I beg to move,
That this House
has considered foreign lobbying in the UK.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela.
I am going to use this debate on foreign lobbying to lobby the Government. They have published their National Security Bill, and the foreign lobbying registration element is still being written and decided upon. It is great that that is there, and it is great that we have the chance—I hope—to influence the Government. I thank the Minister very much for taking the time to be here.
I am going to argue three points. First, we need a substantially improved lobbying law—in fact, lobbying laws. What we have is arguably no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was. Secondly, there is a specific problem with foreign lobbying, which has been getting worse over the past decade. Indeed, the problems that we have had with lobbying arguably go back some 20 years at least. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for the theorists of war and conflict, in this era there is a blurred line between espionage, agent recruitment and covert, malign, unhealthy, unethical influence, and overt lobbying. One should see those not as being separate, but as being, effectively, on a continuum from dark to light, and perhaps quite an unhealthy continuum with respect to some elements.
To ensure the health of our democracy, we need a stronger and more transparent system, and I want to use my speech to make suggestions for the Government’s National Security Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the Government are still committed to having a substantive—I hope—and broad foreign agent registration process in the Bill. By that, I mean a registration process that involves not only those people who work within a narrow definition of lobbying, but a broader definition, which, in our era, should include the lawyers, the public relations people, the strategists and the enablers not only for foreign states—that is another critical element—but for the formal and informal proxies such as oligarchs, major corporations and broadcasting entities that are obviously linked to those states, especially when they are effectively one-party states with a different and non-democratic tradition.
Primarily, I am talking about Russia—in the past three months, the situation with Russia has changed from light to dark—as well as China, Iran and their proxies. Some in this country argue that such measures should cover countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is an ally—a close ally—but which does a great deal of lobbying in this country, as do other friendly states.
There is also a debate about how we treat people and about whether we should have one set of standards or a sliding scale. Do I think that Oleg Deripaska should be treated in the same way as New Zealand’s tourist board? No. It would be welcome to have a light regulatory process for foreign entities such as Sweden’s trade authority or New Zealand’s tourist board, but for a Russian oligarch—many of whom have been sanctioned, so this is slightly hypothetical—or a firm such as Huawei, we should insist on much higher standards.
Let me say by way of background that we know that, around the world, Governments and their proxies make extensive use of overt lobbying and influence campaigns. There is nothing inherently illegal about that, although some might consider it unethical. However, a number of hostile states—including, but not limited to, China and Russia—have utilised lobbying as part of their operations against our national interest. Arguably nowadays, covert influence is part and parcel of hybrid forms of conflict. Indeed, in both Russian and Chinese doctrine, hybrid conflict is specifically talked about in terms of military and non-military tools. In Russian doctrine, the first characteristic of modern contemporary conflict is the linkage of military effect with non-military effect, be that information politics, economics or suchlike, of which overt and covert malign lobbying are very much part.
I am glad that the Government have said that this is a problem. In 2019, they declared they would reduce the threat posed by hostile state activity in the UK; that is great.
That is a good question; I am not sure I can define it. It is possible to define the outcome, which is trying to influence events in an unethical, potentially illegal way, while not doing so overtly—for instance, by the Russian intelligence service, the GRU. It is apparently not illegal for someone to be a PR person for the GRU. If they were given secret documents, it would be illegal.
Do I think a definition of covert influence should just be somebody working for what they believe to be a foreign state intelligence agency? No, I think it is much broader than that. It would cover people such as Russian oligarchs and Chinese corporations. The issue is that, in a one-party state, it is difficult to make a distinction between state entities, and significant and powerful individuals, who are using covert, non-declared forms of influence to project either their own power, or their own and state power. That is the issue.
I used to hate definitions, and then I did a PhD and found that definitions are rather useful, because one has to decide what one is talking about. One thing I thought was slightly disappointing, though maybe understandable, occurred when the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs looked at the National Security and Investment Bill. We put forward a suggestion for a definition of national security, which the Government did not want to include. A definition of some of these things would be highly valuable. I would certainly welcome attempts by the Government in that regard. In fact, I may do it myself, so I thank my hon. Friend for the question.
The Government said they would adopt a form of foreign agent registration, by looking at
“like-minded international partners’ legislation.”
The two most important, by some distance, are the Foreign Agents Registration Act process in the United States, and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act in Australia. FARA, in the US, came in in 1938 as a result of covert Nazi lobbying, and was very timely, three years before the US entry into the war. In 2018, the Australians adopted their own foreign influence transparency scheme, largely because of the role of Chinese covert influence in Australia. That has been well documented by the author Clive Hamilton, in his book “Silent Invasion”, which I recommend.
In the US alone, foreign agents spent nearly $1 billion a year over a three-year period influencing the US Government. In the US, it is big business, and I suggest it is also big business in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. On the point of how clearly to define lobbying and influence, I can briefly give an example. In 2019, I wrote to the then chair of the Conservative party, Brandon Lewis, who is now the Northern Ireland Secretary, raising concerns about a gentleman called Ehud Sheleg, who at the time was treasurer of the Conservative party. I raised concerns around national security and permissible donations, because of Mr Sheleg’s very close connections to Russia; his father-in-law was a pro-Kremlin politician in Ukraine at the time. The right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth chose to reply by threatening to sue me for libel. I would welcome the comments of Bob Seely regarding that response.
Last week, The New York Times revealed that Mr Sheleg had made a large donation to the Conservative party, which was connected to a gift he said he had received from his father-in-law that had bounced around five or six different bank accounts in Europe before landing in Mr Sheleg’s account. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that somebody like Mr Sheleg would meet the threshold for being registered as a foreign agent, even at the time that he was treasurer of the Conservative party?
The hon. Gentleman raises a valuable point. I am not sure I can argue the details of that because I do not know enough about the individual case. Simply put, if that individual is deemed to be an informal agent of influence, he should be on a registration process. But that is a big if—if he is deemed to be. The question is, who would deem it?
There is a wider question. Would any Government willingly put China as one of those states that are using covert influence? They absolutely should do, but perhaps several years ago they would not have done so, because any Government, including new Labour, would wish to curry favour with China.
On the wider point about questionable behaviour, there are a number of Members of the House of Lords whose behaviour has frankly been questionable, and that is, I am afraid, on both sides of the House. There is a very well known and senior former new Labour Minister who set himself up as a strategist in order to avoid, frankly, giving up almost any information at all on who his clients are. Considering that that person was also a senior EU Commissioner, he was one of the most powerful people in the land, and he was conducting, probably—I do not know, because we know so little about his business—very powerful, high-level and discreet lobbying, including for Russian clients. There is also a former Labour Attorney General who has taken time out of the House of Lords primarily to give legal advice, seemingly to Russian state or proxy interests.
Is that healthy? Should those people be in Parliament? No. There are, unfortunately, Conservative Ministers who have also behaved, frankly, shamefully, including people who have advised Deripaska. What on earth these individuals are doing and why on earth we allow any of them in Parliament I do not know. I do not say, “Everything we do is fine and everything you do is rubbish,” because that is pitiful and embarrassing. This is a political class problem, not an issue with one particular party. That is the only thing I would say on that. I should probably crack on and make some progress, Dame Angela.
In the UK, no FARA-like legislation exists. The closest thing we have to it is the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Which was brought in by the coalition Government. It made some progress, but not enough. It brought in a mandatory register for written and oral questions to Ministers and permanent secretaries by so-called consultant lobbyists. That said, the definition of consultant lobbyists is very narrow. In addition, the Act does not differentiate between clients and those represented, or between foreign and domestic clients.
Thus, a UK entity—be it a peer, a PR company, a finance house or a law firm offering a one-stop shop to oligarchs and other companies—can act on behalf of a foreign entity without that foreign entity being registered. To my mind, that is highly questionable. We know that hostile states are engaged in covert and overt lobbying activities. Most recently, and slightly embarrassingly for the Member concerned, we found out that our secret agencies were discussing one particular case of a Chinese lady working for a Member of Parliament—we all know which one that is.
Cultivating legal and overt, but also questionable and illicit, relationships with serving and retired politicians, civil servants—we often overlook them, but they, not MPs, are the policy experts and policy wonks—academic institutions, think-tanks and regulatory bodies, and using power and influence through an enabling class of finance and legal firms, buys power. Most repugnantly and obviously, this has been practised through the use of lawfare: intimidating legal actions designed to silence those who have attempted to look into, for example, Putin’s oligarchs. There are people here who have spoken out very eloquently on that issue.
The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report highlighted the role of lobbying in the Kremlin’s subversive activities. We know from The Guardian’s leak of secret Russian documents that there was an attempt to influence the UK and US. We have had testimony from Bill Browder, talking about Russia indirectly employing public relations firms and helping Russian individuals to avoid EU sanctions. We have had the excellent book and work from Edward Lucas, who has argued much the same. We have also had this from the former Secret Intelligence Service agent Christopher Steele, who said that lobbyists are used to penetrate “British political and business life”.
None of this is ethical. We know about some of it not because we have good laws in this country to protect us, but because of the work of FARA—the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States. The only reason that we found out about the extensive lobbying done by one Member of the House of Lords, Lord Barker, on behalf of Deripaska—
I know this is a very difficult area. May I ask those who are speaking in the debate—not only the hon. Gentleman—to bear those rules in mind when they make their speeches?
Obtuse and obscure.
Together with lawyers, accountants, estate agents, public relations professionals and other enablers, lobbyists have formed a buffer around these people. I know that the case with Russia is clearly changing very dramatically—it has been rather forced on us by conflict—but China is another important case that concerns me. I say that as someone who knows that the Government are moving in the right direction, and who is incredibly grateful for the work that the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary have done in this area.
It concerns me greatly that we have not yet made the link between China and Russia. The west has economic dependency on both, be it through trade or energy. Both those countries have dictators for life, and we know that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so do we really think that President Xi will turn out to be better than President Putin? I would be sceptical. Both covet territory outside their control, both have aggressively rearmed and, perhaps most importantly, both propagandise their people against us and are shaping their people for war in the information and narrative space. China is more sophisticated and richer, and it arguably treats some of its people, especially its Muslim people, worse. It is a rising power, whereas Russia is a declining power, but there are too many similarities between them to claim that China is not Russia. It is a more sophisticated version and, as people such as Clive Hamilton argue, many of its covert activities are just more sophisticated versions of the same thing.
Like the Kremlin, the Chinese Communist party uses state, non-state and quasi-state actors through the United Front Work Department and “cultural and ‘friendship’ associations”. It is alleged to spend some $10 billion a year on external propaganda efforts. The Chinese state also makes use—perhaps more than Russia does—of quasi-state entities, and Huawei is a case in point. It has provided trips, sports tickets and donations to all-party parliamentary groups, and has employed a former head of GCHQ and a former UK chief information officer. It has also used several lobbying firms, and has employed a former head of Ofcom and even a former head of the Foreign Office.
In September 2019, Huawei gave £150,000 to Jesus College, Cambridge, which later produced a White Paper that was favourable to Huawei’s inclusion in the UK’s 5G network. It has done many other things; what I have mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. What concerns me is that, while this was happening, Ministers whom I respect very much were arguing that Huawei was a private entity—a private firm. I do not expect Ministers to be geniuses, but that situation was uncomfortable.
On the point about higher education selling its soul to the Chinese Communist party, surely it is not just the Government’s role to regulate their engagement with foreign actors. It is also for other entities in the country, such as higher education.
The hon. Member makes a very important and valuable point. Cambridge University’s relationship with China is very unhealthy, and Professor Stephen Toope’s leadership of Cambridge has been pretty depressing and questionable. He is not here to defend himself, so I will be careful what I say, but I note that the more woke Cambridge has become, the more it seems to have sold itself to the Chinese state, which I do not think is necessarily a defence of the values that it should be standing up for.
I think that higher education would say it needs clear guidance from the Government. On the foreign agent registration process, it would be excellent if the Government had something to say on the need for universities to register and to explain why they are taking on some students, because we have had Chinese military students coming to study PhDs in sensitive dual-use areas. We need to question that to ensure that we are doing the right thing and that we are not aiding countries to develop technologies that will be used against us.
I will wrap up in the next five minutes, because I am aware that I have taken a long time—my apologies.
We need to improve lobbying laws. I suggest to the Government—I will write separately, but the Minister has the study I produced for them two years ago—five major reforms to tackle the issue of foreign lobbying in the UK, which I hope would create better law and a better National Security Bill when it comes up.
First, we must create laws to compel individuals and entities that lobby in the UK on behalf of hostile states and their proxies to record their activities on a national register. I hope the Minister will take this on board in the constructive way that it is intended. Consultant lobbyists are important, but they are only one part of the problem, as many of us know. Hostile or potentially adversarial states make use of non-lobbyist individuals and entities—cultural entities, educational entities, public relations consultants, research firms, reputation managers, law firms and banks. If someone does work that impacts on policymaking or the political world, they need to be registered. In this day and age we need a broad, not narrow, understanding of what that means for the public good, and for the honesty, integrity and transparency of the political system, which we all want to see improved and strengthened. Nobody wants to sleazify our political, economic or legal system, so we need a belt-and-braces approach, while understanding that the demands we put on the New Zealand tourism board would probably be very different from those we place on a foreign entity, such as Huawei or the Confucius institutes. I note that the normally rather left-wing country, Sweden, has banned Confucius institutes. Should we?
Secondly, we should create laws to force foreign Governments and their proxies to disclose when they spend money on political activities in the UK. Thirdly, we should create laws to bar foreign Governments and their proxies from providing political, financial and other support during election periods. As at least two hon. Members have said, there is a question mark about donations, and I know from previous debates that people with dual nationality are an issue. That debate is obviously not going to go away.
Fourthly, we should create laws to compel foreign Governments and their proxies to label and disclose materials and campaigns undertaken in the UK, including online, not only during election periods but more generally outside election periods, so that we know where advertising is coming from. People should be able to see those messages, which are perfectly legal, but they should understand their provenance. Fifthly, I would make those laws enforceable by significant criminal penalty, so that people who break the law and do not uphold high standards have an expectation that the punishment will be a bit more than a slap on the wrist.
There is a further series of options; they include the following. Should we have a one-tier or one-size-fits-all regime? Should we have a weak, moderate or strong regime? Should we have a two-tier system that either requires nothing of some foreign entities or has a low bar for the sort of information that is required? We have a laissez-faire approach, which is not entirely unhealthy; it is good for our economy. I recognise that we want people to be free to set up in business, and set up what they are doing in this country. My suggestions are not about creating layers of bureaucracy for the Swedish food producers association or the New Zealand tourism board, but every time Huawei hires a lobbyist, we should know. Every time Huawei approaches a Member of the House of Lords or the House of Commons, we should know. If people want to do work for these people, we should know.
People complain about MPs, but I do not think MPs are necessarily the biggest problem—I am not trying to do a mea culpa for us all. The biggest problem is the law firms and people with significant legal and financial power, who do not exist in as transparent a world as we do. Although clearly some of the most outrageous and obvious—how should one say it?—lapses of judgment are often seen in the political world, real power is also influenced by civil servants and Spads. It used to be influenced by the European Commission, though clearly no more in this country, and it is also influenced by significant legal and finance firms. If they are impacting, via lobbying, the business of politics and policy in this country, they should be covered.
I will give one example: Huawei. There is a case to argue that Huawei did not do that much direct lobbying for much of its existence in this country, but that it worked through BT, which effectively became the Huawei spokesman in this country and Huawei’s chief defender. BT may say, “It is rather more complicated than that,” but Huawei was, arguably, effectively influencing UK policy through UK firms that were in business with and economically aligned to Huawei. I think that became a significant problem in the last few years. I am delighted to have played a modest role in the campaign to ensure that Huawei was not part of the 5G network, which was absolutely the right decision. I thank the Government for listening to me and other Members on that issue, and indeed the US Administration as well.
To sum up—I thank hon. Members for giving me a little more time than I said I would take; my apologies—we need to substantially improve lobbying laws, because the laws we have are genuinely not fit for purpose. Do we really want to have these endless lobbying scandals in our legal and political culture, which come around like a carousel every few months, every couple of years? We have the chance to do something better; I very much hope that the National Security Bill will tighten that up. The Minister has been generous enough to say that she is sympathetic towards these arguments, and I thank her.
Within the domestic lobbying framework, there is a specific issue with foreign lobbying. As I said at the beginning, it is important to understand that, whether we think it and see it or not, other states see this action as part of a hybrid conflict model. It is almost the first line of attack—to try to shape our opinions, to try to separate us from the US and to try to get a narrative and message into our economic, legal, political and informational debates in this country. We want a free society, but we need to understand that we have to protect that free society. At the very least, people need to know where some of the messages and campaigns come from.
In this era, there is a battle between open and closed societies. We have seen that most recently from the Ukraine war, but we might see it in the future from China in a Taiwan war, or a confrontation with the wider world. We need to do what we can to defend the open society. The way we best do that is by ensuring transparency, honesty and integrity in our political system. Ensuring that we have strong and fair laws over lobbying and foreign lobbying is one of the critical ways we can do that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. Bob Seely can speak as long as he likes on this subject as far as I am concerned. I have had quite a lot of conversations with him in private. He is the House’s expert on this issue and he does us all an enormous favour in raising these issues.
I agree with him; I think we have been too naive for too long—ineptly naive, in some cases. The most striking statistic in this field that I have come across recently is that of the people sanctioned this year by the British Government in relation to the activity in Ukraine, at least 10—10 that we know of—were people who were given tier 1 visas by the British Government in the last few years. In other words, we were inviting people in, letting them sit down and purvey their view of the world in the UK, largely because we were just interested in their money. In the end, Putin has seen us be so craven about Russian bling and he has felt that we are weak and corrupted, and that has emboldened him. It is one of the things that has assisted in what has eventually happened in Ukraine.
I absolutely welcome, as my hon. Friend does, the Government’s decision to stop the golden visas scheme. Does he not think it would be incredibly helpful for the Government to publish their review into the scheme, which Parliament has been waiting for for more than a year?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I am absolutely confident that the Minister will tell us later when it is going to be published, because the Home Secretary has repeatedly said, in answer to questions from me in the Chamber, that it will be published soon. “Soon” in ministerial language means pretty much anything the Minister feels like it means, but we are beginning to lose patience with the soon-ness, or the lack of soon-ness. The Minister is looking wry and quizzical, but I am sure she will help us out later.
I want to refer to one specific issue. On
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recognising that the allegations have been disproved. Will he join me in imploring all Members who engaged in making those allegations to accept that they have now been disproved?
I think it is a matter for individuals to make their decisions on that. I have said what I said and the hon. Gentleman knows why I said it. There is not a formal process for a Back-Bench Member to correct the record. That exists only for Ministers, although they have been notoriously poor at doing it. As the Speaker said at the beginning of this debate: if Members are able to correct the record, it is important that they do so.
I used to be a lobbyist for the BBC and I was always trying to persuade Governments to do things. In and of itself, lobbying is not a bad thing. Indeed, the word “lobby” comes from Parliament because it was the entrance to St Stephen’s Chapel, which was the lobby where people could grab hold of a Member before they went into the House.
I remember sitting on the Public Bill Committee for the Mental Health Act 2007. I was not an expert on the treatment of mental health patients, and my participation in that Bill Committee relied on lobbyists, some of them from mental health charities, some from patients groups, and some from the pharmaceutical industry. In the end I had to make astute judgments when people were trying to influence me, but of itself lobbying is not wrong, although it needs to operate under strict standards. Even foreign lobbying is okay, or we would not have a Foreign Office. Of course, it was Sir Henry Wotton, a Member of Parliament from 1614 to 1625, who, when he was a British diplomat in Augsburg, said:
“An ambassador is an honest” gentleman
“sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
The Minister is nodding. I am not sure whether she is in favour of an honest gentleman or lying.
In this country, in the modern era, we have to be very careful about covert operations in the UK. I think that particularly because we are a free society, believe in the rule of law and have a democratic process that is very open, sometimes we are more vulnerable than others might be, and we have to be cautious and alert to pernicious lobbying from state actors and their proxies who do not wish this country well. That applies to not just a few countries, but quite a significant number.
I am aware, not just because of what I get myself but other Members as well, of attacks that are co-ordinated directly out of St Petersburg on individual Members of this House and the House of Lords, particularly those who have been critical of the Putin regime. The attacks are co-ordinated and are deliberately inciting. They hide behind anonymity and often they are fake accounts. It looks as though 100 people have attacked the individual Member, but that is because there are 100 fake accounts all created by the one person. We do far too little in this House to make sure that that is exposed and made clear.
I have often worried that the Government have repeatedly refused to investigate the Russian activity and determination to try to undermine the political process in this country. I note that this Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister both said that they had not seen successful attempts to undermine British democracy. I do not know what success means in their minds when they say that. It seems preposterous that they will not investigate.
As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight says, the law courts are a very useful tool for proxies of state actors overseas who want to ensure that any criticism of them is closed down. We have seen several journalists and authors dragged through the courts, at extreme expense, by people with very deep pockets. I am hopeful that the Government will address that in legislation later this year. I also point to some broadcasters, such as Russia Today. I do not think any British politician from any political party should have taken money from Russia Today. It is a scandal that many took many thousands of pounds from Russia Today. All those who did should be completely open about it, because they have effectively and knowingly been not just useful idiots but deliberate agents of a foreign state. The same would apply to other broadcasters from other states, including Iran.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight rightly mentioned advertising on Facebook. One of the ways in which Russia has sown discord and misinformation around the world is illustrated by the situation in Catalunya, which I am particularly aware of. There they put across all sorts of imagery that was later proven to be completely false. None the less, it got lots of clicks and got everyone very excited and condemning the Spanish Government, even though it was all proven to be untrue. We must take that deliberate attempt to sow discord in western societies very seriously. I have always wanted, and I still want—notwithstanding the objections—to end anonymity on social media. For some reason, people feel able to write things on social media under the cloak of anonymity that they would never think of saying to another person or writing in a letter that they had to put their name to. I think that is cowardice, but it is also disrupting the British democratic system.
I am not sure whether you, Dame Angela, are among the Members of Parliament on the Russian sanctions list. It is quite interesting that none of the Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee who wrote the “Moscow’s Gold” report a few years ago, which is deeply critical of the Russian Government, is on the sanctions list. I can only presume that we are on the hit list instead.
I wrote to the Russian ambassador to make the point that although they are alleging that all these British MPs are Russophobic, we are not Russophobic. We love Russia; we have loved the Russian people, though sometimes the television presenters do make one doubt their sincerity when saying that they love people regardless of their nationality. We are not Russophobic; it is just that we have a beef with the actions of the Russian state under President Putin. The ambassador wrote back to say that the list provided was just one of several sanctions lists that already existed, and that was one that they were now revealing. I can only presume that other people are sanctioned but we do not know about it.
Parliament is particularly vulnerable. I hope the Minister will take that away from this debate. We have hundreds of all-party parliamentary groups. The Committee on Standards, which I chair, has produced a report on this. The head of security here is very concerned, as are the two Speakers, about the vulnerability of the Parliamentary system because of the way that APPGs are funded, sometimes directly by foreign Governments and sometimes indirectly, and sometimes probably not as accountably as we would like. Some countries forbid members of their legislative body from taking any form of hospitality of any kind, let alone several thousand pounds-worth of trips abroad, from a foreign state. We should consider that.
I believe that it is important that British Members of Parliament have strong working relationships with Members of Parliaments in other countries, but we should fund that, not let it be funded on an ad hoc basis by other countries who may want to do us harm. I am one of the Members who went to Qatar. I went as a guest of the Qatari Government because I wanted to argue with them, really, about the way they intend to hold the World cup. I note that a large number of Members have been taken to Qatar at great expense by the Qatari Government over the past year. Is that appropriate? In the end, I wish I had not gone on that trip. I suspect we need to address that issue. Incidentally, the director of security in Parliament told us that the biggest anxiety was that these groups are not necessarily funded directly by the Governments, but by their proxies, through third, fourth or fifth parties. We need to tackle that.
In the US, Congress has to produce an annual report on the lobbying of Congress by foreign actors. Why do we not do that here? One of the House’s Committees should produce an annual report to Government, perhaps with the assistance of Government, on foreign states’ actions in lobbying Parliament.
I also think we ought to have a new offence of aiding and abetting a foreign state as a Member of Parliament or as a peer. I am not quite sure how I am going to word this—I hope somebody is going to help me with it; the Clerks are normally very good—but I think that there should be an amendment to clause 3 of the National Security Bill to address that.
My argument is that lobbying must always be in the open. Transparency is how we ensure that there is nothing pernicious, vicious or inappropriate going on. Ministers should reveal all significant attempts to lobby them in a timely fashion. The Standards Committee has produced a report today stating that we must end the current exemption whereby, if two Members of Parliament go to the same event that is paid for by a foreign Government or by anyone else, a Minister does not have to declare it for months and months and does not have to say how much it cost, but a Back-Bench or Opposition Front-Bench Member has to declare it within 28 days. Surely all Members should be treated equally.
That is why it is important that Ministers should reveal all significant attempts to lobby them, including via hospitality, tickets, dinners, accommodation, holidays, travel and individual meetings. For instance, it is an absolute mystery to me why the UK took so long to sanction Deripaska. Greg Barker—who is, I think, no longer a Member of the House of Lords—was effectively acting as an agent of Deripaska, who is now sanctioned because of his corrupt involvement in the Russian state. However, we did nothing about it. Why was that? I want to know.
What about Abramovich? Why did that take so long? There was even a moment when the Prime Minister though that Abramovich had been sanctioned, but it turned out he had not. I suspect that that was because the Home Office was saying, way back in 2018 and 2019, that Abramovich was a person of interest; in other words, he was dodgy and it did not want him coming to the UK, and therefore it was not going to allow his tier 1 visa to be renewed. However, the Foreign Office refused to sanction him. Was that because of the direct engagement of Abramovich with individual Ministers? I ask the question because we need to know the answer.
Finally, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is absolutely right about the need for a proper register of lobbyists working on behalf of foreign agents. I do not think someone should be able to simply say that they have lots of clients in this House; they should have to list all clients in both Houses. For my money, I would also say that Arron Banks should have been on that list. Of course, when anybody is on that registered list, there should be a ban on Members of either House engaging with them financially or in any other manner.
We have been naive for far too long. We need to tackle all these issues, especially as they apply to state actors from Russia and China. Otherwise, we will lose the precious democracy that we believe in.
Thank you, Dame Angela. It is a special privilege to speak in this debate. I thank Bob Seely for bringing this important issue to our attention and for his knowledge. It is a pleasure to follow Chris Bryant, who has a deep interest in this matter. Both he and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight bring real knowledge to the debate.
I am someone who sees the benefits of lobbying, as referred to by the hon. Member for Rhondda, in certain circumstances in this place. Lobbying for the right reasons has changed my opinion and opened my eyes to many issues. It has helped to increase my knowledge and better understand subjects, and has provided me with information as a Member of this House.
Seeking to unduly influence a Member changes that. While we must all hold ourselves accountable for decisions, there is a role for restrictions or protections—a term that I would rather see used—to be put in place in this House, which should not point the finger.
On several occasions over the past few years, we have seen the impact that foreign lobbying can have on a democracy and the undue influence of some lobbying, which many Members have highlighted, that probably has its roots in Chinese or Russian politics. While the impact of some of that lobbying may inevitably have been over-emphasised, there is a root of truth that this House has not been untouched by Chinese and Russian influence.
It is a crucial that the UK has a platform to introduce safe lobbying, as there is nothing wrong with lobbying as long as it is done correctly and does not put our democratic process at risk. Democracy is the heart of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so it is great to be here and to discuss how we can strengthen that in a positive fashion.
I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for putting together his briefing on foreign interference. It had much detail and was powerfully put. It provides a real insight into the steps we can take to regulate our lobbying. Lobbying is a key characteristic of politics, domestically and internationally, for foreign agents. The issue lies in lobbying being part of the operation of foreign agents to undermine political institutions. That has been seen many times, not only in relation to China and Russia, but to other countries as well.
Countries such as Australia and the United States of America want to adopt legislation, such as FARA and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, that aims to regulate foreign lobbying. It will mean that foreign agents and their proxies will be legally obliged to register themselves and make their activities public knowledge. I look to the Minister for her response about our future plans. Do the Government intend to do something similar to what Australia and the USA have done?
The UK and its respective devolved Administrations are also at risk of foreign interference. We are a leading democracy and, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight stated in his report,
“a centre for the international finance, legal and media worlds”.
We are very much a kernel—a core—for that. The briefing notes accompanying the 2019 Queen’s Speech stated that the UK would work to
“reduce the threat posed by Hostile State Activity”.
We have seen attempts to manipulate devolution, which the Government confirmed in its own information relating to the Scottish referendum. It is my responsibility to ensure that Northern Ireland is protected against any foreign threat through illegitimate lobbying. Attention must be given to the four Governments within the UK, not just our Westminster Government. I return to my original question to the Minister and ask what action will be taken to ensure that the devolved Administrations —the Northern Ireland Assembly in my case—can have direct contact with the Minister in order to ensure that we can protect and rebuff the groups that are unduly lobbying?
Alongside the debate about lobbying is the issue around social media, which has never been more prominent in political life. Covert digital influence campaigns increase the scope for misleading information when it comes to election time, when foreign influences may pay an instrumental amount of money to portray false information. There are lots of false stories, and the media must address that as well.
Oligarchs, in particular those from Russia and other authoritarian regimes, act in the shadows with no regulation. As the UK is an open society with no legislation to check such things, that leaves us vulnerable to outside interference and cyber-attacks. Russia has used both state and non-state entities to partake in unauthorised activity in the UK. These have been described by the Chief of Defence Staff as the “grey area” between peace and war—how true that is.
Many tools involve military influence, but we must not forget political, economic and social influences as well. Owing to the UK’s lack of legislation, there is little transparency about what is actually illegal and worthy of punishment. The 2014 lobbying Act is narrow and out of date. Does the Minister intend to address that? If so, perhaps a timescale for consultation and ultimate legislative change would be helpful. That should allow for fuller discussion of the steps we can take to protect and preserve the political institutions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In conclusion, I welcome ideas for the reform of foreign lobbying in the UK—particularly a law that compels individuals and entities lobbying in the UK on behalf of hostile and authoritarian states to record their activities on a national register so that we know who they are and so the protections that we need and desire can be delivered. The British public have a right to feel protected and deserve to know the full extent of foreign influence in the UK and the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
This debate has been helpful, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for bringing it forward, and thank others for their contributions. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say and, indeed, to the shadow Minister’s contribution too.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela. As I sum up on behalf of my party, I cannot help but feel that this is a very British debate. I am unsure whether anyone here is particularly opposed to better rules for those lobbying on behalf of foreign Governments. The evidence—which Chris Bryant has alluded to on many occasions, not only in Westminster Hall but in the main Chamber—that it has damaged the fabric of our society, and of the national security risk, has been clear.
I fully expect the Minister to rise to their feet, acknowledge the issue and the pertinence of the rhetoric deployed by all of us here today, declare that something must be done, and, if they will forgive me, then do absolutely nothing about it. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but this type of action has been trailed for quite some time without any evidence that we are any closer to either the stricter regulation of lobbying or any sort of foreign agent registration.
Now, that is not to denigrate the quality of any of the contributions made here today—from Jim Shannon, Bob Seely. We did at least agree, I think, on the issues of higher education across these islands. I would say to the higher education sector that it must not only look in the mirror and reflect on what it sees in its relationship with the Communist party of China, but change what it sees.
On my party’s position, our ask is simple: the UK Government must follow the example set by ourcolleagues in the Scottish Government and create a fit-for-purpose lobbying register to improve transparency and accountability. The Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016 came into full operation in 2018 and was designed to improve transparency of face-to-face lobbying contact between organisations and Members of the Scottish Parliament, members of the Scottish Government—including Scottish Law Officers and junior Scottish Ministers—special advisers, and the permanent secretary of the Scottish Government. Transparency International has called on the UK Government to replicate that and set up a comprehensive lobbying register for the United Kingdom Parliament that includes relevant information, and for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments be replaced by a statutory body with sufficient authority and resources to regulate all that goes on here.
Members who pay attention to such things will know that my parliamentary group wrote to the Government’s anti-corruption tsar, John Penrose, asking him to rapidly reform lobbying rules following the second invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. When that secondary invasion began in February, as some Members have already intimated, we had a dismal roll-call—I will not mention any by name, Dame Angela—of the assorted MPs, Lords, former MPs, former civil servants, and the like, who had sold their expertise to firms linked to the Russian state. While it was certainly the most dismal example, anyone who had been paying attention—quite a few of them are in this room right now—had been warning about the dangers of allowing that sort of activity to go on unchecked.
I think Stephen Kinnock mentioned the Russia report, but it is vital that we do not get somehow embarrassed about bringing it up. The findings of this report, from a cross-party Committee with a Conservative majority, were clear: the arrival of Russian money resulted in a growth industry of enablers—individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the United Kingdom. Yet nothing—absolutely hee-haw, as I say in my part of the world—was done to implement it.
The biggest fear, especially when we are about to listen to a Minister smother—forgive me—an attempt at a proper legal framework for lobbyists with kindness, is that if we are unable to take full responsibility for those who lobby on behalf of a hostile regime such as the Russian Federation, then I wonder, really, who is going to take responsibility when this sort of thing happens again and again. Because we not just talking about Russia, as many here have alluded to today; plenty of people in debate have mentioned “communist” China. The resources and the global reach of Chinese Communist party-linked companies simply dwarf that of those from the Russian Federation. It might not be the most agreeable thing to say, but I think that one of them happens to be the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the UK led in setting up. While China is not necessarily a hostile state—I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Strangford—we certainly know that it is a hostile, anti-democratic economic and political competitor.
My biggest worry about those who work on behalf of states that are also nominally neutral, which I think the hon. Member for Isle of Wight alluded to—
Briefly, the hon. Member is right to point to a better definition. When I was talking about “hostile” states, probably I should have changed that to “hostile, adversarial and potentially highly competitive”, which I think is probably a better definition.
I will not disagree with the hon. Member on that, but I go back to the point I was about to make about states that are nominally neutral or even allied to the UK and how we hold them to account. I am thinking particularly about the Gulf states—nominally allies, yet ones whose Governments have shown themselves capable and willing to act in the most heinous ways on the territory of ostensible allies.
The jamboree for the real estate, legal and general enablers of Russian money might have ended, but let us be in no doubt: it is going to keep rolling on for all the rest of them, allies or not. The increasing gentrification and sterility of much of central London will become emblematic of the hollowing out of UK institutions on behalf of this global capital.
If that sounds bleak, that is because it is. But let me end with one final appeal to the Minister. It would give even this inveterate Scottish nationalist great joy to see our devolved Administrations lead the UK in implementing a proper system of lobbying regulation, which I alluded to earlier in my speech; but I am afraid, Dame Angela, that I will not be holding my breath.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing this timely debate, ahead of future debates on the National Security Bill. There is much in his remarks that I and my colleagues would agree with. I absolutely share his concern at the insidious and growing influence of hostile state actors on these shores and in these very corridors, here in Westminster.
I agree with my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, who pointed out that we must be alert to pernicious lobbying from countries, but that not all lobbying is suspect, as Jim Shannon also said. Much lobbying is necessary. Experts really do help us to understand the issues that we are making decisions on and can bring together constituents from across the country to tell us their views. I used to work for Christian Aid and WaterAid and was involved in coming to talk to Members of Parliament. What we need is an open and transparent system that we can trust and that does not give hostile actors undue influence or allow them to undermine that system. As my hon. Friend said, this debate should be enlarged to include not just Parliament but law courts, broadcasters, social media and all-party parliamentary groups.
We have heard myriad examples today from colleagues of how deeply foreign states have penetrated British political life and our economy. I am sure there are far more that we do not know about, which is really what much of this debate is about. From public relations firms employed by Russia to help individuals to avoid EU sanctions, to lobbyists who advocate for Kremlin-connected Russian clients and a whole host of pinstripe-clad enablers of states with interests and values counter to our own, foreign interference is a multibillion-dollar industry.
A particularly disturbing sector of this industry is lawfare, as Members have pointed out. Our courtrooms are not battlefields to be used to silence and destroy activists, journalists and politicians who are brave enough to shine a light on the places that foreign actors do not want anyone to see—or they should not be. The UK is becoming the global capital of the lawfare industry. According to a survey of 63 journalists in 41 countries, more cases were brought against journalists in the UK than in America and Europe combined. I hope that the Minister will address that later.
We also need to have a conversation about all-party parliamentary groups. Questions must be asked about their regulation and reform, and whether they are acting as conduits for improper access by lobbyists and hostile foreign states. Again, APPGs are useful; indeed, they are a really valuable part of our parliamentary system. However, we need to make sure that they are open, transparent and not being used by malign actors, in order for the system to be maintained and not brought into disrepute; otherwise, down the line, we may face having to stop this way of parliamentarians meeting to discuss important issues.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight has put forward a number of practical proposals, some of which Labour has already supported or proposed. For instance, Labour would expand the scope of the statutory register of lobbyists to cover those who commercially lobby Government as well as consultant lobbyists, who are also known as in-house lobbyists. I agree that more definition is needed, because of the continuum that the hon. Gentleman talked about. We should not just give up on having a register because we cannot define things; we need definition, a register, and then for that register to be used.
In the hon. Gentleman’s report on foreign interference, which I have read, he rightly called for new legislation to curtail the influence of lobbyists during election times. That is quite right, which is why the Opposition have called for it too. I was on the Elections Bill Committee last year, and the shadow Front Benchers tabled a new clause that would have required the Government to consider measures to address foreign interference in elections, including the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism taking the policy lead for protecting democracy and the operational role being given to MI5. Labour also proposed measures to stop overseas electors from being able to donate to political parties here in the UK, noting the concerns of the Russia report about the influence of foreign money in our politics.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it seems that there is a loophole, because the National Crime Agency and the Electoral Commission both say that they will not look into the real source of financial donations to political parties? They say that it is permissible if a donation has come from a British citizen or somebody who is on the electoral roll, and then they do not look into where the money may actually have come from. If a British citizen has received a large sum of money from someone who is not on the British electoral roll, the agencies do not look into the source of that money. What would my hon. Friend say needs to happen to close that loophole, which seems to be a massive gaping hole in our defences?
I agree with my hon. Friend that more needs to be done about that clear loophole. The register that we are talking about needs to apply not only to Members once they are elected but to the time before elections, or that issue needs to be addressed with a separate register. It must be very clear where the money comes from. Too often, in the whole of this system, UK entities can be used as a cover for foreign entities. That is the problem we have now and it is not being addressed. I hope that the National Security Bill will address it; if it does not, it will not be addressing our national security issues.
For two years now, Labour has been calling consistently for the Government to implement in full the recommendations of the Russia report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which was published in July 2020. However, those recommendations remain unimplemented.
Malign Russian money cannot continue to pollute our economy, our politics and our democratic institutions. However, I say to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that I am afraid that his own Government’s record in this area suggests that they do not share our concerns. His party has accepted millions of pounds in donations from Russian-linked money in recent years.
Take Ehud Sheleg, for example, who has been mentioned already. He is a wealthy London art dealer whose most recent position was as the Conservative party’s treasurer. In February 2018, Mr Sheleg donated $630,000 to the Conservative party. The money was part of a fundraising blitz that helped to propel the Prime Minister to victory in 2019. However, Barclays bank has established that the money originated in a Russian account of Mr Sheleg’s father-in-law, Sergei Kopytov, who was once a senior politician in a previous pro-Kremlin Government in Ukraine. Again, it is a question of where the money comes from, which involves looking behind the initial donors.
There is the case of financier Lubov Chernukhin. Ms Chernukhin has donated £700,000 to the Conservative party, and in March, the Electoral Commission confirmed that the party had accepted another £80,000 from her. Chernukhin is the wife of a former Russian deputy Finance Minister under Vladimir Putin. She has now donated almost £2 million to the Conservatives, almost £800,000 of that during the Prime Minister’s leadership. The Prime Minister himself—I notified him that he would be mentioned—once played a game of tennis with the wife of a Russian former Minister in exchange for a $270,000 donation.
Successive Conservative Governments have promised for years to clamp down on foreign lobbying and dirty money. We have to ask why it has taken so long to do that. Is it connected to those donations? The Conservatives’ own politics has kept tripping them up.
The Conservative party does not have a monopoly of such connections, but Labour does share the concern so excellently articulated by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, who introduced the debate, and does take foreign lobbying seriously, as shown by the amendments we tabled to the Elections Bill, which were voted down.
Labour would expand the scope of a statutory register of lobbyists. We would also establish an integrity and ethics commission. That would replace the current failing system and have power to influence the content of the ministerial code, initiate investigations of possible breaches of the code, and impose a range of binding sanctions. We would also ban people from lobbying for five years after leaving public office, and give the commission power to issue penalties for breaking the business appointment rules.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight is right that foreign lobbying is a problem that must be addressed. The gap in legislation regulating foreign lobbying is threatening the UK’s national interest and its national security. The Conservative Government have paused, delayed and dithered, but now they must take action. I hope to hear from the Minister what that action will be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, I think for the first time, and I thank you for the timely opportunity to debate this important topic. I thank in particular my hon. Friend Bob Seely, who introduced the debate, and express my gratitude to the good number of Members who are present today for their active participation in the debate.
As several Members have noted, the UK is a vibrant, international, open and welcoming country with which to do business. The Conservative Government will continue to welcome foreign investment and business to this country. However, in order to protect that openness and vibrancy, it is critical that we have robust measures to provide transparency on legitimate lobbying and have powerful tools to hand to deter illicit or harmful activity when that arises. To ensure transparency of legitimate lobbying activity, the Government regularly publish details of ministerial meetings with third parties, so everyone can see who Ministers meet with, and about what.
On illicit activity, let me first be clear that we have robust structures in place to identify foreign interference and, where necessary, take proportionate action to mitigate the threat. The recent Christine Lee case is an example of that.
We are going further. The Government have announced their plans to strengthen powers to tackle illicit finance, reduce economic crime and help businesses to grow. As noted in the Queen’s Speech, the Government will bring forward the economic crime and corporate transparency Bill, which will include measures to reform the role of Companies House and improve transparency over UK companies.
Will the Minister confirm whether there will be an additional commitment from the Government to reform Scottish limited partnerships, which are a valuable conduit for dark money coming into the UK to undermine our democratic process?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his pertinent question, and we will write to him with an answer to it.
The legislation will include measures to reform the role of Companies House and improve transparency with respect to all UK companies, and it will build on measures in the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, which was passed in March, to establish a new register of overseas entities, requiring those behind foreign companies who own UK property to reveal their identity.
Furthermore, as has been stated several times today, the National Security Bill, which was introduced to the House on
During the course of the debate, I have checked the website of the Security Service, MI5. It defines espionage and concludes the definition as follows:
“It may also involve seeking to influence decision-makers and opinion-formers to benefit the interests of a foreign power.”
That firmly fits within this debate.
The Minister mentioned using illicit means, but could she please be clear? The Security Service does not refer to illicit means, but just “seeking to influence”. The crucial point is this: could MI5 be doing more to help Members of Parliament? Chris Bryant referred to people being “ineptly naive”. Is there more that the Security Service could do to brief Members of Parliament about what to look out for if we are to play our part in counter-espionage?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. One or two nights ago, a meeting about security was held for Members, which led to a very wide-ranging conversation. People have taken his point, and I am sure there will be another meeting. I am grateful for his suggestion.
As part of the National Security Bill, the Government will bring forward a foreign influence registration scheme, which will require individuals to register certain arrangements with foreign Governments to deter and disrupt state threats activity in the UK, bringing the UK into line with our allies, such as the USA and Australia, with their FARA and FITSA, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight.
It is completely true that, hastened by war, we are now moving in the right direction; two economic crime Bills and the National Security Bill are going to be very positive. However, can the Minister give an indication of whether the Government will have a broad understanding of what constitutes lobbying, or whether they will have a narrow definition that lobbying is done only by “lobbyists”? It is the former, broader understanding of lobbying that would be the biggest help in framing the lobbying elements of the National Security Bill.
My hon. Friend has come to the kernel. He has put his point on the record, and I am sure the people in the Home Office will have heard his plea.
It is welcome that Parliament is paying close attention to this topic. I congratulate the Committee on Standards on its recent report on APPGs, mentioned today, which notes that improper influence and lobbying by hostile states is a key threat facing APPGs today. I welcome that report but, of course, it is a matter for the House to decide on the rules governing APPGs. The Government welcome any approaches that mitigate the risks.
I also want to confirm, with regard to foreign lobbying, that a business or organisation undertaking consultant lobbying on behalf of a Government outside the UK or an international organisation would be required to register and declare that Government or organisation as a client. To answer the right hon. Member for Rhondda—
It is both.
Members have taken so much interest in the debate, and I appreciate the level and depth of information that they have brought to it.
I asked a question about contact with the regional devolved Administrations, in particular the Northern Ireland Assembly, regarding those in privileged positions, to ensure that the protocol and protections that will happen here can filter out to the regional devolved Administrations.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We must work in close conjunction with the devolved Assemblies on anything that happens in the UK Parliament.
We have a few minutes, so we might as well take them up. I will intervene twice, if the Minister lets me. The Committee on Standards has said that at the moment some Members chair an awful lot of APPGs for foreign territories. We have wondered whether we should not have a limit so that a Member is allowed to chair, say, only six or 10—certainly not 28. Perhaps it would be a good idea if Members were not able to receive any financial support from foreign Governments. Would the Government support those two measures?
I shall try another one. Mr Baker made a really important point, which is that most hon. Members have no understanding of whether somebody who comes through the door is operating on behalf of a foreign state. Of course it is up to us to make our own judgment calls, but there probably ought to be a means for a Member to ascertain confidentially whether the person they are dealing with is a person of concern to the Government. The Minister will not be able to answer that today, but will she take away the serious point that the hon. Gentleman makes?
Just as a point of information, there is a leaflet available to Members of Parliament—I think it is A5, folded over; a very short booklet—from the Security Service, which tells them what to look out for when they are targeted by foreign intelligence services. I hope all Members will take the opportunity to get one from the Vote Office.
This debate is giving us all more information than we had an hour and a half ago. That is very good news.
Thank you very much for chairing this debate so well, Dame Angela. I thank all Members for their contributions, and I wish everybody a good day.