UK Plans New Law to Counter Threat From Foreign Spies

PA Media
By PA Media
May 11, 2021UK
UK Plans New Law to Counter Threat From Foreign Spies
Queen Elizabeth II ahead of the Queen's Speech in the House of Lord's Chamber during the State Opening of Parliament at the House of Lords in London, England, on May 11, 2021. (Chris Jackson-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The government is to strengthen Britain’s “archaic” counter-espionage laws amid growing concern about the security threat from foreign spies operating in the UK.

The Queen’s Speech includes a commitment to a Counter-State Threats Bill which will create a U.S.-style register of foreign agents.

Under American law, individuals working on behalf of foreign governments, officials, or political parties are required to register with the Department of Justice and file reports about their activities.

Ministers believe the scheme will help curb the activities of foreign espionage agents and other foreign interference in the UK.

The move comes amid widespread concern about the activities of Russian spies in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack on former agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018.

A report last year by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) accused ministers of having taken their “eye off the ball” when it came to the Kremlin’s activities.

At the same time there has been concern about intellectual property theft by Chinese agents stealing valuable research from UK universities.

In evidence to the ISC, the then-Director General of MI5, Andrew Parker, said the creation of a register of foreign agents would give the security services the legal means to go after undeclared operatives, even if they had not committed any other offence.

At the same time the government is to overhaul the Official Secrets Acts—which date back to 1911 and have failed to keep pace with modern threats—as well as considering if the laws on treason need updating.

A Telecommunications (Security) Bill will give ministers new powers to impose limits on the involvement of “high risk” suppliers in the UK’s telecoms network.

It follows a commitment by the government to remove all equipment supplied by the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the 5G network by the end of 2027.

Ministers had initially proposed allowing the firm a limited role, but drew back in the face of opposition from the United States and some Tory MPs concerned about the security implications.

The legislation will impose a new legal duty on tech firms to improve the security of the network with fines of up to 10 percent of turnover or £100,000 a day for failing to meet the required standards.

In other moves, the government is promising to bring forward legislation to bar public bodies from imposing boycott, divestment, or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.

Ministers say they are concerned that such campaigns aimed at Israel may “legitimise anti-Semitism.”

The speech commits the government to pursuing the policies set out in the Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy—including tackling climate change and a policy “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region.

The government said that it will restore international aid spending—cut due to the “seismic impact” of the coronavirus pandemic—to its pre-crisis level of 0.7 percent of national income “when the fiscal situation allows.”

By Gavin Cordon

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