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Fri, 5 June 2020

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Boris Johnson mulls US-style powers for spooks in wake of Salisbury attacks

Boris Johnson mulls US-style powers for spooks in wake of Salisbury attacks
3 min read

Boris Johnson is considering plans for new espionage legislation aimed at beefing up security services against attacks from foreign states. 


Outlined in the Queen’s Speech on Thursday, the new legislation would provide security agencies with new powers to disrupt hostile state activity.

It also suggests that the Government is considering adopting US-style intelligence measures such as registering foreign agents.

This proposed bill was not included as part of the Conservatives' election manifesto, but plans for updated laws were by the Government back in February. 

According to the The Sun, then Foreign Secretary Sajid Javid had asked officials to review the prosecution of foreign spies and the status of the Treason act.

This new legislation appears to follow from that review, creating new powers in the wake of the 2019 Salisbury attacks.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian doubt agent, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in March 2018 in attack that was linked to the Russian state. 

The proposed bill includes plans to modernise espionage offences to tackle foreign threats, making it easier to prosecute foreign spies operating on British soil.

The Government is also considering reforming the Official Secrets Act.

‘CAUSE FOR CONCERN’

But the potential new powers have already raised fears among civil liberties campaigners.

Clare Collier, advocacy director at Liberty, said the legislation was “cause for concern” and that more detail was needed.

She said: “Creating new criminal offences is rarely justified and existing laws already define hostile state activity extremely broadly.

“We know from the Law Commission consultation that attempts to reform the Official Secrets Act are likely to increase secrecy and unjustifiably clamp down on freedom of speech.

Ms Collier added that extending the remit of the Official Secrets Act - which is designed to protect state secrets - could make it “a charter for official error and a protector of power”.

“Any government is right to take threats to people’s safety seriously, but these proposals are likely to be a further attempt to increase state power whilst reducing accountability,” she said.

However, former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat welcomed the legislation.

Measures such as foreign agent registration, he said, were “hugely important” as they are “about making sure we know who is seeking to influence our politics”.

The Tory MP also expressed his support for updating the Treason Act, something he first outlined in an academic paper for Policy Exchange in July 2018.

He proposed redefining treason as an act of betrayal by anyone using or planning violence against the British people, adding: “Society is only held together by the trust and confidence that we can share in each other."

But, he added that any legislation “will need to be drafted carefully to guarantee individual liberty and rights.”

Thursday’s Queen’s Speech also included plans to extend sentencing for terror offences following the London Bridge attacks earlier this month.

Meanwhile ministers are planning a new Royal Commission on the effectiveness of the criminal justice process.

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