Russia

– in the House of Commons at 12:57 pm on 8 May 2024.

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Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:57, 8 May 2024

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement to the House regarding measures that His Majesty’s Government will take in response to the reckless and dangerous activities of the Russian Government across Europe and now suspected here in the UK.

As was reported on Friday 26 April, five individuals have been charged in connection with an investigation into alleged offences under the National Security Act 2023, as part of a counter-terrorism policing investigation. The offences relate to what was widely reported by the media as a suspected arson attack on a Ukraine-linked business in the UK. The Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that the charges relate to alleged

“hostile activity in the UK in order to benefit a foreign state—namely Russia.”

I pay tribute to our law enforcement agencies for their quick and professional work to ensure these charges were brought. They are the first charges to be brought under the new National Security Act. Measures that this Government brought forward and this House passed are already being used to keep our country safe.

I thank the emergency services who responded to the fire at a commercial property in London where the suspected activity took place. The charges are serious and it is only through good fortune that nobody was hurt. I reassure the House that public safety is of the utmost importance, which is why the law enforcement response has been quick and decisive.

As Members will appreciate, I must not say anything further on this specific case, or any related case, to avoid prejudicing the outcome of ongoing criminal proceedings. I ask the House to respect that and to avoid using the debate to add to speculation about the incident. It is vital that justice runs its course.

However, I wish to highlight to the House a pattern of suspected Russian activity that we are seeing across Europe. This is not the first time that we have uncovered malign activity in the UK that is seemingly linked to Russia in the past year. In September, five Bulgarian nationals were charged with conspiring to commit espionage activities in the UK on behalf of Russia. A sixth individual was later charged and legal proceedings against all six are ongoing.

There is a much broader pattern of Russian malign activities across Europe. These include: plans for sabotage activities against military aid for Ukraine in Germany and in Poland; espionage in Bulgaria and in Italy; cyber-attacks and disinformation activities; air space violations; and GPS jamming with impact on civil aviation.

Over a number of years, we have witnessed Russia and its intelligence services engage in yet more open and brazen attempts to undermine our security, harm our people and interfere in our democracies. Such attempts involve Litvinenko, Georgia, Crimea, Salisbury, Ukraine and activities across Europe. Since the illegal invasion of Ukraine, the rhetoric, threats and accusations from Russia have only increased, as Putin seeks to justify the death and destruction that he has brought to the Ukrainian people. These activities bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate campaign by Russia designed to “to bring the war home” across Europe, and to undermine our collective resolve to support Ukraine in its fight. It will not work.

As the Prime Minister said in Poland last month, we are at a turning point for European security. With our allies, we will stand firm in the face of Russian threats to the UK and to our way of life. It is why, after Salisbury, we took measures with our partners to make Europe a harder operating environment for Russian intelligence services, including the expulsion of 23 undeclared Russian intelligence officers from the UK. It is also why the UK has announced the biggest strengthening of the UK’s national defence in a generation, with a fully funded plan to grow the defence budget to 2.5% of GDP by 2030.

The UK and our allies will not falter in our support for Ukraine, because it is existential to the security of Europe. This is why the Prime Minister has also announced an uplift in UK military aid to Ukraine, bringing it to £3 billion this year, and has committed to that level of support every year until the end of the decade, or longer if it is sadly still required. We have sanctioned more than 1,700 individuals, over 90% of the Russian banking sector, and more than 130 oligarchs and family members, with a combined net worth of £147 billion at the time of the invasion.

As of October, over £22 billion-worth of Russian assets were reported frozen as a result of UK sanctions. These assets can no longer be taken back to Russia to fund Putin’s war machine. We consider Russia’s campaign to undermine our support for Ukraine as unacceptable and it is destined to fail. We must wait for the ongoing criminal cases across Europe, including here in the UK, to conclude, but given these allegations, the Government will not wait to take further action to send a strong deterrence message to Russia and to further reduce the ability of the Russian intelligence services to threaten the UK. That is why today, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I am announcing a package of measures to make it clear to Russia that we will not tolerate such apparent escalations.

I can tell the House that we will: expel the Russian defence attaché, an undeclared military intelligence officer; remove diplomatic premises status from several Russian-owned properties in the UK, including Seacox House, a Russia-owned property in Sussex, and the trade and defence section in Highgate, which we believe have been used for intelligence purposes; and impose new restrictions on Russian diplomatic visas, including capping the length of time that Russian diplomats can spend in the UK.

The measures that we and our international partners have taken in recent years have already made the UK an extremely challenging operating environment for the Russian intelligence services. These further measures will serve only to strengthen our resilience to the Russian threat.

Our NATO allies share our view of Russia’s alleged behaviour, as seen in the North Atlantic Council statement of last week. Russia has failed to provide any explanation of these events. In the coming days, we should expect accusations of Russophobia, conspiracy theories, and hysteria from the Russian Government. That is not new and the British people and the British Government will not fall for it and will not be taken for fools by Putin’s bots, trolls and lackeys.

Russia’s explanation was totally inadequate; our response will be resolute and firm.

Our message to Russia is clear: stop this illegal war; withdraw your troops from Ukraine; and cease your malign activities. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department 1:05, 8 May 2024

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of the statement.

It is the first job of any Government to keep our country safe from those who wish to do us harm, not least those who wish to undermine our democracy and everything that we stand for. We pay tribute to the remarkable work of our intelligence and security services and our law enforcement agencies—at home and abroad—which strain every sinew to keep us safe. We will always work with the Government on those national security issues.

The arson attack that the Home Secretary describes was a very serious one. The charges now laid are important. We support the work of law enforcement in this case, and it is immensely important that nothing is done to cut across that criminal justice case. I simply ask for the Home Secretary’s reassurance that a investigation is under way not just into the specific offences, but into the wider context and any wider threats to our national security that might be linked with this incident.

The Home Secretary has been clear in linking these charges to Russia and we echo his strong condemnation of Russian interference and hostile activity here in the UK and throughout Europe. Repeatedly, we have seen a brazen disregard by Russia for the rule of law, for the UK, for our allies and for our domestic security. As my right hon. Friends, the shadow Secretaries of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and for Defence have made clear, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government in our support for Ukraine. Any change in Government will not change that strong cross-party support, as we stand with our allies. Putin must be defeated in Ukraine, and Britain must stand four-square behind our Ukrainian friends.

Russia under Putin is a long-term, generational threat to the security of Europe, which requires a long-term response. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary said just yesterday, the defence of the UK starts in Ukraine, but as the Home Secretary has made clear, these challenges are also to our homeland security, which is why we support wholeheartedly the measures that the Home Secretary set out today. Just as we worked on a cross-party basis with the Government to pass the National Security Act 2023, so we will work closely with them in going further. May I ask the Home Secretary a few further questions about these and any further measures that the Government may be able to take and ask him whether he expects there to be a diplomatic response from Russia?

As we saw in Salisbury to an appalling extent, there is a willingness of Russian-sponsored actors to put the safety of British citizens and British residents at risk through cyber-threats—threats to undermine our democracy and our economy. I am concerned that we have known about the scale of these threats for some time, and that, in some areas, we have been too slow to respond. The Home Secretary has been too slow to rid the UK of illicit finance. He will know that concerns have been raised about prohibited imports of Russian-origin oil through third countries making their way to UK shores. Can he tell me what action is being taken to ensure that sanctions are being enforced?

The Home Secretary will know that there is real concern that the UK is still too easy for lawyers and accountants and for the laundering of Russian money through the UK that potentially aids and abets Putin’s war. The US has seized huge amounts of Russian-related assets as part of the sanctions evasion and charged more than 70 individuals in that regard. Can he confirm that no one has yet been charged with sanctions evasion in the US and set out what is being done to address the issue?

The Government said that in principle they support the seizing of Russian assets to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine, but there have been no proposals to take that forward. Will the Home Secretary tell us what is happening there? We have also still not had a full account of the scale of risk from golden visas. He will know, too, that there are threats to our democracy. The work of the defending democracy taskforce is far too limited. While the Security Minister is working on that, what engagement has the Home Secretary had, and has it been discussed at the National Security Council?

Finally, the update to the Government’s integrated review warned in March last year that

“the transition into a multipolar, fragmented and contested world has happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated.”

From the Iranian-sponsored kidnap and kill threats on UK soil to the repression of Hong Kong protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the UK has undergone, because of behaviour not just from Russia but more widely, a fundamental shift in the threat landscape, as increasingly aggressive state actors feel emboldened to target the UK, often in co-operation with serious and organised crime. I urge the Home Secretary to look at the work that was done after the huge shift in the terror threat that we faced following 9/11 and 7/7 to draw up the Contest strategy. We do not have a similar strategy for state actors and state-sponsored threats. The work is far too fragmented. The Labour party would like to see a comprehensive equivalent to Contest. I urge him to look again at that. We will work with him on that too.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the right hon. Lady for her party’s commitment to the ongoing support for Ukraine’s self-defence. She was right to read that into the record. There is no doubt about her commitment among Government Members. I reassure her that we do look at the wider threats emanating from Russia. We liaise closely with our international partners. We suspect that other countries in the coalition of support for Ukraine are being targeted by Russia. Those countries will take discrete, domestic actions, but I draw the House’s attention to the shared commitment set out in the North Atlantic Council statement. I do not have the precise quote in front of me, but from memory it said that nations will take both individual and collective action.

Our response is calibrated. It is designed to send a very clear message, as well as hampering Russia’s ability to conduct espionage here in the UK. We will look closely at Russia’s response and whether it seeks to escalate matters. We will always ensure that we protect our ability to have lines of communication with Russia, even during these most challenging of times. Routes for de-escalation, error avoidance and the avoidance of miscalculation are very important. We recognise that, and I believe that Putin’s regime in Moscow recognises that. We will seek to maintain lines of communication, even while we take these decisive actions.

With regard to the extensive sanctions, we moved quickly, in concert with our international friends and allies. Those sanctions are having an effect. Of course Russia seeks to evade sanctions where it can. While sanctions enforcement is primarily the responsibility of the Treasury, it is a cross-Government piece of work. All parts of Government—this was very much the case when I was Foreign Secretary, speaking with our international counterparts and interlocutors—try to close off opportunities for sanctions evasion.

The defending democracy taskforce is incredibly important, particularly as we head towards a general election. We will of course adapt, and seek to work cross-party, because it is in all our interests that we defend democracy. I will continue to ensure that both the Security Minister and I work closely with the shadow Front Bench and other Opposition parties’ Front-Bench teams to protect something that is incredibly valuable.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I welcome the update from the Secretary of State. The United Kingdom has led the world in supporting Ukraine—militarily, economically and diplomatically. Our key ally, the United States, has introduced legislation, put forward by Congressman French Hill, my counterpart in the British-American parliamentary group, on seizing Russian assets and using them to rebuild Ukraine. I introduced a similar Bill in Parliament, which is due for a Second Reading on 17 May, and I have written to the Foreign Secretary about that. Will the Home Secretary clarify whether the United Kingdom will support the measures that the United States has introduced? It is crucial that we do everything that we can to cut off Putin’s finances and ensure that he pays for the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We work very closely with our international allies to put pressure on the Russian regime. We will look closely at the detail of the proposals going through the United States system. There is a very big difference between freezing and seizing of assets. Going from one to the other would need close international co-operation and co-ordination to ensure that we always act within the rule of law. We do not want to inadvertently find ourselves on the receiving end of criticism from a regime such as Putin’s that we are stepping outside the bounds of international law, but we have made it clear that we will be incredibly imaginative and will work hard to ensure that the regime and people who have funded the brutal attack on Ukraine are also those who fund the rebuilding of Ukraine. We will work with our international partners to ensure that is the reality.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Scottish National Party, Glasgow South

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement. Like him, I pay tribute to those in law enforcement who work so diligently to counter these types of threats, which are extremely well known, and understood right across Europe. Disinformation and other types of hybrid threat are now a feature of democratic life in this country and elsewhere. We need a comprehensive sea change in how we approach that threat—a new whole-of-society approach to dealing with hybrid threats. I am fine to support the Government’s increase in defence spending, but what we really need is new thinking, new doctrines and new institutions in order to compete against threats that are ever evolving, becoming more sophisticated, more aggressive, and extremely well funded.

I will focus in particular on the threat of disinformation, especially because we are in an election year. The Government used to provide Parliament—I cannot quite recall when this stopped—with a six-monthly update on the threat posed by Daesh. Can we have a similar type of statement on hostile disinformation—a written statement to Parliament on a regular basis, informing Members of where the threat is and what is being done to meet it? I echo the comments about pressing the Government to ensure that sanctioned money is converted into Ukrainian hryvnia to allow that country to rebuild. I will not press the Home Secretary on that any further—he knows our views—but while I welcome the seizure of the assets that he mentioned and the expulsion of the defence attaché, I can tell him that there are tons of assets in Scotland, including land, estates and much else, that could also be seized. If he chooses to look into that any further, he will certainly have our support.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is important that we are precise in our use of language. The Russian assets have been sanctioned and frozen, and there is an important difference between freezing and seizing. As far as I am aware, no one has seized or liquidated Russian assets. However, of course we abide by our commitment to ensure that the people who funded the brutality fund the reconstruction. We are absolutely committed to that.

I have taken note of the hon. Gentleman’s point about regular updates, particularly as disinformation and distortions of our democracy and society have a more direct and immediate effect in the UK than perhaps the activities of Daesh do. I will take on board the practicalities of how much detail we might be able to put in the public domain, but the Government have set aside significant amounts of money to the Defending Democracy Taskforce and the workstreams that flow out from that, to help parliamentarians and candidates at the forthcoming election to defend themselves both physically and digitally against assaults that might come for them. We are looking at ways to ensure that that is as effective as possible. With regard to the point he made about international co-operation, of course we will continue to work closely with our allies; our self-defence has to be collective if it is to be fully effective.

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

I wholeheartedly support every word the Home Secretary has said today. He is right that Putin has been engaged now for at least 10 years—arguably longer—in a sustained, hostile and malign set of actions against the UK and our allies. On occasions where we have not been as overt in our opposition, I think he has taken advantage, so I am glad that the Home Secretary has taken this action. He knows all the things I will ask about: why is there still Russian oil coming into the UK? Why is Russia still exporting the same amount of oil as it did before sanctions were introduced? Why have we still not gone as far as the Americans and Canadians in seeking not just to freeze, but to seize Russian state assets so that they can be used for the development of Ukraine? Why has the Abramovich money still not gone to Ukraine? That would be more than £3 billion, more than the amount the UK has so far devoted. Finally, can he say a word about Vladimir Kara-Murza, a man many of us have met? He is very brave and we want to make sure that the UK Government are doing everything in their power to ensure that he is protected in Russia.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions, some of which fall within the remit of the Foreign Secretary; the Deputy Foreign Secretary will answer in this House on the Foreign Secretary’s behalf, but I can let the hon. Gentleman know that the answers that I and the Foreign Office have previously given him remain unchanged. We work with our international partners, because both sanctions evasion and the fight against it are by nature international acts. As I say, enforcement is predominantly a Treasury competency and the international co-operation falls within the remit of the FCDO, but we all work to ensure that sanctions evasion does not happen.

I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. Although a number of countries are investigating what a regime for the seizure and liquidation of Russian assets might look like, and we will continue to work with our international partners to explore ways of ensuring that the people who paid for the brutality pay for the rebuilding, it is not accurate to say that other countries have seized and liquidated Russian assets.

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

May I say what a pleasure it is to see that we are taking this seriously? The words of the Home Secretary filled me with renewed optimism, because we need both optimism and action. Does he agree that we can never underrate the Russians and Vladimir Putin? The fact is that they are very clever; they are using both financial strategies and dupes in Europe and other places to channel their influence. We must be wary at every level.

Does the Home Secretary think our intelligence services are equipped to cope with the real challenge that we now face from Russia, and indeed from China? Has he been picking up what I am picking up from a lot of my old friends in Washington? Not only are they very disturbed about Russian influence on American elections, but I have heard very strong information that they believe that some of the influence is coming from Russia via London and from the United Kingdom. That is a real problem.

The Home Secretary knows I have a bee in my bonnet about this, but there are people in this Parliament who have been named as very close to Russia. We had a member of the House of Lords featured in a main article in The Times only two weeks ago. Surely we must make our House and our Parliament as clean and above board as possible, and if there are such groups or individuals in this place, we should know about it.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great knowledge and passion about these important issues. He will of course understand that I will not go into detail about intelligence and security matters, but I can reassure him and the House that our intelligence services, the external-facing services and our security services, are incredibly effective. They are without doubt amongst the best in the world, and I would—perhaps rather arrogantly—suggest that they are the best in the world. In my experience both as Home Secretary and in my former role as Foreign Secretary, I have seen the positive diplomatic influence that our agencies exert on our behalf; they are regarded very highly by our allies and international partners. Without going into detail, I hope that he and the House can feel reassured that we are in good hands.

However, we must recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, Russia takes pride in its long history of disinformation, propaganda and kompromat. It wears that history as a badge of honour and it is constantly evolving its threats towards us, so we have to constantly evolve our defences. I can reassure him that we are doing that; the National Security Act 2023 is part of that, but that we reserve the right to take further action, were Russia to be foolish enough to escalate or to attempt once again the actions that we believe it has taken in our country.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

Neither prosecutions nor penalties have been applied to those importing Russian oil that is refined in, and branded as coming from, India and other countries. At the same time, the threat of closure hangs over Grangemouth refinery. The world knows that this activity is ongoing, and Grangemouth is aware of the threat facing it and industrialisation in Scotland. Is it not time the Minister spoke to colleagues to ensure that not just state security, but energy security is considered, that our refinery capacity remains in Scotland and that, at the same time, those profiting from bringing in Russian oil are prosecuted?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

This Government are committed to ensuring security. While they have not been universally applauded, the licences that we have awarded to ensure that there is a vibrant hydrocarbons industry in Scotland are important for jobs, for the Scottish economy, for the UK economy and for our energy security. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that energy security will remain at the forefront of our minds. On sanctions evasion—particularly oil and gas sanctions—I assure him that my noble friend Lord Cameron, as I did when I was Foreign Secretary, raises these issues internationally with those countries still trading with Russia, at every opportunity.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and very much welcome his clear commitment, which encourages all of us in this House and across this great nation. Bearing in mind the overnight raid on Ukraine’s energy facilities and the continued aggression carried out while our eyes are turned towards the middle east, does he not believe that we must send the swift and strong message to Putin that we are approaching the point when decisive action must be taken by the allies, and that we have both the capacity and the will to intervene against the despicable war being waged against the Ukrainian people?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that I want to reinforce. It was quite clear that Vladimir Putin thought that the UK and our wider allies would be either distracted or dissuaded from supporting Ukraine when he initiated his full-scale invasion. Nothing could have been further from the truth. If he thought that the evolving situation in Gaza—the terrorist attack against Israel and Israel’s military action to defend itself—would distract us from our support for Ukraine or our self-defence against Russian malign activity, he was again mistaken. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that, although of course we are very focused on the situation in Gaza, south-west Israel and the wider middle east region, we will not lose sight of our commitment to the Ukrainians in their self-defence and to re-establishing the fact that national borders cannot be redrawn by force.