Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 14th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 6:30 pm, 14th November 2018

My Lords, I echo the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge: the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is indeed wise and elegant in his words. As the noble Lord has explained, this group of amendments deals with the definition of “hostile act” in Schedule 3.

It is important to emphasise that the design of any new power should be specific to the threat it is seeking to mitigate. The scope of this power has been designed to do just that; namely, to mitigate the known threats from hostile state activity. The danger of these amendments, therefore, is that they will limit the scope of the power, thereby limiting the range of threats that it has been designed to combat.

For the benefit of the Committee, the ports powers under Schedule 3 will be used by examining officers at UK ports or the border area,

“for the purpose of determining whether the person appears to be a person who is, or has been, engaged in hostile activity”.

A person is engaged in hostile activity if they are,

“concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of a hostile act that is or may be … carried out for, or on behalf of, a State other than the United Kingdom, or … otherwise in the interests of a State other than the United Kingdom”.

Under this schedule, a hostile act is defined as an act that,

“threatens national security … threatens the economic well-being of the United Kingdom, or … is an act of serious crime”.

By replacing “hostile act” with “serious crime”, these amendments would significantly narrow the range of hostile activity that these powers are designed to counter. It would undoubtedly limit the ability of our ports officers to detect, disrupt and deter hostile actors. Serious crime is defined in the Bill as being an offence which could reasonably be expected to result in,

“imprisonment for a term of 3 years or more, or … the conduct involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”.

Some of the activities which I believe noble Lords would expect to be captured through these new powers would not fall within the scope of the truncated definition of hostile activity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, explained earlier, some offences under the Official Secrets Act 1989 attract a maximum penalty of only two years’ imprisonment and may not involve the use of violence, result in financial gain or involve a large number of people acting in pursuit of a common purpose. Consequently, an examining officer would not be able to exercise Schedule 3 powers for the purpose of detecting, disrupting or deterring this type of hostile activity even if the activity threatens national security or could be prosecuted for offences under the Official Secrets Act. This is simply not acceptable.

There may even be occasions when we have intelligence to suggest that a person linked to hostile state activity is travelling to the UK for a hostile purpose but the intelligence we have is incomplete and the nature of the hostile purpose cannot be determined; therefore, we cannot assess whether the purpose is linked to a serious crime. In this circumstance, it would be very important to have a power to stop and examine them at the port to establish the nature of the hostile act.

As noble Lords will know, following the appalling acts in Salisbury, the Government are undertaking a review of legislation to combat hostile state activity. Hostile activity, by its very nature, is often covert and undertaken by foreign intelligence officers or their agents seeking to acquire sensitive information to gain an advantage over the United Kingdom and undermine our national security. On occasions this activity may not be considered criminal under the law as it stands; for example, if a foreign intelligence officer intended to travel to the UK to maintain or build a relationship with employees contracted to work on UK defence projects with the aim of acquiring sensitive information, this may not be a crime but it would be imperative to detect and disrupt this activity at the earliest opportunity, before irreversible damage to our national security occurred.

It is entirely plausible that a hostile actor should want to visit the UK in order to collect classified documents from an agent who had committed acts of espionage on their behalf. It is not a crime for the hostile actor to receive these documents and leave the country but, although the individual has not committed a crime, a Schedule 3 examination would enable an examining officer to make a determination as to whether they have been engaged in a hostile act. An examination would also allow the examining officer to remove the classified documents from the hostile actor, preventing the disclosure of potentially damaging information.

Even though the purpose of a Schedule 3 examination is to make a determination as to whether the actor has been engaged in a hostile act, exercise of the power may provide a number of secondary benefits. In instances such as the example I have just talked about, it would provide the first leads into an investigation to detect who the agent is—if we did not already know—and prevent the documents from ever being disclosed. These investigations may or may not lead to future prosecutions. It is therefore right to give the police the power to investigate hostile state activity, even at a preliminary stage before we have reasonable suspicion that a foreign intelligence officer has committed an offence. I know that noble Lords do not really think that the police should not have the power to stop someone who is from, or acting on behalf of, a foreign intelligence service as they enter or leave the United Kingdom.

If we were to accept these amendments, traditional behaviours undertaken by hostile states which have the potential to have such a detrimental effect would fall out of scope of the power and we would not be able to detect, disrupt or deter them. I put it to noble Lords that such activity should not go unchallenged. The definition of “hostile act” is necessarily broad to ensure that the powers capture the full range of activities which hostile actors engage in. We recognise the concerns that have been raised and I reassure the Committee that these were considered in the drafting of Schedule 3. This is why we have explicitly restricted the definition to an act that is carried out for, or on behalf of, or otherwise in the interests of a state other than the United Kingdom.

I also recognise the concerns about the term,

“economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.

As has been pointed out, there may be instances where an act undertaken by a hostile state actor threatens that economic well-being yet does not threaten our national security; it is also true for acts of serious crime. Economic well-being, like national security, is a term already used in UK legislation. The intention of this limb of the definition is to ensure that these powers can be used to mitigate hostile acts which could damage the country’s critical infrastructure or disrupt energy supplies to the UK. For example, if an employee in the banking sector of the City of London discovered a serious vulnerability in computer networks and shared this information with a hostile state, it would drastically undermine confidence in the City of London and cost the UK economy millions, if not billions.

I hope that with these explanations, the noble Lord will feel content to withdraw his amendment.