Clause 15 - Preparatory conduct

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:30 pm ar 12 Gorffennaf 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:30, 12 Gorffennaf 2022

I beg to move amendment 52, in clause 15, page 13, line 6, leave out “in preparation for” and insert “which materially assists”.

This amendment ensures that only actions materially contributing towards to acts prohibited by this section will be criminalised.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Clause 15 criminalises conduct that is preparatory to some of the offences we have debated. It is fair to say that this is another amendment that I might have approached slightly differently had I been able to draft it in the light of the evidence session on Thursday, rather than in advance of it. Obviously, this clause was widely welcomed at that evidence session, and I accept that evidence.

I thought Sir Alex Younger made an interesting observation when he said:

“The bottom line is that we have to get in front of this stuff…We need to solve it before it has happened, and that raises a set of ethical and legal dilemmas where it is important to be striking the right balance”.––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 19, Q38.]

While he welcomed how the issue was treated in the Bill, he recognised that there are ethical and legal dilemmas.

I am another one of those lawyers who seem to overrun this place. [Laughter.] Thanks very much. Punishing preparatory conduct is not something I can recall from my dim and distant past as a law student, although that is probably as much to do with my memory as anything else. However, the serious point is that various crimes are set out and designed to punish certain acts; after that, other inchoate crimes such as attempts or conspiracy attach themselves to those basic criminal laws.

I absolutely appreciate that criminalising preparation allows enforcement and prosecution at an even earlier stage than an attempt, but the sort of legal and ethical questions raised by it come sharply into focus when we realise that the maximum sentence for such preparatory conduct is life imprisonment. What is particularly striking is that some of the completed offences do not attract that sentence. That seems pretty odd. If somebody guilty of completing the actual offence faces a maximum sentence that is lighter than the maximum sentence for somebody who is simply convicted of preparing for that offence, that seems a bit of an inconsistency.

Preparatory conduct offences also attach themselves, of course, to offences that I have already argued might be worded quite broadly. When we debated clauses 1 and 4, I made various points about the foreign power condition, national interest and so forth. For example, on clause 4, I expressed concerns about protesters operating in the vicinity of a naval base. The idea of life imprisonment for preparing for a blockade at Faslane naval base seems quite extreme. I appreciate that, for various reasons that we discussed, clause 4 does not attach in that way, but that is why we should take adding a preparatory offence to arguably already wide offences very seriously and be very cautious about it.

Indeed, in the clause the notion of preparatory conduct is pretty vaguely defined, I would say. It refers to

“any conduct in preparation for”.

Not to be flippant—particularly in relation to jackets, which everyone has taken off—but if someone puts their jacket on before heading along to a peaceful protest, is that preparatory conduct? I accept that that will not lead to life imprisonment—we hope—but what exactly do we mean by preparatory conduct? The amendment suggests that it must materially contribute to the offence.

The ethical point is that we need to leave people able to change their mind and not end up incentivising them just to carry on and complete the act. If they will already get life imprisonment for preparing, they might arguably say, “Well, I’ve gone this far. I might as well just carry on and complete the act.” Where is the incentive of saying, “Well, okay, you’re going to get punished for your preparatory conduct, but the consequences will be much less severe if you stop now rather than carry on and complete the act”?

If someone sits for three days with a confidential document on their desk in an envelope addressed to a Russian agent, does not the threat of life imprisonment for having stuck the document in an addressed envelope and put a stamp on it effectively encourage them to go through with that act?

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Ceidwadwyr, Hastings and Rye

The hon. Gentleman is talking about acts in preparation for an offence. A person engaged in preparing for an act of this type, even if they fail, could still be prosecuted, because they have been preparing for something. Who assesses material assistance? It could be a very small thing, but small things can be very incremental and lead to something bigger. Perhaps he could highlight that a little.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is a perfectly legitimate question and I suppose that ultimately it would be down to the judge to decide what is meant by a material contribution. As I say, putting a jacket on—again, I do not want to be flippant—could be about anything. Does it bring whatever is planned closer to fruition? I do not know. It could be more readily argued that purchasing equipment materially takes forward what was in contemplation, for example. However, as I say, that is a perfectly legitimate question.

The point that I was coming to was that the amendment seeks to put us in a place where we encourage people to change their mind, essentially, and not to put people away for life even if they are on the verge of engaging in conduct that would thoroughly merit that sentence. It would give them an out that will still attract punishment—possibly—but will give them that choice, basically.

We have not have very much in the way of written evidence, but we did receive some interesting written evidence from Dr Kendall at the University of Queensland. She makes the argument, as I have tried to, that the sentence is too harsh. She also argues that the Bill could be better worded. Furthermore, she makes the point that we should probably put in the Bill that someone cannot be convicted of an inchoate preparatory conduct offence. Basically, she is worried that someone might be found guilty of attempting to prepare, which takes us a step further back and complicates the picture even further. In her written evidence, she suggests that it should be made clear that someone cannot be charged with an attempt to prepare, which will take us too far through the looking glass.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Llafur, Garston and Halewood 3:45, 12 Gorffennaf 2022

I have a couple of points to ask the Minister about. The clause is a generally necessary and helpful provision. It provides for the offence of preparatory conduct, and makes it an offence to do things that are not an offence at the moment. The point, however, is that it helps law enforcement to intervene at an earlier stage, before the preparatory conduct has turned into the capacity to commit whatever it is that is being prepared for. It must be difficult for those seeking to disrupt such activities to have to sit around and wait for an offence to be committed before putting a stop to the preparatory conduct.

The purpose of the clause is clear, and it will be a useful addition. However, will the Minister explain why the clause covers preparatory conduct for various offences, but not all the offences in the Bill? Why does it not cover preparatory conduct with the intention of committing a new foreign interference offence, for example, because it does not? What is the reasoning behind that offence being left out of the clause?

It would be helpful for us to hear from the Minister what the thinking is in that regard. If it is good to have an offence of preparatory conduct to prevent at an early stage offences that might otherwise be committed that would be quite serious, why not for the foreign interference offence?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

The clause provides a disruptive tool to tackle preparatory activities carried out by those who seek to cause us harm. Malign actions by states have the potential to cause significant damage to the UK and its interests, and it is therefore vital that the law can intervene at an early stage when preparatory activities are under way. That is already provided for under the Official Secrets Act 1920, and the Law Commission has recognised the importance of maintaining the provision.

The offence covers preparatory conduct in two scenarios. The first is preparation to commit acts that would constitute one of the following offences: obtaining or disclosing protected information, obtaining or disclosing trade secrets, entering a prohibited place for a purpose prejudicial to the UK, and sabotage. The second is preparation to commit state threats activity that involves serious violence, that endangers life or that creates a serious risk to the health and safety of the public. The offence of preparatory conduct covers those who are preparing to carry out harmful acts themselves, and those who make preparations for another person to commit the acts.

Importantly, the preparatory conduct offence is committed only where there is an intention to commit a relevant act and that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt—I hope that provides some reassurance. The element of intention provides an important safeguard that will prevent the offence from capturing legitimate acts, or acts undertaken by individuals who did not engage intentionally in state threats activity. In addition, consent will be required by the Attorney General, or the Advocate General in Northern Ireland, before a prosecution can be brought under the offence.

When preparatory acts are caught at an early stage, it may be unclear exactly what the perpetrator intended as the ultimate outcome—for example, an act of sabotage or obtaining trade secrets. The offence may therefore be committed if there is a general intention that the preparatory conduct will result in harmful state threats activity of a general nature. That is in line with the approach taken by Parliament when it provided the offence of the preparation of terrorist acts under section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006. A requirement to demonstrate that the preparatory act was undertaken with the intention that specific harmful state threats activity result would, in many cases, constrain the offence in a way that would be wholly undesirable and potentially allow state actors to evade the law.

Those caught preparing to harm us could face a maximum sentence of up to life imprisonment. The Committee will be aware that the ultimate decision on the length of the penalty faced will be decided by the courts, taking into account the severity of the preparatory activity and the harms that were intended to result from it, which could include long-lasting damage to the UK or the loss of life. I totally understand what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said about life imprisonment being a heavy penalty, and the courts would not give such a sentence for some of the examples that he described. But the courts could impose life imprisonment if someone was preparing to commit murder and the courts would want to treat some activities in the same manner, because if someone had another person assassinated, the court would want the full ability to impose a life sentence in those circumstances.

We know all too well that state actors operate using sophisticated methods, and that they can cause unimaginable harm. I therefore stress the importance of clause 15 as a key tool in our fight against states who seek to harm us. Where we can disrupt state actors at a preparatory stage, we must do so, before they have the opportunity to manifest their intentions to cause harm to our nation. As we discussed earlier, the ability to deal with the offence already exists in the Official Secrets Act 1920, and the proposed offence in the Bill modernises its terms. With regard to why the offence is to be expanded to apply to some rather than others, we believe that we have carefully assessed the link between the two, and we do not think it is necessary or appropriate to extend the offences to apply to foreign interference or assisting a foreign intelligence service at present. That is something that we will continue to look at.

Effectively, we need to continue to get the powers on the statute book to help the intelligence services and provide them with the toolkit that they need to help keep us safe.

On amendment 52, which seeks to raise the threshold—

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Llafur, Garston and Halewood

I was trying to work out the Minister’s answer to me. The foreign interference offence in clause 13, which we have debated, covers a wide range of harmful activity, including manipulating legal or political processes, interfering with fundamental rights. Why is the offence of preparatory conduct not applying to those activities? What is the reasoning, because it would be an important disruption tool for authorities to try to prevent foreign interference, would it not?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying—

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Ceidwadwyr, Hastings and Rye

Clause 13 on foreign interference refers to a person committing an offence

“if…the person engages in conduct intending that the conduct, or a course of conduct of which it forms part” so that would include preparatory conduct, because it is a course, so the conduct goes from beginning to end. There will be preparatory conduct. Does my hon. Friend agree that that might scoop up the relevant particular point?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. At the end of the day, my understanding is that the offences are designed differently, which is why we were unable to capture the relevant preparatory activity as part of the offences themselves. I am not a lawyer, but effectively those offences are designed differently, and that is where we are.

Amendment 52 seeks to raise the threshold of that which be proven to show the preparatory nature of the clause. Those who intentionally engage in preparatory conduct, as specified under clause 15, pose a significant risk to national security, and that will be true regardless of whether or not their actions materially assist the ultimate outcome. For example, if a security guard in the employment of a foreign power leaves a door open to facilitate access into a prohibited place by a hostile actor, that would constitute a preparatory act. If the hostile actor then used an alternative route to access the site, for example, cutting through a fence, the guard’s act would not have materially assisted them and his acts would go unpunished. I am sure that the Committee would agree that that would be an unacceptable outcome.

Furthermore, the offence enables disruptive action to be commenced at an early stage, to provide the greatest chance of avoiding the harmful activity occurring. It will not always be possible to determine the end goal of a person’s conduct, and thus whether their preparations are of material assistance. Indeed, in some cases, an individual may not even have decided the precise harmful acts that will result from their conduct, but rather will have the intent that their preparatory conduct will bring out harmful activity in general. However, in order to be caught by this offence the individual must have the intent that their conduct will bring about one of the relevant harmful outcomes. I hope that reassures the Committee that the offence cannot be used to prosecute those who undertake actions without any awareness or intent that it could support the commission of a relevant act.

The amendment would undermine the utility of what is otherwise a key preventive tool. Therefore, I do not support it, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I particularly take his point about the door being left open, and that ultimately ending up not making a material contribution to what happened thereafter. I will go away and think again about the issue, but I think the Minister’s explanation was very helpful. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Scott Mann.)

Adjourned till Thursday 14 July at half-past Eleven o’clock.