Security Update

– in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 11 September 2023.

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Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister 3:35, 11 September 2023

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on claims relating to an ongoing counter-terrorism police investigation that were reported in The Sunday Times yesterday, Sunday 10 September. The story alleged that two individuals, including a parliamentary researcher, had been arrested on charges of conducting espionage on behalf of China.

These are serious allegations, and it is right that they are being thoroughly investigated by the police and relevant agencies. We must not hamper their work or prejudice any future legal processes by what we say today—as I believe, Mr Speaker, you said at the beginning of today’s proceedings. As you would expect me to say, it would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on any specific aspect of the active investigation itself. I would, however, point the House to what the Metropolitan police said in their own statement:

“The investigation is being carried out by officers from the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command, which has responsibility for investigations relating to allegations of Official Secrets Act and espionage-related offences”.

Of course, any decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, and related legislation, would be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service.

It remains an absolute priority for the Government to take all necessary steps to protect the United Kingdom from any foreign state activity which seeks to undermine our national security, prosperity and democratic values. The Government have been clear that China represents a systemic challenge to the United Kingdom and to our values. That has been evidenced in China’s continued disregard for universal human rights and international commitments in Xinjiang, its erasure of dissenting voices and stifling of opposition under its new national security law in Hong Kong, and disturbing reports of Chinese coercion and intimidation in the South China sea. We are clear-eyed about that challenge, and we must be able to look the Chinese in the eye and call out unacceptable behaviour directly, just as our Prime Minister was able to do this with Premier Li at the G20 summit in New Delhi this weekend—an approach that has also been taken consistently by our Five Eyes allies.

Actions speak louder than words, and that is why I took the decision to instruct Departments to cease deployment of all surveillance equipment subject to China’s national intelligence law from sensitive Government sites in November last year. It is one of the reasons why I banned TikTok from Government devices; the Government investigated and called out the so-called Chinese overseas police service stations and, as the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, set out in a statement to this House in June, instructed the Chinese embassy to close them; we significantly reduced Chinese involvement in the UK’s civil nuclear sector, including taking ownership of China’s stake in the Sizewell C nuclear power project; and, as Digital Secretary, I took the decision to ban Huawei from our 5G networks.

This afternoon the Procurement Bill is being debated in the other place. The Bill will include national security debarment provisions that will enable us to act when we see malign influence in our public procurement. In taking this approach, we are aligned with our Five Eyes allies and other G7 partners—indeed, every single G7 partner.

The UK will deploy, again, an aircraft carrier to the Indo-Pacific in 2025; we have announced AUKUS, a new security partnership that will promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that is secure and stable; and we will work with Italy and Japan through the global combat air programme to adapt and respond to the security threats of the future, through an unprecedented international aerospace coalition.

These Houses of Parliament stand as a monument to the freedoms of expression and belief that underpin our values, but just as these institutions have provided the paradigm for so many modern democracies, there are still those who fear such freedoms, and who seek to undermine them and to interfere in our society. We maintain constant vigilance in our efforts to understand and root out that interference, and we will always take action to address it, whatever its source.

In 2022, the Government established the defending democracy taskforce, a group that works to co-ordinate across Government to protect the integrity of our democracy from threats of foreign interference. It is engaging across Government, with Parliament, the UK’s intelligence community, the devolved Administrations, local authorities, the private sector and civil society on the full range of threats facing our democratic institutions. Those threats include foreign interference in the electoral process, disinformation, physical and cyber threats to democratic institutions and those who represent them, foreign interference in public offices, political parties and our universities, and transnational repression in the United Kingdom.

Earlier this year, the Government passed the National Security Act 2023, which has overhauled legislation applicable to espionage, sabotage, and any persons acting for foreign powers against the safety and interest of the United Kingdom. The measures in the Act will enable our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to deter, detect, and disrupt the full range of modern-day threats, including threats from China. New offences in the Act will enable the disruption of illegitimate influence conducted for, or on behalf of, foreign states, whether designed to advance their interests or to harm the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Government will do whatever it takes to protect our national security and this nation's democratic institutions, which have stood for centuries as a beacon of liberty—wherever the threat may come from.

I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:43, 11 September 2023

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and for advance sight of it.

Maintaining national security in the face of threats to our values and our democracy is the first duty of any Government, in respect of which Labour stands ready always to work on a cross-party basis to keep our country safe. I pay tribute to all those in our intelligence and security services and police, and those across Government and beyond, who work to protect our national security on the anniversary of the awful attacks of 9/11. As we remember those lost, we are in no doubt about the seriousness of the work that they do.

We recognise, too, the seriousness of the allegations involving espionage on behalf of China at the heart of our democracy. It is essential that the police, the intelligence agencies and the justice system are able to do their jobs, and we must support them as they do so. However, we need to know more about what action the Government are taking against attempts by other states to interfere in our democracy and undermine our security. MI5 issued an interference alert about the Chinese Communist party attempting to influence Parliament 20 months ago. The Security Service and others have also raised wider concerns. The Minister referred to the Prime Minister raising strong concerns with China about unacceptable interference. Did the Prime Minister do so at the time of those arrests, or has he only done so now, since they have been made public?

The Government set up the defending democracy taskforce to look at foreign interference, but what has it actually done? Is the Minister on it? Has it produced a report for the National Security Council as was promised? Has it looked at vetting levels and delays? The Government opposed the Lords amendment to the National Security Bill that was put forward to introduce stronger checks on donations to political parties, to ensure no foreign influence, and they opposed Labour’s proposal to close the loophole on shell companies. Has the taskforce looked at those measures? Why is it not acting in that area?

What is being done about national security prisoners? It beggars belief that Daniel Khalife was charged with national security offences but was able to escape under a van. Can the Minister confirm that even though this individual had already evaded arrest for three weeks when the police first tried to apprehend him, he still ended up in a category B prison? Can he also confirm reports that in 2019 another prisoner was able to escape from Wandsworth prison, also by hiding underneath a van? Has the review been completed of all national security prisoners—those on remand and those convicted —to see what level of prison security is in place? If not, why not?

I want to ask the Minister about the wider issue of the risks to our national security from other states. He has rightly taken action on sensitive surveillance equipment and I am glad that Ministers have accepted Labour’s proposals on procurement. In his statement, he rightly talked of the systemic challenge that China poses, including on human rights, but the statement says nothing about the work of the investment security unit. What is it doing? Nor does the statement say anything about the comprehensive approach we need to the risks to our critical national infrastructure, even though the head of MI5 has given a series of warnings and the Intelligence and Security Committee was extremely critical in its report in July, warning of the lack of a proper strategy on China and of short-termism. We need to engage with China on climate change and global issues, but we also need to be robust about defending our national security. That is why the shadow Foreign Secretary has called for a full audit of China’s relationship and why we have supported the National Security Act 2023 but also raised concerns about Iran pursuing kidnap and murder threats and Russia pursuing cyber-attacks.

We recognise that after 9/11 and the appalling terror attacks on 7/7, the country came together. The then Labour Government worked on a major counter-terror strategy—the Contest strategy—involving everyone across Government, the police, the intelligence agencies, local government and the private sector. The Contest strategy has endured and has strong cross-party support, but the Government have been warned for years about rising state challenges, so where is the Contest strategy for state threats? We will support the Government in producing one, and a Labour Government would work cross-party to produce one, but where is it? We need a Contest strategy on state risks, state challenges and state threats to protect our national security. National security is too important to ignore warnings; we need urgent action to defend our national security.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the shadow Home Secretary for the overall constructive approach with which she has addressed this issue. It is important that we treat issues such as this on a cross-party basis in defence of our democratic institutions, and it is timely that this statement should be made on the anniversary of 9/11. I will endeavour to address the points that she has raised, and I will be happy to write to her on any points that I inadvertently miss out.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary regularly raise with their Chinese opposite numbers Chinese interference in democratic institutions. This is an ongoing approach that has been going on for some time.

The right hon. Lady asked about the defending democracy taskforce, which is led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security. It reports into the National Security Council, on which I sit, and we receive regular updates on the work that he is doing, working with Departments across Government, not least the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which is responsible for large elements of electoral integrity, the devolved Administrations, local authorities and other matters. The purpose of the taskforce is to bring together all those different elements to pursue a whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approach when addressing those threats.

The principal purpose of the investment security unit is to provide advice to me, as the quasi-judicial decision maker, in respect of acquisitions that may invoke national security questions. I take advice from the unit on whether the Government should intervene, and we have issued 15 directions in respect of acquisitions in the past year. That is to say we are asking companies to take action, the hardest being to block the acquisition, but it could be some other remedial action. More than half of those directions are in respect of Chinese companies.

The right hon. Lady is entirely right to raise the question of critical national infrastructure, on which I have worked very closely with the head of MI5 and others. Countries around the world are looking again at their critical national infrastructure, particularly in relation to the threat of cyber-crime, which often has a blurred link with hostile states. I take cyber-crime very seriously, and I chair regular meetings on it. We are constantly upping the work we do, against a background in which the external threat continues to rise.

The Government will very shortly respond to the ISC’s report. The draft is with Ministers, and it is about to be signed off. I hope it will be with the House this week.

The right hon. Lady rightly raises points about Iran and Russia, particularly in relation to cyber but also across a whole range of issues. As part of our overall approach, we have done two things. First, we have tried to give the agencies a public face with which to interface with businesses and private citizens in a whole-of-society approach. For example, GCHQ now works through the National Cyber Security Centre to advise businesses and individuals on cyber-risks. Equally, we have just created the National Protective Security Authority, which essentially enables MI5 to interface with businesses and individuals on protective security. Those agencies, working through the Cabinet Office and particularly with the Home Office and the Foreign Office, work across the range of issues that particularly arise in relation to Iran and Russia.

Although we take this investigation very seriously, and it clearly should be conducted independently, I reassure the right hon. Lady and the House that the Government are taking a whole-of-society approach across all these issues to strengthen our defences against rising threats.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Without referring to any specific case, may I gently remind the Government that their initial response to the ISC’s substantial and wide-ranging report on the national security threat from China, published just two months ago, was to suggest that our findings might be out of date? Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore confirm that the full Government response, when it comes—we gather it is coming very soon—will set out specific steps to address the threat of Chinese interference, particularly within our democratic system?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The short answer is yes. I have reviewed the response, and I am content that it does exactly that. It will be with my right hon. Friend shortly.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It is timely that we are having a security update today. My thoughts and the thoughts of my colleagues are with all those impacted by 9/11 on its anniversary.

I am glad the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the issues relating to sensitive Government sites and cameras, but Members on both sides of the House had to ask questions on Hikvision for months before the Government took any action. Will they commit to acting more quickly in future, and will the Procurement Bill, as he states, allow that to happen?

I am glad to hear that the response to the ISC report is coming. Will the Government also commit to implementing the recommendations of the ISC report on Russian interference in British politics? Hopefully that response will also come soon.

To turn to some specific questions, when did the Deputy Prime Minister himself learn of these allegations and arrests? Why did MPs only learn of this from The Times? Will the Government institute, as soon as possible, a review into the decision-making process that led to MPs not being told, in order that such critical updates are given to MPs in future and that this decision-making process is never allowed to happen again?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the first point that the hon. Lady raised, we take an evidence-based approach to action. It is right that Ministers take action not on a hunch or an intuition, but on the basis of detailed analysis provided to us by the agencies and by others. That is precisely the approach we took in relation to Hikvision and other China-based companies subject to China’s national security laws.

On when I or others learned about this, as Mr Speaker said in a number of the points he made, Members would not expect me to give the House a running commentary on intelligence briefings that I have received, but the House would expect me to be briefed on all matters.

In conclusion, I will make a broader point about parliamentary security. We have the Parliamentary Security Department and it works very closely with the agencies to support Members of Parliament, including with general advice. If Members have specific concerns, they can raise those with the PSD. That is the correct approach, which respects the division between Parliament and Government, and the independence of the House.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss Conservative, South West Norfolk

These are extremely worrying reports about the level of infiltration of Chinese-supported forces into our democracy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to recognise that China is the largest threat, both to the world and to the UK, on freedom and democracy? Does he not agree that the Government should designate it as such?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

May I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work she did in this space, particularly when she was Foreign Secretary? She is absolutely right to say that China represents a systemic challenge to our interests and values, and it is also, for example, the No. 1 state-based threat to our economic security. The Government are absolutely clear-eyed about the threats that this nation faces and we are robust in taking action. Indeed, that is why I personally took the decisions in respect of banning Huawei from our 5G networks, and in respect of Chinese CCTV technology and TikTok. We will continue to take whatever steps are necessary, based on appropriate advice, to provide that protection for our nation and our democratic institutions.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

A key part of democracy is the ability to scrutinise the Executive. As the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee said, No. 10’s response to our China report was to pooh-pooh it and say that it was out of date. I understand that the Government response was due today but has now been put off. The defending democracy taskforce has been mentioned. We have asked for an update on that but are met with radio silence. The Prime Minister has on his desk our report on international partnerships. He has had it on his desk for nearly 10 months now. He usually has 10 days in which to respond, so when will we get that signed off? May I just say to the Deputy Prime Minister that if he is talking about security and democracy in the terms he has, that has to include proper scrutiny? There is a long list of examples of where this Government are trying to avoid it.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

Proper scrutiny is provided by the Intelligence and Security Committee. I certainly take the reports produced by the ISC very seriously—[Interruption.] I am fully aware of the membership of the Committee, to reassure Opposition Members. It is precisely because we take the recommendations so seriously that the Committee will receive a comprehensive response addressing all these points, including an update on the defending democracy taskforce.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

It is appalling news that we have a potential espionage cell operating in and around Westminster. As a sanctioned individual alongside many of my colleagues, I am particularly perturbed by the news. Notwithstanding that, this should not perhaps come as a surprise, as the ISC, chaired by my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis, has warned that the Government were ill-prepared and that the necessary security measures were not available.

I ask the Secretary of State a specific question: when was the Foreign Secretary told about the investigation? Was it before he went to Beijing? If he went to Beijing with this knowledge, did he raise it with his counterpart there? It is important to know that. With respect, it is no good coming to the Dispatch Box and telling us that we do not talk about such matters; the Prime Minister did so yesterday, and the investigation is not complete. What did the Foreign Secretary do?

I say to the Secretary of State that the problem lies in the mess we have got into over whether we define China as a threat or not? If it is a threat, why do we not call it that, take the action that is necessary to deal with it on that basis, and sanction some people?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend, who is a former Cabinet Minister and current Privy Counsellor, knows full well that the Government do not provide a running commentary on updates and intelligence received by Ministers. I can assure him that the Foreign Secretary regularly raises electoral interference and interference with our democratic institutions with his Chinese opposite number. Specific cases, particularly those that are subject to an ongoing police investigation, would not, as is generally the case, be raised. On the wider principle, we have been robust and clear-eyed in addressing and raising these points with our Chinese opposite numbers.

On the action we have taken, I set out the steps that I took in respect of TikTok and Huawei, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s support for the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which we got to a very good place. There is not just that Act, but the National Security Act 2023, the National Security and Investment Act 2021 and the deployment of the carrier fleet. All those things have happened in the past short number of years. They are evidence of the seriousness with which the Government take this threat.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The Deputy Prime Minister said that he holds the Intelligence and Security Committee in very high regard. On that basis, will he commit to the recommendation that it made in its recent report on China about updating the guidelines of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments in relation to intelligence and security, particularly referencing China? How will he ensure that they are enforced?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

As I said in answer to a previous question, the full response to the ISC will be coming shortly. An important point has been raised in respect of ACOBA, for which I have overall ministerial responsibility in the Cabinet Office. I will take that away and discuss it with the chair of that committee, Sir Eric Pickles, formerly of this House.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and I support the action that the Government are taking. On the issue of transparency and accountability, will the data regarding the volume of prosecutions and convictions under existing legislation and the new National Security Act be collated and made available to the House so that we can track the scale of hostile state action? Also, have the Government decided on any necessary changes to the memorandum of understanding with the ISC, as they are required to at least consider under section 93 of that Act?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I do not think I have had chance from the Dispatch Box to pay a genuine, heartfelt tribute to my immediate predecessor as Deputy Prime Minister. Having done the job for a few months, I have a particular appreciation of all the work that my right hon. Friend did when he was in that post.

In respect of the volume of prosecutions and convictions, we seek to be as transparent as we can be with the House. I am sure it is something that we can take away and look at with a desire to do as my right hon. Friend asks. I cannot give him a firm commitment at the Dispatch Box, but if it is possible, I shall seek to do so.

We keep the MOU with the ISC under review. We do not have any current plans to change it, but we keep it under review.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

Yet again, we are watching the horse disappear over the horizon and shutting the stable door behind it. Every time we act to take on China, everything the Deputy Prime Minister boasts about is always stated reactively. Just for once, could we get ahead of the curve and take action in relation to genomics and, as I and others have been urging for months now, designate it as part of our critical national infrastructure, so that in a few months’ time, we are not again having to explain another failure?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that he did serve in government and in Cabinet for five years, from 2010 to 2015, so he and other Members of his party need to bear some responsibility for the decisions made, although I would think that they would take pride in the decisions that we took. More recently, under this majority Conservative Government, we have taken a huge range of steps, including passing the National Security Act and the National Security and Investment Act.

The right hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point about genomics and its relevance to critical national infrastructure. It is not currently designated as such, but in my role in the Cabinet Office, I keep the register of critical national infrastructure under review, and I am exploring the matter.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

May I thank you personally, Mr Speaker, for the care and support you have shown to those of us who have been sanctioned by China? We are in the frontline of this threat, but I have to say that neither before nor after these revelations has any of us been offered a briefing by the parliamentary security authorities, or by the Foreign Office or Home Office. In fact, I found out more about this character from my son, who happened to be at university with them, than from anything I have been told formally.

I do not want to mention the current incident, but do want to note that it is now a year on from when MI5 took the almost unprecedented step of issuing a security service interference alert about a character working within Parliament—for which there were no consequences. It is about a year on from the revelations about the activities of the Chinese consul general in Manchester, who thought it was his job to attack demonstrators—for which there were no expulsions, no consequences. It is months on from the recent revelations about the activities of the Confucius institutes, which the Government pledged to abolish; there have been no consequences, no abolition—again, nothing has happened. And it is just a couple of weeks since the Foreign Secretary promised that he would take up the case of the sanctioned MPs and of Jimmy Lai with the Chinese Foreign Minister, yet he came away with nothing—there have been no consequences.

Is not the problem that, for all the tough talk, there are no consequences and the Chinese know that there will be no consequences? May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister this: will China be in the enhanced tier of the foreign agents registration scheme?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

May I deal with the specific question first, and then reflect on the wider points? We are currently reviewing the countries in the enhanced tier. I think there is a strong case to be made, but my hon. Friend would not expect me to make that announcement from the Dispatch Box before we have gone through the proper process.

On my hon. Friend’s wider points about the parliamentary security directorate, we as a Government stand ready to provide any further support that MPs feel they require. If my hon. Friend feels that he requires further briefing, I am very happy to help to facilitate that with the House.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

May I extend my genuine sympathy to the two Conservative colleagues who appear to have been targeted by a suspected Chinese spy who was employed in Parliament and paid for out of public funds? I do know what they are feeling. The House will be aware—

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I did say “suspected”.

The House will be aware that the subject of the security alert last year, Christine Lee, was never arrested, has never been charged with spying or, indeed, any other offence, and was said by the previous Home Secretary to have done nothing criminal. However, there is a court case pending. I understand that Ms Lee has taken out a civil suit against the Government; will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on when that case is likely to be heard and what the Government hope to learn from it?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I am not quite sure what to say in response to that question. In the light of the Lee case and others, that is precisely why we have taken enhanced powers through the new National Security Act. Although I have to hold back from commenting on individual cases, I am confident that we have much more robust powers under that legislation that will enable us to act.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

In its China report, the ISC highlighted the efforts of the Chinese Communist party to influence, co-opt or coerce into silence potential critics of its regime in the UK. We acknowledged that the Government are waking up to this threat and taking it more seriously, but I highlight to the Minister the fact that we need more urgency. In particular, I highlight the fact that for years the ISC has been saying that we need a foreign agents registration scheme, and one is now on its way; does the Minister agree that it would have been helpful had it been in operation and on the statute book at the time of the relevant events we are considering today?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend raises some very important points, but I just observe that—this applies to a lot of the questions—we have a relationship with China that is very different from the one that we had just a few years ago. It is important that we are not naive about China, that we are clear-eyed about protecting our national security, that we are clear-eyed about the threats that it represents and that we are robust in taking action. My right hon. Friend rightly highlights the foreign agents registration scheme; the secondary legislation under that will come before the House very shortly, which will enable us to take the relevant actions under that legislation.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Creative Industries and Digital)

Actually, the people who have been really clear-sighted about China have mostly been on the Back Benches in this House, on either side and including Tim Loughton, and some of them have been sanctioned. I have been delighted to work with two successive Chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to whom I pay enormous tribute for the outspoken way in which they have pushed the Government towards a more sensible policy on China.

My anxiety is that we still flip-flop all over the place. This year already we have seen several Foreign Secretaries, apart from anything else, and we have seen them wanting to suck up to China one moment and the next wanting to have robust words with China. It simply does not work. Why oh why have we still not declared that China is a threat to UK national security? Why oh why have we still not seen even the redacted version of the China strategy which, according to the Government, the FCDO developed but which has not even been shared with other Government ministries?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but I simply do not accept this slightly over-the-top characterisation of the Government’s approach. We have been consistent. First, we must protect our national interests in relation to China. That is why we passed the legislation that I have outlined, why I banned Huawei from our 5G networks and why we banned Chinese technology from surveillance equipment and other matters.

Secondly, it is important that we align with our allies around the world. I spend a lot of time on this and know that the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Security and others work very closely with nations around the world, particularly but not confined to the Five Eyes, to make sure that we share our understanding of Chinese intent and take co-ordinated action to protect us, not least through the military

It is also the case, though, that we must engage with the Chinese, as we do with many other countries around the world with which we do not share a number of their values. It is not a realistic position to take to say that we should entirely cut off from engagement with China. We should engage with China but be absolutely clear about where we disagree with it and clear-eyed in protecting our national security, which is precisely the approach we are taking.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Like my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, I cannot wait to be able to discuss the merits of this case, although I understand the situation now. I want to raise a couple of issues with the Deputy Prime Minister. The Government are moving, they have done lots of new things and we are getting more coherence, but I do not understand why they keep thinking that we either bury our heads in the sand or effectively go soft on elements of the relationship with China. We can debate with and engage with China all we like, but we can also do so in an increasingly robust way that answers the threat it presents towards us.

Specifically, the Government keep avoiding the argument about the growing economic dependency that all western nations have on China. That dependency will mean that in the case of war in the Pacific in two or five years’ time, which is what President Xi is planning for—he has said, “We are retaking Taiwan by 2027.”—we will not be in a position to do anything about it without collapsing the global economy. Effectively, in the next few years, our hands will have been tied by economic dependency. Every time I raise that issue, the Government are not even willing to produce an annual statement on it. Please can we take this issue more seriously? It is at the heart of security, and no freedom of action means we have no security.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend and he and I have discussed these issues on many occasions. I believe we are taking precisely that robust approach. The question of economic dependency is precisely why we passed the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which enables me as a Minister to take decisions to intervene where we feel that the acquiring of technology by any state could undermine our resilience and our ability to protect ourselves, or could enhance the capability of other states. I have taken the decision to intervene on a number of occasions, and more than half the orders we have issued have been in respect of Chinese-related companies.

On the resilience of supply chains, that is why the Prime Minister established the National Secretary Council resilience sub-committee, building on work by my right hon. Friend Dominic Raab, the former Deputy Prime Minister. My hon. Friend is totally right to raise this issue, but I can assure him that the Government take this very seriously and are acting.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Will the Deputy Prime Minister remind the House of December 2016, when the then Prime Minister David Cameron was in the Plough pub in Cadsden with President Xi? We were all urged to be very positive towards China. Indeed, when I expressed worries about the takeover by China of a global company based in Huddersfield, I was told to go away and be quiet. I have also consistently asked for an audit of how much of our British industry and interests are owned by the Chinese—a simple audit—but we have never had a positive reaction, or any reaction, to that suggestion. When will the Government do that?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that we have a changed approach to China, because the facts on China have changed. With its conduct in relation to Hong Kong and the national security law that it has passed, the increasing evidence of abuses in Xinjiang province and the increased aggression in relation to the South China sea, there is no room for any naivety about China. We have to be clear-eyed and we are being clear-eyed. That is why we have passed a host of legislation. It is why—to answer his point about what is owned by China—for the first time, we have now taken the power to intervene on transactions, whether in relation to China or to other countries, in the interest of national security and why I have not hesitated as a Minister to do so.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. Does he agree that this latest episode shows clearly that it is vital that we do all we can to protect our democracy and democratic institutions? It is right that the Government continue with the “protect, align and engage” strategy, but actions speak louder than words, and the Chinese communist state needs to hear very loudly that we will do all we can to protect our democracy.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. That is precisely what the Prime Minister did at the G20 summit with Premier Li at the weekend, and why we have introduced a wide range of legislation to address threats, including, among many other pieces of legislation, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in relation to academia.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

The integrated review refresh was announced on 13 March this year. At the time, it was welcomed that funding would be doubled for building Government expertise on China, but we have since learned that the doubling was from a base of 170 civil servants learning Mandarin in the previous year, of whom just 20 were to attend language immersion. Given that the UK hosts more than 150,000 Chinese students learning the English language and about British culture, does that announcement of perhaps 300 training places for British Government officials not now sound a little modest?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

First, the integrated review refresh was clear about China being the No. 1 state-based threat to our economic security. The hon. Gentleman cites the foreign language training; that is just one element of the action that we have taken to increase our capacity in relation to China. Clearly, he would not expect me to comment on what the agencies are doing in respect of China, but I can assure him that within the Cabinet Office and its structures, we are constantly increasing the amount of resource that we put in, as is the Foreign Office.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

I have some sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for wanting to strike the right balance. I very much welcome his recognition that we have come a long way from the ill-fated idea of a golden age with China, which was only eight years ago. Much of what has happened has been predicable and predicted, and we continue to predict what will happen, as he has heard this afternoon. Why are the Government so squeamish not just about talking about threats from China, but about calling China a threat? What is the difference between a challenge and a threat?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the evolution and strengthening of our approach to China—I will not add to what I have said on that. We continue to enhance our capability in relation to China. I have outlined a number of the measures that we take; we continue to keep all those things under review. I want to reassure him and other Members on both sides of the House that we are absolutely clear about the threat that China represents, but at the same time, it is right that we engage with China, and that is the approach that we are taking, alongside working closely with our allies. I think that is a sensible and balanced approach that in no way underestimates the scale of the challenge in respect of China, as has been set out in numerous documents.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

An attack on this place, including on Members, by any hostile Government intent on interfering with our democracy and its structures is a direct affront to British democracy itself. Given that several Members of this place have been sanctioned by China, can the Deputy Prime Minister give the House assurances that steps are in place to support and protect Members from hostile Governments, and will he make it clear that there are consequences, as Tim Loughton outlined?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

Yes, I am very happy to give that assurance. Of course, we respect the independence of this House and provide support indirectly to the House through the parliamentary security directorate. I can assure the hon. Lady that we provide a considerable amount of resource to the House in respect of this threat.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

I sympathise with my right hon. Friend. On this Chinese matter, he will face countervailing pressures and arguments on the economic side and on the security side. In his statement, he made great play of the six welcome measures that the Government have taken to toughen Britain’s stance towards the Chinese Government. Can he give the House any evidence that the Chinese Government have altered their behaviour in any way at all in response to that tough response from the British Government?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

It is never the case that the United Kingdom Government trade off economic security for national security. National security always comes first in the approach we take, and we have seen action in response to the measures we have taken: for example, we have blocked Chinese acquisitions of companies in this country through the National Security and Investment Act 2021, so we are biting directly.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

How many requests have the Government received from security services’ chiefs in the past 12 months for additional resources to combat the Chinese security threat, and have all those requests been met in full?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment specifically on the agencies, but I can give him a general assurance that we have provided them with the necessary resources they need to combat all the threats that this nation faces.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

This unsavoury episode serves as a reminder for all of us in this place of the threats we face, not just from state interference but from a variety of malign actors. Can I please ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether we are doing enough to think about our physical security, surveillance and counter-surveillance, malware and IT on our phones and other Trojan viruses, and governance of MPs’ security?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise all of those points. It is the case, not just in respect of China but also of Russia—particularly in light of the Russia-Ukraine war—and, indeed, Iran and other hostile states that the threat landscape is increasing, and the Government have to continually increase their actions. Through the creation of the National Cyber Security Centre and its work with GCHQ, we are able to constantly increase our action in respect of cyber-threats, malware and the other threats that my hon. Friend highlighted, and in respect of physical security, we have a mirror in the National Protective Security Authority working with MI5. In turn, the agencies also work with the Parliamentary Security Department, which deals directly with threats to Members of Parliament and is supported by those agencies and others.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Labour, St Helens South and Whiston

The Chinese Communist party has shown once again that it will stop at nothing to get its way. The Deputy Prime Minister has said today that he realises there are serious issues and that this is a systemic challenge, but he would not come out with a statement that it is a serious threat and being treated as such. The CCP is infiltrating our academia, and a lot of people right across these Benches feel very uneasy. Actions speak louder than words, and the Government need to back up words with actions—strong actions—and give us the impression that they are not being dragged by the heels all the time. We are constantly having to raise these things, and there is no confidence that we are treating the CCP as an absolutely serious threat, which is what it is. We are playing cricket while the CCP has the machetes out. Please, please take some urgent action.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

We have been totally clear-eyed about the threats represented by China, and have been robust in the action we have taken. The hon. Lady talks about higher education: we have passed legislation in respect of higher education, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. That Act requires greater transparency about higher education institutions’ sources of funding, including from overseas states and hostile states. We are taking exactly the kind of action that she requests.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

At what was then the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I saw at first hand the now Deputy Prime Minister oversee an increasingly robust attitude to China in terms of economic security, and telecoms security in particular. To some extent, I wonder if that is why we see this growth in unwelcome attention from China. However, can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that we will continue to take that increasingly robust approach, particularly when it comes to emergent technologies such as artificial intelligence and some of the other increasingly high-tech areas where Britain excels in the world, and where we will continue to attract even more interest from unfriendly states?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience from his time as a Minister, and we worked together on these issues. Telecoms security is precisely an example of the approach. First, we put national security before economic security. On a purely economic interest basis, we should not have removed Huawei’s equipment from our networks. We put national security first, and I was transparent with the House about that. We also took the powers in the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which is the legislation required to provide that protection of our national security. That is yet more evidence of how the Government are taking a more robust approach and increasing the amount of activity with every passing month and year.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Reclaim, North West Leicestershire

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. I am sensitive to the restrictions on both the questions and the answers, but we know—these facts are in the public domain—that two individuals have been arrested on suspicion of working for a hostile power and that they were parliamentary passholders. Their passes will have been sponsored by individuals who are probably in this Chamber, and they passed the security vetting for a parliamentary pass. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that in due course—not today—an important question will have to be answered: were they recruited by the hostile power before or after they became passholders?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman made a number of suppositions in his question that are subject to an ongoing police investigation. When that investigation has concluded and indeed if the Crown Prosecution Service decides to take any action under the Official Secrets Act, there will be a time for this House to debate the lessons from that, and the Government will of course—with you, Mr Speaker— help to facilitate the time for that to happen.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

In the statement, the Deputy Prime Minister very helpfully refers to the “erasure of dissenting voices” and the “stifling of opposition” under the new national security law in Hong Kong. In whatever dialogue now takes place with the Chinese, can I ask again that the cases of my two trade union colleagues, Lee Cheuk Yan and Carol Ng Man-yee, who were leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, be raised again? They have been in detention since 2021, and are now facing lengthy prison sentences purely for standing up for democratic rights and trade union rights.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

Ministers raised the general principle of China’s national security law, its application to Hong Kong and the suppression of liberties in Hong Kong in very robust terms with their Chinese opposite numbers, and will raise individual cases. I am happy to pass that on to the Foreign Secretary, if the right hon. Member has not done so already, to make sure that those individual cases are raised.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

These allegations are concerning, but sadly they are not the first of their type. We have heard about the sanctions against MPs and the activity at the Manchester consulate. I have been ticked off more than once by the consulate in my own constituency because I said things it did not like, and I have been filmed by a drone speaking at a Chinese rally in the city. In July, the Intelligence and Security Committee said there was a lack of clear strategy from the Government. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that that might be responsible for these repeated attempts, and is it not time that the Government had that clear strategy?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

First, the integrated review refresh was very clear about the approach we take in respect of China. We are clear that it represents the No. 1 state- based thread to our economic security. It also represents a range of other threats and a systemic challenge to our interests and our values. Ministers have raised Chinese interference with democratic processes, and any interference with the conduct of Members of Parliament is totally unacceptable and we will not hesitate in raising it.