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Thu, 22 October 2020

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Boris Johnson considers new spying law in wake of damning Russia report

Boris Johnson considers new spying law in wake of damning Russia report

Ministers have insisted they are "not complacent" about the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. (PA)

4 min read

Boris Johnson is considering toughening up Britain’s security laws in the wake of a damning report on its response to the threat posed by Russia.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the Government could agree to a central demand of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-awaited report by introducing a US-style “register of foreign agents” — with jail or deportation floated for non-compliance.

The US act requires individuals working on behalf of foreign governments or political parties to register with the authorities and provide and update on their activities — a move intelligence chiefs told the committee would help prevent Russian influence in the UK.

The hint at a legislative overhaul came as Labour — who have been granted an Urgent Commons Questions on the 50-page report — said the ISC had exposed "deep, systemic failings" in ministers' approach to security.

The report, published on Tuesday, called on the Government to establish whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

It also warned of a string of links between Russian oligarchs connected to the Kremlin and political organisations and charities in the UK, and confirmed a host of attempts to hack British infrastructure.

The ISC also urged the creation of a new ‘Foreign Agents Registration Act’, similar to that already existing in the US. 

It could require anyone other than non-accredited diplomats who represent a foreign interest in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to register with the Government and provide information about their activities and financial interactions.

Confirming the Government’s plan on Wednesday morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Times Radio: “I think it's wrong to think ‘why doesn't the government just do X, and [pass] one law and it will resolve it.’

“What we do have is world class intelligence and security agencies who work in cooperation through the Joint Intelligence Committee to produce very, very helpful intelligence which can help guide policy.

“But specifically we're looking at introducing additional powers about the activities of hostile states which might threaten the UK.

“And these would be powers potentially similar to those that exist in the US or actually, Australia, as well, where like-minded partners, international partners come together and you adopt a form of foreign agent registration.”

He added: “That means that it becomes illegal if you've not registered yourself as a foreign agent... [and] when something's discovered, there's an immediate route to extradition, it can contain a number of other advantages.

“And work’s ongoing on bringing forward legislation which might work in that way.”

'NOT EQUAL TO THE THREAT'

Labour's Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, who tabled the urgent question Commons question due after PMQs, has claimed that “on every level the Government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat".

“The Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia exposes deep systemic failings in Government approach to security," Mr Thomas-Symonds said.

“This report outlines the scale of the shortcomings of the Government’s response to maintaining our national security in the face of what is clearly a growing and significant threat from Russia.

“The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance."

The shadow frontbencher accused ministers of having "no overall strategic response to this challenge".

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.

“The report should also sound alarm bells ringing that other countries that wish the UK harm are undertaking similar activities and are not facing a sufficiently robust response.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted the Government is "not complacent" about the threat, and "categorically" rejected the committee's claims ministers had avoided looking for evidence of Russian interference. 

“Russia is a top security priority. We call out Russia when it's necessary," he told a press conference alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.

“We’ve shown that in relation to the cyberattacks on research and development facilities in the US, UK and Canada.

“We've done that together with our partners, and we are not for a second complacent about the threat Russia poses when it comes to cyber.”

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