LABOUR leader Keir Starmer has defended his party’s position on a controversial bill which would allow undercover agents to break the law.

Starmer ordered his MPs to abstain on the third reading of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill, also known as the “spy cops bill”.

However, 34 of them, including former leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, defied the whip and voted against the legislation which human rights groups have said would allow undercover officers to rape, murder and torture in the name of national security.

In a Call Keir event held with voters from Glasgow, Starmer was challenged on the party’s abstention by student Jarrod Grant.

Grant claimed the bill “blatantly breaks human rights”, asking why Labour was not taking a “hard stance on what is essentially allowing police and undercover agencies to violate human rights”.

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Starmer said “there is no bigger advocate for human rights” than him, and told Grant that any powers authorised for use by undercover agents would have to comply with the Human Rights Act.

He said: “On the face of this bill, there is a clear requirement that says nothing can be authorised if it conflicts with or breaches the Human Rights Act.

“If you can’t authorise something that would breach the Human Rights Act, how on earth can you make the argument that you can break human rights under this bill?

“Under the Human Rights Act, torture is completely prohibited, murder is prohibited, rape is prohibited.

“So this argument that you could sign off torture, murder and rape is just wrong.”

The Labour leader claimed it was “impossible” to argue that the bill would allow undercover agents to torture people, adding: “It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

He also said the argument that the powers given to the police and security services in the bill are not needed is “wrong”.

In the same event, Starmer also said he cannot deny a recent increase in support for Scottish independence, but believes coronavirus should take priority.

He said: “There’s no point in me contending that doesn’t broadly reflect where a lot of people are in Scotland, I don’t think that’s a credible position to take.”

While a recent Ipsos Mori poll showed support for independence among 58% of Scots, Starmer pointed to other surveys. A Survation poll of 1008 Scots in September found that less than a third thought it was a top priority.

Starmer said: “I think that feeds into an argument that, in the middle of a pandemic, it really isn’t the time to be having a discussion about independence, it’s the time to be working through how we’re going to respond to the pandemic.”

Last week’s poll showed Scottish Labour’s support was at 13% in constituency and list votes, with the party remaining in third position.

The Labour leader said he is working with colleagues “every week” in preparation for next year’s Holyrood election.