sexual violence. In short, this law would allow state-sanctioned violence against women without any repercussions for the perpetrators.
Since the CHIS was first discussed in the House of Lords in October 2020, the Centre for Women’s Justice has campaigned for the government to decline this bill or at least limit the offences to ensure that women’s safety is prioritised and there is access to justice for the survivors. The government denied their petition.
In the fight against gender-based violence, the government takes a small step forward and a gigantic step back. In January, the Lord Chancellor added non-fatal strangulation as a new stand-alone offence in the Domestic Abuse bill after 37% of high-risk survivors had experienced this form of violence, which historically has only been charged as a common assault (if at all). Yet, less than a week later the CHIS bill was read and passed through its second hearing in the House of Lords. The bill seems all the more harrowing after the MET police officers’ aggressive response to the women at a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common last weekend.
Not only does the CHIS overlook centuries of gender-based violence against women, but JUSTICE also stated that the bill would severely impact international human rights and the safeguards are “woefully inadequate”. As Lord Macdonald pointed out in the first reading in October, “under this bill it will be easier for a police officer to commit a serious crime than to tap a phone or search a shed.” Along with the Policing Act, these new laws would grant the police unchartered levels of power; it would widen the gap between the authority of the law and civilian rights in the UK. There’s a bitter irony to the fact that women were protesting to make their streets safer, yet these new legislations would only make them more dangerous for women, trans men and women, and black and minority ethnic communities.
But neither bill has been passed yet. Similar legislation exists in Canada, but it only allows the CHIS bill to be used as a defense to prosecution, as opposed to giving officers blanket immunity. The current version of the act in the UK would ensure that the Government is legally not held accountable for criminal offenses of the highest degree – this needs to change. Lisa at Police Spies Out of Lives, a campaign and support group for women deceived into long-term relationships with undercover police officers, commented: ‘With this Act, state operatives become officially above the law. The abuses they have perpetrated against women like us will continue to be sanctioned and authorised. A society that allows for authorised murder, sexual violence, and torture is one that is brutalised and desensitised to violence. This Act fundamentally undermines human rights and must be challenged.’
Women’s safety needs to be prioritised and victims of sexual violence need to be able to bring their perpetrator to justice. In a recent survey, UN Women UK found that 80% of all women said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Women across the country have lost faith that their assault brought to justice; YouGov found out of 1,000 women, 96% of women did not report their incidents of assault. It’s not only a feminist issue, it’s a human rights crisis.
In order to feel safe on our streets, women need to know they’re protected by lawmakers, law enforcers, and civilians. This isn’t the case if these laws are approved. It’s extremely problematic for the government to list sexual violence and rape as necessary for undercover operatives in certain circumstances. Equally, the promise of immunity for these crimes leaves a worrying opportunity for individuals to abuse this power; if history has taught us anything it’s that some officers believe they are above the law – think of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Sarah Everard.
It’s a slippery slope and the bill has already blurred the lines between what’s legal and illegal and opened a conversation about where women’s rights sit within the justice system. Until the government champions women’s rights, we must champion them ourselves to ensure that these bills don’t become law and restrict our freedom, safety, and our voice.