Cybersecurity and UK Democracy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:13 pm ar 26 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 8:13, 26 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I begin by making clear, as my right honourable friend Pat McFadden did in the other place, that we on these Benches support the Government in their efforts to counter attempts by China or any other state to interfere with our democratic processes in any way. This includes attempts to prevent elected representatives from going about their business, voicing their opinions or casting their votes.

We pay tribute to the work of the intelligence and security services in protecting our democracy and the public more widely. However, we need to question the coherence of the Government’s approach to this issue so far. Surely it is necessary for the Government to have a consistent approach across government, as the cyber threat is not restricted to democratic processes. It extends to universities, electric vehicles, energy, aviation, the safety of Hong Kong nationals, and intellectual property. How confident is the Minister that the vigilance recommended today in relation to democracy, which many would say comes slowly rather than swiftly, is equally applied to other areas of activity? Does the Minister honestly think that the limited action outlined in the Statement is sufficient to deter China? Given what we now know, what further steps are the Government going to take, since the hacking and impersonation of parliamentarians is not the full extent of this and not at all the action of a friendly state?

The calculation of any state which wishes us harm or considers that it may be necessary to do us harm in the future has changed markedly in the last decade. That which previously would need to be achieved through violent means can now be done through cyberattack. The defeat mechanism now is different. Our energy supplies, communications, water, transportation and finances are all targets in a completely new way. Undermining our democracy is just another form of attack. Does the Minister accept that we currently lack a consistent approach across government? I ask this as noble Lords will no doubt be aware that the Foreign Secretary has been the subject of unhelpful speculation regarding his interests in China. It seems peculiar that information about this has been less than forthcoming.

The Intelligence and Security Committee issued a report on China last year. Paragraph 98 of that report said:

“Targets are not necessarily limited to serving politicians either. They can include former political figures, if they are sufficiently high profile. For example, it is possible that David Cameron’s role as Vice President of a £1bn China-UK investment fund” was

“in some part engineered by the Chinese state to lend credibility to Chinese investment”.

As I understand it, in January 2023, prior to his appointment as Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, went to Sri Lanka to drum up investment for Port City Colombo, which is a belt and road project launched by President Xi that many believe will become a military base for the Chinese navy. It would help to protect the reputations of the noble Lord and the UK Government if there could be some clarity on whom he met and what sort of conversations took place. Can the Minister assist in providing the necessary transparency and reassurance so that this matter can be put to bed? Can she tell us whether these matters have been investigated?

We have heard assurances from Ministers that the closed electoral register has not been hacked, but anyone taking broader interest in this issue will be aware that the danger is not just about a single cyberattack event, but rather that data is gathered in large quantities over time and can be used to train AI or be interrogated by AI with impacts that we do not yet understand. What are the Government going to do, across all departments and institutions, to protect against this threat? The threat is evolving, from spying and influencing to the disruption of elections and critical infrastructure. As the threat has changed, surely our response needs to change in turn.