Clause 13 - Foreign interference: general

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 12th July 2022.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45 pm, 12th July 2022

I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 13, page 11, line 26, leave out “England and Wales” and

“any part of the United Kingdom”.

This amendment would mean that “condition A” for the offence of foreign interference would be met by conduct outside the UK that would be an offence in any part of the UK.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 9.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I will be brief. Clause 13 introduces a general offence of foreign interference that is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. As with clause 12, we support the broad idea—indeed, the structure of the offence appears to make sense—but it is a fairly novel departure for this country. I look forward to hearing the Minister talk us through precisely how the provision will work given that it is so novel and fairly complicated. I have said my piece on my concerns about the foreign power condition and the rather nebulous concept of the interests of the United Kingdom, so I will not repeat it.

The amendment asks a short, sharp question. Condition A applies if the foreign offence takes place outside the UK, and it is met only if the conduct is an offence under the law of England and Wales. The simple question is: why does that apply to England and Wales only? It does not apply to Scotland or to offences under the law of Northern Ireland. I genuinely do not know what the thinking behind that is. There may be a perfectly reasonable answer, and the amendment is designed to tease it out. I look forward to hearing much more from the Minister about how the offence will work. On the whole, the clause provides a justified and welcome new offence that we would support.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Clause 13 is quite substantial, and creates a new and general offence of foreign interference. Under the clause, someone who behaves recklessly but for whom an intention to aid a foreign intelligence service cannot be proven would not be committing an offence, unlike under clause 12.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye has a particular interest in that element of the offences. She will remember that in last Thursday’s evidence session, she asked Professor Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ, about the question of recklessness in clause 13. He said that he

“looked to clause 24, ‘The foreign power condition’, and there is quite a lot of scope in it for a successful prosecution to demonstrate that the individual who has, as you say, acted recklessly, could reasonably have been expected to know that their act would benefit a foreign power, for example, so I was not so concerned about that particular question.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 17, Q34.]

However, in response to a very similar question, Carl Miller, the research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, made the interesting point that introducing recklessness in such a way may make businesses or service providers take their responsibilities on those types of risks more seriously when agreeing to take on commissioned work. I put that example to the Minister in our discussions on clause 3.

We will propose later in proceedings, through new clause 2, an independent reviewer to look annually at all the powers in the Bill—not just part 2—and not only check that we have the right balance when using the powers, and consider any unintended consequences, but make recommendations. I think clause 13 is viewed as fair by both sides of the Committee, but I hope that our debate about recklessness has shown that new clause 2 would make a great deal of sense.

Government amendment 9 is a welcome step—if somewhat presumptuous—that would make foreign interference a priority offence in the “Online Safety Act”, as on the amendment paper. It is slightly odd to amend the Online Safety Bill through this Bill, given that that Online Safety Bill is only just out of Committee—it is on Report in the Chamber as we speak—but the change is a very welcome development none the less. Reset.Tech’s Poppy Wood spoke in evidence of her hopes for that provision, and was pleased to see its addition.

Later in proceedings, we will come back to what more could be done in the disinformation space when we discuss new clause 3, which addresses the reporting of disinformation originating from foreign powers. Alongside clauses 13 and 14, we have discussed separately with the Minister that we are still awaiting further news about the planned foreign influence registration scheme, which has been called for since the aforementioned 2020 Russia report. It was a big focus on Second Reading, when the Minister’s predecessor was under a great deal of pressure from the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and others for not having produced the detail in time for the whole House to be able to discuss and debate it. The practical outcome of the implications of clause 13 is that we would like to see the detail as soon as possible, and the Minister knows our views on that.

Before closing, I want to touch on the issue of foreign interference. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper spoke extensively about the need to tackle shell companies. The new offences outlined in these clauses will mean little if they cannot be detected or if measures are rarely enforced. Again, we urge the Government to remove the loophole that allows shell companies to be used to make donations to political parties, and to hide foreign donations and donations linked to hostile states. I expect the Minister will say that further work on interference of that type is under consideration as part of a second economic crime Bill, but I am looking to him for further assurances on that type of foreign interference.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I rise to support some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. Given the Minister’s recent arrival, I am sure that this is not his responsibility and would not have happened had he been in charge, but it is particularly bad for a Government amendment to seek to amend a Bill that is still going through its Commons stages and has not reached the other place. In fact, it is still on the Floor of the House. It is a particularly poor practice that I hope the Minister, in his new role, will deprecate among his officials and seek to prevent from happening in the future.

It is really bad for the Committee to seek to amend a Bill that is still on the Floor of the House and has not been passed yet, when it is quite clear—unless the Minister has a good reason why it is being done this way, which I would be interested to hear—that it is not sensible for us to amend a Bill that has not yet even passed its Commons stages. It seems to be a recipe for incoherence and confusion. I hope that the Minister will agree and seek to prevent us from seeing such amendments in the future, because it is just rank poor practice.

The clause introduces an important defence for the country and fills a gap that has needed to be filled for many years, so I very much support it. However, it is noticeable that, unlike clause 12, which we have just discussed and approved, the offence set out in clause 13 does not include recklessness in the same way as some of the other offences set out in the Bill. There must be a reason for that, but it is not immediately apparent what that is, and it would help the Committee a great deal if we could hear the rationale for recklessness being left out.

Obviously, the offence also does not include where an individual is unwittingly used to conduct the activity that the person who is engaging in the interference is seeking to conduct. I can understand that a bit more, because if someone is a dupe—perhaps without any intention or recklessness at all—one can understand why the offence might not extend to that person. However, given that some of the offences being introduced by the Bill do include recklessness, it would still constitute an offence if there was recklessness rather than intent. Why has recklessness not been made a part of the offence? I am sure there is an explanation, and I think it would help the Committee a lot to hear what it is. If there is no good explanation, perhaps the Minister might go back and produce an amendment that includes “recklessness” in clause 13.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 3:00 pm, 12th July 2022

Clause 13 provides for a criminal offence of foreign interference. It is and always will be an absolute priority to protect the UK against such interference. The principal aim of the clause is to create a more challenging operating environment for, and to deter and disrupt the activities of, foreign states who seek to undermine UK interests, our institutions, political system and our rights, and ultimately prejudice our national security.

Clause 13 will act as a tool for disruption and deterrence, raising the cost to foreign states of carrying out interference activity by holding those responsible to account for their actions. I noted the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood very clearly. I have raised that issue myself, and it is something that we will talk about in the Home Department, because I understand those concerns. I will address the issue of recklessness later in my remarks. Reference was also made to the foreign power condition, which we will debate in much more detail later in our proceedings.

On the foreign influence registration scheme, I have spoken to hon. Members about that. The Home Secretary has committed to its formal introduction during Committee proceedings, and I put on record that I would like it to introduced during Committee proceedings in the Commons, so that it can be debated properly and dealt with here before being considered in the House of Lords. Donations from shell companies will be dealt with in the economic crime Bill.

We know that states around the world, including the UK, conduct open and transparent influence activities, such as using diplomacy to shape and align policy to benefit shared interests. That is a welcome part of transparent international engagement and is vital to the UK in achieving its interests. However, some states seek to further their strategic interests by going further than overt political influence, such as through cultivating and manipulating relationships with individuals and entities in the UK where power and influence lies and undertaking deceptive lobbying operations to shape public policy making. Although not necessarily hostile, those “interference” activities are typically non-transparent and outside the norms of diplomacy.

In our approach to legislating against foreign interference, we have chosen to target the intended effect of the foreign interference rather than the specific method used to achieve that result. We considered whether it would be more appropriate and effective to create specific offences, such as a bespoke “hack and leak” and disinformation offences, but that approach risked leaving gaps in our ability to prosecute foreign interference. Disinformation campaigns seek to sow discord and undermine public confidence in our institutions and values. Often, the damage caused by disinformation cannot be measured until long after the information is in the public domain. Our approach to foreign interference is intended to enable harmful behaviour to be disrupted at an early stage, before significant damage occurs. That is yet another reason to focus on the intended effect of foreign interference, as opposed to focusing on specific actions and methods of a state actor.

Clause 13 has been constructed with three conditions that must all be met in order for a person to have committed an offence. As is the case throughout the Bill, there must be a link to a foreign power, that is to say where conduct is undertaken for, or on behalf of, or with the intention to benefit, a foreign power. A person must intend that their conduct, or that a course of conduct of which their conduct forms a part, will have a specific effect. I will now turn to those effects to more detail.

The first stipulated effect is interfering with the exercise of a convention right as it has effect under the law of the United Kingdom. The aim of encompassing such intended effect is to catch activities that interfere with a right that is already protected from unjustifiable domestic interference under UK law such as freedom of speech. It has been evidenced that foreign states have engaged in activity that seeks to intimidate or threaten diaspora communities to stop engaging in lawful protest activities, or to embrace their home country or face punishment. It is our aim that such hostile activity can be stopped through this targeted approach.

The second and third effects look at affecting the exercise by any person of their public functions and manipulating whether or how someone uses services provided in the exercise of those public functions. The first of these two effects could relate to the functions of a person who holds public office, such as a Member of Parliament. The type of activity this effect could capture, subject to the other legal conditions being met, is conduct that seeks to affect a political decision. The second of the two effects could be manipulating whether or how any person makes use of vaccination services. In isolation, this is of course not a crime, but sophisticated and well-resourced state actors will choose topics that divide public opinion and pit us against one another. As I have already touched on, this clause focuses on the person’s intention, as opposed to the vector or means they use to achieve it. That is at the very core of what foreign interference is.

The fourth and fifth effects capture conduct that manipulates whether, or how, any person participates in a political or legal process under the law of the United Kingdom respectively. Examples of the type of activity that we consider those effects capturing, subject to the other legal conditions being met, would be threatening a member of a jury in order to prejudice a trial, stealing evidence of a crime in order to disrupt an investigation, or intending to secure the election of candidates with views favourable to, or favoured by, the foreign power.

The sixth effect is consistent with other offences in the Bill and could cover foreign interference in UK defence and security interests or trade deals being negotiated with countries around the world.

In addition to the foreign power condition needing to be met and an intention to cause one of the effects in subsection (2), the person’s conduct must meet at least one of three specific conditions: A, B or C. Condition A is that the person’s conduct constitutes an offence or, if it takes place in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, would constitute an offence if it took place in England and Wales. That reflects the potential for foreign interference to be conducted through a range of methods, all with different outcomes. In seeking to bring about one of the effects in subsection (2), a foreign state actor could, in theory, commit an offence such as fraud or bribery in the course of their conduct.

Condition B is met when a person’s conduct involves coercion of any kind. The term coercion captures aggressive and violent forms of conduct such as damaging or destroying, or threatening to damage or destroy, a person’s property, or damaging or threatening to damage a person’s reputation. In addition, the term “coercion” also encompasses activity that causes spiritual injury to, or place undue spiritual pressure on, a person. This term follows existing precedents, as debated during the passage of the Elections Act 2022.

Condition C is met when a person’s conduct involves making a misrepresentation. A misrepresentation may include making either a statement or by any other kind of conduct and may be either expressed or implied. This covers a misrepresentation as to the person’s identity or purpose, as well as presenting information in a way that amounts to a misrepresentation, even if some or all of the information is true. As the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated, information can be weaponised. The new offence of foreign interference is a significant step forward in the UK’s response to tackling state-sponsored disinformation. We believe that the vast majority of state-sponsored disinformation captured by this clause will be done so by meeting condition C.

It is right that the framework we have devised consists of three high legal tests, which must all be met for an offence to apply. That is an effective and appropriate way to safeguard against capturing legitimate forms of influence or undermining and eroding the freedoms and values we are actively seeking to safeguard.

Additionally, this clause provides that the offence applies regardless of whether a person’s conduct takes place in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. This important component reflects the threat landscape of the 21st century and enables activity conducted overseas to be captured. I must reiterate that if this component did not apply to the clause as drafted, vast swathes of hostile activity could go unpunished, which could ultimately undermine the UK’s safety and interests. The provision in clause 13(10) is consistent with other offences in the Bill.

As I have said, clause 13 is not about restricting the rights and liberties of the British people. It reinforces such protections and privileges we care so deeply about. As I have noted, the offence consists of a framework with three explicit legal conditions that must all be met in order for a person’s conduct to be caught. Furthermore, the measures underpinning this clause also include the requirement of Attorney General consent in England and Wales, and Advocate General in Northern Ireland, in order to bring forward a prosecution.

Turning to the penalty, we propose a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment on conviction, or a fine, or both. That reflects the seriousness of the harm that state threats can have on the UK and its interests. This is about activity that intends to interfere in our democracy, and we must not be complacent in ensuring that sentencing judges have available to them penalties that can reflect the potential harm caused by this type of conduct.

Therefore, the best way of tackling the significant threat we face from hostile activity by states is to ensure that we have appropriate and proportionate measure that do not overshadow our freedoms. As previously stated, I am committed to ensuring that we have a full suite of provisions in our arsenal to protect our national security. I hope the Committee will agree on the clear requirement for clause 13.

Government amendment 9 creates a bridge from the offence in clause 13 to the priority offences in the Online Safety Bill, which will strengthen the Government’s response to the state-sponsored disinformation that seeks to undermine the UK’s interests. The new offence of foreign interference will criminalise state-sponsored disinformation affecting the UK, allowing us to disrupt and deter foreign actors engaging in disinformation campaigns against the UK. As well as prosecuting perpetrators where possible, we need online platforms to take action against the content. Designating the offence as a priority offence in schedule 7 to the Online Safety Bill will require online platforms to guard against and act swiftly to remove content that amounts to an offence.

The risk assessment and safety duties provided for in the Online Safety Bill include the use of proportionate measures to reduce and manage the risk of harm to individuals and prevent users from coming across priority illegal content on the service. Where priority illegal content is present on the service, providers must minimise the length of time for which it is present and also swiftly remove the content on being alerted to it.

Officials in the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport continue to work closely with Ofcom and platforms to ensure that guidance is produced to allow platforms to take proportionate steps towards removing state-sponsored disinformation. To comply with these duties, platforms will have to consider the design and features of their service and the operation of their algorithms. In the context of the foreign interference offence, that could include measures to ensure that platform manipulation, such as engaging in artificially co-ordinated messaging campaigns, is more difficult, thus mitigating the risk of co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour and disinformation more broadly.

While amendment 9 ensures robust action on state-sponsored disinformation, it must be set in the context of a regime that will also defend freedom of expression and the invaluable role of a free press. Platforms and Ofcom will have duties relating to freedom of expression for which they can be held to account. Platforms will not be able to arbitrarily remove harmful content. They will need to be clear what content is acceptable on their services and enforce the rules consistently. Users will have access to effective mechanisms to appeal the removal of content without good reason.

It is right for the Government to go further in addressing disinformation and wider information operations undertaken and amplified by foreign states. Amendment 9 will address the most concerning information campaigns being amplified by foreign powers who are seeking to advance their interests and harm the UK.

On the point about recklessness, my understanding is that we are trying to get the balance right between legitimate and illegitimate restrictions. The concern was that including recklessness would possibly widen the scope and would then move into the political and diplomatic arenas. There is a reason—it may not be the best one, but there is a reason.

Amendment 51 seeks to modify condition A subsection (4), so that conduct outside the UK is within the scope of condition A where such conduct would amount to an offence in any part of the UK, not just England and Wales. Condition A

“is that the person’s conduct constitutes an offence or, if it takes place…outside the United Kingdom, would constitute an offence if it took place in England and Wales.”

Conduct taking place in Scotland or Northern Ireland that constitutes an offence in Scotland or Northern Ireland would be covered here. It is only where the conduct takes place outside the UK that the criminal law of England and Wales is currently used as the benchmark. The clause has been drafted this way for operational effectiveness and to ensure no unintended or complex consequences where, for example, a prosecution is brought in one part of the UK but relies on a charge from another part of the UK. We expect the amendment would have little practical impact on prosecutions.

However, that said, I accept the spirit of the amendment and I personally believe that we should be seeking to legislate for all parts of the UK. If the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East will withdraw the amendment, I propose to take the point away to consider further. In particular, I want to ensure that there are no unintended practical difficulties for investigators and prosecutors that may make bringing charges for foreign interference, which can often emanate from overseas, harder than necessary. Another consideration is ensuring that any amendment does not affect the utility of our Government amendment to add the offence of foreign interference to the Online Safety Bill, where platform operators will be under a duty to guard against and swiftly remove content that amounts to an offence of foreign interference.

I will consider those points and hope to be able to come back favourably at a later stage. I ask that the hon. Gentleman withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 9, in clause 13, page 12, line 13, at end insert—

“(12A) In the Online Safety Act 2022, in Schedule 7 (priority offences), before the italic heading “Inchoate offences” insert—

“Foreign interference

32A An offence under section 13 of the National Security Act 2022 (foreign interference).”—

This amendment amends the Online Safety Act expected to result from the Online Safety Bill currently before Parliament to make foreign interference a priority offence for the purposes of that Act.

Clause 13, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.