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By Christina Georgaki
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MPs Call For Mandatory Security Training In Parliament Over Fears Of Foreign Interference

Houses of Parliament (Alamy)

5 min read

A group of parliamentarians has written to parliamentary authorities to call for tightened security in the Houses of Parliament following heightened fears of foreign interference.

The letter, written to the Lord Speaker Lord McFall of Alcluith and Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was sent by a group of MPs and peers including China hawks Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green and Tim Loughton, Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham.

The letter accompanies a report providing security recommendations for parliamentarians put together by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group of international cross-party legislators working to reform the way democratic countries interact with China. The IPAC Secretariat collaborated with politicians and experts to produce the report.

The MPs write that in the past three years “at least two Security Service Interference Alerts have been issued to Parliament”, which “highlight the extent to which Westminster is a target for foreign interference”.  

In March, two men were arrested on suspicion of spying for China, one of whom was a parliamentary researcher with links to a number of prominent Conservative MPs. Both suspects were released on bail and charges have not been issued. The researcher strongly denies the allegations and has said in a statement that he is “completely innocent”.

In today's letter, signatories insist that following the “recent scandal” of “alleged interference activities on behalf of the People’s Republic of China there is a need to expand the capacity of both Houses to not only pre-empt, but also to defend against, suspected extraterritorial encroachment”.

The letter goes on to describe the current provision for staff security, such as the Members’ Security Support Service (MSSS), which employs 10 members of staff and according to data published in 2019 had an annual budget of £2.2m. The Members’ Handbook contains simple security guidance on operational security. The authorities also provide parliamentary email and social media monitoring, with about a third of colleagues having opted-in as of 2019. Some members have been referred to the National Cyber Security Centre.

However, the report makes recommendations to build capacity and conduct risk assessments on current security measures, and perform remedial work where necessary.

For instance, under capacity building, the report recommends an announcement of mandatory and regular training on digital and operational security for members of both Houses and their staffers. It recommends that the names of members who fail to complete the training be disclosed.

It also recommends MSSS considers ‘mystery shopper’ security tests to assess the ability of members and staff to recognise and respond to, for example, phishing attacks.

Parliamentary authorities should also consider strengthening access controls to the Estate, by implementing ID checks for all visitors, denying admittance to Westminster offices without invitation and limiting staff escort privileges to those with a confirmed invitation.

Under risk assessments, the report recommends conducting an annual comprehensive audit, issuing an audit checklist for members and encouraging them to conduct regular audits of their own offices, and for MSSS to consider providing enhanced security support to members of both Houses and their staff who are thought to be more exposed to security threats.

The report also recommends preparing crisis response guidance for members, signposting recommended actions in the event of major incidents (such as hacking, theft etc.) and including guidance on how to deal with threatening or suspicious individuals or groups.

Addressing the Speakers, contributors wrote: “with a general election approaching, where interference activities are expected to increase, we believe - and we feel sure you will agree - that there is an urgent need to increase capacity.

“The attached report has been compiled with the help of security experts. We would greatly value an opportunity to discuss these recommendations with you and work together to address this rapidly developing challenge.

“We are sure we speak for other colleagues when we express gratitude to you for the proactive stance you have taken regarding foreign interference. It is because of the leadership you have shown that we feel it appropriate to approach you.”

The MPs who added their names to the letter are: Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow South Stewart McDonald, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight Bob Seely, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath Wera Hobhouse, Crossbench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool, Labour MP for St Helens South and Whiston Marie Rimmer, Conservative peer Lord Bethell of Romford as well as Duncan Smith and Loughton.

McDonald said: “We know both Speakers take the security of Parliamentarians extremely seriously – both within and beyond Parliament. The threat to our democracy is changing fast, and we have to make sure that we are not behind the curve in responding. I am pleased that colleagues from across both Houses have joined the call to ensure that our democracy is as resilient as possible.”

Security lead at IPAC Chung Ching Kwong, who led the report, said: “Beijing has been snooping around global legislatures, and the world is struggling to keep up. Despite the best efforts of the Speaker, Westminster is practically naked to Beijing’s prying eyes. We need to put some clothes on fast, and these suggestions would be a step in the right direction.”

A spokesperson for the Lord Speaker said: "I can confirm that a letter has been received. The Lord Speaker, as always, is happy to meet with members to discuss issues of concern."

A spokesperson for the Commons Speaker said: "I can confirm that a letter has been received. Mr Speaker, as always, is happy to meet with members to discuss issues of concern."

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