Boris Johnson could create a US-style ‘spy list’ to make it illegal to secretly work for a foreign country while in the UK as Labour accused the Government of a ‘chronic failure of leadership’ over stopping foreign interference in British democracy.
The Prime Minister is pushing ahead with plans to bolster the UK’s counter-espionage laws after the Intelligence and Security Committee yesterday published its damning Russia report.
The ISC concluded that the Government had taken its ‘eye off the ball’ on potential Moscow meddling and that as a result it was now having to ‘play catch up’.
The Government will respond to the report by stepping up its efforts to ensure the UK’s security services have all of the powers they need.
That could mean setting up a foreign agent registration act, like the one already in use in America, which would force people to disclose if they are representing the interests of a foreign power.
This would effectively make it illegal to work in secret for another country while in Britain with jail terms or deportation the likely punishment for anyone who does not comply with registration.
The ISC report prompted a wave of criticism directed at the Government with Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds today accusing ministers of taking ‘no action’ since 2014 to deal with the threat posed by the Kremlin.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said this morning that a foreign agent registration act could be brought in by the Government.
He told the BBC: ‘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 make it easier if someone is then found and they failed to register, for example to extradite them.
‘It is not the entire answer to all of this and what is is a very active, pro-active, approach by our intelligence and security agencies and they deserve and get Government backing and ministerial backing to do their work.’
Mr Shapps said such powers could be introduced in the ‘not too distant future’ and that ‘work is ongoing’.
The ISC report said the committee had seen no official evidence that Russia had tried to influence the Brexit referendum in 2016.
But it accused the Government of failing to ask the intelligence services to examine such claims.
Meanwhile, committee members claimed the Government had not asked the question because it ‘did not want to know’ the answer.
Mr Shapps dismissed the suggestion that the security services had not looked at potential Russian meddling in the 2016 poll.
‘This is literally what the security, defence and intelligence agencies spend every day of their life doing,’ he said.
Fresh government efforts to make the UK a ‘harder environment for adversaries to operate in’ could also include overhauling the Official Secrets Act, with the ISC having said the legislation is out of date.
Mr Thomas-Symonds today accused successive Tory governments of failing to do enough to protect the UK against the threat of foreign interference.
Asked whether he thought the 2016 EU referendum had been influenced by Russia, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There is no answer to that question because the Government simply hasn’t looked at it, so one can’t draw a conclusion in that way.
‘What we can say though, since 2014 – and the report is stark about this – the Government simply took no action.
‘It took no action partly because it didn’t want to look but it also took no action because of a chronic failure of strategic leadership.
‘There was no single minister, no single Government department responsible for the protection of our democracy and our democratic discourse and that absolutely has to change.’
Meanwhile, Lord Peter Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, said it was a ‘serious failure’ not to formally investigate potential Russian interference in the Brexit vote.
He said: ‘Even after the revelations of the massive Russian attack on the US Democratic Party, which came a month or two after the referendum, the government of the day didn’t ask for a rapid assessment of whether there had been any similar effort to hack and leak documents and try to influence the referendum campaign, and I think that was a serious failure.’