Clause 14 - Foreign interference in elections

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 12th July 2022.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 3:15 pm, 12th July 2022

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 10 and 11

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill

New clause 3—Reporting on disinformation originating from foreign powers—

(1) The Secretary of State must appoint a person or body to review the extent of disinformation originating from foreign powers which presents a threat, or potential threat, to national security.

(2) A review under subsection (1) must include an assessment of the extent of foreign interference in elections.

(3) A review under subsection (1) may include—

(a) examining the number and scale of offences committed, and estimating the number and scale of instances where an offence is suspected to have been committed, under—

(i) section 13, where Condition C is met, and

(ii) section 14,

and,

(b) any other matters the person or body considers relevant to the matters mentioned in subsections (1) and (2).

(4) The person or body appointed under subsection (1) may be the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, or another person or body the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(5) A review must be carried out under this section in respect of—

(a) the 12-month period beginning with the day on which section 13 comes into force, and

(b) each subsequent 12-month period.

(6) Each review under this section must be completed as soon as reasonably practicable after the period to which it relates.

(7) The person or body must send to the Secretary of State a report on the outcome of each review carried out under this section as soon as reasonably practicable after completion of the review.

(8) On receiving a report under subsection (7), the Secretary of State must lay a copy of it before Parliament.

(9) The Secretary of State may pay to the person or body—

(a) expenses incurred in carrying out the functions of the reviewer under this section, and

(b) such allowances as the Secretary of State determines,

except where financial provision is already made to the person or body for the discharge of the person or body’s functions, of which this section may form part”

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

The clause provides for substantially increased maximum penalties where a person commits any of the existing electoral offences set out in schedule 1 and the person’s conduct meets the foreign power condition found in clause 24. I will also deal with amendments 10 and 11 and new clause 3 in the course of my speech.

As I touched on in highlighting the necessity of clause 13, activity that interferes in our elections, political processes and democratic events reflects the most egregious form of state threats activity. It is therefore absolutely right that we have the tools and powers at our disposal to be able to deter, disrupt and withstand the actions of foreign states who seek to harm the UK and its interests. The clause’s primary aim is to provide for substantially increased maximum penalties where a person commits any of the existing electoral offences set out in the related schedule and the person’s conduct meets the requisite foreign power condition. That will help to create a more challenging operating environment for those who seek to do the UK harm, raising the cost to foreign states of carrying out interference activity by holding those responsible to account for their actions.

We have constructed a provision that applies to a range of existing electoral offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The offences remain unaffected, but, where the foreign power condition is met, a substantially increased maximum sentence will be available. For example, existing offences under the Representation of the People Act criminalise interfering with elections—for example, undue influence in section 114A, bribery in section 113, and tampering with ballot or nomination papers in section 65—but the maximum penalties available do not reflect the significance of malign political foreign interference at the hands of a foreign power. Where a person commits any of the existing electoral offences set out in schedule 1 and their conduct meets the requisite foreign power condition, the maximum sentence available to the court will be substantially increased.

As I mentioned, part 1 of schedule 1 sets out a table that lists the relevant electoral offences in column 1 and the specified maximum term for each relevant offence in column 2. Part 2 of the schedule provides for necessary amendments to the Acts from which the offences are taken, where the clause applies. Let me turn briefly to the table in part 1 of schedule 1. In respect of the relevant electoral offences from the Representation of the People Act 1983, there will be a seven-year maximum sentence for offences relating to personation, postal and proxy voting, tampering with nomination papers, and handling of postal voting documents by political campaigners. There will be a four-year maximum sentence for offences relating to providing false statements in nomination papers, bribery, treating, and undue influence.

In respect of the relevant electoral offences from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, there will a four-year maximum sentence for offences relating to information about donors, providing a false declaration about source of donation or a false declaration as to residence condition, failing to return donations, evading restrictions on donations, failing to comply with requirements about recording donations, providing a false declaration in a donation report, donating to individuals and members associations, loaning to individuals and members, donations to recognised third parties, and donations to permitted participants. There is also a two-year maximum sentence for an offence relating to incurring controlled expenditure in contravention of restriction.

These offences and associated penalties have been determined following robust engagements between the Home Office, other Departments and law enforcement agencies, highlighting that the provisions under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 signify the most egregious conduct associated with political and electoral interference. Therefore, if such conduct has been carried out for, on behalf of, or with the intention to benefit, a foreign power, it fundamentally changes the seriousness of the conduct already criminalised, and therefore requires a greater and more severe sentence. Obtaining the strongest possible deterrence is essential to deliver our broader objectives of pushing back on state threats and making the UK a hard operating environment in which to conduct hostile activity.

The offences in clause 14 are excluded from clause 16 —dealing with the aggravating factor where the foreign power condition is met—to aid investigations and create clarity for prosecutions. Many of the offences in the Bill have the foreign power condition built in, such as clause 13, and we have replicated that approach for the offences in part 1 of schedule 1. Many of the offences under part 1 of schedule 1 have a time limit for investigations. We have removed that to reflect the complexity of state threat investigations, but that also means that we must exclude the offences contained in that schedule from clause 16.

I now turn to Government amendment 10, which is concerned with the relevant electoral offences referenced in clause 14 and contained in part 1 of schedule 1 to this Bill. For context, clause 14 provides for substantially increased maximum penalties where a person commits any of the existing electoral offences set out in the related schedule and the person’s conduct meets the foreign power condition in clause 24. These offences are currently found solely in the Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The relevant electoral offences in part 1 of schedule 1 in the RPA are applied in several pieces of secondary legislation. Where that is the case, the Interpretation Act 1978 effectively cascades the effect of clause 14 so that it will apply to the applied versions of the offences without the need to include an express provision in clause 14.

Government amendment 10 proposes to include certain offences contained in the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 as relevant electoral offences. Those are offences that are akin to the offences from the RPA that are already set out in the schedule. Given the complexity of electoral law, it was right for us to ensure that we have fully considered what else we ought to include in relation to foreign interference in elections, given the threats that we face in this space. That is why the amendment includes the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962. That piece of legislation is specific to Northern Ireland and contains its own stand-alone offences. Many of them are akin to those in the RPA—for example, personation, bribery and treating. Because they are stand-alone offences and not applied versions of the RPA offences, it is necessary to include them expressly in the schedule of offences to which clause 14 relates.

Although the current list of relevant electoral offences under part 1 of schedule 1 has been determined following extensive engagements with wider Government, law enforcement and the devolved Administrations, it is evident that these additions need to be made to clause 14 to respond fully to the threat posed by foreign interference in elections. These changes will ensure a complete and coherent footprint across the whole United Kingdom in responding to foreign interference in elections. It is right that the Government have considered our approach for dealing with foreign political interference and are seeking to expand the list of relevant electoral offences in order to provide greater protections against foreign interference in elections. The amendment does just that and I hope the Committee will support it.

Separately from the amendment, the topic of shell companies being used to make donations to political parties and to hide foreign donations was raised extensively on Second Reading, so it is right that I address what the Government are doing in that area. First, there are strict rules that ensure that foreign money is prohibited from entering through proxy donors, providing a safeguard against impermissible donations by the back door. It is also an offence to attempt to evade the rules on donations by concealing information, giving false information or facilitating the making of an impermissible donation. Under this clause, substantially increased maximum sentences will apply to those offences where the foreign power condition is met.

Secondly, UK electoral law sets out a stringent regime of donations and spending controls to safeguard the integrity of our democratic processes, and only those with a genuine interest in UK electoral events can make political donations. This includes registered UK electors—including registered overseas electors—UK-registered companies, trade unions and other UK-based entities or otherwise eligible donors, such as Irish citizens meeting prescribed conditions who can donate to parties in Northern Ireland. The recently passed Elections Act 2022 introduced a restriction on ineligible foreign third-party campaigning above a £700 de minimis threshold.

Transparency is the best form of disinfectant with regards to who is donating or contributing to political parties, and that is why all political parties, recognised third-party campaigners and candidates must record their election spending and report this to the Electoral Commission or local returning officer. This information is publicly available. In addition, political parties, third-party campaigners and candidates are required to record all contributions over £500. It is also right that the Electoral Commission publishes information about larger donations online for transparency.

New clause 3 would require the Home Secretary to create an independent body for monitoring disinformation originating from foreign states, producing a report to be laid before the House on an annual basis. The new clause would duplicate existing work being carried forward by Government to ensure that the threat posed by disinformation spread by foreign states is monitored effectively. It is, and always will be, an absolute priority to protect our democratic and electoral processes from foreign interference. That is why the Government have robust systems in place to protect UK democracy, bringing together Government, civil society and private sector organisations to monitor and respond to attempted interference, in whatever form, to ensure our democracy stays open, vibrant and transparent.

The intelligence agencies produce and contribute to regular assessments of state threats, including potential interference in UK democratic processes. We keep such assessments under review and, where necessary, update them in response to new intelligence. Where new information emerges, the Government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence they develop or receive, including whether it is appropriate to make it public.

Ahead of major democratic events, the Government stand up the election cell, which brings together capabilities and expertise from across Government to address complex risks that threaten our democratic processes. The cell works closely with the Electoral Commission, police, and devolved Administrations to ensure rapid information sharing and a response that covers key risks, including electoral logistics, policing, counter-terrorism, cyber-security, disinformation and electoral interference.

During major democratic events the DCMS-led counter-disinformation unit works with the election cell and plays a pivotal role in the protection of elections by working with a range of partners to understand the extent and reach of disinformation across a number of risks, including foreign interference. The Government are keen to do more to tackle state-sponsored disinform-ation. That is why we have now also put forward an amendment to make the foreign interference offence a priority offence in the Online Safety Bill. That will require companies in scope of the regime to conduct regular risk assessments for the presence of content that constitutes an offence and to put in place proportionate systems and processes to mitigate the possibility of users encountering this content. That will include disinformation spread by foreign states that is intended to undermine our democratic, political and legal processes.

Furthermore, the Online Safety Bill’s advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation will provide cross-sector expertise on disinformation and misinformation and advice to Ofcom about how providers of regulated services should deal with disinformation and misinformation. It will advise Ofcom on how it should exercise its transparency powers and its duty to promote media literacy in relation to disinformation and misinformation. This could include recommendations relating to disinformation originating from a foreign power, for which this amendment seeks to establish an independent review.

However, the Government can see merit in considering whether additional oversight is required for state threats legislation, including the offence of foreign interference, and we will come to a broader amendment in this regard later in Committee. In view of the significant cross-Government work in this area and the need to consider the most effective way of ensuring transparency and oversight of state threats legislation more broadly, I ask the hon. Member for Halifax to withdraw her amendment when the time comes.

In closing, the construction and inclusion of a provision for foreign interference in elections reflects how seriously the Government take the threat posed by hostile activity by foreign states. I am sure the Committee is committed to ensuring that we have a holistic and effective suite of measures to tackle such corrosive activity and to counter its malign impact. I hope the Committee will agree that there is a clear requirement for clause 14.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:30 pm, 12th July 2022

I listened carefully to the Minister. The Opposition welcome those measures in clause 14 that will bolster the UK against acts of foreign interference in our elections that are committed on our soil and abroad. For too long the Government have been complacent about the threat of foreign interference, and we seek to complement the measures in the Bill through new clause 3. I will continue to make the case for the new clause, but I have heard what the Minister had to say.

According to a report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Russian hackers launched a cyber-attack in 2014 against the Polish electoral commission’s website, which damaged faith in the election. In 2015, the German Parliament was the victim of a cyber-attack linked to Russia that was aimed at collecting documents ahead of the federal elections. During the Scottish independence referendum, pro-Russia accounts on social media spread stories claiming voter fraud.

Ahead of the Finnish parliamentary elections, Russian entities created fake social media accounts posting as official parliamentary accounts. At first, those accounts posted mainstream political content and amassed thousands of followers, but as the election neared, the accounts turned to posting misinformation and vitriol aimed at sowing confusion among the electorate. Russian-sponsored disinformation through state media and fake social media accounts was also rampant in general elections in Italy and the Netherlands throughout 2017 and 2018, and in Spain at the time of the Catalonian independence referendum.

The evidence base is massive, and those are examples of just some of the most aggressive and obvious attempts to interfere in elections, which, until now, legislation has largely failed to address. We can only assume that, as Russia’s belligerence increases, so will its attempts to undermine our democracy and society. The measures proposed are long overdue.

On being asked his thoughts on the matter in last week’s evidence session, Paddy McGuinness made the interesting point that

“because there are not strong controls and real clarity about what is happening around our electoral processes, people mess about in that space.”

He wanted to make a distinction between “messing about” in that space—as he put it—and delegitimising an election. He went on to explain that

Vladimir Putin’s intent, which is to have us off balance—is that if the Russians do hack into a political party’s servers and mess about within them, and maybe mess with the data or interfere, or if they play games with a technology platform that people rely on for information and put out information, and we decide as a result that we cannot trust a referendum or an election, they succeed. That is success for them, so I think what really matters in this space is the ability to measure the impact that state activity has on the democratic process we are looking at, and…that there is bright transparency so we know who is doing what.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 24, Q48.]

Turning to the relevant electoral offences in part 1 of schedule 1, I wonder whether the list of offences is grounded in a dated understanding of how someone might seek to interfere in an election when acting on behalf of a state. Although they are all very serious in themselves, my concern is that they might need a fresh look to consider whether they would capture state actors interfering in elections.

It is worth noting that in its 2020 Russia report the Intelligence and Security Committee recommended that MI5 should be operationally responsible for upholding the safety of our democratic process, stating:

“In our opinion, the operational role must sit primarily with MI5, in line with its statutory responsibility for ‘the protection of national security and, in particular, its protection against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy’.”

Last week, we heard from Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission. Despite the fact that almost all the other witnesses confirmed that state interference in elections was a significant cause for concern, we heard that the Electoral Commission is not currently undertaking any investigations on the issue. That suggests that, as things stand, it is not the right organisation to lead on this work.

With all of that in mind, we very much support the provisions in clause 14 and are content with schedule 1 —despite the points I have made—and with Government amendments 10 and 11. However, I would also make the case for new clause 3, and I am seeking to persuade the Committee and the Minister that an annual review on disinformation, with particular consideration of interference in elections, would help with the transparency and awareness piece that needs to sit alongside these offences. I think the Minister said that some of that would replicate the work already happening in Government, but he largely talked about the enforcement agencies being stepped up to try to protect those processes in real time from interference. All of that is actually quite clandestine; it does not seek to enhance the public’s understanding of some of that interference, which might assist them in making informed decisions when digesting information and allowing that to inform their voting decisions. The new clause would grant the Government the discretion to determine who would be best placed to carry out that annual but independent review, with the Intelligence and Security Committee being one of the bodies that could undertake it.

We have discussed the matter with the UK intelligence community, and it was clear from the evidence we heard on Thursday that raising awareness within the general public is a slightly separate piece of work from criminalising and disrupting hostile activity online. We heard that, while disinformation and misinformation are a problem—Government amendment 9 is very much welcome in tackling that—there is the issue of the amplification of often uncomfortable truths or single viewpoints, which is much harder to address. None the less, efforts should be made to identify the origins of such content and ensure that the public can see how narratives and public discourse can be manipulated to suit the agendas of foreign states, empowering the public to make more informed judgments about how they use social media. When I put these proposals to Poppy Wood of Reset.tech on Thursday and asked for her judgment about the measures and about who would be best suited to undertake such a review, she said:

“That is a brilliant idea…It should probably be a body like the Intelligence and Security Committee—some kind of cross-party body, quasi-independent of Government”.––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 60, Q113.]

I have heard what the Minister has said, and I very much hope that he will take seriously his commitment to have a further look at this issue—not just at the law enforcement of it, but at a report that would be published in the public domain that would reveal some of the origins of this content, alongside criminalising it where it meets certain thresholds. I will give the Minister the benefit of the doubt, and I am persuaded to withdraw new clause 3 on the basis that he does commit to further consider this matter very seriously.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Of course, we will deal with new clause 3 when we get to the new clauses at the end.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.