Legislation to clamp down on foreign spying is being considered by Downing Street in the wake of a damning report laying bare the impact of Russian influence in Britain and accusing the government of “badly” underestimating the threat posed by the Kremlin.
Under the new legislation, foreign agents would have to register in the UK in a move modelled on similar requirements in the US and Australia.
The long-awaited Russia report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee said ministers in effect turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption, highlighting the failure to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The government, which has rejected calls for an inquiry into Russian meddling and said it had seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum, is now looking at new security legislation.
Asked whether the legislation represented a move to close the stable door after the horse had bolted, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “First of all it is true we are looking at that legislation but secondly, even as the report itself recognises on page 6, it says we’re clear about the government’s response and it’s now begun to take a more assertive approach … so I think we are already taking a much more forward leaning approach to all of this but you’re right, we also think this is the time, potentially, to have additional powers.”
The report, which questions whether the intelligence community took its eye off the ball in its response to Russia, calls for new legislation to replace the outdated Official Secrets Act. Current laws enabling action against foreign spies are “acknowledged to be weak”, the report says, adding: “In particular, the Official Secrets Acts are out of date – crucially, it is not illegal to be a foreign agent in this country.”
Pressed on whether action should have been taken earlier given the delayed report was available to be published in October last year, Shapps said: “It’s not the first time that we’ve talked about these additional powers. Of course, today is an important moment to flag them up and we want to be able to look at the activities, clamp down on the activities of hostile states which threaten the UK but no individual power on its own is going to resolve that; it’s another tool in the armoury but it’s not going to be the only solution.
“And, of course, we do have very broad powers in existence already for our intelligence and security agencies …”
He added: “I think it is also true to say that you can always do more with these things and something like the adoption of a form of foreign agent registration might be very useful. But, to be clear, what that does is makes it easier if someone is found and they’ve failed to register, to for example extradite them.
“It’s not the entire answer to all of this and what is is a very active, proactive approach by our intelligence and security agencies and they deserve and get government backing, and ministerial backing, to do their work.”
Asked when the legislation would be enacted, Shapps indicated “in the not too distant future” and explained work was “ongoing”.
Shapps added: “It’s only one part of the solution. There are many other things we need to do. And, in particular, I call on Russia to cease and desist in this activity. They used to be, only a few years ago, part of the group of eight, the G8 of international, most developed nations, following international rules. Sadly, it’s now back down to the G7 and this is because you can’t have countries carrying out these clandestine activities.”
In a section about the EU referendum, the Russia report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”
In contrast with America’s handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where there was an intelligence community assessment, the report states: “We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference.”
It adds: “Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”
Responding to the report, the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, said it exposed “deep systemic failings” in the government’s approach to security.
He added: “The UK has world-leading security services, yet this report makes clear they have not received the strategic support, the legislative tools or the resources necessary to defend our interests. The government need to urgently outline how they will address these systemic failings.”